Charting a course
10 units. 146 pages. Small font, no photos, some hand drawings. This is what the Class 6 textbook, “Social Studies and Population Education,” recently revised and published by the Nepal Government, looks like. I browsed through the book at a Bhotahity bookstore with a colleague this past Sunday. There are pedagogical problems associated with textbooks that are too dense, specially at the primary/secondary levels - and I will touch upon those issues later - but aside from that, the colleague and I were quite pleased to notice some lessons that reflected the recent political changes in Nepal. There is a lesson titled “Our Constitution,” and another one that introduces the concept of Federal Republican Democracy, aspects that make this publication more credible than the other textbooks we studied. As educators, it is our work to study various curricula in Nepal. But this time, our focus was very specific. We are at the beginning stages of research for the “Retelling Histories” project and we needed to align our lesson plans with the curricular strands mandated by the government.
The Arts and Education program is part of a bigger project titled “Retelling Histories - Engaging with an Inclusive Nepali Past,” being launched by Nepal Picture Library (NPL) this year. Run by photo.circle, NPL is a digital photo archive that has collected over 26,000 photographs from different parts of Nepal since its inception in 2011. NPL’s goal is to document an inclusive history of the Nepali people. NPL encourages individuals to contribute their stories to a national historical narrative and contextualizes these stories along with the photographs, a process that traditional historians have not embraced.
It is important to link the goals of this project to the current national debate. While politicians are discussing the details of Nepal’s federal structure, the rest of us ought to go back further and deeper. It is not enough to merely keep track of the fickle agendas of the different political parties. Why has our country come to this crossroad? What are the various groups of people that make up Nepal? And which groups have a strong voice and which are the ones that have been traditionally silenced? These conversations should be taking place honestly within families, communities and businesses.
Think about your history classes in schools and college. Do you remember learning about the ancient Kingdom of Mustang? Or about the history of Madhesis in Janakpur? Do you remember reading about your own history in the textbooks? Was there a unit on Rais and Limbus that mentioned more than their traditional attire? How much do you know about Tharu communities and the people of Dolpo? Who wrote those textbooks really? More importantly, who decides which topics to include and which ones to omit?
Curriculum as possibility
Guiding questions and big ideas are important while designing curriculum. Deciding what kind of knowledge is important to teach and pass on to youngsters is a highly subjective issue. Besides, in today’s technological age, when information is available to anyone at their fingertips, it is necessary to question traditional methods and structures of education. Why go to school if I can easily read great articles on the internet, a student may wonder.
At the Bhotahity bookstore, we weren’t surprised to find out that separate textbooks and time-slots are not mandated for history lessons. The subject is lumped together with other topics such as civics, geography and economics. Introducing younger students to basic ideas of different disciplines is understandable. But the problem is that these textbooks do only that - gloss over the basics in one or two paragraphs.
Text-heavy, superficial coverage of a wide range of topics; lack of opportunities to students to connect topics to life-experiences; minimal use of other educational media such as arts or the outdoors - these structures don’t help if a nation wants to raise inquisitive, passionate and life-long learners. This kind of approach does not foster an in-depth, well-rounded understanding of a few relevant topics. Rather, students may feel detached from the subject matter and turn apathetic. They won’t be able to make meaningful connections between their lives and current issues within a historical context. More troubling, if students are not genuinely stimulated by the process of learning, they may face bigger crises in life.
According to scholar Maxine Greene, curriculum “always involved a process of enabling the young to make sense of their lived lives, to make connections, to construct meaning.” Educators balance what to teach with how to teach it - the process is as important as the content. Getting students excited about the subject matter will help to engage them. With younger students, the process is often more important. Primary and secondary school teachers should always think of creative ways that allow students access to the curriculum. Including the arts in curricular design is one way to achieve that.
“...the arts in particular can bring to curriculum inquiry visions of perspectives and untapped possibilities,” wrote Greene, who believes that arts education invites students to participate in an imaginative learning process.
We have brainstormed lesson plans. Using photos from NPL’s archive as examples, we will ask students to bring photos from their old family albums. Students will investigate whether their family members moved from one part of Nepal to another or not. They will study maps and trace their family’s journey; in the process they will learn about Nepal’s various regions in a personal, meaningful way. We will examine diverse cultural artifacts and ethnic practices. Students will link their family’s stories to events in their textbooks and contribute to a multifaceted understanding of our national history.
Ultimately, students will share their work with each other and with the larger community so that everyone has a better understanding of our nation’s diversity. It seems that lack of this understanding is one of the reasons for the long-drawn, embittered process of constitution-drafting.
Nepal is in transition; our identities are up for redefinition. It is an exciting period, pregnant with possibilities; but lack of understanding and empathy, among other issues, has created doubt and confusion. The promise that the revolution brought is in danger of dissolving in thin air. Local and foreign journalists are lamenting, alluding that politicians have already forgotten about the civil war and its root causes. If you are a Nepali, there are reasons to be disenchanted and worried.
But it is also necessary to continue doing the work. At a time when leaders seem to be forgetting, it is important to remind young students; no, not just give them a reminder, but to help them remember well and remember for a long time. It is important that all of us - parents, teachers and students - come together and create pathways for difficult, yet relevant conversations. It is important to revisit and inhabit a world of innocent possibilities and hope. Because in the end, that’s all we have.
Niranjan Kunwar is a writer and educator based in Kathmandu. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.