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A Talk by Akhila Seshadri - The School, KFI


Updated: Nov 18, 2020

What do we learn when learning history? What makes for history learning? In the classroom, what specific skills do we wish for the children to learn?

Clearly, we would like them to read, to understand concepts, to make sense of what they learn, to analyse, to question, to make connections, to conclude, to be able to see differing viewpoints in terms of people and in terms of time. We would also like them to learn to infer, assess and arrive at insights about whatever it is that is being studied. Additionally, while teaching history, one would like to build in them an imagination, a sensitive appreciation and an empathetic approach.

The question to ask, then, is: Is it possible to place the student at the centre rather than the content?

For the Class 8 students, equipped with some experience in looking at history through various lenses and having acquired a certain maturity of thought, a ‘history trip’ is organised, in the course of which they are meant to compare their background reading with what they actually see and experience. So the student attempts to piece together a narrative as if s/he were an archaeologist stumbling upon bits of history in crumbling or restored monuments, in paintings and sculpture, in landscapes and contemporary practice and in artefacts. So, s/he learns 'to learn history’ through visits to places of historical interest.

Through these experiences, the student learns to observe, record, make connections, assess evidence and arrive at a well-argued conclusion.

To enable the student to learn from the visit, the trips are carefully planned. Students are provided with detailed background reading and a sense of geography. Then, with the help of study/field worksheets, and other basic information, the students and teachers work at the sites of study.

For a Hampi trip, for example, the children studied their text on the Vijayanagara Empire and then jotted down in their notebooks a summary of the lesson. Those notebooks then accompanied them through their trip. For a Muziris trip, they had brief inputs on the geography and landscape of Kerala, a short talk on conservation efforts and a small excerpt from a film about the coming of Islam through trade.

Each day is planned and the plan communicated to the students.

Using the questions given in their worksheets, the students are directed to observe, record and connect the bits of information and then arrive at a reasonably justified inference. At times, it is possible to thematically categorise each day.

At the end of the day, there is a conversation to take stock of what has been seen, of questions unanswered and in this, the teacher can add inputs not readily available from the site, such as traveller accounts, a fictional accounts and other literature and commentaries about the site.

A fascinating aspect of these trips is the chance of new discoveries: for example, we spotted some red iron drying in the sun outside the temple in Thiruvaiyaru. When we asked about them, we were told that they were thavil rings made to fit around the instrument. And that there were only 7 or 8 families in the area that have been traditionally employed in making these rings.

The notebook that the students complete as best as they can is shared with their parents. This is because parents usually wonder if a fun trip can also be a study trip. We want the students to not only enjoy and learn from the trip but also share that learning with their parents. Sometimes, children have gone back to those places with their parents; those visits for the students have been accompanied with a much keener sense of the place and its history.

A Sample of the Plan: Hampi/Thanjavur/ Kerala 

Input sessions prior to the trip

In Preparation
  1. Reading of text: the Vijayanagar and Bahmani kingdoms

  2. Viewing a film: Where Kings and Gods Meet

  3. Recalling stories of Tenali Rama

  4. Learning to sing select compositions of Purandaradasa

  5. Speaking: ‘What I Expect from the Study?’

  1. Understanding a fortified city

  2. Synthesis of Hindu–Muslim Art

  3. Process of a ruin

  4. Conservation and development

In Preparation
  1. Reading about the Cholas

  2. Geography: a delta region, fertility, irrigation, etc.

  3. Inputs on music; why Thanjavur is considered a significant centre of dance and music

  4. Role of the temple in history

  5. Learning the Appar Thevaram dedicated to Thiruvaiyaru

  6. Discussion: what to expect from the study

  1. The temple and its multiple uses

  2. Continuity and art forms: sculpture, weaving

  3. Land, irrigation, wealth and empire

  4. The temple and politics

  5. Art and celebration

In Preparation
  1. Reading about Muziris—spice and trade

  2. Brief sense of the history of the Cheras

  3. Geography of Kerala; location of sites; land and people

  4. Learn about the various floor plans of religious places

  5. Watching an excerpt from Michael Wood’s History of India on the Arabian Sea trade and the coming of Islam

  6. Understanding Religions: Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Christianity

  1. Spice and trade

  2. Location and archaeology of an ancient port

  3. Restoration, conservation, tourism and people

  4. Continuity, trade, change

  5. Cosmopolitan living

  6. New religions entering the subcontinent, not in the form of a conquest and coexistence in the face of threat

  7. Syncretic culture and communities

This process allows students to gain historical knowledge and skills within a rational framework of inquiry. It develops the ability to make coherent arguments based on a variety of data, the ability to identify continuities and the skills to determine probable causes of change as well. These skills should be applicable to situations and information encountered in everyday life. Such an inquiry develops the student’s critical powers and enables him or her to value the abilities of thought and evaluation over impulsive and uninformed judgments or decisions. Through this investigation of a historical period, students learn about the differences in human experience, the possibilities as well as the limits of comparing the past to the present and the present to the past.

Finally, such a study allows students to grapple with the tools for understanding the past. These tools enable them to uncover the story of humankind over time and provide a means of negotiating the present. In the space of this study, one also learns about human pride and mortality, the tenuous connections between religion and daily life, and about war and plunder and natural ruin.

These are also spaces where the students learn to understand human life and change, and thus learn something about themselves as well.

To conclude, a poem was used in both Hampi and Thanjavur trips has helped place some questions at the centre, providing plenty of food for thought. This is particularly pertinent after one of the trips brought forth a question from a student: Where are the houses of the ordinary people?

‘Questions from a Worker who Reads’

- Bertolt Brecht

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?

In the books you will read the names of kings.

Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?

And Babylon, many times demolished,

Who raised it up so many times?

In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live?

Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?

Great Rome is full of triumphal arches.

Who erected them?

Over whom did the Caesars triumph?

Had Byzantium, much praised in song, only palaces for its inhabitants?

Even in fabled Atlantis, the night that the ocean engulfed it,

The drowning still cried out for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.

Was he alone?

Caesar defeated the Gauls.

Did he not even have a cook with him?

Philip of Spain wept when his armada went down.

Was he the only one to weep?

Frederick II won the Seven Years War.

Who else won it?

Every page a victory.

Who cooked the feast for the victors?

Every ten years a great man.

Who paid the bill?

So many reports.

So many questions.


Akhila Seshadri has always had a deep and abiding interest in the humanities. This has been further strengthened both by her training in history as well as her experiences at The School (KFI), where she has been a teacher for the past 25 years.

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