Learning from Indigenous Knowledge Systems

greenboy9x6Because of our unconscious assumption of superiority to less technologically advanced societies, it never occurs to most people working in education that traditional cultures embody a wealth of practical information about children and learning.   School as we know it is such a historically young institution – less than a century old – and modern educators are continually baffled by the fact that students don’t learn the things they are intended to learn, programs don’t work the way they are intended to work, new initiatives don’t have the impact they are meant to have.

Indigenous societies base their modes of learning and teaching on thousands of years of experience, observation, trial-and-error, and collective wisdom. The relationships between children and adults often appear effortless, with little or no obvious teaching going on. And yet children reach adulthood with an encyclopedic knowledge of their local ecosystems, spiritual traditions, and sustainable ways of living.

As Padma Sarangapani remarks in her paper, “Indigenising Curriculum: Questions Posed by Baiga Vidya:”

Baiga villages can be regarded as epistemic communities (Holzner, 1968) engaged with the application and the transmission of medicinal knowledge. There is a distribution of this knowledge among various members of the community. In Baghmara village, for instance, virtually all the adults have a fairly extensive knowledge of the trees and plants in the forest, and varying degrees of knowledge about the medicinal properties of various plants. Children, both boys and girls, from the age of about five or six years can identify several of the more common medicinal plants around the village. On a few occasions they mentioned what it was used to treat; typically stomach ailments. By the age of about eight or nine years, the scope of the child’s environment and knowledge both widen quite dramatically. On some of our visits together to the forest, they named over 60 plants with medicinal properties, and many more that bore fruits that could be eaten or were useful. They stopped their list out of consideration for me because I could no longer keep track. The Baigas themselves appear to take their knowledge of the plant life of the forests for granted, although they do recognise that there are a few men in every village whose knowledge is far more extensive and specialised.

As we search for better ways to educate our own children, we should bear in mind that indigenous societies may have practical wisdom that can be of very real use to people in the modernized world.  This is not to say that we should try to transplant another culture’s learning system roots and all into our own lives – as the Dalai Lama says, you don’t need to give up your own culture and dress like a Tibetan in order to benefit from the insights of Buddhism.    But what we can do is take the observations and successes of another society and begin a dialogue within our own, thinking about what elements may be used, adapted, or recombined in organic and creative ways to generate possible solutions to current problems.  The following description of the Baiga mode of learning shows remarkable resemblances to practices currently being used with great success within alternative learning communities in the modern world:

Many of the features of ‘learning vidya’ are anticipated in childhood socialisation.  Perhaps the most important feature is the learner’s autonomy and initiative-taking. This aspect of initiative-taking by the learner is a common feature throughout childhood where the child is almost never coerced into doing anything, but is given ample opportunity to take initiative and participate in ongoing activity. Equally important is the fact that the pace of learning is set by the learner, depending on his own judgement regarding his readiness. In most situations, children could opt out of an ongoing activity at any point when they wished, without fear of any stigma or teasing. The same level of proficiency or interest was not expected of everyone. It was also acceptable that different people would learn to different degrees, and accordingly practice differently. Most learning took place in the course of, or alongside, productive work. Thus the boundaries between work and play, leisure and labour are quite fluid. In the learning environments, whether in the family or among the peer group, there were niches for several levels of proficiency and learning by participating and direct engagement with the task.

If we can let go of thinking that there is one right way to educate children, and fully perceive the value of diversity both of cultural modes of learning and of individual talents, temperaments, and learning styles, it opens up a universe of possibilities for solving the seemingly intractable problems that face our children in the 21st century.


Thanks to Shikshantar: The People’s Institute for Rethinking Education and Development for the link to the article by Padma Sarangapani.

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