For representational purposes only.
For representational purposes only.

Hands-on learning: Timeless wisdom of Satyakama's journey

The Upanishads generally embody the teachings of historical characters. I speak of the great teacher Gautama Haridrumata.

A few days ago, I had occasion to address a large group of schoolteachers drawn from various disciplines on the topic ‘What Makes a Good Teacher?’. I thought it worth my while to share over here one of my viewpoints on this topic. I propose to recount an episode from that book of timeless wisdom—the Chandogya Upanishad. This story embodies many lessons for those in the vocation of teaching. There are no universally acknowledged features that can help identify a great teacher, yet there are many features of a great teacher that can be imbibed from this story.

The Upanishads generally embody the teachings of historical characters. I speak of the great teacher Gautama Haridrumata. What makes him a great guru? This is best embodied by recounting his interview with a child. As narrated in the Chandogya Upanishad, to Haridrumata’s institution came a child of 12 to seek admission. Haridrumat informed the boy that only Brahmins were entitled to be admitted to his gurukul and thus he asked the boy to disclose his lineage.

The boy responded by mentioning that he had sought this information from his mother before setting forth. His mother had candidly informed him that she had worked as a maid in many homes and several men had taken advantage of her. Thus, she knew not who his father was, but she exhorted the boy to proclaim proudly to the guru that he was Satyakama, son of the maid Jabala. Hardrumata’s response to Satyakama is that of a truly enlightened teacher, for he proclaimed “Child, I admit you; you are a Brahmin. A Brahmin is not by birth but by adherence to the truth.” If there has ever been an example of enlightened questioning or testing worth emulating, then this above interaction certainly qualifies.

The story proceeds beyond this episode and provides deep learning. Haridrumata does not ask the boy to start committing to memory any tome; instead, he provides Satyakama with 400 heads of cattle and asks him to go to the forest and not return until their number increases to a thousand. When the desired number is reached, Satyakama returns and presents himself to Haridrumata who proclaims that there is enlightenment on his face.

Dinesh
Singh, Former Vice-Chancellor,
Delhi University; Adjunct
Professor of Mathematics,
University of Houston, US.
Dinesh Singh, Former Vice-Chancellor, Delhi University; Adjunct Professor of Mathematics, University of Houston, US.File Photo

We need to realise that instead of being taught in a confined classroom-like setting Satyakama gained knowledge through a hands-on real-world project. We must also realise that this project deals with wealth management; for in those days wealth was essentially measured in terms of number of heads of cattle. There is a deep lesson here. Satyakama learned by doing or working on a real-world project connected to an essential societal need.

About a hundred years ago, Tagore had lamented that education had become moribund by being confined to the four walls of a classroom and to the blackboard and had very little to do with the real world. Mahatma Gandhi too has said that in education what a student does with her hands enters his or her heart.

Interestingly, the Tony Blair Foundation has some months back presented a report commissioned by it wherein it proclaims that the best pedagogy is that which requires learning that is acquired through project work. Our ancient Mimansa school of philosophy also proclaims that knowledge without action is meaningless.

Finally, the National Education Policy, 2020, also exhorts us to adopt the same pedagogy. All my own experiments; first at Delhi University and now also in Jammu and Kashmir are yielding amazing results by adopting the pedagogy that requires problem-solving through group-based projects that are connected to the needs and challenges of the nation.

Dinesh Singh

Former Vice-Chancellor, Delhi University; Adjunct Professor of Mathematics, University of Houston, US

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