Crafting education

India can take a leaf out of Finland and make craft compulsory in schools. Recent neuroscience claims that there is a direct correlation between fine motor skills, hand eye coordination and the development of the brain

Question may be asked how intelligence can be developed through the takli or the spinning wheel. It can to a marvellous degree if it is not taught merely mechanically. When you tell a child the reason for each process, when you explain the mechanism of the takli or the wheel, when you give him the history of cotton and its connection with civilisation itself and take him to the village field where it is grown and teach him to count the rounds he spins and the method of finding the evenness and strength of his yarn, you hold his interest and simultaneously train his hands, his eyes and his mind. (MK Gandhi on Nayi Talim)

Gandhi attempted to pivot the Indian educational model on crafts under the Nayi Talim. He planned to impart primary education through the medium of village handicrafts like spinning and carding, thus conceiving a silent social revolution. He believed that craft would check the progressive decay of Indian villages and lay the foundation of a just social order in which there is no unnatural division between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ and everybody was assured of a living wage and the right to freedom.

Gandhi believed that all this would be accomplished without the horrors of a bloody class war or a colossal capital expenditure such as would be involved in the mechanisation of a vast continent like India. Nor would it entail a helpless dependence on foreign imported machinery or technical skill. Lastly, by obviating the necessity for highly specialised talent, it would place the destiny of the masses, as it were, in their own hands. Alas! the Gandhian vision has not assimilated in the endeavours of the formal Indian education system.

Informal educational practices in various countries, including India, have thrived upon similar principles for eons. But as Gandhi rightly pointed out, who will bell the cat?

Well, Finland, always ahead of everyone in innovation and creativity, has belled the cat.

It’s experience and experiments yield useful insights. The typical Indian ‘Look USA attitude’ misses the creative innovations of Finland in education.

Craft as a school subject has disappeared from the curriculum in many countries due to societal changes or has become invisible after it was merged with other subjects like technology studies, art education or home science. However, in Finland, craft has retained its status as an independent school subject and is also rigorously followed as an academic discipline in universities.

Finland was the first country to establish crafts as a compulsory subject for all pupils in 1866. Pedagogically aimed crafts education is referred to as Sloyd (Slöjd) in Nordic countries. The word emphasises the link between manual training and children’s development. Recent neuroscience claims that there is a direct correlation between fine motor skills, hand eye coordination and the development of the brain.

Besides, craft education also offers students diverse learning situations in their external real environment and promotes technological literacy. Teaching and learning content on innovative design and production processes is based on materials, techniques, tools, machines and devices; in other words, technology in a wide range of material areas and environments.

More significantly, craft education has also attempted to alter the strong gender orientation of occupations that is unfortunately built early in life. Knitting and crocheting may sound like a skill reserved for old crones and not for young, able and nimble children. For instance boys lacking fine motor coordination are often given a task to practice knitting and sewing. Today, craft subjects are not ‘allocated’ according to gender, but ‘chosen’ out of preference as well as need. The basic idea is that school crafts is a common subject with a varied content of design and technology in textile and technical work which pupils choose in combination, instead of traditionally opting one instead of another. Both boys and girls learn how to knit, sew and cook. Both boys and girls learn how to do woodwork and use power tools. They are seen as equally important skills irrespective of gender. This dissolves occupational hierarchy and division, encouraging a more equitable society.

Craft education will survive if it is technology-adaptive rather than self-reductionist which will wedge craft into low manual skills and high-end technical ones. This is what has suppressed craft as education in India — it has not grown with the times. Finland was a poor country before the second world war. Therefore, craft education began with the practical aim to support common people surviving in impoverished times, especially in the 19th century and after the world wars in the 20th century. In the last 50 years, Finland moved from a poor agricultural country to an industrial economy, followed by an information society. The main aim of craft education has changed a lot over the decades.

Maybe the biggest change is perceivable in the value and meaning of the subject. The holistic craft learning process has been replaced by the school’s emphasis on the final product — the end has become more important than the means.

The aim is not anymore on model-based learning where the teacher encourages students to examine their linear processes of construction and dependence on readymade product ideas easily accessible on the internet. This is a clear sign of the changing cultural ethos of the world around us, in which real value has been replaced by quick gratification. Never-theless, the pedagogy of introducing craft in mainstream education for building dexterity of the hand as well as the mind still holds pertinent.

Nayi Talim also originated with the focus of building India, still under foreign rule. Gandhi found something radically wrong in a nation as poor as his, where parents have to support many grown up children and give them a highly expensive education, without the children making any immediate return. He saw nothing wrong in children paying for it in work. The simplest handicraft suitable for all, required for the whole of India, was undoubtedly spinning for MK Gandhi. A labour intensive process, if introduced in educational institutions, should fulfill three purposes: make education self-supporting, train the bodies of the children as well as their minds, and pave the way for a complete boycott of foreign yarn and cloth. The children, thus equipped, will become self-reliant and independent. Gandhi’s core suggestion was that handicrafts are to be taught, equally as productive works and developing the intellect of the pupils. In his own words, “Surely, if the state takes charge of the children between seven and 14 and trains their bodies and minds through productive labour, the public schools must be frauds and teachers idiots, if they cannot become self- supporting.”

In India, however, the integration of skill with theoretical discourse has become so wide that it now looms large as lack of skills and unemployability. The skilled craftsperson is deemed uneducated and the formally educated person lacks skills! Craft as the bridge that makes education useful never found its place in Indian education — notwithstanding Gandhi. As a result there is a pedagogical crisis in India that pervades all education streams as without real-world applications, concepts remain alien, whittling the foundation of innovative thinking that no amount of government funded schemes for innovation can restore.

In Finland, innovation is embedded in the education system infused with the ‘craft’ pedagogy of making and learning by doing. Craft studies is recognised not as knowledge of abstract concepts, but as a workshop based pedagogy, similar to apprenticeship where illustrative teaching and practical work are combined.

An example is a craft project implemented at the University of Turku, Rauma Campus. A project was organised in a Finnish primary school with preschoolers ranging from five to seven years. The idea of the experiment was to make individually and collaboratively designed handmade fabric characters, including caricatures.

The process included drawing plans, which the children made individually and in peer groups. Later, children made patterns for their characters and painted cloth materials themselves. Characters were then sewn and filled with cotton wool. All detailing was a result of handwork. The five- to seven-year-old children surprisingly not only planned and co-ordinated different activities of the project, but also handled simple technologies like needle, fabric and scissors with little assistance.

By emphasising planning and designing, students are offered open, non-linear tasks, problems and challenges, which are known to promote innovative thinking and technological literacy. In the absence of any modern aids like internet, students are forced to visualise and create diverse ideas in abundance. Edward de Bono would famously describe this as lateral thinking. Here, the emotional quotient, of course, is implicit in the very act of making itself. Moreover, surprisingly, our usually uncaring tiny-tots born in a world flushed with replaceable uncustomised products glutted down their throat by an omnipresent media, take full responsibility of the product they craft. Research indicates that authentic learning environments support idea creation as well as students’ motivation to design their products for a real-world need, which enhances the students’ understanding and responsibility of their environment manifold.

Besides, craft also helps students in comprehending STEM subjects better. Craft involves many calculations related to measurement, design and planning of projects. From simple problems like measuring a line, students are also exposed to complex calculations of a warp and weft on a loom. It is not uncommon to see students use trigonometry to figure out the angles of a complex carpentry assignment in wood.

Take the instance of spinning. Gandhi astutely perceived that unless one knows arithmetic one cannot report how many yards of yarn have been produced on the takli or how many standard rounds it will make or what is the count of the yarn spun. For this one must learn figures and basic operations of addition and subtraction and multiplication and division. In dealing with complicated sums symbols would have to be used and so one gets algebra.

Take geometry next. What can be a better demonstration of a circle than the disc of the takli? One can teach all about the circle in this way, without even mentioning the name of Euclid.

In craft the medium itself is the teacher. The materials involved provoke enquiry. Why the takli is made out of a brass disc and has a steel spindle? The original takli had its disc made anyhow. The still more primitive takli consisted of a wooden spindle with a disc of slate or clay. The takli has been developed scientifically and there is a reason for making the disc out of brass and the spindle out of steel. Why the disc has that particular diameter, no more and no less?

One can teach even geography and history through spinning. Gandhi cited the book The Story of Mankind. In his words “It read like a romance. It began with the history of ancient times, how and when cotton was first grown, the stages of its development, the cotton trade between the different countries and so on. As I mention the different countries to the child, I shall naturally tell him something about the history and geography of these countries. Under whose reign the different commercial treaties were signed during the different periods? Why has cotton to be imported by some countries and cloth by others? Why can every country not grow the cotton it requires? That will lead me into economics and elements of agriculture. I shall teach him to know the different varieties of cotton, in what kind of soil they grow, how to grow them, from where to get them and so on. Thus, takli spinning leads me into the whole history of the East India Company, what brought them here, how they destroyed our spinning industry, how the economic motive that brought them to India led them later to entertain political aspirations, how it became a causative factor in the downfall of the Moghuls and the Marathas, in the establishment of the English Raj and then again in the awakening of the masses in our times.” (Gandhi’s thoughts on Nayi Talim)

In today’s world Gandhi’s Nayi Talim may appear to be an out of date spinning yarn. But it envisioned the radically creative curriculum of advanced countries like Finland that uphold craft and making things as key to education. Can we re-connect with craft for a transformative paradigm shift in education?

(Päivi Marjanen is post-doctoral researcher of craft education and Eila Lindfors is professor in craft, design and technology education, University of Turku, Finland; Koumudi Patil is assistant professor, Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur)

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