> Science > Traditional Knowledge  
Jayanta Kumar Sarma
Date of Publish: 2017-09-27

Traditional Knowledge System enhances children’s learning


It was an evening of June of 2014 in Kharankong, a village inhabited by Tangsa Nagas in Margherita development block of Assam. This author was interacting with a group of children about different types of birds they observe in their village. The children started turning the pages of a pictorial field guide book on birds shown to them by the author and were excited to identify the pictures of the birds they know.

Turning some pages one boy told his friends `Look here. ‘Ne-su-bokha’!’ I asked him, ‘which one?’ In response, he pointed out to the Kingfisher. “It is called as ‘Ne-su-bokha’ in Tangsa, and means fish eating bird,” they interpreted the meaning.

It is the beauty of a language. Any name of animal or plants in local language also reveals its taxonomic information. It is a part of traditional knowledge system (TKS), where a child not only learns mother tongue but also gathers information and knowledge about their environment.

It was in the evening of July 2015, when this author, while returning from Meghalaya’s capital city Shillong, came across two little boys transporting water cans on a wooden trolley. During a brief interaction that had taken place, they said that every day after their school hours they fetch water using the trolley, which has been traditionally used by every household in their locality. The boys said that they also know how to make such a trolley. It is a fine example of application of traditional technological knowledge and how it is transferred from one generation to the next through the activities in daily walks of life.

Photo - Jayanta Kr Sarma

In June 2014, I came across a little girl fishing in one corner of a wet paddy field in Bodohpur village in Goalpara district in Assam where a natural water channel meets the field. Every time the girl pulled out the fishing net she would take a close look at her catch and then release those back in water. She was repeating it for several times. When asked as to why she had released her catch every time, she replied: “It is not fair to catch the little ones and those having eggs. I am trying to get the ideal ones.” When asked as to how she came to know about this she said: ‘I see my mother doing the same whenever I go with her for fishing’. Daily activities of life provide information and knowledge about right and wrong to be followed, that is ethics.

Photo - Jayanta Kr Sarma

Institutional transgression interrupts learning

These are some of the examples of how children acquire traditional knowledge in their daily walks of life. However, when they gradually proceed to further level of learning and are admitted to formal education system, steadily they get detached from the process of learning from the communities. It occurs due to lack of emphasis in formal education system to have an interface with TKS and open up a process of learning from the own community elders and fellow members of the society. It is becoming more prominent in the cases where children are compelled to learn in other’s language. It has become very common for many children of the community who speak a different dialect or language as mother tongue other than their medium of learning. In many instances, over the period of time younger members of some community even forget their own mother tongue e.g. Chiru community inhabit in different states of North East India. Chirus were having their own dialect, but in Manipur they have become either Chiru Kuki or Chiru Naga; Chirus inhabiting in Barak valley of Assam have become more comfortable with Bengali language. There are many more similar examples in north eastern states -- like most of the Tiwas in Brahmaputra valley in Assam are becoming more conversant with Assamese than Tiwa. Language learning requires a great skill. But when one is detached from own mother tongue, they are deprived of many other forms of learning. Because every dialect or language is not only a means of communication as every words in each language or dialect carries lots of meaning and its varied applications also provide multiple information and knowledge which ultimately carries the TKS of a community. If detachment with own language is continued, traditional knowledge system will be lost and younger generations will be deprived from learning about their own knowledge system. Sometime many people believe that traditional performing art carries all such cultural continuum, so many people try to provide opportunity to their children to learn it. No doubt, performing arts carry lots of traditions and information, but it carries partial information and knowledge, so it will not help in holistic understanding.

Photo - Jayanta Kr Sarma

TKS – new demand for learning

TKS is the local knowledge; knowledge that is unique to a given culture or society. It is the basis for local-level decision making in agriculture, healthcare, food preparation, education, natural-resource management and a host of other activities in rural communities.

Commonly TKS can be categorized into three major categories, Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEKS), Traditional Technical Knowledge (TTK) and Traditional Value and Ethics (TVE). TEKS represents knowledge system related to natural resource management, biodiversity conservation, weather prediction, crop selection and design of cropping cycle, ethno-medicinal practices of flora and fauna, etc. TTK is related with design and uses tools and implements in day to day life, including design and construction of traditional housing, boat, musical instruments, etc. On the other hand, TVE represents the system of valuing of different natural /environmental and societal and cultural elements; such value system again links to ethical concern like right or wrong, etc.

Photo - Jayanta Kr Sarma

In practice, all these categories function together. For instance, when TEKS provides importance to forest from identified natural resource perspectives, so provide a value to it from TVE, ultimately forest can be considered as sacred. As a result, many sacred groves or forest area are associated with perennial sources of water like sacred groves of Mulong Kisir village of Karbi-Anglong of Assam or Mawphlang of Megahalya. Later on applying their TTK the community started to harness water from these sources. So, even though such TKS are fragmentary in look, it functioned in an integrated manner. Most of the TKS based practices matched with local environmental conditions and customized to socio-cultural practices. Common TKS practices mainly cater for nature and natural resources, customization of tools and implements to local context and frame socio-cultural design to pursue the practices. This practices helps in local coping mechanism for developing disaster resilient system as well as in climate change adaptation. Moreover, TKS helps to understand importance of different biologically origin resources in different geographical context and which may provide new solution to many problems faced by human beings. TKS is considered as the important component of learning. Therefore, UN task force on Post 2015 UN Development Agenda acknowledges the importance of indigenous knowledge for environmental sustainability and gives emphasis on creating integration of TKS with formal institutional learning (UNESCO, 2016, Background paper prepared for the 2016 Global Education Monitoring Report,ED/GEMR/MRT/2016/p1/20). The document, states: “traditional and indigenous knowledge, adaptation and coping strategies can be major assets for local response strategies”. Hence, in the light of the new post-2015 sustainability agenda, it is essential to explore the linkages between sustainable development and indigenous knowledge, intended here as local knowledge of indigenous communities having its own epistemology and scientific validity and not as opposite to western knowledge. This exploration will provide an opportunity to understand how indigenous peoples in different regions of the world have been responding to ecological and development challenges and how, because of their knowledge systems deeply rooted in local ecology, they can be valuable agents in maintaining global biodiversity and building resilience to climate change. In the contemporary context, it is realised that TKS helps in understanding of local to regional, biological and ecological conditions and transition into more powerful decision-making.

Photo - Jayanta Kr Sarma

The way forward

Opening learning system of TKS from their own community by the children is not a very complex task. It requires systematic integration of TKS in contemporary curricular framework, with focuses on learning in mother tongue with additional skill on languages which is required for regional, national and global perspective communication. It is very much possible to integrate TKS based practices as cases of examples in subject like Social Science, Environmental Studies, Science and Mathematics, etc. It should not be confined to text book narratives only. It must equally focus on organising field trips, TKS based jamborees, developing TKS museum for learning, providing opportunity for inquiry-based project oriented learning along with scope for participation in TKS based games, cultural performance, etc. It can be planted with regular formal curricular transaction.

Some important areas to which children need to be exposed are – traditional agricultural planning, crop calendar, traditional cultivar, agro-biodiversity, seed preservation, crop storage, post-harvest processing, forestry practices, sacred flora and fauna, ethno-medicinal practices, non-cultivated edible sources, traditional housing, handloom practices including traditional design and its association with nature and environment, social institutions, cultural activities linking to cropping cycle, etc. Such exposure may help the learner to gather many information about local practices linking environmental stewardship, social responsibility and community-based sharing, cultural practices, its sources and meaning, etc. At the same time, it will help to accrue idea and skill on climate change adaptation, disaster risk reduction and designing a sustainable life style.

Jayanta Kumar Sarma

(Jayanta Kumar Sarma is a freelance consultant in the area of Environment and Development and he has been working with NGO, Educational Institutions, private entrepreneurial farm and government agencies of North-east region. He did his Post graduation in Geography from Gauhati University and Post Master in Natural Resource Management from IIFM. He can be reached at jksbeltola@gmail.com )



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