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Title: Learning by observing and doing: Indigenous education in South East Asia
Author: Trakansuphakorn, P
Publisher: EENET
Date: 2012,

Learning by observing and doing: Indigenous education in South East Asia

Dr. Prasert Trakansuphakorn

This article provides insights into the sharing of knowledge in indigenous communities. Indigenous knowledge accumulates over generations of living in a particular environment and includes knowledge, skills and cultural practices which are continuously evolving. Dr. Trakansuphakorn uses the example of rotational farming and the management of natural resources to explain how this knowledge is shared between different generations within communities. He also explains some of the sacred rituals practised in Thailand and Burma.

Community elders pass on their knowledge to younger generations in indigenous communities – through their words and actions. This process of intergenerational learning is different from formal schooling, as it does not take place in schools or classrooms. Instead, it is embedded in the activities and practices of daily life. This is essential for the survival and further development of indigenous communities.

The example of rotational farming
This practice has been central to indigenous communities’ lives and livelihoods for centuries. Leaving the fields to become fallow (not planted) every 5-10 years allows the soil and land to regenerate. The fallow period balances the land, water, forest and wildlife, and supports a system of sustainable agriculture.

This process begins with the celebration of the New Year and continues until the rice harvest is completed. The sharing of knowledge may seem to be hidden, as the younger generations are often unaware that learning is taking place. It allows knowledge to seep slowly, but deeply, into the minds of learners.

Ritual practice
Each stage and each season is accompanied by rituals. At the beginning of August, is the ritual of feeding the field. About a week before the rice harvest, the community eats roasted, unripe rice while telling folktales. During the rice threshing, children’s wrists are tied with a bracelet of white thread to represent the binding of the child to their spirit so they can live together without fear. Before families carry the rice back to their homes from the fields, the evil spirits are driven from the granary; the bird of the rice spirit is called back to heaven. The rice feeding ritual is performed to make the rice last longer.

Knowledge of these rituals is shared through observation and participation. This focuses attention, stimulates interest and builds the capacity of children and young people to retain knowledge. Children and young people enjoy the rituals as they involve celebration and festive food, especially meat – which they do not often eat. They also practise ritual prayers and actions and little by little become proficient.

Learning with parents
In the field clearing ritual, parents and other adults go with their children to look for a suitable place to clear a field. The parents simply tell their children: ‘girls go with mother’, ‘boys go with father’, ‘go to learn’, ‘see how the people go together to look for a place to clear a field’. Parents perform the divining ritual by digging some earth from under a tree Enabling Education Review, Issue 1, December 2012 [19 and driving out the spirit-owner. Then they pray: ‘I will make a field here, I will make a garden here. If the spirit of the land and spirit of the water are here, my eyes look but cannot see the spirits. I ask the spirits to go away and leave this place.’

Children observe everything their parents do, and this seeps into their memory. When the children are old enough to work, their parents provide opportunities for them to participate in the ritual more directly. At first, children often make mistakes, especially with the prayers, which are difficult to remember. After many years of practice, they are able to say the prayers by themselves. Even if the details and content are not exactly the same as their parents’ prayers, the children will learn most of the important elements by the time they are around 20 years old.

Non-verbal ‘learning by doing’: Teaching with words or explaining by describing is believed to be ‘taboo’.
Ritual acts in the practice of rotational farming must be performed calmly, with respect and care. If not, the rituals will not be sacred or effective, and the aims of the rituals will not have been accomplished. Therefore, parents and other adults who share this knowledge with children are not permitted to teach through words. At the same time, it is also forbidden for children to ask questions. This method of knowledge sharing increases the dimension of sacredness by giving the learners a sense of reverence. It leads them to be aware that this knowledge should be shared carefully and with meticulous attention to detail.

Through looking at the practice of rotational farming, we can better understand the learning processes involved in the sharing of indigenous knowledge between generations in indigenous communities. These learning processes may seem somewhat different from those involved in formal schooling, but are important to the survival of indigenous knowledge.

Prasert Trakansuphakorn belongs to the Karen people in Thailand. He is the director of the Indigenous Knowledge and Peoples Foundation. He has been a practitioner of social development among indigenous peoples for over 20 years, specialising in indigenous knowledge, natural resource management and rotational farming in Thailand and South East Asia.

Prasert Trakansuphakon Ph.D
Indigenous Knowledge and Peoples
Regional Director
252 M.2 T.Sansai noi A. Sansai
Chiang Mai, 50210, Thailand

EENET believes that enabling and inclusive education is never ‘one size fits all’ – knowledge and experience can be shared in different ways. Community respect for sacred spaces and practices, and learning through observation and gradual, careful practice are key ways indigenous knowledge is shared between generations in indigenous communities worldwide.

Differences between formal schooling and indigenous education exist, not just in terms of teaching/learning methods and curriculum, but also in understandings about what knowledge is and who owns and controls it. Indigenous knowledge is not an abstract or separate set of resources for indigenous communities, but very much a central part of who they are and how they live together. Although it draws on a history of tradition, indigenous knowledge is not rigid, or fixed in the past, but is a process which is responsive to change and continuously evolving. Indigenous knowledge is ‘owned’ by communities, rather than individuals – a different, but valuable and holistic approach to inclusive education!