05/22/2014 03:49 pm ET Updated Jul 22, 2014

The Importance of Critical Inquiry in Learning About Hinduism

One of the biggest challenges many social studies teachers face is developing or finding content to help teach about Hinduism.

In dealing with the world's oldest active major religion and its multitude of interpretations, it's a tall order to find materials that are accurate and properly vetted. As schools move away from textbooks, the demand for multimedia content and interactive instructional materials will only grow, making teachers and curriculum supervisors more confused about what to use in their classrooms.

This is a problem I face in my role on a daily basis, as the Hindu American Foundation is constantly asked about what materials are good to use in classrooms. HAF and other organizations committed to pluralism in education have resources to teach about Hinduism accurately, but providing instructional materials is only one step in the larger effort to transform our ways of learning.

Thanks to the implementation of Common Core, students are being asked to more critically engage with their classroom subject matter. Supporters of Common Core believe that critical inquiry should be a pillar of American education in the 21st century, as the demand increases for a more highly educated and culturally, socially, and civically aware citizenry.

Perhaps this is why outdated educational materials can serve as an important learning tool for students, and a great way for teachers to build activities designed to engage their classes. Take, for example, the primary representations about Hinduism in textbooks, which include:

  • Hinduism was a foreign belief system imposed by a race called the Aryans on natives called the Dravidians
  • The Aryans immediately established a rigid caste system that became central to Hinduism
  • Hinduism believes in the subordination of women
  • In Hinduism, child marriage is common.

None of these claims are true, but they've become so entrenched in textbook depictions that it could take years to revise and rectify the overall narrative on Hinduism. But as teachers become more aware of the inaccuracies in textbooks, there are more opportunities for students to question the content and engage with the materials in a way previously not imagined.

One of the ways teachers might approach a critical thinking exercise is to get students to look at the idea of sources. As James Loewen notes in Lies My History Teacher Told Me, the framing of issues in history textbooks is often written from the perspective of privilege. That's why, to break that privilege, students must be given the tools to critically analyze the texts they read. As I used to tell my students: "Anyone can regurgitate material. True learning requires engagement."

Common Core advocates have emphasized the use of primary sources, and organizations such as National History Day have made the use of primary evidence the pillar of student engagement. In the case of studying about Hinduism, teachers would be wise to read primary source materials that can help to cultivate critical thinking skills. Some books, such as The Complete Idiot's Guide to Hinduism and Hinduism for Dummies, explains the religion - and interprets the primary texts in a way many students in middle and high school can understand and relate to. Moreover, these texts can serve as useful guides to engage in more critical engagements with texts that are inaccurate or outdated.

Perhaps the most important aspects of critical inquiry are maximizing a teacher's creativity and trusting students to apply their critical-thinking skills. Teachers from around the country have provided me with some best practices in how to successfully challenge inaccurate depictions through student participation.

One example stands out. In challenging the validity of Aryan Invasion Theory (which was hotly disputed and later faded from prominence among academicians), one teacher in New York had a novel approach in getting her students to engage with the materials. She taught the students about Aryan Invasion Theory using the class textbooks, which had not been revised for years, and then proceeded to debunk the theory point-by-point. She then asked her students to do their own research and come up with their own conclusions. The class then "marked up" their textbooks and wrote letters to the publisher citing the errors.

This is just one of the ways teachers can get their students to critically engage the material they're presented by asking questions -- a bedrock of learning. More importantly, it helps students retain (rather than just regurgitate and forget) information they'll need to understand a rapidly changing and diversifying society.