Educate for life, not just for a job
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CURRICULUM transformation and decolonisation is an imperative of our times and it will not go away. As someone who has dedicated 33 years to the study of education, I believe it is our obligation to search for alternatives. Alternatives are not given, they are imagined, and there has never been a more opportune moment in our history than now. It presents teachers and intellectuals with an opportunity to rise to the occasion.
More than ever in South Africa, we need what the Greeks call a metanoia, a complete about-turn or change of heart, literally a spiritual conversion, a new way of seeing and perceiving. We need new frameworks of thinking to describe the world we live in as the old ones have become moribund.
To understand this let’s reflect on the first attempt at curriculum reform, introduced in 1998 in the form of Curriculum 2005 (C2005). It was the first major curriculum statement of the democratic dispensation, and its constructivist approach broke from the apartheid system, based on rote learning and memorisation. It was not successful for a variety of reasons but it was a bold attempt that preceded any effort in higher education.
Nineteen years later, in addressing the current call for curriculum reform, we need to understand what went wrong with C2005. One of the reasons was a lack of alignment between the school curriculum and teacher education in universities and colleges. Another was a lack of capacity and support for teachers whose opinions and feelings about the curriculum were not taken into consideration. It left many teachers feeling hopeless or inadequate, with a reduced sense of efficiency and ability to provide quality education for their students.
For any new curriculum to be implemented successfully, policy-makers and curriculum reformers have to engage teachers at the school and university level, and take into account what they think.
Having established this, the starting point for a new curriculum is to ask what kind of society do we want to build, and what role should basic and higher education institutions be playing to transform society in increasingly complex, turbulent and diverse environments. These are core questions, yet curriculum reformers often neglect to take them into consideration.
Too often, they think they only need to produce a technically sound curriculum and implementation will proceed smoothly. It reflects a view of learning, teaching, leadership, and change that is excessively cognitive, calculative, managerial and stereotypically masculine in nature. Implementing a generic curriculum of this nature into a society systematically subjected to underdevelopment through racial policies for the majority of its citizens can only exacerbate inequalities that were the hallmark of apartheid education.
Educational institutions which see their role solely as imparting narrow skills and knowledge that prepare students only as part of the work force in a market economy, negate the other important functions of education as contributing to the functioning of critical citizens in a democracy.
Given the nature of South Africa as one of the most unequal societies in the world and the perennial problem of racism, any future curriculum needs to address racism, inequality, power, privilege, gender and patriarchy. It should strengthen students’ resolve and commitment to strive for a different social order other than the present preoccupation with individualism, and the promotion of capitalism and profitability.
Critical pedagogy can point the way in creating an alternative vision of society, one that takes the notion of justice and equality seriously. Critical pedagogy is one of the central means in the struggle for justice and liberation. As humans we can intervene in the world, and change the course of events, as we are not merely spectators. This is a starting point for theorising about social transformation. If we focus only on the present and dominant and debilitating discourses of neo-liberal politics, it can be paralysing and prevent a focus on the future; it can stifle our imagination of what could be and of pedagogy as a practice of freedom.
Curriculum and pedagogical change can only succeed if we accommodate multiple knowledge traditions and embrace new ways of viewing knowledge. If we abandon the notion that knowledge is objective and value-free and accept it as always provisional, incomplete and partial, it paves the way for an epistemological dialogue between different ways of knowing.
In our universities it is not possible to teach students of the 21st century with outdated transmission methods of knowledge transfer or acquisition. The curriculum as an instrument of social change should enable our students to become critical travellers through the world. Less hierarchical approaches are better suited to confront some of the pressing crises of our time, such as peaceful co-existence, poverty, global inequality, pandemics, climate change and racism. As teachers and academics we have not done enough to prepare the young for the coming and changing world in which they will be living. If we do not take up the challenge to be social activists of change, committed to transforming the curriculum and education in meaningful ways, the dream of a non-racial and just society will remain an elusive ideal.
EMPOWERMENT: Science teacher Silas Fenyane teaches at the ORT SA’s Second Chance Education Programme in Alexandra.