Teach­ing a hid­den cur­ricu­lum of au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS -

Malawi set out to give pupils skills to sup­port democ­racy. But it has not been easy

LIKE many other coun­tries, Malawi was caught in the wave of demo­cratic change that swept sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa in the early 1990s. It was trig­gered by the fall of com­mu­nism along with mil­i­tary and civil­ian dic­ta­tor­ships around the world, and brought to an end nearly a cen­tury of au­thor­i­tar­ian colo­nial and one-party rule.

Other fac­tors com­bined to bring about the rapid shift, in­clud­ing re­sis­tance to the op­pres­sive one-party rule. Th­ese protests were backed by West­ern gov­ern­ments and donor or­gan­i­sa­tions which im­posed aid con­di­tions to force demo­cratic re­forms.

What this meant was that when change fi­nally came it was largely seen as an ex­ter­nal and West­ern im­po­si­tion. As a re­sult, those who held power adopted democ­racy re­luc­tantly.

Nev­er­the­less, demo­cratic re­forms came with the prom­ise that cit­i­zens would be em­pow­ered. Cen­tral to this was de­cen­tral­i­sa­tion of de­ci­sion-mak­ing. And cit­i­zen­ship ed­u­ca­tion for democ­racy was in­tro­duced in sec­ondary schools in 1998 in the so­cial stud­ies cur­ricu­lum. The aim was to im­prove their in­volve­ment in the demo­cratic process.

But of­fi­cial rhetoric hasn’t been matched with prac­tice. Ed­u­ca­tional poli­cies, cur­ricu­lum de­vel­op­ment and stan­dard­ised na­tional as­sess­ments are still de­cided and de­signed at the cen­tre. This means there’s lit­tle or no ef­fort to em­power peo­ple at lo­cal level. It also means there is lim­ited space for schools to prac­tise democ­racy.

Top-down cur­ricu­lum in­no­va­tions, for ex­am­ple, pose a chal­lenge when it comes to rel­e­vance and own­er­ship. They also un­der­mine the gov­ern­ment’s pol­icy de­signed to de­velop skills and at­ti­tudes needed to up­hold and sup­port democ­racy.

An added dif­fi­culty is that cul­tural norms in Malawi mil­i­tate against chil­dren hav­ing a say. There were con­tra­dic­tions be­tween what pupils learned in class and how they were ex­pected to be­have.

It’s of­ten said that democ­racy is best learned by prac­tice. This sup­ports the no­tion that schools should be­come sites where democ­racy is prac­tised in and out­side the class­room. This is the ba­sis for the gov­ern­ment’s sev­eral pol­icy doc­u­ments ad­vo­cat­ing the in­volve­ment of pupils in ed­u­ca­tional de­ci­sions and is­sues that af­fect them.

But there are ten­sions in its ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem which mil­i­tate against this. Subtle re­sis­tance pre­vents it from tak­ing root.

Tra­di­tion­ally, de­ci­sion-mak­ing is the pre­serve of adults. When this is ex­tended to teach­ers at schools, it can be­come a recipe for au­thor­i­tar­ian prac­tices.

Schools don’t ex­ist in a vac­uum. The hi­er­ar­chi­cal re­la­tions be­tween adults and chil­dren that ex­ist in the wider African so­ci­ety are, there­fore, re­flected in the re­la­tions be­tween teach­ers and pupils on the school land­scape.

Teach­ers are likely to re­sist school democrati­sa­tion be­cause it would em­power pupils and threaten their au­thor­ity. Teach­ers are likely to see av­enues for demo­cratic par­tic­i­pa­tion by pupils as a loss of au­thor­ity and cul­tural priv­i­lege.

My study showed that pupils had taken on board the prin­ci­ple that all sus­pected of­fend­ers had the right to be heard be­fore be­ing judged.

But many were sus­pended with­out get­ting an op­por­tu­nity to be heard. And the stand taken by teach­ers had the sup­port of most par­ents who en­cour­aged teach­ers to rid the school of any forms of mis­be­haviour us­ing any means avail­able.

This in­con­sis­tency, de­scribed by Henry Giroux (one of the found­ing the­o­rists of crit­i­cal ped­a­gogy in the US) as the hid­den cur­ricu­lum, is likely to un­der­mine what pupils learn in class. A fur­ther con­se­quence is that pupils will ac­qui­esce to au­thor­i­tar­ian prac­tices from peo­ple in po­si­tions of au­thor­ity.

In ad­di­tion, they may think class­room learn­ing is only meant to pre­pare them for na­tional ex­ams and has no bear­ing on their lives. This may re­sult in demo­cratic cit­i­zen­ship ap­pear­ing as a façade. And it could fa­cil­i­tate the re­silience of au­to­cratic prac­tices – at schools and be­yond.

If Malawi is go­ing to de­velop demo­cratic cit­i­zens, ex­pe­ri­ence with democ­racy at school is im­por­tant. It’s essen­tial teach­ers get sen­si­tised to this.

It should still be ac­knowl­edged that school democrati­sa­tion, in a pa­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety, will re­quire time be­fore it’s ac­cepted. Ef­forts to­wards democrati­sa­tion need to be ac­knowl­edged and en­cour­aged. Ac­tion should be taken to pro­mote democ­racy at na­tional and school lev­els.

As a start­ing point, schools could set up com­mit­tees to over­see the process. This will en­sure trans­la­tion of na­tional pol­icy into prac­tice. The com­mit­tee could also work to re­solve ten­sions be­tween the roles of pupils as young cit­i­zens and as chil­dren. – The Con­ver­sa­tion

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