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Foundations of learning: Before decolonising education, we need equity and equality

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Michael Workman is a retired educator who was most recently principal of St John’s Preparatory School and before that, principal of Carmel Primary. He has an M.Ed (Curriculum Theory, Planning, Development and Contemporary Issues in Curriculum Evaluation) from the former University of Natal.

As much as one may agree or disagree with the notion of decolonised education, it must be accepted that the education that the majority of South Africans get is, to quote Jonathan Jansen, ‘rubbish’. Every attempt to bring about social justice has failed.

Decolonised education has embraced many different meanings, conceptually and politically.

Some view it as something that requires a total revamp of education and the introduction of indigenous knowledge. Others see it as restructuring the curriculum in its entirety. University students have expressed the need for a change in university knowledge and curricula. Decolonising education would provide them with educational access that addresses their emerging African-centred “humanness”.

As much as one may agree or disagree with the notion of decolonised education, it must be accepted that the education that the majority of South Africans get is, to quote the internationally renowned education expert Professor Jonathan Jansen, “rubbish”. Every attempt to bring about social justice has failed.

Unless more consideration is put into equity and equality all attempts to bring about meaningful change will end up in the bin. The same will happen with decolonised education. If the foundations are not there, it will ultimately do more harm than good.

Jansen promulgates that three to four universities and a handful of people started the “decolonise education” movement. He says these protesters were from the Lifelong Learning era, which advocated that learning is an ongoing process, whereby a plumber could then later in life become a neurologist or a farmer or a dentist.

This sent out false and ludicrous messages to a population that had already suffered from a humiliating and crass education in the form of Christian National Education. Likewise, teachers and educators who had a completely askew concept of this new curriculum implemented outcome-based education.

Curriculum reform initiatives do not work in South Africa for three main reasons. The first one is context, and this directly relates to the second reason, implementation. The third is more political, a knee-jerk reaction.

As higher education specialist Professor Lis Lange says, reform movements during the late 1990s tended to be more cosmetic than real. They changed the exoskeleton but left the soft sensitive parts untouched. It is within this context that students gathered with placards to march to universities to demand the decolonisation of education as a basic right. However, if this is going to follow the same route as the curriculum initiatives of the past, then it is destined for failure before anyone gets on the bus.

Jansen asks some crucial questions regarding the curriculum and is deeply concerned that the call for decolonisation may cover up other deep-seated problems that will manifest later. The biggest concern I have for decolonised education is the consequences that follow.

Putting aside decolonised education for a moment, let’s look at what is happening at grassroots level. Education in South Africa is in a state of chaos. The curriculum of many schools is still Eurocentric and will remain so for a long time.

How can any form of innovation take place when there is no infrastructure, no relevant curriculum and gross corruption that is eating away at anything and everything? Furthermore, there is a dire need for quality teachers who care for and enjoy their profession. Regrettably, this is a commodity that is extremely difficult to find.

The elephant in the room is that whatever is introduced into the curriculum has a negative effect on the poorer schools, thus polarising the poorly resourced schools from the wealthy schools. Educators need to look at implementation and the different contexts of schooling. What schools don’t need are politicians who seem to have enough time to continually interfere in education for their own individual gain, applying pressure when they see fit and expecting to see change overnight.

Reverting to the previous conversation about decolonised education, how are educators going to implement decolonised education in the South African context where it matters most – in the poorer schools, which seem to be reversing most of the time? What has been done about equity, equality and social justice?

One possible idea (although only a thought at this stage) is, why not toss the present curriculum away and produce our own unique South African curriculum that does away with Eurocentric knowledge and replaces it with indigenous knowledge?

This curriculum would address the Fourth Industrial Revolution and focus on literature and numeracy (from Grade 1 to Grade 6 or 7). Do away with the content, and focus on science, technology, research, English, the arts, maths and indigenous knowledge. This curriculum could be developed to respond to different contextual needs (such as language and cultural issues).

The emphasis in education needs to be changed, not from what is taught but rather to how it is taught. This will require the full support of all the departments of education and the public. DM

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  • Once again, a most thoughtful and interesting article. Decolonisation is a flash in the pan I’m afraid. World wars, cold wars, and economic wars have not changed what is effective in education – namely teachers who do the hard and pretty dull slog in classrooms that look much like they did a century ago. Putting the odd African or Arabian mathematician in the front page of a textbook is not going to make the maths easier.

    I certainly agree that our current curriculum is not fit for purpose. Some examples: LO should go as a matric subject. English should only be compulsory until grade 10. A ‘black’ language should be compulsory until grade 10. Entraupeneurship should be a compulsory – and hopefully practical subject until matric. We need options for woodwork, robotics, plumbing, technical drawing.

    Angie, give me a call, I’ve got all the answers.

  • “One possible idea (although only a thought at this stage) is, why not toss the present curriculum away and produce our own unique South African curriculum that does away with Eurocentric knowledge and replaces it with indigenous knowledge?”

    And that is where the resistance to decolonizing education starts. Especially the sciences, this approach cannot work, and it would be madness to resist thos knowledge merely because it was invented or taught by people of a certain skin color.
    There are certain topics where I completely support decolonization efforts, like history and the other socials, but leave the sciences be, add topics (like indigenous medicine etc) if needed. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater is never a good idea.

  • Reading, writing and arithmetic are the basics of being able to have people who can cope in a world economy. There is nothing colonial about ensuring this is doing well. The more we play with tried and tested teaching methodologies and focus on radical change the less we will be able to produce skilled job seekers.
    By all means add other languages and ensure a balanced view of history but stop right there.
    Management at all levels needs to be on merit and not cadre deployment driven.
    We have many excellent dedicated teachers who are let down by this politicised practice. A fish rots from the Head.

    • Thanks, Miles. You said everything I wanted to say. Especially your point that we belong to a globalised world now, and need to educate ourselves accordingly.

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