Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Schooling, deschooling and learning across boundaries

One of the great questions for those of us engaged in SOTL for Social Justice is: "To what extent does learning in contexts of inequality and social division actively under-educate or deschool learners?" I use the word 'deschool' as the only one I can think of, to refer to, 'alienated knowledge' or knowledge that not only is useless, but prevents learning. I have come across several valuable resources in the recent period. The first is the documentaries produced by Carol Black in the United States. The documentary I found particularly powerful is Schooling the World: The White Man's Last Burden, in which the links between colonisation, epistemicide and schooling are powerfully and pictorially presented. The take-home message is not that higher education is unjust because it facilitates the access of some but not others, but that, in addition, higher education may be guilty of perpetuating problematic knowledge structures as well, and through this, inflicting harm. What knowledge are we inculcating, and for whom?

A second resource is a book, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, by Jacques Rancière (translated 1991, Stanford University Press). Rancière makes a strong statement that all learners are equal - you don't learn in order to become equal. The dominant approach to schooling, where the learned explain to the unlearned, stultifies rather than teaches. The book is base on a narrative about the ignorant schoolmaster, Jacotot, who finds the best method to teach, is a measure of ignorance, and to let students teach themselves. The translator of the book, Kristin Ross, points out in the introduction that this was written  after the period of the 1968 student rebellion in France, and thus at a similar time to the scholarly productions of Pierre Bourdieu. The introduction points to criticism of Bourdieu by Rancière, that Bourdieu's writing "allowed the denunciation of both the mechanisms of domination and the illusions of liberation" (xi). I won't go into the details of this logic here, suffice it to say that I agree that it is easy to use critique of the structure of society and its relations with schooling to perpetuate a kind of cynicism and lack of belief in the possibility of change that can lead to both social and cognitive justice. This cynicism and what I would call 'cognitive conservatism' has permeated my own thinking for decades while working in the field of teaching and learning in higher education, and is one of the reasons why I find the student calls for the decolonisation of knowledge so invigorating. 

Sugata Mitra
The thinking behind Rancière's book has been discussed in an article by Richard Stamp (2013). Stamp's article is a fascinating discussion about self-organised learning. He links Rancière's account of learning to the experiment conducted by Sugata Mitra, in which he leaves a computer in a hole in the wall in a variety of urban and rural settings in India, over a period of five years. Sugata Mitra shares the astonishing results of the hole in the wall experiment.  With no adults present, children were illiterate, but learnt how to use the computer, learn English and a variety of other practices and skills. His finding: "6 - 13 year olds can self-instruct in a connected environment irrespective of anything we could measure ... but it had to be in groups". 

Why are these resources so significant at this point in time? Simply, there must be a way to advance cognitive justice in and through education, and present methods are not sufficiently facilitating this. The answers that we seek should contain considerations of both social and cognitive justice, matters of power and privilege, but also thoughtful considerations of how people learn in various contexts, in which schooling is more, as well as less pedagogically structured. 


Carol Black, http://carolblack.org/schooling-the-world/
Sugata Mitra, https://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_build_a_school_in_the_cloud?language=en.
Jacques Rancière, 1991, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, Stanford University Press. 
Richard Stamp, 2013, Of Slumdogs and Schoolmasters: Jacotot, Rancière and Mitra on Self-organised Learning,  Educational Philosophy and Theory, 45, 6).

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Professor Njabulo Ndebele's speech 'They are burning memory' at the Annual Helen Joseph Memorial Lecture

Last week I had the privilege to listen to Professor Njabulo Ndebele's talk, 'They are burning memory' at the annual Helen Joseph Memorial Lecture at the University of Johannesburg. The clip is available at http://www.enca.com/south-africa/catch-it-live-prof-njabulo-ndebele-delivers-the-helen-joseph-memorial-lecture. I am not sure where the full text is available, but for members of SOTL @UJ project, I have placed it in the dropbox folder.

Like Njabulo's writing in general, the talk is dense, metaphorical, full of cadences and subtle. At the risk of doing the talk an injustice, I will attempt to summarise the key propositions:

Burning artefacts such as artworks or statues does not obliterate the past and memory, 'Human memory exists independently of its physical representations'. However memory and experience are necessary for learning. There must have been a negative force that propelled students to burn these artefacts, What is it that they learned and the context in which that learning took place which led them to that moment of cognition to feel compelled to take the action that they did?'  Colonisation affect whites as well as blacks, 'In reality, the system dehumanised both'.  The current protest is reactive:

'Against this background, a critical and sobering learning in state transformation since 1994 is how easily the visionary goals evolved over a century of struggle could be forgotten within a short space of time, and how the mechanisms of maintaining an oppressive society can be assimilated by those once oppressed, and reproduced as a feature of political and social behaviour such that their relative failure to create a new society according to the visionary specifications that have driven the struggle
for that society for over a century is blamed on the racism of an ageing oppressor who is no longer in power. Visionary agency is given up precisely at that moment that it should be affirmed and intensified.'

Whilst anti-racism is important, one should be focusing on all aspects of co-existence with a measure of confidence or assertiveness, 'It is time to recognise that the norm of human presence in South Africa is “black”.' Ndebele was impressed by those students who remained behind at the end of the protests at the Union Buildings last year, as they appeared to care and to be reflective:

'When we use fire, we should also be more thoughtful: What will it take to tame fire, and to remember that fire can be a companion to invention; and that for fire to play its companion role, requires of those who use it a lot more thought, a lot more rigour in the thinking, a lot more thoughtful detail in
the doing, a lot more investment in time and focus to understand the rich complexity of people living in the social realm, meeting head-on the challenge of thought and imagination stretching across time into the centuries ahead, South Africa emerging as a successful democracy? These are questions I leave you with.'

The talk ended with the usual vote of thanks, but a student wanted to pose a question, the tenor of which was what gave Ndebele the right to interpret black pain, and to raise the issue of UJ protesting students who have been disciplined, unfairly.  The student's question was not entertained, and the session was closed. 

Was the student right to object that Ndebele interpreted the students' experiences? I will leave it for you to decide. 

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Seminar on Funding Higher Education by Salim Vally (posting by Beatrice Akala)

Salim Vally with Beatrice Akala, a post doctoral scholar at UJ
Is it possible to achieve ‘fee-free’ higher education for all? This is a question addressed by Professor Salim Vally from the Centre for Education Rights and Tranformation (CERT) at the Sotl@UJ seminar on 1 September.
South African higher education is facing a myriad of challenges emanating from the inability of a majority of students to meet the cost of their own education.  Today’s presentation therefore comes at a crucial time when the nation is grappling with finding a balance between attempting to offer free tertiary education against other developmental and socioeconomic needs. The nation is also awaiting a Ministerial announcement regarding fee increment for 2017 and beyond.

In particular, the presentation delved into nuanced complexities regarding funding higher education post 1994.  Albeit the need for fee-free higher education is more necessary, it cannot be extricated from the historical burden that was inherited from the past system. Much of what is happening now is an accumulation of disadvantages that have not been addressed adequately within the current dispensation.  It was important that the presentation started by looking at its historicity within the ambit of existing theories and literature that undergird the transformatory policies and legislations that were enacted post 1994.  It is imperative to state that the messaging behind transformation in higher education is anchored in social justice and redress. In a nutshell, post 1994 policies and legislative frameworks articulate the importance and positioning of higher education in the transformation trajectory of the “new nation state”, (White Paper, 1997; The Higher Education Act, 1997; The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa).  Notably, as a public good, higher education has been charged with the responsibility of meeting the needs of society in terms of human resources and economic development, remedying the historical burdens, promoting human rights, people’s liberties, democratic values, academic freedom, creativity and research.  Having said the above, I also note that it is becoming more apparent that these goals cannot be achieved fully if higher education is turning into an exclusive venture for the privileged minority.

Owing to this fact, the presentation revealed that the stakeholders in higher education have to work hard to make higher education accessible to all who aspire to have it. It is clear that the prevailing economic environment is a major impediment. Institutions of higher learning are struggling to meet their academic goals whilst the demand for higher education is on the increase. Arguably the increase in enrolments is not met by similar increases in government funding.  As a result, students from marginalized communities are facing systemic exclusion because of high tuition fees that are being charged by institutions of higher learning. Prof. Vally notes that the government is not doing enough to cushion these students because its’ contribution towards higher education has been on a downward trajectory since the year 2000’.  It was revealed that between the year 2000 and the year 2010, funding per full time student fell by 1.1% annually in comparison to students’ tuition fees that increased by 2.5% annually. Clearly this is a mismatch.
Notwithstanding the above, NFSAS is at crossroads because it is struggling to attract more funds that can meet the demands of the ever increasing number of disadvantaged students. The needs are not limited to tuition fees but financial support is also required to cater for accommodation and food (so as to prevent students from living in squalid conditions and hunger). Although not desirable, students have expressed their frustration and displeasure on the streets by often destroying property under the mobilization of “fees must fall” demonstrations.
While comparing South Africa to other countries in the same developmental bracket, Prof. Vally argues that governmental spending on higher education is lower than that of other developing countries. Prof. Vally opines that perhaps proposing the notion of increasing funding for public higher education would instigate the nationwide move towards ‘fee-free’ higher education. I support this opinion and strongly believe that this move will be a welcome relief for many students who are currently struggling to afford access to higher education (missing middle) due to their financial inabilities.  Nevertheless, in thinking about this option, we have to navigate carefully and be cognisant of the views of the opposing voices that link ‘fee-free’ education to inadequate and poor quality instruction which may lead to outcomes which could be construed as self-defeating. 
The practical and immediate alternatives that were proposed in Prof Vally’s presentation require a paradigm shift in the reconceptualization of the current funding models.  For instance, even with the constrained budgetary environment, there is a good case for increased funding for higher education. Some of the low lying fruits that can be targeted immediately would include curbing wastage in public spending and being more prudent with the usage of public resources; dealing decisively with corruption and corrupt individuals and encouraging more contributions from philanthropists. Similarly the private sector and multinationals should be encouraged to give more. A recommendation on the re-examination and re-evaluation of the current tax system seems reasonable especially for the high-end earners who have been perceived to be the greatest tax evaders.  I believe that there is a high possibility of unlocking the current impasse in higher education if these alternatives can be considered and tested.
Finally, I agree with Prof. Vally’s view that fee-free education for all should be allied with the promotion of a responsible public service and citizenship. The thinking behind this suggestion is laudable because it gives its recipients a reason and an opportunity to give back to the society honourably.  Initiatives such National Youth Service Programmes and mandatory service in the public sector should be considered.  Countries like Nigeria have adapted this policy. Against this backdrop, I therefore share in Prof. Vally’s optimism for having undifferentiated fee-free education.  This was sufficient motivation to challenge all participants to think creatively and be open-minded to change so as to reimagine a new vision that can and will inevitably change the status quo.  And to quote wisdom that carefully describes the Prof’s convictions, Proverbs 29:18 states “My people perish due to lack of vision”.