Curriculum contestation: transformation and decolonisation

25-10-21 USAf 0 comment

The review and decolonisation of the curriculum is taking place across the higher education sector. This session examined a range of exemplars from our universities as they strive to reposition the student’s lived experience in a curriculum that has largely managed to exclude them.

In the wake of #RhodesMustFall movement, Professor Liz Lange examines the work of the Curriculum Change Working Group as it tries to bring about change at UCT. Trudi van Wyk tackles transformation from a very different perspective, examining the ways that 4IR are going to impact on teaching and learning as we know it.

Focussing on the curriculum and specifically the transformation of the Humanities, Professor Vasu Reddy noted the student movement of 2015 and its impact on the curriculum. Professor Reddy is the Dean of Humanities at the University of Pretoria. If the 20 years following democracy focussed on access and success, then the last decade has been about the curriculum. With the pressure to decolonise the curriculum, it offers up a moment of crisis and opportunity. “The curriculum does not exist in a vacuum and is held in place by several interlocking factors”. Central to these factors is the social context followed by the epistemic diversity of knowledge and the pedagogy of practice.

Curriculum is not about the present but contains, within it, a sense of how we want the future to look. It is also about what counts as valid knowledge and here is where the notion of curriculum gets really tricky. Valid knowledge is made up of a series of choices that are not always neutral or innocent. It has three dimensions:

  1. The site where new knowledge is created.
  2. The field of contextualisation, where knowledge is re-arranged and transformed.
  3. The field of reproduction in the form of sites of teaching and learning.

Professor Reddy said we are currently located at the second field – the place of immense struggle and contestation.

Unsettling paradigms

The curriculum is hence a space of unsettling paradigms and calling into question the assumptions and practices that are central to our epistemology and ontology, what we know and who we are. It is here that we need to consider “the decolonial turn”. Professor Reddy moves on an Andrew Mellon funded initiative that involves eight South African universities. The project is funded for five years but will need to run long after that, especially given the way that the curriculum has been neglected. It sets about practical ways of transforming and decolonising the curriculum. Aimed at exploring untested assumptions, prioritising local challenges, commencing epistemic dialogue and comparative analysis, offering global South insights, and shifting towards inclusive, democratised curricula. Above all, it is about bringing fresh perspectives to the Humanities.

The conceptual framework (demonstrated above) has four levers which examine apartheid’s distorted local perceptions, develop polyphonic understanding of the curriculum to support academics and post-graduates to recover the silenced voices of the black, female and dissident writers and artists, philosophers and thinkers. This is to create new role models and restore the dignity of ‘othered’ lives. This reframing process (the 4 Rs) works to Recover lost voices, Reassess old curriculum, traditional thinkers, Reshape the curriculum until it aligns better with our lived reality and Repositions the global South.

A new ecology of knowledge

There are about 25 projects running across the universities at the moment. Professor Reddy chooses a few by way of offering examples:

  • Emanating from UP, a journal was established in 2019. Entitled Journal for Decolonising Disciplines, it offers an intellectual space for considering responsive research across all disciplines, not just humanities and social sciences. Several volumes of this peer reviewed publication have been issued and colleagues are invited to submit papers.
  • Concepts and conceptions is a 3rd year course offered at UP. Driven by the concept of justice, the course strives towards generating a polyphony of voices on this notion. Doing justice to the other goes so far as repositioning the Western canon. Students are encouraged to engage with a variety of positions while respecting the views of others.
  • “Making the past everyone’s business” is the prime focus of another 3rd year course. Offered by Rhodes University and run by the Department of History, Introduction to Creative History examines how we teach and learn by offering a transdisciplinary engagement with history through the incorporation of performing arts. The success of the course has also meant much of the same methodology has been used in creating an Honours module in Creative History.
  • From Stellenbosch University, a 3rd year undergraduate course called “Toppling visual regimes” examines the Eurocentric framing of art history and visual culture. Based on courses that examine decolonising strategies in African visual culture, there is currently a drive to create an online Master’s degree in African Cultural Studies that will span seven universities across the continent.
  • The University of the Western Cape and Stellenbosch University have created a collection of undergraduate papers on feminism entitled Living African feminist theory. Compiled between 2016 and 2020, it “reflects on the kinds of lives these young people aspire to and the ways in which race, class, gender and sexuality have shaped and framed the possibilities and opportunities for them in contemporary South Africa”. It is also aimed at challenging institutional hierarchies structured around gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race, class and geographical location and powerfully introduces student narratives back into the curriculum.
  • The University of the Free State has an initiative called the Initiative for Creative African Narratives (I-CAN). Here students are involved in creating narratives for prescribed texts and workbooks in academic skills training. This allows them to move from alienation and un-belonging to healing and inclusion by sharing lived experiences through storytelling and life-writing.

What matters for Professor Reddy is that this diversity of narratives is aimed at repositioning the curriculum and warding off the “mono-culture of the mind”. Curriculum transformation is not an event but an ongoing process.

Transforming at the institution level

How the institution needs to transform was of interest to Professor Lis Lange (below) who is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Teaching and Learning at the University of Cape Town.

Professor Lange said until fairly recently, the question of the ‘what’ of the curriculum was absent from our discussions of higher education. We were concerned about curriculum only in terms of its structure and interested in the democratisation of knowledge only in the sense of who has access to knowledge. Up until the 2008, curriculum was largely understood in terms of NQF levels and how they were articulated. Then curriculum started to emerge under the notion of identity. The Soudien report tried to address the connection between curriculum and institutional culture, but it was greeted by silence.

Then the student movement happened under the guise of #RhodesMustFall. One of the difficulties of analysing curriculum from a decolonising perspective was a conflation of two things that are connected but not the same. One is the academic curriculum — dealing with knowledge and the grammar of knowledge — and the other is the institutional curriculum. In the latter it is the knowledge that is encoded in the values and behaviours of the institution. Changing the one does not necessarily change the other.

Curriculum Change Working Group

Professor Lange moved on the 2015-2017 period and the work of the Curriculum Change Working Group (CCWG) at UCT. Imbued with great anger and emotionality among students, the CCWG’s work was based on their historical exclusion from white institutions. The CCWG emerged as a parallel process. It did not arise out of the usual structures of Senate and was rather removed entirely from that process and was established based on a proposal from black academics and students and funded by the Vice-Chancellor. The CCWG created a space for academics and students that was vital as a catalyst for change, a space where black students could vent their anger at what could be called “existential inequality”. That was behind the drive for decolonising knowledge, power relations and the dominance of western thought.

For the CCWG, the decolonisation of the curriculum also had to look at all the other causes for the differences in performance of white and black students. The CCWG required a synthesis of all the elements that we thought were important for any curriculum together with the issues raised by the CCWG to allow academics to navigate their way into a decolonising curriculum. That meant acknowledging where learning took place, the role of the learner, the history of the discipline and what it is to know. This starts a fundamental reshaping of pedagogy, one that makes transparent the grammar of knowledge at work and strives to respond to the full human experience of the student.

This process mostly impacted the Humanities or those disciplines most close to the Humanities. Moving decolonisation into Engineering or Maths is proving more difficult but it has started a set of experiments that try to find ways of achieving this. Curriculum reform has been curtailed by CoViD-19 but it is ongoing throughout all universities in South Africa almost in an organic fashion.

MTT on 4IR

This part of the session examined a different aspect of transformation and the curriculum, that of the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) on the South African university.

Presented by Ms Trudi van Wyk (right), who is Chief Director: Social Inclusion and Quality at the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), she examined the work of the Ministerial Task Team (MTT) set-up by the Minister. Established in 2019 and led by Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, it brought together 10 experts in the field to examine issues such as the capacity of the PSET system to contribute to the 4IR (research and innovation); provide/produce skills that are in line with the needs of the 4IR (building capacity for functioning in the 4IR); and embrace the affordances of the 4IR.

The MMT was then tasked to deliver a report with recommendations and gaps and is currently on the DHET site, open for comment and review. She then turned her attention to the South Africa human capacity ecosystem and highlighted the crucial importance of the PSET sector as the overall contributor to human capacity. Curriculum relevance, competency skills (creativity, problem-solving etc.), foundational skills (literacy, numeracy, digital literacy) form central pillars of how we navigate the world of the 4IR. However, it is not simply the impact that changing technologies will have on teaching and learning. As much as the technological revolution will unsettle higher education it will also have a massive impact on how government has to change its business models and how it will transform society. The TVET Colleges, the universities and the Community Colleges sit at the juncture of these overlapping imperatives and it falls on the PSET sector to enable this change.

What we need to have in place

Ironically, it is not about the technology but rather how we use the technology to transform the world. Technology is the tool, data and knowledge are the fuel. So, what will we need to become more agile?

  • Inter-disciplinary engagement.
  • Flexible teaching and learning.
  • New skills required for new technologies.
  • Repurpose and reconfigure curricula.
  • Specialised skills, content, knowledge, and abilities.
  • Holistic programmes.
  • Meaningful and relevant content.
  • Increased access.

What this means in practice is that we will need a core group of basic programmes that is augmented by short-course opportunities (accreditation systems that allow students to accumulate ‘stackable micro-credentials’) to respond to an ever-changing environment and flexibility in how and where we can access learning. Ms van Wyk does acknowledge that many of these enablers are currently emerging within our institutions, the question now is how to bring them to scale in such a way as to respond effectively.

The session ended with a lively debate. Starting from the acknowledgement that education is fundamentally political, participants felt that tinkering on the edges of decolonisation will never get to the fundamental power structures that maintain the system. Moreover, decolonisation is a plural concept. There are many decolonising narratives that are in direct competition with each other.

Professor Lange acknowledged that if we end up with a narrow politics of identity we will have lost. The predicament for her is that “we are all thinking un-West but we cannot think without the West”. Professor Reddy agreed that there is “no formula for a decolonised curriculum” but that the integration of other voices in recreating the curriculum are crucial early steps.

Written by Patrick Fish, an independent writer commissioned by Universities South Africa.