Out of the ivory tower

‘Community engagement needs to be a core value in education,” says Minister of Education Naledi Pandor. ‘This is an initiative that cannot be overemphasised. It is a lifelong commitment.”

She was speaking at the launch of a community engagement project and research centre—the Centre for Education Practice Research—at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) on April 24.

Through this community engagement project, the faculty of education is making community engagement a core value in its work in higher education. In this way it also hopes to dispel the notion that universities are ivory-tower institutions that are untouchable and unaccountable and that neglect their role in society.

The faculty has recognised its role as a ‘thought leader” in society and aims to work more closely with its community partners. Community engagement, as it is used in this instance, does not refer to charitable or volunteer work by students or staff, nor does it use the schooling community as a laboratory for research. It is our view that this community engagement initiative in which pre-service teacher education students, B Ed (Hons) counsellors and MEd educational psychology interns provide education and educational psychology services to communities will have benefits for the schools and for the faculty of education.

The UJ faculty of education strives towards inspiring and enabling students through relevant and responsive learning programmes to embrace the critical role that education, educational practitioners and research into education could and should play to transform human lives and so build a more humane and just society. The faculty also aims at nurturing the passion and idealism of students for making a difference in the lives of those they interact with now as students and in the future as teachers, counsellors, educational psychologists and educational managers.

Students involved in the project indicate that the experience offers them insights into aspects of the teacher’s everyday world; aspects they would not ordinarily get to experience first-hand during their training/school experience. Students report that working closely with individual learners allows them to develop real relationships with these learners. This is accompanied by a heightened awareness of how factors in the learners’ backgrounds, such as poverty, a lack of parental involvement and violence in the home influence learning.

Students also indicate that their experiences have encouraged them to think deeply about their teaching methods and to experiment with innovative and more relevant teaching strategies with which to support diverse learners.

These reflections are an important part of students’ learning because through analysis and reflection they begin to connect theory and practice; learn how to examine critically the relationship between education and society; and understand the role of the teacher, counsellor and educational psychologist as part of a larger system. Schools report that the UJ students are making a significant difference to the task of the teachers as well as to learning that occurs in the classroom.

Professor Sarah Gravett is executive dean of education at the University of Johannesburg

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