Diversity in education gets a boost

Diversity, particularly sexual and gender, in curriculums, textbooks, teacher training and classroom practice was the focus of a ground-breaking workshop near Ballito, KwaZulu-Natal, last weekend.  

The college of humanities at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) hosted the workshop, which was funded by the Dutch organisation for development, Hivos, and attended by representatives from many sectors, including the national and provincial departments of basic education, civil society organisations and academics.  

As a lecturer in curriculum studies at the school of education at UKZN, I led the workshop and said there is a growing awareness of the importance of dealing with issues of difference and power in schools and higher education, as recent debates such as #RhodesMustFall have highlighted. 

I argued for all social identities, including issues of sexual and gender diversity, to be addressed systematically, in the broader context of social and institutional transformation. 

Delegates agreed that the education system at primary, secondary and tertiary levels generally fails to provide students with the skills to understand and feel comfortable with difference. 

As a result teachers often shy away from teaching pupils about difference and power, and how these play out in classrooms, workplaces and communities.  I

n particular, the issue of sexual and gender diversity is one that most textbooks fail to address adequately and about which teachers receive little or no training. 

Yet an understanding of this and many other forms of difference is central to  developing the next generation of democratic citizens. 

Presentations and activities during the workshop dealt with theory, teaching methods and a review of existing initiatives that promote transformation in education.  

Melissa Steyn, the director of the Centre for Diversity Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, presented her critical diversity literacy framework, which could assist pupils and teachers in becoming competent in decoding difference and oppression.  

The organisation Valued Citizens’ Initiative gave an art-based workshop similar to the one they offer in schools. Participants do creative arts-based exercises to reflect on their experiences with diversity. 

Finn Reygan, a member of the organising team and the research manager of Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (Gala), presented findings from a ground-breaking regional study he led on violence and diversity in schools in Southern Africa. 

The study found extremely high levels of violence and bullying in schools, including against girls generally and against any pupils who are perceived to be different.  

Crispin Hemson, the director of the International Centre for Nonviolence at the Durban University of Technology and a member of the workshop’s organising team, spoke about the foundational module addressing diversity that all students at the DUT will study.  

The UKZN’s Shakila Singh presented findings from her study on violence that targets female and  gay students.  

All their presentations pointed to the ways in which many forms of diversity intersect and how necessary it is for educators, students and pupils to have an analytical orientation or approach that will allow them to talk about difference. 

Nomkhosi Nzimande, a UKZN academic, spoke about her identity as a heterosexual Christian woman and how this has not prevented her from discussing sexual and gender diversity in classrooms and lecture halls.  

Several civil society organisations, including GenderDynamiX, the Gay and Lesbian Network, the Triangle Project, Gala and the Durban Lesbian and Gay Community and Health Centre, highlighted the need to create safe spaces for sexual and gender nonconforming pupils. 

GenderDynamiX presented the needs of gender nonconforming pupils and the support that  educators require to respond professionally to gender diversity  in schools. 

Delegates agreed to collaborate in developing a national diversity module that would include a focus on sexual and gender issues in education programmes at all levels of the education system. 

This would allow teachers and pupils to become aware of diversity and how to interact  with and react to difference.  

This module would be framed in terms of the department of basic education’s care and support for teaching and learning in a human rights framework. 

The module could be included in life orientation textbooks, teacher training programmes and on media platforms. 

Among those to be included are pre-service and in-service teachers, schools of education, policymakers, unions and school communities.  

Developing effective materials about diversity materials in education will enable teachers and young people to understand diversity and, in so doing, support broad  social cohesion across South  African communities. 

Finn Reygan and Crispin Hemson contributed to this article

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