Curriculum transformation and decolonisation are imperatives of our times and they will not go away. As someone who has dedicated 33 years of my professional life to the study of education, I believe it is our obligation to search for alternatives.
These are not given, they are imagined, and there has never been a more opportune time than right now. It presents us, as teachers and intellectuals, with an opportunity to rise to the occasion.
More than ever before in South Africa we need what the Greeks call a metanoia, a complete about-turn or change of heart, literally a spiritual conversion, a new way of seeing and perceiving. We need new frameworks of thinking to describe the world we live in as the old ones have become moribund.
To understand this, let’s reflect on our first attempt at curriculum reform, which was introduced to our schools in 1998 — Curriculum 2005 (C2005). It was the first major curriculum statement of the democratic dispensation, and its constructivist approach broke away from the apartheid education system based on rote learning and memorising. C2005 was not successful for a variety of reasons but it was a bold attempt that preceded any further effort in higher education.
Nineteen years later, in addressing the current call and need for curriculum reform, we need to understand what went wrong with C2005. One of the reasons was a lack of alignment between the school curriculum and teacher education in universities and colleges. Another was a lack of capacity and support for teachers, whose opinions and feelings about the curriculum were not considered. It left many of them feeling hopeless or inadequate, with a reduced sense of efficiency and ability to provide quality education for their students.
For any new curriculum to be successfully implemented, policymakers and curriculum reformers have to involve teachers at the school and university level, and take into account what they think. Teachers’ views about what constitutes good teaching often contradict new curriculum policy. Teaching practices have histories and any change has to adequately take this reality into account.
Having established this, the starting point for a new curriculum is to ask what kind of society we want to build, and what role basic and higher education institutions should be playing to transform society in increasingly complex, turbulent and diverse environments. But curriculum reformers often neglect to consider these core questions.
Too often, they think that they only need to produce a technically sound curriculum and announce it to the world and implementation will proceed smoothly. It reflects a view of learning, teaching, leadership and change that is excessively cognitive, calculative, managerial and stereotypically masculine in nature. Implementing a generic curriculum of this nature in a society in which the majority have been systematically subjected to underdevelopment by racial policies can only exacerbate inequalities.
A central task of education and the curriculum should be the cultivation of compassionate citizens who are deeply moved by a sense of justice and the creation of a more equal and humane society. Educational institutions who see their role solely as imparting narrow skills and know-ledge that prepare students only as part of the workforce in a market economy negate the other important functions of education that contribute to the functioning of critical citizens in a democracy.
Given the nature of South Africa as one of the most unequal societies in the world and the perennial problem of racism, any future curriculum should at least address these pressing issues. It should also strengthen students’ resolve and commitment to strive for a different social order other than the present preoccupation with individualism, and the promotion of capitalism and profit.
Universities and schools have a moral responsibility to address racism, inequality, power, privilege, gender and patriarchy. Discussions about race and racism need to happen at school so that by the time students reach university, they have well-developed ideas about race.
Critical pedagogy can point the way towards creating an alternative vision of society that takes the notion of justice and equality seriously. Critical pedagogy is one of the central means in the struggle for justice and liberation.
As humans, we can intervene in the world and change it, because we are not merely spectators. We are not objects of history but subjects who can alter the course of events. This is a starting point for theorising about social transformation.
Curriculum and pedagogical change can only succeed if we embrace new ways of viewing knowledge as well as accommodating multiple knowledge traditions. Views of knowledge as discoverable, ahistorical, independent of time and place, objective, value-free, measurable, static and unchanging need to be supplemented with alternative conceptions of knowledge. If we abandon the notion that knowledge is objective and value-free and accept it as provisional, incomplete and partial, it paves the way for an epistemological dialogue between different ways of knowing.
In universities in particular, it is not possible to teach students of the 21st century with outdated transmission methods of knowledge transfer or acquisition. The curriculum as an instrument of social change should enable our students to become critical travellers through the world.
Less hierarchical approaches are better suited to confront some of the pressing crises of our time, such as peaceful coexistence, poverty, global inequality, pandemics, climate change and racism. As teachers and academics we have not done enough to prepare the young for the coming and changing world in which they will be living.
If we do not take up the challenge to be social activists of change, committed to transforming the curriculum and education in meaningful ways, the dream of a nonracial and just society will remain an elusive ideal.
Sylvan Blignaut is associate professor in the education faculty at Nelson Mandela