Imagining a decolonised 21st Century education

Future Nation Schools hosted a noteworthy education conference at its Lyndhurst campus titled “Decolonised 21st Century Education”, to continue the decolonisation discussion that affects all institutions of education in South Africa.

Searching for the true definition of decolonisation is a daunting task, but the vision of Sizwe Nxasana, founder of Future Nations Schools and Sifiso Learning Group, is to introduce an African pedagogy that will not completely disregard Western knowledge systems, but integrate its better traits while ensuring the future survival of our African heritage in an increasingly globalised world. The event aimed to showcase a dynamic meeting of partners and stakeholders in the education space, meeting to discuss the ways to shape and drive an African education revolution.

The term “decolonisation” was crystallised in the works of Frantz Fanon, Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. The term became a household name during the #FeesMustFall protests when South African university students took to the streets in 2015 to demand free, decolonised quality education. Decolonisation is not a phenomenon unique to Africa. The conference programme dealt with themes such as “Decolonising African Studies”, “Technology revolution in education” and “the true value of Edtech”. The speakers included founders of innovative education institutions, start-ups and other education practitioners.

It was the early remarks on decolonisation that set the tone for the conference. Stephen Reid, an educational e-learning specialist from Scotland, reminded attendants that many European countries were colonised by the titan that was England centuries ago, and in the process lost languages such as Gaelic. They, too, seek to be decolonised (or re-localised) and learn about their indigenous languages and customs,. A prominent way to achieve this is through education.

Education and technology

Reid is chief executive of Immersive Minds, a company that integrates emerging technologies into education to “localise” education. It is standard practice that learners in previously colonised territories are taught history from the perspective of the colonising country, leading to limited knowledge of their indigenous histories. It also leads to a lack of interest in education, as the colonial “history” is detached from the students’ experience and their essence. Reid uses inquiry-based learning, where a local problem is identified and through the use of technology in education, a solution can be reached by the students. This requires that the knowledge be localised, and that both the teacher and the students have a working knowledge of the technology, creating a symbiotic relationship where the learner and teacher are engaged in the process of learning.

At the conference, an example was given of learners in Egypt whereby the children solved local problems using technology; for instance bacteria plagues the agricultural plains where rice is farmed in Egypt. Students learnt about the mechanics of drones and built one that could assist in tracking the bacteria. A 3D printer printed the parts and came up with a working prototype solution that could be adapted to the real world.

During a panel discussion on the true value of education technology, Mark Horner, Chief Executive of Siyavula Education, emphasised the importance of reverse engineering to be encouraged as a process of learning. It is the beginning of understanding technology and children have a natural inclination to take gadgets apart to investigate their workings and satisfy their curiosity, a curiosity he said must be cultivated.

The conversation moved to smart-boards and their praises and critiques. One critique from the panel was how smart-boards, such as the ones introduced in Gauteng, were not as effective as they were in the UK. Besides their cost, it is still a whiteboard in a digital world. However, the budget allows for collaboration with partners in the private sector, who will hopefully make the project large-scale and better as time goes by.

Africanised education

The debate whether the Africanisation of our education is a detractor to globalisation continues, but development of a lexicon for the transmission of current knowledge into indigenous languages is necessary, as is the adaptation of the curriculum to reflect a more Afrocentric form. The solving of African problems was for a long time outsourced to European countries and there is still aid pouring in in many forms from foreign countries. It is important that Africanised education is able to identify the challenges that need to be solved on the continent, such as urban planning, healthcare, infrastructure, governance and sanitation. This can be achieved by identifying not only threats and challenges but also opportunities in industries such as agriculture, resource development, art, design and culture.

The conference addressed knowledge of self as necessary for cultivating the future African leaders. Fred Swaniker, founder of African Leadership Group, said: “We seek to cultivate leaders who are innovative, leaders with a good command of communication, who can effectively tell our own stories through literature and research. Because of the rate of information flow, the ability to learn and unlearn is most important in the information age, especially for Africans, who have always been on the back foot. But now, as we dive into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it is important for education practitioners to understand that wealth is knowledge, ability and experience. And only through education is the accurate transmission of these possible.”

Teaching for the fourth industrial revolution

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is a range of new technologies fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds, and impacting all disciplines, economies and industries. It has been associated with the second machine age in terms of the effects of digitisation and artificial intelligence on the economy, but promises a broader role for advances educational possibilities. In this age, a complete realisation of potential is important if a human and her abilities are to survive economically. Revolutionary and unconventional teaching methods will be fundamental in innovating and carving out a new Africa. These practices include the eradication of “majors” while studying at tertiary level, as they have become redundant and can prevent perfectly capable beings from excelling at a job because of a missing major subject. The call is to change education to grow innovation.

Ludwick Marishane is the founder and chief executive of DryBath, a sanitation solution for water-starved countries in these times of increased drought and difficulties associated with maintaining hygiene. Marishane emphasised that the point of entrepreneurship should be to solve problems. “In Africa, where over half of the population is below 35, there is enough time to not only teach critical thinking but also entrepreneurship as key concepts in the future of decolonised education. The smartest minds are captured by bursary schemes, but even then, some fall through the system or don’t perform according to their full potential due to lack of measures to assist them to achieve their best. A conducive environment is important in order for learning to take place, and this environment is both psychological and physical.”

Creating inclusive spaces at school

Architecture was never just about the aesthetic of the shapes, but also functionality and the effective use of both space and available construction materials. Oreneile Mabusela, senior architect for Sifiso Learning Group, notes how ultimately the 21st century school design should reflect a “playground for the imagination” to stimulate learning not only inside the classroom but also in the design of the school.

Mabusela spoke on the panel with Mpho Mashike, property development manager for the Sifiso Learning Group. Mashike noted the importance of layout and design in the creation of “safe spaces” for the learners. For instance, Future Nation Schools do not have staff rooms; instead, there is a partition inside the classroom for the privacy of the teacher. This allows for constant supervision from the teachers, limiting cases of bullying and other opportunistic mischief. The same thinking was used to justify teacher/learner shared lavatories. “It’s all about inclusiveness,” Mashike noted. Decolonising space is another aspect — there is a clear distinction between the performance of the learners in townships versus learners in previously white/Model C school systems, despite the fact that they have the same system and syllabus.

Baba Bantu, Executive Director of Ebukhosini Solutions, is adamant that African pedagogy be included in the school syllabus, as indigenous communities have kept their cultures alive by passing on their worldview, their knowledge and know-how, their arts, and rituals from one generation to the next. Preserving their cultural heritage has also included speaking and teaching in their own languages, and protecting their sacred and significant sites and objects. Bantu said: “Education must be adapted to the latest education technology, and it must be organic, a reflection of us, the creators and custodians of our history. In knowing this, we will learn the true value of heritage, and continue to realise the African Renaissance.” 

Sfiso Buthelezi 1
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