AFRICA: Fundamental shift in educational approaches

A fundamental shift away from basic assumptions in the way university researchers approach issues in educational development in Africa has occurred over the last two decades, according to members of the Southern African Comparative and History of Education Society. There is an increasing emphasis being placed on comparative studies, on historical and contextual factors, and on analyses that begin with the learner.

The change in approach has three striking features. First, the concentration on single state studies is either changing to embrace comparative studies, or narrower case studies are being empowered by an examination of comparative studies on the same topic by other researchers.

Second, this is often accompanied by a recognition that historical and contextual factors in any case study must be thoroughly explored because they may account for a significant proportion of the variability found in an in-depth national case study.

Third, and perhaps most interesting, is a shift from wider systemic studies of national education systems and their dynamics from a radical pedagogical perspective to an entirely different level of analysis that begins with the learner, his or her peers, classroom interactions, the teacher and then the school or institution, the community context and levels of decision-making and involvement at sub-district and district levels.

Papers presented at the 17th annual Saches conference, held in Mozambique last month with 70 academics from 14 countries, ranged over many aspects of education development (See "Lecturers debate education and development", University World News, 3 August 2008). Around a third of the papers focused on tertiary education - many from a comparative perspective.

Aslam Faatar of the University of Western Cape investigated the cultural and discursive environment of a faculty of education to explain the changes, in his paper "Social regulation and institutional culture in higher education: A reflective account of shifting cultures in a faculty of education".

"The tide is beginning to turn, but the regulatory genie is out of the post-apartheid bottle," he said. "As our experiences have shown, the institutional worlds of faculties of education have shifted fundamentally. In sum, at the analytical level, this paper brought a consideration of social regulation constituted at the national, global and policy level to bear on the shifting micro-culture of a faculty of education."

Focusing on the cultural or discursive environment of the faculty, Faatar said, his study found that "a number of epistemic discourses competed for the micro-functional heart of the faculty" during the 10 years under review. But while the faculty's shifting functional culture could be mapped onto the impact of the regulatory environment its staff lived through, "its specific nature and make-up was determined by the interactive agency and contestation inside its walls, by people with discursive histories and reflexive behaviour".

Faatar argued that "what is required in our ongoing programmatic engagement is an 'in belly of the beast' type institutional reflexivity, one that is able to mitigate the worst consequences of our re-arranged discursive environment, while establishing the most productive platform to build a rigorous research - informed teacher education platform".

A number of presentations echoed this shift, in different ways.

Wayne Hugo, of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, considered recent meditations on the complex nature of postgraduate supervision and teaching by other researchers - including Fataar's account of the dialogic space between academic and student - in "Spiralling reference: a case study of apprenticeship into an academic community of practice".

Hugo placed these studies in the context of exposure of postgraduate students to broader academic communities of practice. He traced the apprenticeship of one Masters student into an academic community and her involvement in ever-expanding intellectual networks across South Africa and the world and their academic practices. He emphasised the need to engage with and refer to scholars and researchers working within one's own academic communities and initiating and sustaining dialogue with them.

At a round table presentation Juliet Perumal, of the University of Pretoria, took a related perspective discussing "Student resistance and teacher authority: The demands and dynamics of collaborative learning". She drew on feminist research on pedagogy to examine the dynamics of teacher and student relations in Southern African university classrooms.

Perumal's concern is with "resistance to engaging in collaborative work and with radical ideologies in course content". She found that in "student resistance to democratic pedagogic strategies and radical course content, they resort to normalising and regulatory postures that reinstate teacher authority in the classroom".

A number of papers looked to developments in East Africa, particularly in Tanzania, for lessons for South Africa.

Twalo Thembinkosi, of the University of Fort Hare, drew on Julius Nyerere's contributions to education in the 1960s in "Education for self-reliance: South Africa's viable alternative for addressing skills shortage and job creation". Although education for self-reliance has been abandoned in Tanzania, Thembinkosi believes he has found ways it could be re-engineered and made to work in South Africa.

"Learners should be equipped with the appropriate skills that would enable them to be self-reliant and positively contribute to the country's economy and counter the dependency syndrome". Has the pendulum swung back to support relevant education that would keep school-leavers in their place? This approach was rejected along with Bantu education.

From East Africa, Proscovia Namubiru-Ssentamu of Makerere University, Uganda, noted diversified structures and organisation of initial teacher education programmes in three universities in a paper that looked at ideological trends in the development of teacher education curriculum. The colonial model created for Makerere was followed by the universities of Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Changes in the last decade relate to a market-driven international education system and the establishment of national councils and commissions for higher education to control educational standards.

"East African higher education is vibrant. Over the past four decades, initial teacher education has continuously adjusted itself and been adjusted to a hybrid culture blending classical humanism, utilitarianism, social reconstructionism, market and global ideologies. Comparable ideological inclinations at socio-economic and political levels have influenced this trend in the region," said Namubiru-Ssentamu.

Looking at the history of the University of East Africa in the early 1960s, Bhekithemba Mngomezulu of Cape Peninsula University of Technology examined, "Education, regional development and nationalism: The East African experience". He spoke of wider systemic views that he believes significant today for regional efforts to promote planning and development for tertiary education. He recognised the various ways nationalism obstructs regional cooperation and development, and proposed possible solutions to this dilemma.

A number of presentations that compared developments in Africa to a country in Europe provoked intense debate. One was Volker Wedekind of the University of KwaZulu-Natal's presentation on "FET college reform in South Africa and lecturer identity: Lessons from comparisons with England".

He traced the evolution of reforms over the last 15 years and found comparisons to reforms in the United Kingdom in the 1970s. Both impact on teacher identity, disrupting and creating anxiety and stress, Wedekind argued. The key fallacy was expecting colleges of education to "absorb the failures of the school system" - a problem with which universities in South Africa are also struggling to grapple.