The transformative power of ‘rupture’ in higher education

A new book on African philosophy of education, which examines teaching and learning in the African university context, draws on its authors’ combined experience of setting up a massive open online course (MOOC) aimed at examining how teachers and students can use the African philosophical concepts of ubuntu and ukama to develop home-grown solutions to societal and educational concerns.

Entitled Rupturing African Philosophy on Teaching and Learning: Ubuntu justice and education, the book is the product of a unique partnership between a father, Yusef Waghid, who is distinguished professor of philosophy of education at Stellenbosch University, and his two sons Faiq and Zayd – both of whom are academics at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT).

While Zayd Waghid is a lecturer of business management and entrepreneurship in the faculty of education, Faiq is a lecturer in educational technology and was also the MOOC project manager at Stellenbosch University before he joined CPUT.

The MOOC, called 'Teaching for Change', was run jointly by Stellenbosch University and FutureLearn, an initiative run by the Open University in the United Kingdom. It attracted more than 4,000 participants from around the world – mostly from the United States, United Kingdom and a number of African countries.

While the book is not about the MOOC per se, in an interview with University World News, the authors said they used the MOOC strategy to cultivate a particular understanding of teaching and learning which culminated in the writing of the book.

“As a pedagogic initiative, the MOOC allowed us to think through more imaginative and innovative ways of teaching and learning – that’s what the book documents and it makes reference to the implementation of the first actual MOOC on Teaching for Change.”

Responding to human problems

At its starting point the book argues that the main concern of an African philosophy of education is to be responsive to the African human condition, and espouses “a particular understanding of teaching and learning related to the African context and African universities”, according to Yusef Waghid.

“African philosophy of education involves understanding, reflecting on and deconstructing the implications of human problems for teaching and learning and education more generally, and trying to solve these problems educationally,” said Yusef.

Recognising that eradication of human problems is closely linked to the quest for social justice, the book highlights the political and ethical thoughts of three African Nobel laureates linked by their commitment to the “humanisation of society”: South Africa’s former president Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Kenya’s environmental and political activist Wangari Maathai, to show how they represent elements of African philosophy of education in practice.

“When we talk about African philosophy of education, we are talking about educational understandings that can help us transform pedagogical initiatives at higher education institutions, but also help to transform and effect change in society” – much like the actions of the Nobel laureates.

“In a way, the African philosophy of education we espouse means to move beyond subjugation and entrapment and what it means to be excluded, stereotyped and marginalised,” said Yusef.

Understanding decoloniality

Against the backdrop of vociferous calls for the 'decolonisation' of South African universities, the issue of educational transformation takes on deeper significance. For the authors, the concept of decoloniality is firmly embedded in the notion of teaching and learning itself. “Our interest in teaching and learning [is] as a de-colonial response to unfreedom, inequality and un-democracy,” they write in the book.

Yusef told University World News he believes there is an “error” in the prevailing understanding of decolonisation in South Africa. “We are not busy with decolonisation because we don’t have the queen imposing her views on the continent … We are busy with decoloniality, which means ‘rupturing’ the structures that are inherently autocratic and immune to change …” he said.

In keeping with its promise of ‘rupturing', the book also attempts to “reconfigure particular misunderstandings” of well-known African philosophical concepts such as ubuntu (human interdependence) and less well-known concepts such as ukama (relationality) – concepts which Yusef argues “bring the individual and community into conversation” rather than foregrounding the community.

The idea of 'rupturing' encapsulates a post-structuralist approach to reality, said Yusef. “Things are never completed and finalised. The concept of rupturing means that everything, including concepts like ubuntu itself have the potential to be seen differently. There is always scope for new ways of understanding events in the world and it is the same with pedagogic encounters.”

The importance of the individual

Thus, contrary to widespread belief, the concept of ubuntu does not elevate the position of the community at the expense of individuals – an idea that has significant implications for teaching and learning, according to Yusef. “It is a spurious charge that African philosophy of education privileges community; the community cannot exist without the prowess of individuals. The individual’s voice is important in the community.

“If you look at the pedagogical encounter between teachers and students, the students have voices and in terms of ubuntu they should speak their minds; the individual has a productive role in the pedagogic encounter and that is speaking her mind. The individual is in fact summoned to speak her mind.”

According to Yusef, over 5,000 discussion posts received from people engaging with the Teaching for Change MOOC showed that students all over the world understand the concept of ubuntu as “allowing the individual to speak her mind” – a view that confirmed the authors’ own exposition.

“We could therefore use data generated by the MOOC to further develop these thoughts, so in a way MOOC served as an empirical data set that helped us to inform our understandings and reconfigurations of concepts for the book,” he said.

The idea of “summoning” individuals to speak has resonance in a country where many children in public schools are the victims of authoritarian teaching methods which favour rote learning as a means to get students through examinations.

Innovative teaching practices

According to Faiq Waghid, who is involved in the training of academics in respect of innovative teaching practices through ITCs, many university students come from schools where education is teacher centred and the emphasis is on learning content for examinations.

“When those students come to universities, where we are trying to promote innovative teaching practices aimed at democratising the process and re-framing students as co-constructors of knowledge, the students struggle because they are embedded in more traditional ways of teaching and learning. It’s a challenge to change their mindsets – and sometimes the mindsets of the academics too,” he said.

According to Zayd Waghid, whose academic interests focus on teacher education, an “authoritarian approach” among teachers is prevalent in many schools in the Cape area and South Africa more broadly.

“Learners are prepared [by schools] as products for the higher education context; when they get to university they engage in rote learning and expect academics to follow suit. Through the introduction of 'Teaching for Change' and other MOOCs we are creating spaces where learners’ voices are more audible and as a means of disrupting an authoritarian approach. We propose the idea of deliberative engagements and critical inquiry.”

Social justice

Zayd said he and his co-authors – while all working broadly in the field of education – connect most clearly on the issue of how to cultivate greater social justice through an African philosophy of education.

He said while the book is targeted at policy-makers and educational theorists, he said it also has value for pre-service and in-service teachers at secondary school level, where debates about colonisation and de-coloniality have also started to emerge. “Most teachers are not aware of what African philosophy of education is … And I think in the context of the current rhetoric around colonisation and de-coloniality the book is likely to be useful.”

“Universities cannot expect change to occur among students and in society if universities themselves are not open to change. It is time for universities on the African continent to advance the idea that they remain in potentiality and that nothing is fixed, which also means their pedagogies of teaching and learning need to be open to new thoughts and understandings.

“We do not discount the idea that there are many institutions on the continent that are closed to the idea of change and willingly use ideas like colonisation and decolonisation haphazardly to show representations of change. But actual change or internal change has not occurred.

“I do not deny that there are universities on the continent that have, for too long, been opposed to freedom of student voices and freedom of speech and there have been many expulsions and exclusions on continent, but what we are suggesting is that pedagogical encounters have the potential to advance change – meaningful, real change.”

* Rupturing African Philosophy on Teaching and Learning: Ubuntu justice and education by Waghid, Yusef; Waghid, Faiq; and Waghid, Zayd is published by Palgrave MacMillan and is available at