The need for a ‘reflexive humanising pedagogy’ in HE

A humanising pedagogy is based on Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed, love, justice, restitution and transformation. Such a pedagogy embeds the university’s curriculum, research and social engagement with the critical agency to change people’s living circumstances.

The ‘institutional curriculum’ ought to be at the centre of processes to animate the university with a humanising pedagogy, which suggests a palpable ethical commitment that is given system-wide impetus in the institution.

I fear our humanising intent is being usurped by an untransformed institutional culture that looks away from its ethical commitments, seized by the university’s performative agendas.

Drawing on how I understand these challenges in the South African university, I argue that we require an institutional commitment to drive a social justice agenda from the university’s centre and into all the university’s operations, faculties, departments, teaching, research and societal engagement.

Such an agenda requires universities to reckon with their internal culture and functioning. Institutional power and hierarchy and discrimination continue to be a crucial challenge for centring an ethical pedagogy.

The ‘knowledge question’

The university’s role in society is founded on the question of knowledge and science and its relation to its public good role. The knowledge question is central to how a university deals with its past, present and future identities. The knowledge question is complex. It cannot be reduced to slogans or bullets.

The knowledge question consists of debates on coloniality and decoloniality; race and racism; universality and pluriversality; data, algorithms, cyber-physical systems, digitality, multimodal platforms; and eco-sustainability.

These are not terrains for binary or populist thinking. Care should be taken not to collapse knowledge boundaries and knowledge conceptualisations. The university is a platform for ongoing development of diverse epistemic approaches and centring these into the curriculum.

Infusing a social praxis scholarly orientation

At stake is an all-inclusive ecologies of knowledge approach in all the university’s epistemic domains. The question is how properties of disciplines, modules and programmes in the age of generative AI are constituted and how they are taught and assessed.

Key to the university’s transformational approaches is how these debates inform the institutional curriculum, which involves science, research, curriculum, teaching and learning, societal and community engagement and impact. We must centre these debates, yet how we stage them is vital in defining the university as an ‘inclusive place of public reason’.

I would love the day when the knowledge question is centred in the institutional curriculum, where, for example, the deans of faculties would turn faculties into praxis-driven epistemic engines by devoting time to discussing the knowledge and pedagogical work of the university.

In such a case, the technical dimensions of compliance with rules, regulations and ratings would cease to dominate our institutional culture and render the university open to an institution-wide infusion of a social praxis scholarly orientation.

A ‘reflexive’ pedagogy

Let me turn to a discussion of the outlines of what I’m calling ‘reflexive humanising pedagogy’, a pedagogical turn that speaks to the zeitgeist of the AI (artificial intelligence) and digital platforms moment we find ourselves in.

It also ‘speaks’ to Freire’s call for dialogical, problem-posing pedagogy and placing students at the centre of their intellectual capacitation.

Let me state one of my central claims today: that not getting the university’s institutional curriculum and its institutional culture behind this swing to a reflexive humanising pedagogy will reduce this effort to failure.

Let me harken to the pedagogical response during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journalists screamed that “education ecosystems are now and forever, digital”. Many education academics demurred. They argued that the debate over online and remote education should be understood in the light of higher education’s broader context and functioning.

What emerged from the COVID period is that emergency remote teaching (ERT) entrenched class inequality in higher education.

A consequence of ERT-related inequality was that it brought a myopic view of digital learning to the surface. Because digital learning disadvantaged students, the logic was that online and digital technology must be kept at bay. This is a perspective that must be avoided.

However, the traditional pedagogy of knowledge transfer that still exists within higher education must be confronted in working out a new pedagogical mode.

What is the alternative vision?

Universities now use sophisticated Learning Management System (LMS) platforms – web-based applications such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Google Meet. Materials are being made available via LMS platforms. And we have a very uneven story about the nature of student assessments via these platforms. However, approaches to teaching basically stayed the same.

In other words, while online learning and digital platforms have become ubiquitous, our curriculum knowledge and teaching pedagogies have stayed more or less top-down and didactic. This is associated with what David Tyack and William Tobin described in a 1994 article in the American Educational Research Journal as the “modernist grammar of education” that sits with us, and is not easily overturned.

Let’s accept that the “gold standard for teaching and learning remains a traditional didactic pedagogy” and then ask: What’s the alternative vision?

Bill Cope’s and Mary Kalantzis’ work over many years provides a productive schema for developing a reflexive pedagogical approach. Their 2017 book, E-learning Ecologies: Principles of News learning and Assessment, presents a particular account of pedagogy as central to ‘learning ecologies’, a metaphor for learning founded on “an ecosystem consisting of complex interaction of human, textual, discursive and multimodal dynamics”.

Such an ecosystem would lead to changes in configurations of learning space and relationships as well as knowledge engagement and assessment. Learning transformation, thus, depends on pedagogy’s productive role.

A reflexive pedagogy is founded on disciplined interaction between situating knowledge in context, overt instruction of disciplinary knowledge, and transforming learning into practice. Crucially, reflexive pedagogy is based on lecturing that views students as meaning-makers and designers of social futures.

A radically ‘different’ pedagogy

Reflexive pedagogies imply a radically different conception of pedagogy from what we are used to (see the 2021 article by Aslam Fataar and Najwa Norodien-Fataar). We have been mired in tightly scripted pedagogical orientations associated with our national school and university curriculum.

Traditional pedagogies have failed to provide South Africa with an educational basis to develop students’ intellectual capacity and skills to engage in the world as productive citizens.

And, we may be failing to productively use technology’s capacity for multimodal meaning-making to stimulate students’ intellectual engagement as knowledge producers to secure viable futures.

Reflexive pedagogy is clearly not simply about learning content. Developing the capacity to understand knowledge in context and applying knowledge in novel situations is critical.

This requires a shift from didactic pedagogy, where the balance of control of the learning environment is with the instructor and the focus is on cognition and long-term memory. The dominant version of ‘pedagogy as mimesis’, or knowledge replication, should be ruptured.

Pedagogy as mimesis ought to be systematically scrapped in favour of a reflexive pedagogy that shifts the balance of pedagogical agency to epistemic engagement, whereby knowledge activity between teachers and students and students and students should be dialogical.

Reflexive pedagogy would enable a form of scaffolding that makes learning accessible within students’ zone of proximal development. In this case, long-term memory is less important than the capacity for engaging and interacting with disciplinary knowledge, the latter remaining critically in play.

A reflexive humanising pedagogy brings design-based learning into the picture. Essential for ‘learning by design’ is the range of learning activity types, use of specific digital affordances, considerations of appropriate learning contexts, and scaffolding sequences.

To teach something by design is to teach it via a premeditated design focus involving a series of explicit action stages. On such a view, teachers become designers as they select the range of activities they will bring to their hybrid learning ecologies and their planned pedagogical sequences.

Scaffolding student practices and orchestration learning are crucial. Lecturers orchestrating the learning activities and students actively engaging with their learning are essential to learning design.

Circles of supportive pedagogical publics

In conclusion, reflexive pedagogy is not the silver bullet for establishing a humanising pedagogy. Shifting from traditional pedagogy to reflexive pedagogy requires a concerted institutional approach. The creative use of digital teaching infrastructure at scale is in play.

Assessment based on students’ knowledge-making, not regurgitation, would support students’ creative, intellectual process capacitation. And AI and data analytics to support teaching and learning would be in play.

Universities must enter a space of experimentation, intellectual, technical and pedagogical capacitation across the university, creating small, ever-widening circles of supportive pedagogical publics.

The university should incubate a reflexive humanising pedagogy by systematically growing supporting lecturer networks across campus.

I am not as naïve as to think that the shift to reflexive pedagogy will be easy or can be accomplished over the short term. But, failure to move to a reflexive pedagogy would mean that students would not acquire the intellectual capacity to live justly and productively in this world.

This is an edited version of a keynote address by Professor Aslam Fataar at the Dynamics of Humanisation Symposium at Nelson Mandela University on 3 October. Fataar is a professor in the department of education policy studies at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. The title of his address was “Placing the university’s ‘institutional curriculum’ at the centre of a ‘reflexive humanising pedagogy’”.