Decolonising education in South Africa: An interview with Aslam Fataar

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Picture of "Risk", the board game: Bien Stephenson/Flickr

Aslam Fataar is professor in Sociology of Education at the University of Stellenbosch. He discusses the concept of decolonised curricula with Estelle Kruger.

Aslam, how would you respond to the call for “decolonising” education that is coming from many quarters in South Africa today?

The call for decolonising education is not a new one. It first emerged in the context of decolonialist struggles against colonial rule during the 1950s and 1960s. At its basic level it is a call for education founded on the principle of “all-included”, the idea that education has to “speak to”, and generate intellectual capacity for developing the full humanity of all concerned.

Based on a negation of the exclusivism of modern colonial education, whose organising principle was to shape “man” (sic) as colonial subjects, decolonising education resists this truncated form of humanism, viewing it as a form of discrimination which results in the deracination of subjected human beings, stripping them of their humanity and full potential. In this sense, the knowledge systems of colonised groups, non-Europeans, indigenous folk, etc were suppressed, or as the decolonialist scholar Boaventura Dos Santos explains, their knowledges suffered a form of “epistemicide”, which signifies its disappearance from the knowledge canon, leading to the failure to incorporate such knowledge into formal functioning of society and its school and university curricula.

The knowledges of the (colonial) university or school paid little or no attention to indigenous knowledges, the knowledges of the working poor, or the types of literacy of urban black female dwellers, for example. It favoured one canon which is broadly the Western canon, founded on a separation of the modern Western knowledge from its non-western knowers, suggesting that modern knowledge and its transfer via educational institutions would instantiate modern subjects. Becoming a modern subject was the fulcrum of colonial education. This view has come to be called into radical controversy by the latest calls for decolonising education. The demand for cognitive justice has accompanied this call. This is a call for knowledge pluralisation, incorporation of the complex ways of knowing of subaltern and all previously excluded groups, in other words, an expansion and complete overhaul of the Western knowledge canon.

This represents a type of first-principle negation of a Western-centric knowledge orientation and seeks to replace this with a human-centric approach.

I would argue that decolonising education is also based on a second principle: an affirmation and inclusion of all knowledge forms bequeathed to humanity, including Western, African, indigenous, Arab-Islamic, Chinese, Hindu, Indic, Indo-American and Asiatic knowledge forms. This is a call for the pluralisation of knowledge, not the negation of any human knowledge system.

This is based on an inter-cultural approach to humanness and multiple and heterodox forms of being human. All knowledge forms have to be brought into play. Intercultural education promotes a type of epistemic openness to the knowledges of all human beings.

It fundamentally denies and undermines “knowledge parochialism”, the idea that one’s own knowledge system is superior and thus sufficient for complex living. The importance of the school, college and university in all of this is obvious. These are the institutions that cultivate respect for people and their cultural and knowledge systems. They make available to their students’ knowledges across the widest possible human spectrum for developing understanding and respectful attitudes to the people of the world.

University curricula work across the various science systems that constitute humanity’s human endeavours, establishing dialogical platforms about actual and potential futures, emphasise the need to develop responsive science systems that inform and improve people’s livelihoods, aimed at establishing respect among people, and breaking down artificial boundaries.

Decolonising education eschews static knowledge orientations. It is founded on a type of complex knowledge dynamism in fidelity to its disciplinary and trans-disciplinary foundations, always alert to a type of problem-posing dynamism, knowledge as disciplined and patient constructions that advance sustainable livelihoods.

The call for decolonising education demands nothing less that the full incorporation of humanity’s knowledge systems into the curriculum of the university and schools, the modalities of which ought to be the subject of widespread and focused conversation in policy circles, among university practitioners, materials and textbook designers, curriculum workers, and in the pedagogies of teachers and lecturers.

How does your research on the sociology of students and teacher professional learning advance the decolonising education agenda.

I have not done research or written directly on decolonising education, but my work can be said to highlight one key aspect of this agenda, which is the ways in which students in working-class communities access their education and go on to deploy a range of resources, knowledges, literacies and practices to establish their educational pathways. My work illustrates how these pathways are established often in parallel to the formal institutional registers of schools and universities. Given their parallel, almost underground endeavours (students are often alienated from their institutions), the students are misrecognised institutionally, leading to their experiencing their education as non-compelling and disengaging. Decolonising education places on the agenda the need to develop institutional recognition of these students’ lives and intellectual capacities as a basis for engaging them in productive knowledge processes.

It is evident that you and your co-workers / post-graduate students did intensive qualitative research about township as well as rural learners. What event or events first stimulated you to study in this direction?

My interest in this research focus is related to my own life. Born in District Six, I grew up on the Cape Flats in lively place a called Grassy Park, which was teeming with life, culture, hybrid linguistic repertoires, and importantly, surrounded by people living complex lives to make do in trying circumstances. I also taught at a high school in the same area for six years, the most exciting professional years of my life.

I was part of a group of young teachers who went out of our way to care for our students and them in rich and compelling ways in their learning, via process-oriented pedagogies and wonderful curricular content. We saw ourselves as being critically engaged teachers out to change lives and positively impact and enhance communities. This took place against the backdrop of the larger struggle against apartheid. I belonged to a number of youth, sports, religious and educational organisations that endeavoured to work productively in our communities. It was a time of experimentation, hope, and political commitment to working, via our teaching and our activism, to resist the status quo, construct alternative visions, and improve our communities. While the political terrain has changed markedly and so, too, the ways in which schools work in poor communities, I am still deeply committed to developing compelling educational imaginaries in these contexts, and it is through my research and development work that I’m able to continue my commitment to quality education in these types of spaces.

Please tell us about your project on “education engagement in local spaces” and how the results were published.

I’ve been doing research with my master’s and doctoral students over a 15-year period in various urban and rural spaces, trying to understand how schoolchildren build their educational pathways. The aim of this research has been to provide understanding of the ways in which these children go about building these pathways, and then to suggest that the key issue for schools and teachers is to develop rich learning platforms that are able to recognise and work with the children’s learning and knowledge repertoires as a way of better engaging them in their education.

The second aspect of our work is to develop teaching strategies and curriculum materials and processes to more effectively engage the children in their school learning. Here we employ a range of conceptual resources, such as culturally relevant pedagogy and the “funds of knowledge” approach, to develop curricula and teaching styles that weave between the rich knowledges and literacies of the children and their school learning.

We’ve been publishing on this work in a number of authoritative academic journals, including LitNet Akademies. I also published a book on this work called Engaging schooling subjectivities across urban spaces (2015, SU Press), and we’re currently working on a second book.

Your perspective is based on several theorists’ work about humanising pedagogy. What is this type of pedagogy and how did you discover it?

My work is based on the work of a number of social theorists, including Fraser, Moll, Simone, Mbembe, Bourdieu, Lefebvre, Lee, Leander, Gatsheni and Odora-Hoppers. These theorists provide theoretical tools that help me understand my qualitative research work. In broad terms, a humanising pedagogy for me arises from my commitment to connect education conceptually to the requirement of becoming fully human. My view is that the dominant educational orientation in South Africa is devoid of an understanding of the complex human being who now comes into our classrooms and lecture halls. There is a generalised misrecognition of the “human in education”. My research is an attempt, therefore, to fully dimensionalise the human in our classrooms, to valorise his or her ambitions, identifications, personal histories and intellectual worth, and to provide an educational orientation that works productively and consistently to educate for full human flourishing.

To what extent can knowledge and understanding of a humanising pedagogy help teachers and lecturers to know and comprehend what the students’ demand for “decolonised” curricula really entails?

This is an exceptionally important question. First, to expand on the previous point, students must be recognised and appreciated. Each student brings a complex “beingness” to the educational/learning experience.

Care should be taken not to frame students as “in need of help”, or “quiet and withdrawn”, especially if they come into an unfamiliar environment. Especially where environments are becoming diverse, we should work productively with the diversity in the classroom, while never assuming that there is one “norm of being” in the classroom. This excludes different ways of being a student.

Second, all students are intellectually capable, agile and creative. Teachers must engage the broad spectrum of their students by working with the students’ creativity. This requires responsive and creative pedagogical approaches, always alert to the different ways in which students intellectually process while engaging curriculum material.

Third, a decolonised curricular approach emphasises process-oriented learning strategies, instead of the transfer of pre-packed content. A perspectival approach would enable students to develop multidimensional insight into content, in addition to a critical and dialogical approach to learning. Students should be encouraged to research, dialogue, reason, and develop in-depth conceptual understanding about the world.

The work that you do in your PLCs (Professional Learning Communities) seems like a plausible way of making teachers more socially aware. What does it entail? How did it originate, grow and develop? Are there still new opportunities and threats/challenges?

PLCs are safe, creative and robust spaces for teachers to grow, find support and develop appropriate teaching styles. A decolonised educational approach, which I partially explained earlier, might be threatening and challenging. It might go against some lecturers’ and teachers’ old habits. It might be easier said than done. PLCs offer supportive spaces of development. They are based on dialogue, support, experimentation, implementation and reflection. They encourage teachers and lecturers to experiment with relational pedagogies in their classrooms, where students are encouraged to become active and passionate learners and knowledge acquirers. PLC-participating teachers visit one another’s classrooms. They are committed to improving their teaching, they never feel intimidated, are always supportive of one another’s development, and are deeply respectful. PLCs, if properly set up and managed, and if based on dialogue and support, are prime vehicles for developing teachers to teach in responsive, inclusive, rigorous and generous ways.

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Hierdie artikel is deel van LitNet Akademies (Opvoedkunde) se universiteitseminaar. Klik op die “University Seminar 2017”-banier hierbo om alle essays wat deel vorm van die gesprek, te lees.

This article forms part of the ongoing university seminar, with new essays continually being added. Please click on the “University Seminar 2017” banner above to follow the ongoing conversation and to read more essays on education, access, transformation, language and the Constitution.

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  • Please enlighten me in a non-academic way, what does it mean? If I as an educated person cannot understand, how must those who ask for decolonization understand? Please set aside the jargon. We need to understand and adapt, but trying to be smart is going nowhere. It is not about academics, it is about reality. Do not confuse the subject. You are just creating more confusion and antagonism. Talk to assist and not to sound clever. This is not helping in any way. Assist if you can for normal people to understand, or else keep your quite. We need to move without academic dissertation.

  • Dankie, Prof Fataar, vir hierdie insiggewend stuk. Dit help my om deur hierdie uitdagende kwessie te werk. Dekolonisasie is dus respek vir alle mense se kennis, en bied 'n platvorm om kennis aan menswees te koppel. Met waardering, professor.

  • Dekolonisasie of verinheemsing. Noem dit wat jy wil. Maar daar is EEN groot probleem. Nêrens maar nêrens ter wêreld kon enige beskawing standhou teen die Westerse beskawing NIE. So ook nie Afrika nie. M a w moenie ons skoliere en studente se tyd mors deur dit nogal op diesulkes af te dwing nie.

  • gert van der westhuizen

    Yes i can support this proposal - how can conversations about making education less colonial be made popular.

  • Reageer

    Jou e-posadres sal nie gepubliseer word nie. Kommentaar is onderhewig aan moderering.