Realising potentials: Achieving educational justice by transforming our South African township into a site for higher education

Jean McNiff and Tsepo Majake

[Word version available]

A paper to be presented at the 2007 American Educational Research Association annual meeting in Chicago as a contribution to the Critical Educators for Social Justice Special Interest Group session on 'Immigration, Identity, and Critical Education', Tuesday, 10 April 2007, 10.35 - 11.15, Hyatt Regency Chicago, Grand Ballroom, Sections C-D North, East Tower, Gold Level.


In another paper presented at this meeting (McNiff 2007a), McNiff speaks about the nature of transformational processes and how these may be reconceptualised in discourses about sustainable cultural improvement. She claims that, for latent human potentials to be fully realised as explicit personal and social practices, the idea of transformation needs to shift from its present focus on surface-level structural change, which is the dominant position in the literatures, and develop instead a view of transformation as a shift in the core nature of the process under consideration, while including episodes of structural change as dynamic transitional structures (Kosok 1976). This shift from surface form to ontological nature involves a transformation of the normative concept of transformation itself, where ‘transformation’ tends to be understood largely as a transitive verb, whereby someone acts on something in order to transform it – ‘I transform this thing’ – to understanding ‘transformation’ also in an intransitive sense, whereby the thing changes in accordance with its own nature. Human agency therefore becomes a process of nurturing latent potential within a social ethic of acknowledgement of the other’s capacity, rather than of deliberate manipulation of the other’s formal positioning within a social ethic of control and command, yet while still recognising and incorporating the dialectical nature of the relationship between processes of external agency, in a transitive sense, acting on and influencing the capacity for personal agency, in an intransitive sense. Developing this form of conceptualisation therefore also involves an incorporation of propositional and dialectical forms of logic within an inclusional form that has the potential for influencing debates about which underpinning epistemologies are most appropriate for finding ways of developing a world of educational quality (Jack Whitehead 2007).

This paper tells a story of the transformation of human potential as supported by a social ethic of acknowledgement of the other’s capacity. It tells how teachers in a South African township have been able to realise their potentials for learning and make their stories public in the form of their higher degree assignments and dissertations, and so bring their work into the Academy. It is both a victory story, and also a story of ruin (Lather 1994), in that the process has been in part successful but not easily achieved, so the success is fragile and all the more to be cherished. It has however been most worthwhile, in terms of realising the potentials of human capability. The task now is to make the story public, so that it can enter the available knowledge base of stories of educational research (Snow 2001), and act as an evidence base to test claims about the potential to influence new policies in teacher development practices, by demonstrating how teachers’ school-based practices actually can realise their potential for contributing to the sustainable transformation of their own social formations. The paper therefore shows the significance of the main original claim of this paper, to have developed a form of nurturing and inclusional practice whereby practitioners, even from the most disadvantaged contexts, can bring their embodied knowledge into the academy and see that it is recognised and legitimated in a masters programme. The paper is an articulation of what this looks like and how it can be achieved, from different perspectives.

The paper is also illustrative of new government policy initiatives in the UK, which have put in place opportunities to introduce a new framework with revised standards of professional practice, including standards that focus on improving practice (Joan Whitehead 2007). ‘This standards framework … makes explicit from the point of qualifying, the expectation that teachers will continue to engage in professional development throughout their careers and the standards will for the first time be used as a backdrop to new performance management arrangements and pay differentials’ (Joan Whitehead 2007: 6). Furthermore, the paper is also an example of how standards used to judge the quality of practices can be linked with standards used to judge the quality of research, and how the linking of the two sets of standards can contribute to a new epistemology for educational knowledge (Whitehead and Whitehead 2007). We believe therefore that the paper shows a global possibility for connecting policies on improving practice, with their standards of judgement, to the knowledge-creation of practitioner researchers, as communicated through their living educational theories, with their living standards of judgement (Jack Whitehead 2007). This connects closely with the points made in Whitehead and Whitehead (2007) about the importance of ensuring that valid educational theories are included in national and international policies, and that national and international policies are connected to educational theories in order to spread the influence of valuable ideas.

The paper is told in two voices. The first voice is Jean’s, who is tutor of the programme. She explains how she has realised her capacity for transformational potential through the experience of enabling other people to realise theirs. She is bringing her learning to inform her other institutional practices and her wider practice of writing. The second voice is Tsepo’s, who is a participant on the programme. He is also beginning to realise his capacity for transformational potential, through the experience of engaging with his own learning. He is now bringing his new learning to inform current schools-based practices, with a view to producing his story as a powerful evidence base against which to test his claims that he has improved his practice. The two stories have the potential, separately and together, to contribute to policy debates about future directions of higher education programmes for the continuing professional education of teachers in South Africa, with potential global transferability.


Jean’s context

I work part-time in St Mary’s University College, Twickenham. I also work with other agencies and institutions around the world, and I write textbooks and scholarly papers. Because my textbooks are widely used, I am sometimes invited to deliver workshops and lectures. One such opportunity arose in July 2005, when I was invited to be a resource person at a Winter Research School in Langebaan, South Africa. I had visited South Africa before, to conduct workshops in a range of institutions, so I was familiar with the context. During the Research School, I met a number of new colleagues, one of whom was conducting research in Khayelitsha, a township near Cape Town. So, in August, when I had some free time and also needed a break after a period of intensive writing, I decided to visit Cape Town, to visit friends and colleagues in other universities, and also to visit the township to hear about the colleague’s research. It was then that I met the teachers that I work with today.

As I spoke with teachers in the different schools, I began to hear their stories. The story that gripped my attention most was the story of their articulation of how they appreciated their own potential, how they wanted to contribute to the educational wellbeing of their learners, how they wanted to progress their own careers, and contribute to policy debates in their new South Africa. I was struck by the dignity and composure of the teachers, and I was also struck by their stories of the suppressed frustration of their educational ambitions because of apparent lack of opportunity for personal and professional advancement. The thought high in my mind was, ‘I can do something about this.’ To appreciate the reason for this idea means a digression to telling a story from another part of the world, over 5,000 miles away, in Ireland.

I first went to Ireland in 1992 to act as consultant to a schools-based action research project conducted by a private college in Dublin (see McNiff 2000 for a fuller account of this initiative). It was successful to the point that some sixty teachers, instead of the originally intended twenty, took part. From the beginning of the project, I suggested to the managers of the college that we should seek accreditation for the teachers, so we enquired of a range of higher education institutions whether they would be able to validate the work. We were not successful. I therefore negotiated with a British university with whom I had already worked on a part-time basis that they would validate the programme, which I would deliver off-campus on their behalf in Ireland. The initiative was successful in that, between 1995 and 2000, sixty-five teachers achieved their masters degrees, in their home contexts. So, in the present context of Khayelitsha, I imagined that I could do the same again. Consequently, on my return to England, I negotiated institutionally that St Mary’s would allow me to deliver a masters programme to the teachers, and after eight months of careful steering of the idea through a range of quality control committees by committed colleagues, the initiative was approved, and the programme officially commenced, in May 2006.

Tsepo’s context

I am a subject head of Mathematical Literacy in a secondary school in Khayelitsha, near Cape Town. As an educator, I am expected to provide guidance to learners in the subject I am teaching, as well as in social development and a range of other areas. I am a member of our school policy committee, where my concerns about the need for a modification of school policies, drafted pre-1994, were taken seriously, resulting in a complete overhaul of our admissions and assessment policies. I am a member of a computer and technology committee, and I am a chess coach and Mathematics core educator, and I serve as a Integrated Computer Technology Champion. My overall duties are to ensure that all programmes of the committee are carried out successfully, and that everyone in our school community benefits from the programmes.

I was excited by the potential opportunities that the proposed MA in Education offered when I first heard about it in autumn 2006. I am passionately committed to ideas about love and respect, for other people and the environment, yet these values have been denied throughout my personal history and the history of my people. Like other black people, I was systematically denied a quality education. During the apartheid era, the repressive government tailored a curriculum that would reduce black people to hewers of wood and drawers of water. To keep them academically inferior, information was censored and certain courses could not be done by blacks. Maintaining this situation was often problematic for the government, in finding appropriate means to provide resources for one group but not the other, and to academically empower one group over the other. Commenting on this situation, Naicker (1999) says:

The black reality set under apartheid regarded the black contribution to society as meaningless and fruitless. Thus the internalisation of the image of the oppressor removed the possibilities of advancing common values – these were rather shaped by the apartheid state. Education was one of those apparatuses used by the apartheid state to ensure that apartheid continued in South Africa. Implicit in a racist education system are racist values. Bantu education was guided by strong social and ideological interests. The knowledge imposed on schools was selected and organised with a view to ensuring white domination. Numerous other practices relegated blacks to second class citizenship.

(Naicker 1999: 21)

Consequently, for many years our country has produced reflectors of thought rather than originators of thought, especially among the black community, so much now needs to be done through the new curriculum to reduce the gap between the previously advantaged and disadvantaged, as well as between industry and education. This is where, I believe, I can play a part.

To produce thoughtful, as well as economically active citizens, I believe we need to cultivate a culture of critical and reflective thinking in our classrooms. During the last eight months, our country’s interest rates have hiked twice, mainly because of individual expenditure. Car sales have gone up by 15% and credit card usage by 30%, yet only 20% of the population is saving. This is a recipe for disaster. We need to link our education programmes to our everyday activities and societal programmes. I agree with Freire’s (1972) understanding that education can maintain and perpetuate an existing situation by imposing the values and culture of the dominant class, as well as liberate people, helping them to become critical, creative, free, active and responsible members of society (Freire 1972: 13). I also note the old African saying, ‘If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a closed room with a mosquito.’ I wish to make such a difference for social equality by developing emancipatory practices that encourage my learners to become aware of their own potentials for their own transformation, and thereby find ways of influencing their future society.

I saw this programme as a way of offering me the chance to develop my own critical thinking about how I could do this, and I took the opportunity and registered my interest.

Experiences of engaging with the programme

Jean’s story

This has been one of the most difficult experiences of my life, personally, and professionally in the field of teacher professional education, yet also one of the most rewarding. It has been difficult, in that I have had to combat a range of potentially destructive influences that have threatened the wellbeing of the programme and my personal wellbeing. It has been rewarding in the sense that some people have engaged critically in their own learning, and have begun to appreciate their capacity to realise their educational potentials, and are now doing so.

The potentially destructive influences have taken a range of forms.

One of my major problems was to combat early resistance on the part of most participants to an ethic of sustained and disciplined study. This resistance sometimes manifested as apathy, and sometimes outright hostility. I do not think everyone initially appreciated that doing a masters degree meant hard work and making an effort to attend study sessions. Because this was a UK-based distance learning modular programme, I arranged it as a blended learning programme, so that the group in Khayelitsha met for two long weekend study sessions per module, with on-line support from me between meetings. Prior to its formal commencement, it had been met with great enthusiasm. When I arranged for an introductory meeting in November 2005, before its official delivery, some fifty teachers turned up, and the first weekend induction session in January 2006 saw a meeting of about forty. However, this number dwindled to thirty when I set an assignment, to be completed by a nominated date. When I gradually began to exercise pressure about meeting deadlines and ensuring quality in assignments, the numbers dropped even more. By February 2007, the group had settled to thirteen participants, most of whom remain deeply committed, some of whom are not. I do not anticipate that all will achieve their masters degree, though some should achieve their certificate or diploma by exiting the programme at designated points.

The venue for the study sessions is a Further Education and Training College in Khayelitsha. Khayelitsha, which, loosely translated from the isiXhosa, means ‘a beautiful home’ or ‘welcome homecoming’, is a township comprising a few hundred brick-built dwellings, but the majority of the thousands upon thousands of homes are shacks, put together from tin, cardboard, wood, or whatever else may come to hand. Driving along the main street in my bright new shiny hire car, I feel conspicuous, because of my whiteness and its associated wealth, in the midst of this extreme poverty and hardship, where children wee against the sides of houses and women fetch water from standpipes to do their washing in large tin tubs at the roadside.

In mid-2006 we experience a security scare where violence erupts in our context and threatens the wellbeing of participants and myself, and I negotiate a new venue for the programme at another campus. This leads to complaints from some people that they have to travel extra distances, which takes extra time, especially as the meeting has been arranged at the weekend, and will now be at a distance. I have got used to this kind of complaining (though not from all), unjustified in my opinion, about the time involved in study and the difficulty of producing assignments, and point out smartly that I have to travel more than 5,000 miles, a journey that occupies 24 hours of sitting on buses and getting to airports and waiting for planes, and twelve hours overnight in the air, at my own cost. The complaining stops, and is replaced by a sense of self-righteousness.

‘I am prepared to give up my weekend, even though it disrupts my holiday time,’ says one participant. ‘Doing this work involves sacrifices.’

‘What sacrifices?’ I snap. ‘You are being offered a masters progamme at a peanuts cost to yourself, with superb support. Tell me where the sacrifice comes in.’

He smiles at me. ‘Jean, you do not understand,’ he says, and we leave it at that.

This kind of complaint is, I believe, symptomatic of the kind of potentially destructive influences of which I have spoken. From the beginning, the group positioned me as Other, unsurprisingly, because I am generally perceived as white, female, and in a position of authority, all of which are despised positions within a black paternalistic culture struggling with a legacy of the oppression of white supremacy. I also have high academic status, another despised position, in that it frequently contributes to the subjugation of indigenous ways of knowing (Sono 1999) and with the potential to close down the embodied knowledge of practitioners, as manifested by the subjugation of their local stories within an established orthodoxy of the hegemony of grand stories (Reagan 2005). Being white, I represent everything that Whiteness stands for, the sign of the legitimacy of the colonialist oppressor (Said 2002). This situation infuriates me, because it is unfair. I am not responsible for what my ancestors did, although I am fully responsible for what I do. Also, from my current experiences of South Africa, I see the contradictoriness of the situation. I can see how Black is rapidly becoming the new White, in terms of a shift in hegemonic power. The articulation of this shift is nothing new. For example, in Country of My Skull, Antjie Krog (2002) tells the following story from meetings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Then a tall young student stands up at the back and goes straight to the issue that has been carefully skirted so far: ‘I would like to say something about the issue of racism now surrounding the Commissioners themselves. If there is one thing that irritates me, it is when the new black elite whines about racism – while in actual fact all they want is the power and the positions of the whites so that they can exercise those very same values.’

(Krog 2002: 112)

The new black power-holders have learned well the lessons of their white dominated past, and are now using those lessons to exercise power over the non-black population, who, though numerically in the minority, nevertheless until recently still maintained epistemological and cultural power. White cultural capital is now being challenged and transformed into black cultural capital, but not, in my view, always in ways that will lead to sustainable cultural transformation through the participative inclusion of all. Van Zyl Slabbert (2006) explains.

On 8 May 1996 Deputy President Thabo Mbeki made an acceptance speech on behalf of the ANC when the South African Constitution Bill was accepted by the Constitutional Assembly. It is an evocative, moving and inspirational speech. He defines his Africanness in an inclusive manner, in which I, as a White South African, am unequivocally accepted as an African. So, too, the Coloured and Indians (page 1). … And then the unambiguous, inclusive statement:

‘The Commission whose adoption we celebrate constitutes an unequivocal statement that we refuse to accept that our Africanness shall be defined by our race, colour, gender or historical origins.’ (page 2). …

Unfortunately, Mbeki’s first inclusive and generous definition of Africanness, almost ten years later, has been ideologically mangled and historically appropriated beyond recognition. The new historiography, often more by implication than by being explicit, makes it quite clear that a Coloured, Indian or White can never be an African. In the South African context, an African, for example, for purposes of policy, is ‘a Black of a special kind’.

(van Zyl Slabbert 2006: 1, 2, 3)

Add this kind of cultural shift to changes in policies surrounding organisational infrastructure, and it is not difficult to see why civil unrest simmers beneath the rhetoric of inclusion and democratic forms of self-governance, resulting in outbursts of violence. Quota systems determine who gets the jobs, and the living practice of the concept of justice is compromised through adherence to its propositional form, as when a woman colleague of Indian origin is ousted from a temporary appointment on the grounds that two other Indian women are already in position, so the quota for both Indian ethnic groupings and women’s representation is used up. Add to this the legacy of apartheid that encourages learned helplessness and a culture of victimage (Blain 2005), where previously dominated people internalise the values of the oppressors and now use them to establish a counter-culture through which to exercise their own sense of worth. Add the polarisation of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, where gaps increase between the haves of the black and white business and professional elites (MacDonald 2006), and the have-nots of places like Khayelitsha, whose wellbeing is further compromised by systemic failure to deliver on the basic services of health, care, education, and jobs; and you now have a cocktail of reasons for violent crime and the development of new forms of apartheid. The contexts of the new post-apartheid South Africa are brittle, as a shift from the stability of the structural formations of an established though deeply unjust power-constituted racist culture dissolve into the unstable contexts of a new form of market-oriented culture, underpinned by the rhetoric of democracy yet still power-constituted, but as yet undecided about where the power should be located, what its nature is, and how it should be used. Gaylard (2005) is right to link postmodernism and postcolonialism, and to speak of them as moments of doubt in which we look back at where we have come from while still deciding where we may want to go.

Tsepo’s story

I have become increasingly critical through engaging with my studies, and I am able now to reflect critically on my current situation, and to see how my learning has been shaped by dominant influences. I have come to learn that relationships in education are largely shaped by the politics of knowledge. Important questions for me are, Whose Knowledge? Who is to be regarded as a knower? The topological framework as outlined by Schön (1995) explains why educators like me seldom put their personal theories into the public domain. The power relations between traditional academics and practitioners with regard to what qualifies as knowledge and who qualifies as a knower can often act as a barrier.

Engaging with the programme has forced me to look at myself and ask deep questions about who I was, how I wanted to be seen, and how I would now like to influence others as my contribution to the development of good social orders. I see my classroom as a microcosm of the wider society. If I can influence one learner in my classroom, then I have the potential to influence the world. I have come to believe that influence can have a ripple effect and can spread like wildfire. If one can concentrate on improving a small area, the greater area may come to be judged in terms of how the small area was managed.

I would like to see myself as a valuable human being, with much to contribute. I understand however that this self-perception has to be shaped by my history in South Africa, which so far has not allowed me the luxury of not thinking of myself as a Black disadvantaged citizen, whose educational and social life has been shaped around second-class citizenry. This situation denies my ontological values. First, I do not see my humanness as a category or an experience in opposition to my blackness. I can be both and still be one person. Second, this forces me to see others as they would like to be seen, and to relate to them as they would like to be related to. This has implications for how I teach and assess my learners. It means I have to involve my learners in the planning of learning and assessment activities to some extent, and to allow them to be assessed individually by formative assessments.

By engaging with my studies, I have come to deep insights about the nature of my practice, and some of the implications of becoming a practitioner-researcher. I have come to realise that my educational aims are to do with establishing democratic practices for equality in educational entitlement, both for my learners and for myself. I have come to see that my questions ‘What should I do?’ and ‘How should I do it?’, which are about improving my practice, are fundamental to questions about how I can ensure the quality of their learning experience. Yet, because my practice is part of a wider socio-cultural context, this brings me to a consideration of the need for awareness of certain influences.

Participatory democracy is fast beginning to sound like a cliché in South Africa, widely used and yet grossly misunderstood, and yet it is taken as a cornerstone of our newly found democracy as a South African nation. I believe it is important to take this principle as the grounds for our educational practices, and to encourage young people to engage with it from an early age. As part of my research programme, I wish to investigate whether my practice encourages democratic participation. My provisional research question, ‘How do I encourage learners to learn collaboratively?’ draws largely on Marree and Fraser’s (2004) definition of learning as a constructive, cumulative, self-regulated, goal-directed, situated, collaborative and individually different process of meaning construction and knowledge building. My research therefore focuses on how I can promote participatory practices by encouraging those same principles of learning among my learners, and encourage them to better appreciate their own processes of learning.

This has brought me to a position of being able to critique and improve my pedagogies in Mathematics. I understand that I have until recently seen Mathematics as exclusively propositional in nature, with technical knowledge structured along rational lines. This view is described by Ernest (1998): ‘Mathematics can be expressed as uninterrupted formal systems in which the truths of Mathematics are represented by formal theorems. The safety of those formal systems can be demonstrated in terms of their freedom from inconsistency’ (Ernest 1998: 18). On this view, the process of acquiring mathematical knowledge is linear and rules-governed, and the rules are particular with no room for spontaneous creativity. I have now come to appreciate that learners bring their experiences of everyday life, and their previous learning, to their current learning. Given my own experiences of engaging with my studies, I now see the importance of encouraging learners to create their own theories rather than my impose my theories on them. I am therefore developing a transformational practice in Mathematics education (Ernest 1998: 12), on the basis that both learners and I are co-creating new knowledge as we learn from one another’s experiences, which allows them to influence the development of our own personal theories. Also acknowledging my insights about the exercise of power relations in education, I can relate to Freire’s (1972: xv) comments that ‘In the discourse of the new sociology of education, traditional educational theory suppressed important questions about the relations among knowledge, power and domination.’ From the grounds of my desire to contribute to a reconceptualisation of educational theory (Whitehead 1989), I am hoping to encourage my learners to think for themselves and to find ways of learning that are meaningful for them, and to share their new learning with others with the aims of influencing their critical capacities.

My concern is to develop participatory democracy in my classroom, so that no learner (or teacher) will be seen in such a position of power that they are at liberty to impose their ideas on anyone else, or, worse, to test other learners in relation to established or new power structures. This applies also to myself. I therefore bring the same principles to bear when it comes to judging the quality of my research. I ask that my research is judged not only in terms of traditional criteria and standards of judgement, but that my success in my inquiry be judged more in terms of what I believe is its value. I ask that my research be judged in relation to whether I succeed in influencing learners to learn in their own way and on their own terms, and whether they are participating in knowledge generation in their study groups, where a core condition is to listen respectfully to different voices and engage critically with what they have to say.

Experiences of learning

Jean’s story

From the beginning I saw this initiative as an opportunity to encourage people to engage in their own knowledge generation. In my view, professional education programmes should provide contexts for the inclusion of all as participants, and not stand as the rolling out of a programme in which some are deliverers and others are recipients. It represented an opportunity for participants to conduct their action enquiries and so find ways of realising their potentials to generate their personal living theories of practice and have them made public. This form of enquiry is well established, and is widely recognised as part of the new scholarship (Boyer 1990), constituting a transformational methodology that has the potential to influence new forms of cultural transformation (Ghaye and Ghaye 1998; Koshy 2005). Although many interpretations of action research exist in the literature, my view, drawing from the work of Jack Whitehead (1989, 2006), is that the living ‘I’ should be at the centre of the enquiry, and the focus of the enquiry should be on finding ways of developing new practices that show the living out of ontological and epistemological values. Because this is a disciplined form of research, not simply a form of continuing professional development, and accepting that the aim of research is to generate theory, any findings from the research need to be tested against rigorous validation procedures before being presented as a claim to knowledge. It is an opportunity for practitioners to offer their stories about the emergent processes of investigating their practices, and these stories can come to act as their own living theories (McNiff 2007b) of how they have critiqued their thinking and actions and developed these into forms that have the potential to influence new forms of personal and cultural practice and new forms of theory. For the stories to achieve academic legitimacy, they need to be validated by those in higher education who still have the power to decide which stories count as contributing to knowledge, and consequently who should be seen as a legitimate knower. From my work in Ireland, I have seen how the practices recounted through the stories have the power to influence the development of new pedagogical and cultural forms (Glenn 2006; McDonagh 2007; Sullivan 2006), and how the production of such stories has the power to influence the development of new epistemologies in traditional research universities (Schön 1995). My aim is to encourage participants in Khayelitsha to develop their capacity for telling their stories, grounded in their experience, to show how they are finding ways of developing new practices, and learning how to communicate these stories in a way that will achieve academic legitimacy, and so position them as articulate knowers who are exercising their potential for influence in public debates about new directions in policy and practice. The idea is coming to fruition. Malgas (2006) and Gungqisa (2006) tell how they have found ways of including parents in their children’s education. Njikelana (2006) tells how he has shown a link between students’ home life and their levels of achievement in school, and is able to make recommendations about how the situation may be improved.

Coming to this point for some participants, however, has meant engaging with the legacy of their oppressed past, and moving beyond that legacy, while keeping it in the memory as a powerful influence in the transformation of self-identity. Mgqweto (2006) tells the story of how he has overcome his painful past, when his considerable intellectual strengths were smothered by the necessity of working in the mines because of lack of access to other kinds of work, as influenced by racially-constituted policies determining the allocation of different forms of work. He has overcome this legacy by confronting it, engaging with it, and moving beyond it to a position where he is fully cognisant of the centrality of taking responsibility for himself and his learning, and using his intellectual strengths to transform the past into a new and more sustainable future for himself and the children whose learning he is also aiming to influence. He writes:

Enduring the hardship of my earlier life enabled me to become confident in developing a caring practice because I could relate strongly to children who were not feeling secure or finding learning difficult. I have a feeling that it is my obligation as an educator to ensure that what I experienced as a child does not happen to those I love and cherish. As an educator I believe it is my duty to inform all those who are vulnerable to various kinds of abuse about how they can fight abuse and be outspoken about it. In my introduction [to this assignment] I made mention of the values of courage to help others, sharing and appreciating others, and I believe that they are all embedded within my practice. To me an educator means a helper, someone who shares, someone who cares, a soother, someone who appreciates others and other countless characteristics that one can associate with a caring responsible person.

(Mgqweto 2006: 9)

Tespo’s story

I am working hard to learn how to become an active knower rather than an implementer of other people’s knowledge. For many years, in my country, educational research has been carried out on practitioners by people who do not necessarily work in educational contexts. In other cases, educational theory has been generated from social science enquiries, which are not especially aimed to improve education. While I acknowledge that these forms of enquiry may inform and influence educational research and theory, I believe that as a teacher I stand to unearth more precious gems from my position as a person on site.

I have outlined earlier my value of participatory democracy. I believe that, as a nation, we have a responsibility for encouraging learners to appreciate this value at an early age. I have explained how students need to engage in participatory discussion, recognising that each brings their personal background, experience and knowledge to the dialogue. My role therefore should be a facilitator and not the sole holder of knowledge, or controller. This however means that I have to develop special pedagogical capacities. Recognising that discussion is a matter of all being able to talk and be listened to respectfully means inevitable situations of conflict. I therefore need to create a dialogical classroom as a forum for collaborative learning and creative discussion around knowledge creation. This will mean the development of the kind of attitudes and values that will respect the other as equally entitled to their own opinion, even though it may be radically different from normative assumptions.

Reflecting on how I am to do this, I have become aware that for many years I have located myself within the domain of critical theory. I have taught my learners to be ‘paper tigers’ and ‘armchair revolutionaries’, where my concerns have been mainly to teach them how to analyse conceptually. My educational aims were that my learners would return to me what I had given them. My view has now changed to one that embraces the importance of inclusional practices, underpinned by an inclusional logic (Jack Whitehead 2006, 2007), and this is informing the development of a new pedagogical practice in which I find ways to influence my learners to learn in such a way that they will be able to use their personal heuristic strategies which are themselves underpinned by knowledge of where they have come from and who they are. The theories they generate will be informed by their own experiences and will also form the basis of the sharing of those experiences, whereby they hope to influence each other to learn from their experiences. This I believe could have potential implications for the development of new conceptualisations of curriculum and pedagogy, moving from a traditional propositional form to a value-laden living approach. Similarly, the assessment procedures I use must change to accommodate these new conceptualisations. Traditionally, assessment has been seen as a tool to measure the degree of mastery of content and the extent to which applications may be generalised. I am now hoping that we, my learners and myself, can develop assessment strategies that will show how they have succeeded in learning from the grounds of their own experiences, while incorporating traditional knowledge.

This is my vision of the future of my teaching, and how I see its potential significance for influencing policy. By producing my assignments and dissertation, I hope to contribute to the existing evidence base that suggests that teachers also can contribute to policy from the grounds of their educational experience. If the discourses of democratic participation are to have meaning in our new South Africa, those discourses need to contain the voices of all, including learners and educators, and so become actively participatory discourses that reflect the democratic participatory thrust of the rhetoric itself.


The potential significance of this work

These ideas are being developed in a range of new texts (for example McNiff 2008). The work carries many implications, especially in terms of the realisation of human capacity as the basis for cultural change, as this is grounded in the realisation of the individual’s potentials to take responsibility for their own learning, and use it to influence their immediate contexts. Tsepo’s initial decision to take part in the programme was inspired by his refusal to give in to dominant stories from the past, and from his own conviction that he needed to, and could, act on his present. Jean’s initial decision to do something about the teachers’ situation in Khayelitsha was inspired by her conviction that she could do something about it. Our decisions to act could be seen as a realisation of Sen’s (1999) theory of human capacity, which says that individuals can exercise their agency for developing themselves to influence what can then become their developing social contexts. We, Tsepo and Jean, engaged seriously with our own learning, both from making sense of the experience of working with others and each other, and from engaging with a range of literatures. These have helped us to understand how most people, including teachers, could become trapped both by their external circumstances, as these have been formed through the socio-cultural politically-constituted legacies of, in our case, a discriminatory past, and by their learned helplessness and internalised oppression through the constant reliving of the experiences of that past and a felt need to remain in it. Furthermore, we understand how many of us are now struggling with our strange new freedom, but there are no established procedures to make sense of this struggle and no established epistemological canon for how to deal with a new context that is grounded in a previously unknown but emergent knowledge of freedom. Not knowing how to handle something can itself lead to a kind of paralysis (Seligman 1991), grounded in doubt about which direction to take and where the new destabilised self-identity features in wider contexts of unstable social identity-formation (Gaylard 2005). The new South Africa is still working out its identity, and creating its own criteria and standards of judgement in the creative process. Lyotard comments, in his discussion of the postmodern moment, on the problematics of creating new forms to make sense of strange new contexts.

A postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher: the text he writes, the work he produces are not in principle governed by preestablished rules, and they cannot be judged according to a predetermining judgement, by applying familiar categories to the text or to the work. Those rules and categories are what the work of art itself is looking for. The artist and the writer, then, are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done. Hence the fact that work and text have the characteristics of an event; hence also, they also come too late for their author, or what amounts to the same thing, their being put into work, their realization (mise en oeurvre) always begin too soon.

(Lyotard 1984: 81, emphases in original)

Yet this postmodern postcolonial moment of doubt is an opportunity to develop new forms of agency, with a view to influencing processes of cultural transformation. The moment is unstable and volatile, and open to the influence of any opportunist who is ready to catch the moment. We, Jean and Tsepo, are such opportunists. We see this moment as an opportunity for teachers to demonstrate their capacity for decision making, not only because they say they are capable, but through the generation of a validated evidence base, comprising their stories as their living educational theories, that explain how and why they have exercised their agency in their own learning, with a view to improving their personal and social situations. Through making their stories public, and systematising them into a coherent knowledge base (Snow 2001), teachers have the potential to influence new policy recommendations for new practices, as well as to influence the epistemological base of higher education. The initiative in Khayelitsha has entered the Academy. Teachers in Khayelitsha are demonstrating their capacity for the generation of new forms of theory that can influence the trajectories of social change away from violence towards sustainable forms of social living that foster humane and productive work. Teachers themselves have the potential to prevent the kinds of social violence that forced the group to move from Khayelitsha in mid-2006; and our determination to sustain our commitments to study has now led to a return to Khayelitsha as our institutional study base in June 2007, a welcome homecoming. This realisation of our capacity for productive and peaceful living can be understood in relation to Charles Taylor’s point about the central significance of addressing issues of community formation and spirituality in avoiding conflicts, even world conflicts (see Taylor 1992, 1994; see also

We have far to go, having completed (some of us) only three modules, and another three to complete, plus a dissertation. Some will probably not make it, but hopefully some will. Those of us who do will set an important precedent for higher education in South Africa, to say, ‘Look, we are also practitioners who can research our practices.’ Equally we will say to the community of educational researchers, ‘Look, we are also theorists who can offer our living educational theories in the public domain for testing and pronouncing legitimate.’ By showing how we do this, we hope to bring to the attention of the South African government the need to develop new policies for teacher education that will link standards used to judge practice with standards used to judge the educational knowledge generated by practitioner-researchers. To do so would ensure the realization of the points made in Whitehead and Whitehead (2007), about the importance of ensuring that valid educational theories are included in national and international policies, and that national and international policies are reciprocally connected to educational theories in order to spread the influence of valuable ideas.

Whether or not we exercise our influence remains to be seen, and perhaps this will form the basis of a report at AERA 2008.


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Professor Julian Stern, York St John University

Professor Jean McNiff, York St John University




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