Changing what universities teach is a process, not a single event

Transforming the curriculum isn’t as simple as replacing some books with others. Shutterstock

There is a debate unfolding around the world about what universities teach and whether their curricula are relevant to today’s students. In South Africa, students have been extremely vocal in their calls to transform and decolonise the curriculum. But what does this mean? What sort of work will it require? The Conversation Africa’s education editor Natasha Joseph asked educationists Professor Yusuf Sayed and Orla Quinlan to explain.

Maybe the best place to start is to ask what “curriculum” is so that we can understand better what people are fighting to change?

There is no universally accepted definition of curriculum, but it is a planned learning experience.

It encompasses the values, attitudes, beliefs, understandings, skills, competencies and dispositions of educators. It considers students’ different backgrounds, abilities, motivations, experiences, dispositions and learning styles. It includes learning resources, teaching methodologies and forms of assessment.

The formal curriculum is concerned with the selection of content, as well as how students engage with and respond to that content.

In the sciences, incremental steps are needed to build knowledge of certain subjects. You must first learn the periodic table to develop the required literacy in chemistry. In areas like law, accounting and pharmacy, specific content may be required to secure professional accreditation, leading to specific employment opportunities and career paths.

Content needs to be renewed on a frequent and ongoing basis, especially in disciplines like computer science, pharmacy, media studies, international relations and politics. After all, research and developments are ongoing. New knowledge is emerging all the time. The Humanities are more dependent on the selections of individual academics and, as such, can be a more contested area.

“Curriculum” (formal, informal and hidden) not only focuses on academic endeavours but also on the attributes of graduates; ideally as active, critical and constructive citizens, entrepreneurs, employees and leaders.

In an increasingly xenophobic environment, South Africa’s universities need to imbue the curriculum with intercultural competencies. Students need to be equipped to engage meaningfully with each other and people from elsewhere, at a time when South Africans have never been more interdependent in forging a sustainable, inclusive and constructive future for all.

So what does it mean when people talk about “transforming” the curriculum?

Curriculum transformation has to avoid the uncritical borrowing of ideas and concepts. Richard Tabulawa, an educationist from Botswana, has argued that we must be critical of concepts and approaches to teaching that are transposed to the global South but totally ignore local knowledges, culture and context.

Content needs to reflect diversity of knowledge. So, certainly, increase the African authors in a literature course. However, transformation is not about a straight swap of content. You don’t throw out Harper Lee for Chinua Achebe and say, “We’ve fixed it!”

A transformative curriculum emphasises less the specifics of content and more how students critically engage with it. For example, instead of claiming Shakespeare was part of a “colonial curriculum” and omitting it, teach why Shakespeare was taken out of the curriculum for black schools and the significance of John Kani playing Othello under apartheid in 1987. Help today’s students, who never experienced apartheid, understand their own history intellectually. Share the humour of how disappointed Kani was with the English version of Shakespeare having first been exposed to a more passionate Xhosa translation.

Fundamentally, a transformed curriculum should encourage openness, curiosity, critical thinking, creativity, flexibility and problem-solving. It should provide students with the skills they need to keep researching and learning throughout their lives, helping them to rise to new challenges that require new knowledge.

What does curriculum transformation mean in the South African context? Is it an event or process?

Transforming the curriculum raises questions about whose knowledge is to be valued and validated – and how. In South Africa it would clearly include validating and teaching about a wide range of perspectives, experiences, contexts and knowledge. This would move beyond the selected content that was taught during the period of colonialism and the apartheid era.

Several individual academics have, in the 22 years since democracy, worked hard to transform their own curricula. Others have kept teaching content that they’re personally comfortable with but that may not be appropriately diverse for the South African student body. And then others still are driven by developments in their disciplines, regardless of their origin or geographical location.

Universities cater for South African and international students from a variety of race, class and cultural backgrounds with a range of sexualities and disabilities. So the curriculum needs to validate and give voice to students’ diverse range of experiences and identities.

That said, students’ voices – like their professors’ – are not impartial or complete. Lived experience brings valid perspectives, but it must also be informed by reflective knowledge and understanding. The challenge is to balance what students and professors bring into learning with what is important to learn. This healthy tension is what makes curriculum a dynamic and reflexive process. It requires an ongoing epistemological humility from all involved.

South Africa isn’t the only country in this boat. Many universities in Africa grappled with the same issues, and there’s a lot to learn from their experiences.

Harry Garuba, an African literature expert based at the University of Cape Town, has described an important process in Kenya. This was led by authors Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o and Taban Lo Liyong, and scholar Henry Owuor Anyumba. The trio felt that Kenya, East Africa and the African continent more broadly should be placed at the centre of whatever historic continuity Kenyan students were to study. They argued that a fundamental question of place, perspective and orientation needed to be addressed in any reconceptualisation of the curriculum for a Kenyan university.

It will take a process of extensive participation and validation of diverse experiences to transform and renew the curriculum. Alumni, employers and students must have a say in determining what is taught, while acknowledging the epistemic knowledge and authority of teacher and professors.

Simultaneously, lecturers must be open to a number of things. They must be willing to introduce new content or teach old content in different ways. For example, when teaching about modern European art, a creative lecturer could focus on the African influences that inspired the art of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, rather than teaching it solely from a Eurocentric perspective. They must employ diverse teaching approaches and methodologies. And to democratise their classrooms they should encourage extensive student participation and engagement.

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