My recent academic university career: My newly developed philosophy and what I profess
In 2006 I started to work on my PhD and in May 2007 as I was appointed at the NMMU. The more I read, the more I realised how little I really know. I started to grapple with concepts, for example ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’. For some people these words imply that if one teaches, then students learn. This is quite a narrow conceptualisation of these two terms, as teaching and learning are not synonyms, i.e. to teach does not necessarily result in student-learning in the classroom or lecture hall. It is thus quite possible that some, or even many students, may leave my classroom without having a clear understanding of what has been taught. They might only learn and have an understanding of what I as the lecturer envisaged at a later stage, or they could even carry these gaps in their understanding with them for a long period.
I also realised that we as lecturers are actually guiding our students towards an unknown future, thus they are ‘learning for an unknown future’ (Barnett, 2004). Yes, the future has always been unknown to us, but ‘learning for an unknown future’ also calls for an ontological turn (Barnett, 2004). The problem is, ‘How can we learn for a future if it is unknown?’ The word is not stable, not even complex anymore, it is super-complex (Barnett, 2004), thus there is not ‘one truth’; there are multiple truths, multiple perspectives and more and more uncertainties. Hence, the more we know, the more uncertainties and anxieties are created. It has therefore become important to realise that I cannot provide my students with all the knowledge and all the skills, as knowledge is not finite; and furthermore, the skills that we ‘teach’ today may be out-dated in a few years’ time. Hence, I need to instil self-confidence, self-belief, self-motivation and life-long learning in order to assist our students to deal with learning for an unknown future, i.e. how to deal with ‘being’ (Barnett, 2004).
So where do I stand? My students are no longer ‘tabula rasa’ or ‘empty vessels’ to be filled with knowledge, as they come to my classroom with prior knowledge and experiences. I cannot provide them with all the knowledge, as knowledge is not finite (Nations, 2001; Dochy, 2001). The Internet Web Publishing and Book Publishing explosion is evidence of this phenomenon (Dochy, 2001) and as a result it should be my aim to assist students not to get lost in the ‘oceans of data’ (Du Plessis, 2004), but to prepare them to access and use information effectively, to filter through information and to distinguish between what is relevant, irrelevant and even ‘artificial’ information (Eriksen, 2001).
I see myself as a lecturer-facilitator who believes in constructivist principles. Ontologically, I acknowledge the existence of multiple subjective realities. Epistemologically, I see ‘how we come to know’ as an active construction process of knowledge (Brooks & Brooks, 1999), not the passive consuming of information. In knowledge construction, knowledge is constructed socially and individually through a social interactive process (Gagnon & Collay, 2001; Marlowe & Page, 2005). Hence, learning is about understanding, applying, thinking and analysing and not about accumulating, memorising and repeating of information (Marlowe & Page, 2005). My focus is on authentic and meaningful learning through a process of bridge building between what students already know and what they are expected to learn, resulting in the creation of artefacts such as posters or mind maps of mathematical concepts and processes that represent their thinking (Gagnon & Collay, 2006). Therefore, for learning to become meaningful, it has to transcend the focus on mere factual information as “meaning assigned to facts and facts alone are meaningless until they are interpreted and added up into a coherent picture” (Hinchey, 1998, p. 45). I therefore administer informal class tests, for example on fractions to my intermediate phase student teachers, to analyse misconceptions in order to try and re-built sound foundations. I discuss these misconceptions with my students and provide them with input on, for example, why they think these misconceptions exist and how we can try to remedy them. These misconceptions are from real-life examples, mistakes that learners also often make.
Although I believe in the power of social interaction, it is important to note that “Constructing implies that learners construct knowledge for themselves: individually and socially” (Hein, 1991: IS, p. 1). Thus, we cannot negate or nullify the role of the individual, as it is the individual who still has to make meaning of the constructed knowledge in the end, even when involved in a social constructivist context.
Reflection plays a vital role in my learning armour, as I constantly ask my students, by means of journal writing and reflection questionnaires, how they experience my classroom and their learning experiences. My rationale behind these reflection opportunities is that I am of the opinion that it could assist in making learning and teaching more meaningful to both me and my students. I believe that my students realise that I do value their opinions, as I provide feedback to them about positive and negative responses that I receive. Hence, I hope they see that I value their inputs.
I am also very well aware of the fact that language can be a great barrier to many of my students, hence I encourage them to converse in their own mother tongue with students who speak the same mother tongue when possible when they find themselves uncertain, including when in heterogeneous groups.
I also create practical opportunities for my students to experience, for example, cooperative learning through the use of the ‘Jigsaw’ and ‘Numbered Heads’ exercises in a practical real-life context of the module in which they are engaged. I create opportunities for them to ask questions and let many of these student questions drive the mathematics teaching and learning, especially when related to misconceptions. I also pose many questions, which are then discussed in groups, after which the answers are reported to the rest of the class. Thus, I try to create opportunities during which my students can voice their collective understanding. I also make use of more capable peers to assist students to move other students through their Zones of Proximal Development (ZPD), as I am of the opinion that if another student can clear up the ‘blurs’ or misunderstandings of fellow students, this is an indication that these capable peers have a good understanding of the contents and concepts being explained. In addition, I also provide opportunities for my students to show their understanding of mathematical processes in front of the whole class, which result in in fellow students asking questions. To some this process is quite uncomfortable, but the majority rise to the occasion.
Assessment in mathematics creates a lot of ‘angst’ among many students. Therefore I provide my students with multiple opportunities to improve their marks, for example, those who performed well do not have to re-write a test, but those who do want to improve, may take another scheduled test. I use the test answers of the students as a learning opportunity by sharing what I have noticed. Thus, assessment goes beyond the mere recording of marks.
Students are also provided with memos and sample previous tests, especially first-year students, who are still very ‘fresh’ in their first six months at university., placed on the LEARN portal. The same applies to written assignments, as students are given a second opportunity to obtain a minimum pass mark for an assignment, if they did not meet the requirement in the first instance.
The focus in my class is thus not on teaching or instruction, but on learning. I also try to instil critical and creative thinking within my students, self-worth, concern for others, and tolerance for diversity, life-long learning and self-management. Furthermore, I constantly share with them my personal past-classroom experiences in order to develop their ‘being’, as my modules are not just about knowledge and skills, but for the preparation of ways of dealing with educational and pedagogical ‘being’, showing them that there is not just one-way of dealing with reality.
However, it is also important to state that I do lecture in the traditional manner at some stages, as instructivism does have a place according to a well-known constructivist such as Von Glasersfeld (1995), and according to the constructionist Papert (1991), but I am cautious as the traditional mode does not necessarily leads to proper understanding in all instances. But then, I also acknowledge that not all constructivist learning contexts always lead to clear understandings either.
But where am I now in terms of thinking about myself, my humanness and pedagogy at THIS moment in 2014? As academic and HOD/HOP in the Faculty of Education, I was part of a journey in which I interrogated myself pertaining to a drawing that I have made that depicted a humanizing pedagogy. I also had to reflect what I saw in fellow HOD/HOP’s drawings pertaining to a humanizing pedagogy. The following became eminent after reflection regarding practicing a humanizing pedagogy and how a view my humanness. I present my written reflections as themes:
When we talk, discuss, read and listen to someone else’s opinions, perceptions and understanding of a concept or observation, we tend to think that our thinking and understanding is similar about a concept, even after we have articulated our understandings. This seems to be the ideal, but then our background and cultural tools are different. We cannot claim to be part of one objective reality; rather, we are part of our own subjective reality that suggests that there are multiple realities. This uniqueness of our understanding became evident when I reflected and wrote:
I have realized that when I look at my understanding of a humanizing pedagogy by comparing it to the collective drawings, that how I or someone else perceives, experience or understand the concept, interprets it, is not always, in fact in most cases our thinking, perceptions, experiences and understandings are different. It cannot be the same, as realties are different and we all have our own personal positions. The collective cannot always be 100% on the same level of understanding.
Social responsibility and sensitiveness towards others
As human beings, we have a responsibility to show that we care, but not wrapping another person in cotton wool. We have to reach out, but at the same time be conscious that our position does not have to be identical to those of another fellow human. This became evident when I stated:
I was feeling that I have a responsibility, a social one. One has to help his fellow students and colleagues. I was feeling, this implies, i.e. the drawing implies that one has to be conscious of where the ‘other’ [person(s)] positions himself or herself.
Equity and sincere in learning
Academic staff seems to see themselves as on another level when they think of and compare themselves to their students. We seem to think that we are more knowledgeable and skillful. This probably emanates from the way that we saw our teachers and lecturers when we were at school and studying at university, as the system perpetuates the lecturer or teacher as the knower and the student or learner as the inexperienced empty vessel. This is exactly what a humanizing pedagogy tries to change as it aims to promote co-learning and rethinking our current ‘power’ relationship. This was highlighted be the following words:
We as academic lecturers see us as ‘bigger’ as our students, ‘bigger’ in the sense of being more knowledgeable in our subject as well as in terms of experiences. The figure [my drawing] does not show the ‘pouring of knowledge’, rather, it highlights assisting, but not just giving [in a traditional sense]. It is walking with on the path by lending a hand(s), not just [giving] a hand. In a manner, it is scaffolding learners [students], i.e. taking them from where they are to where they could be – potential.
I am a co-learner
Revisiting my picture, I became aware that it actually portrays me to a great extent. The learner or student is not the solo learning person; I am also a learner during our interactions:
I am also a learner. I am also in a learner’s position pretty much of the time as others lend a hand to my thinking and growing as a person too. We all learn from one another. We learn good and bad or not so good things too.
Disagreements and not knowing it all are part of learning
Learning does not imply the mere agreement and acceptance of everything from the lecturer. It is much more than agreement, in fact, learning happens when the mind is stretched and when we are challenged, when our thinking about something is turned into disequilibrium. This emerged when I wrote:
We have to disagree in many instances. These disagreements are valuable to take us forward, to rethink our own thinking and own positions. We need the hand, feet and input of others too.
It is in order to NOT always to know all the answers as leader
Leaders are fallible; we do not always have the answers. I was also struck by what I have written, when I read the following:
As a lecturer and as a leader, one is not the ‘know-it-all’, have all the answers and does not always have a perfect plan of or on how to ‘conduct’ leadership and showing the way. Lecturers and leaders also need hand holding. It is sometimes about letting go … As we are all unique, there will be negotiated understanding, understanding that is temporal. It is about humanness, about letting go, forgive, forget, move on … It is about change, being reflective and reflexive. It is about transformation.
It became clear to me that leadership is not just about changing others; it is also about transforming yourself, i.e. your thinking, doings and perceptions as leader of what is ‘right’ and what is the way forward.
Learning and doing has no end
Learning what a humanizing pedagogy is, is not a solo endeavor, it is a collective activity that is ongoing and does not have an end. The spiral in the ‘hand’ drawing represented the above to me. Equally important, there is not just one finger on each hand, all the fingers need their fellow fingers to work together:
It is ‘how’ one uses his or her fingers that are important. One does not use all one’s fingers in the same manner. Discovery and becoming aware of one’s humanness is a process, one is going through spiraling phases in different ways. No end in sight.
Sharing and receiving is vital
A humanizing pedagogy does not imply a one sided dimension, i.e. one person giving and the other merely receiving. It is about giving and sharing from both parties, as depicted by the Bartho drawing:
We share, but at the same time the receiver should come to the realization that sharing does not just mean receiving all the time, but also giving in other ways what one possesses, the receiver can also share.
Learning from one another is key to progress
The community drawing made me realize that we learn from one another all the time:
Learning from one another is vital. Everyone has something to contribute in his/her way. The size can differ, but it still counts. It entails moving into and out of the centre and standing on the periphery at some times, probably most of the time.
Conclusion: What emerges?
It is evident that I have been transformed in so many aspects. This portfolio is testimony to it. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that my personal transformation has not ended, as it is an on-going dynamic life-long process.