Curriculum Conversation 7

For the seventh Curriculum Conversation Pedro Tabensky and Viroshan Naicker spoke about what and how they teach in ways that disrupt regular ways of teaching and learning. Pedro, from the Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics (AGCLE), spoke about the Existential Conversations, an innovative new course in which students are challenged to think about what it means to live ethically in the world today while Viroshan, a lecturer in mathematics discussed how he teaches in ways that get students to develop meta-thinking.

Pedro Tabensky: Existential Conversations (or IiNtetho zoBomi, as it will be called as of next year)

The AGCLE has been offering an innovative course called Existential Conversations for three years now (two years with student volunteers and one as a Short Course). In this course students interrogate questions about who they are in relation to contemporary South Africa; they examine issues of justice and morality and ask questions about the duties and responsibilities of individuals and groups in modern society. Big questions such as what does it mean to live with integrity, what is psychological freedom and what are the implications of exercising such freedom, are some of the topics that come under scrutiny in Existential Conversations.

When Dr Saleem Badat, former Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes took office the Allan Gray Foundation made available a sum of money that Dr Badat could use at his discretion. When Pedro was offered some of this money he jumped at the chance to do something new and different in the academy, something with transformative potential. He thus conceptualised the Existential Conversations which is essentially a course about exercising ethical leadership. Pedro thought that the term leadership, was vague and open enough to enable him to conceptualise a course in very creative ways. The course could be a vehicle to address several concerns he had about his field, moral philosophy, and more generally about the knowledge project of the university. He was concerned about the way in which universities globally guard the status quo rather than fostering genuine creative engagement with the world of ideas, creative engagement that of necessity challenges the status quo.

For him, universities should be places aimed fundamentally at cultivating wisdom and humanity rather than places aimed at equipping people to come to learn things that that can be sold in the marketplace. Pedro also felt that many in the university misunderstood what it means to know; for him it is important that education also addresses how knowledge is used. In particular, people should guard against using knowledge in ways that result in adverse consequences for humanity. The intellectual project of the university is not just about being intellectual; it should be about how to be a good person, a good accountant, physicist, etc. Pedro’s aim is that students should develop the maturity and wisdom that will lead them to become agents of change within their domains of influence.

Pedro’s views about the role of knowledge in a post-colonial society are influenced by the work of Steve Biko and Frantz Fanon. Biko and Fanon argued that the way one views the world is profoundly affected by the space one is in. Furthermore, he argues that our outlook on the world is underpinned by prejudices that are often, indeed typically, not challenged or even recognized. Pedro believes that students should be invited to challenge the ideas they have come to hold, and in order to do this they need to understand that much is happening beneath the veils of consciousness that one needs to learn, at least in part, to access.

Students can enrol for the Existential Conversations course for one or two semesters. This 15 or 30-credit course has few prescribed readings and the format is conversational, using videos, typically from social psychology, to trigger focused conversations. Each week students watch a film or documentary and short videos that deal with deeply human and often disturbing and controversial topics. The viewings are followed by facilitated conversations about the films in which students’ views about the content of the films are elicited and challenged. Currently the conversations are facilitated by professional philosophers, but it is envisaged that alumni from the course will facilitate conversations as of next year. Pedro’s aim is that each student or group of students will devise how they will be assessed. They will devise their own assessment tasks such that the tasks will demonstrate that they have met the outcomes of the course.

While Dr Saleem Badat was Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes University he agitated for the development of a “common course” that all students at Rhodes University would do before they graduate. He was concerned that the Rhodes slogan, Where leaders learn, was devoid of meaning and he felt that if the University were to continue to use the slogan, it had to be imbued with meaning. One way of doing this, he thought, was to ensure that all Rhodes students had opportunities to think deeply about what it means to be a leader (particularly in post-apartheid South Africa). The Existential Conversations course offers Rhodes students much of what Dr Badat had in mind - structured occasions to think about their place in the world and how they can lead and live their lives ethically.

Viroshan Naicker: Developing meta-thinking

Viroshan discussed teaching mathematics as a service course to students, many of whom do not trust themselves to think mathematically or to do basic calculations. He sees it as his task to enable students to trust that they do indeed have the ability to do mathematics. This he does through getting students to think about how perceptions develop. He introduces them to a model for thinking about and testing their perceptions about their abilities to do mathematics. For Viroshan, teaching is about engendering cracks in the perceptions that people have about themselves that do not serve them well.

Viroshan’s beliefs about teaching are based on financier, Naseem Taleb’s views on fragile and anti-fragile or robust systems. Fragile systems break when the environment is volatile. Students need to learn the strategies to become anti-fragile even as the environment they are in becomes progressively more volatile. Thus if students memorise proofs or only use a calculator, they won’t learn to change the way they think and thus become more fragile. However, if they learn and practise problem-solving strategies, they become better able to solve novel problems. If the lecturer provides an environment where students solve problems, they become robust problem solvers. Ideally, progression through a university curriculum could be made about moving from fragile ways of knowing and being toward anti-fragile ways of knowing and being. An anti-fragile education can thus become a cornerstone for responding creatively to the complex and ever-changing world that we inhabit. 

Viroshan gets students to understand that they have the power to shape the way they relate to mathematical problems and that the problems do not have agency over them. His aim is to influence their limiting beliefs about their abilities that stop them from relating to the course material. By explicitly addressing belief systems in his courses, and establishing a playful problem-oriented lecture environment students are supported improve their skills and approach mathematics creatively.

By: Jo-Anne Vorster

Source:  Jo-Anne Vorster