Where leaders learn together

Dr Kenneth Ngcoza, Deputy Head of the Education Department, Prof Michael Joseph and Prof Esther Ramani attended Summer University in Russia in July. Moscow State University of Psychology and Education has been bringing together PhD Scholars from all over the world who are working within a Vygotskian paradigm.

According to Prof Joseph the organizers were hesitant, at first, about bringing three people who already had their PhD’s but in the end they were convinced that there are true Vygotskians in South Africa. They created a space for the Rhodes team on the programme to talk about the work being done in South Africa.

“We decided we must go as a team because that is the best way of building up a community of practitioners around Vygotsky’s ideas at Rhodes so we came up with a proposal, we would map the work people were doing around Vygotsky,” added Prof Joseph.
“Vygotsky was one of the leading educationists and thinkers in Russia. In his short life he put forward some very powerful theories about how we become human, how we interact and learn to be in society and what cultural and historical theories shape us,” explained Prof Ramani.

“It was truly international, we had PhD students from Greece, Norway, Denmark, France, Indonesia, Brazil and Australia,” highlighted Prof Joseph.

The idea of the Summer University is to bring together a group of scholars to see how they are using Vygotsky in their research and in what ways Vygotsky’s work can be taken forward.

“I always thought the concept of Ubuntu is only our concept here in Africa but we experienced it there in Russia,” shared Dr Ngcoza.

Or perhaps the team inspired Ubuntu in the conference attendees.

“I just need to add on a personal level, Ken was a true ambassador for Africa. And it would never have been the same if he did not come, he taught them isiXhosa in one of the group sessions, he sang Happy Birthday for someone in isiXhosa. So people really loved Ken is what we saw there,” shared Prof Joseph.

“It was a life-changing experience and the spin-off is that it strengthened our collaboration within Rhodes University, we have formed a reading group, it is an opportunity to engage critically about Vygotsky’s work and how we use it in our courses, and of course this experience has strengthened me, especially my supervision skills in terms of guiding my students because there is a tendency for people to grab concepts without understanding them,” said Dr Ngcoza.

“Scholars in the West have spoken of Vygotsky as the voice of the future, we have yet to encounter Vygotsky. It’s a strange thing to look backwards at someone who wrote in the 30s but we are actually looking forward, to the undiscovered Vygotsky, so the theme of the conference was ‘Moving with and beyond Vygotsky’ and we came back and we presented at the PhD week in the Education Faculty and we changed the title to ‘Moving towards the undiscovered Vygotsky,” said Prof Joseph.

“So it was a very humbling experience for us to know that there is much more to know, but it was so extraordinary to meet people from so many different countries all united by similar interests, so the internationalism was truly extraordinary,” added Prof Joseph.

“The highlight of the conference was one of the keynote speakers who is a Professor who is blind and deaf, and he relies on senses to communicate. He addressed us in Russian and there was a translator who translated and we were all wondering what is going to happen in question time. We were all amazed. We would ask questions in English, they would be translated into Russian and then translated again in finger language. Make no mistake it didn’t take very long,” explained Dr Ngcoza, “He said something very striking which we told him we’d take back home. He said, ‘you may not have your senses but if you have culture you are complete.'”
The Russian scholars use deep theory and what fascinated those attending the conference from other countries is that the South African presentation used a lot of practical examples.

“We did not just talk about Vygotsky’s concepts in a vacuum, we linked them to practical experiences,” explained Prof Joseph.

The South African Vygotskians shared examples of stone games played by children which promotes learning as well as taking the traditional practice of making Umqombothi and making it into a scientific process.

“You don’t pay a cent for using those stones but there is a lot of learning taking place which is relevant when we talk about using teaching and learning support materials which are accessible and contextualizing what we teach to our learners using every day knowledge,” added Dr Ngocoza.

“What struck me is that they are not dogmatic, there is debate and discussion which we would like to see at Rhodes and there isn’t enough of it, because the academics are committed to their own line of thinking, and there aren’t many groups that meet just to discuss ideas. So that’s why we feel that it’s very important that this Vygotsky study group that we have set-up becomes a place where we are not so worried about how to guide PhD students or how to do a project, obviously those things would come in, but our main aim would be to take up key articles and discuss them in a very thoughtful and mutually supportive way. Intellectual growth can only happen through these groups. We have a bilingual study group that we have set-up, now we have the Vygotsky,” shared Prof Ramani.

“We don’t want to sound immodest but our presentation went very well, it just blew the conference people away, of course there was a debate, the Scandinavian countries being very critical, the Russians, Greeks and others being very supportive. The support was overwhelming, they thought we are Vygotskians, they thought they were sitting on a gold mine in Russia but now we know we are sitting on a gold mine in South Africa,” explained Prof Joseph.
There are plans by the Russian University to use English as a medium for teaching in Higher Education. They have asked their South African colleagues to assist with building the curriculum as well as teaching through Skype.

“Esther has a nice metaphor for bilingualism, if you walk with one foot you’ll get tired but if you walk with both you’ll cover a longer distance,” said Dr Ncgoza, “And we actually experienced that in Russia, we were so pleased to be welcomed in Russia, they translated everything for us, and if they can do it, why can’t we do it here in our own country to make sure that learning takes place.”

“So it’s truly international collaboration continuing, not just going to an International conference and then you chalk it up as kind of another achievement on your CV, to keep the link alive through continuing ways of interacting,” added Prof Joseph.

“Early one morning Ken came from his room and he knocked on my door and he said Michael have you thought about the Rhodes slogan, ‘where leaders learn’, I read it, and he said ‘what’s the problem with it’, and I said ‘I don’t see’ and he said it should be ‘where leaders learn together’. He said the ‘together’ is missing, and we are keeping to this,” explained Prof Joseph.

“I discovered that after 28 years of being at Rhodes,” added Dr Ngcoza. “I felt so confident and empowered, particularly as a black lecturer at this institution. And I think we need to talk about how do we empower our lecturers if we talk transformation,” shared Dr Ngcoza.

The notion of collaborating has become the group’s aim.
“In our presentation in Russia and here, we quoted an African proverb which says, ‘if you want to walk fast, walk alone but if you want to walk far, walk together, I think the latter speaks to our ideals.’”

The team would like to extend their sincere gratitude to Rhodes University for the funding without which their trip would not have been possible. They would also like to thank their colleagues who have been so supportive with the mapping of Vygotsky’s work and otherwise in the Faculty.