Curriculum Conversations 10: Increasing knowledge access

Words by Sam van Heerden

The Centre for Higher Education and Research (CHERTL) held their 10th Curriculum Conversation on Monday 11 April 2016. Both speakers, Monica Hendricks from the Institute for the Study of English in Africa (ISEA) and Karen Ellery from CHERTL’s Science Extended Studies Programme, spoke about different ways of increasing students’ access to knowledge.

Hendrick’s presentation, titled “Using language(s) for transformative research and learning”, outlined how ISEA has transformed. “The underlying challenge that Fees Must Fall presented to ISEA was that we sit with a mismatch between students’ repertoire and their language of instruction”, she said.

Confronted with the question of ‘transformation’ Hendricks said that ISEA’s response has been to interrogate their curriculum. “We want to take it in a multilingual direction and embrace the reality of all 11 South African languages,” she said.

“The purpose of a multilingual classroom is to grow people’s understandings,” she explained. For example, a part of this includes what is called “translanguaging” which is the use and comparison of concepts in different languages.

She talked about how in most disciplines the dominant theories come from the rich parts of the world – the global north – and critiqued how African theories and languages still exist ‘in the periphery’. “It is important to validate peoples’ home languages,” she said, “Institutional culture changes through small incremental changes like that.”

ISEA has introduced a Bachelor of Education (BEd) Honours course called “Bilingual Education for Diversity and Access”, which encompasses the bilingual teaching approach. ‘Diversity’ refers to the different languages used, and ‘access’ refers to the increased access to knowledge allowed by bilingual learning.

Ellery also spoke on the topic of supporting and widening students’ access to knowledge. Her presentation, titled “Epistemological access in the sciences: Access to what?”, outlined how learning is more complicated than just being given knowledge, and that the sciences sometimes forget this.

In all academic disciplines there are certain values that are privileged. Ellery talked about how in the teaching of science, there needs to be more support given to students because many of the practices or attributes which the scientific discipline values are not overt.

There are two kinds of teaching – the kind that is geared towards knowledge, and the kind that is geared towards producing a specific kind of knower. According to Ellery, the humanities are often geared more towards the latter, and science the former – at least that is what academics tend to think.

“[Although not explicit], in science we are developing knowledge, but also a particular kind of knower,” she explained. She outlined three levels of expectations that teachers have for their students.

First, students are expected to develop certain knowledge from the discipline, as well as disciplinary skills and practices. But there are other expectations, such as expecting students to be a specific kind of “scientific knower”, such as being objective, curious, critical, analytical and retentive. Then there are further expectations, such as expecting students to be a particular kind of “scientific learner”, such as being independent, self-regulated and able to develop their own understanding. “It’s not obvious in our curriculum, but there are these expectations,” Ellery said.

So far the scientific curriculum has been good at developing the disciplinary knowledge and the “scientific knower”, but has failed to provide students with enough support to become “scientific learners”.

But there is a good reason why this support is needed. “There is such a gap between where students are coming from and what we expect of them,” explained Ellery. This is because the expectations at school and the expectations at university are very different, and students do not receive enough support in bridging the gap.

Ellery’s research has shown that if students do not become that specific kind of “scientific learner” and “scientific knower” first, then learning the disciplinary knowledge becomes difficult. “We [therefore] need to become more overt in our expectations of students on all levels,” she said.

Curriculum Conversations aim to contribute to discussions around transforming the curriculum in higher education. They are held at least once or twice a term and are held in St. Peter’s Room 34 at Rhodes University.

Caption: Karen Ellery giving her presentation on ways of knowing at the 10th Curriculum Conversations.

 

Source:  Communications and Marketing

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