Thursday, 9 March 2017

How to identify courses or modules that need decolonising, and how to go about decolonising them? Posting by Loïse Jeannin

Seminar from Prof. Nyasha Mboti 
March 8, 2017

Prof. Nyasha Mboti shared insightful perspectives on how to identify modules, courses, and departments that need to be decolonised.

After noting students’ and lecturers’ discontent with the learning and teaching status quo in South African universities, Nyasha encouraged participants to scrutinize their courses, teaching philosophies, working environments, and departments to identify areas (content, pedagogical approaches, and student-teacher relationships) that need an overhaul to better incorporate students’ backgrounds, aptitudes, diversity and their rich and complex lives into teaching and learning.

To this purpose, Nyasha presented a list of themes used to reflect on the appropriateness of course’s content, including languages, discussions of sensitive topics, mentions of pre- and post-apartheid situations, and aspects of students’ lives such as racial experiences, living in townships and rural areas, poverty, etc. 
Have a look below, he kindly accepted to share the list of themes with us.

The presentation was framed around Nyasha’s conceptualisation of the perpetuated colonial system in education as an algorithm with input (students) and output (automatic behaviours). This algorithm was described as a black box, from which we mainly see the outcome, namely social injustice and inequalities. He explained that the inequalities shaped by the history of colonialism in Africa are and will be perpetuated in higher education if lecturers are not mindful of their teaching behaviours, and reproductive effects on students. He invited participants to become reflexive and depart from an educational system that makes products, by conditioning students to react to stimuli, instead of helping them to become independent-thinking and liberated adults.

In the context of higher education, Nyasha thoughtfully analysed the alienating relationship of students and lecturers in the “hide-and-seek game” which characterises the way teaching and assessment are performed in South Africa. Lecturers ask students to find the right answer, or more specifically, to find the answer that meet lecturers’ expectations and knowledge, and that are left “to be found” in textbooks or lecturers’ notes.

As Nyasha explained, this hide-and-seek game does not create enough space to let students learn meaningfully, engaging with content that is student-friendly and relevant to their daily lives, because, in this game, knowledge is “ring-fenced and disciplined” through textbooks and by lecturers. Hence, to promote knowledge creation, Nyasha adamantly encourages lecturers to engage in a “commitment to perpetual search”, for example by shifting roles with the students and offering them the opportunity to provide answers and explanations to their professors. In addition, pausing within the learning process is deemed crucial to let students reflect and ask difficult and sensitive questions and for the lecturers to engage in discussing them.
Quoting Thomas Sankara, “You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness”, Nyasha encouraged participants to invent a future education that could be relevant for the majority of students, who are African, enabling them to connect their learning with the sheer complexity of their lives and of South African realities. Students cannot put their own world aside when they enter the university; Rather, they need to relate to what they learn, to make it useful for their own growth and success.

The issue of English language, as the Masters’ voice, was abundantly discussed, and Nyasha encouraged lecturers to learn another African language, or even consider writing a PhD dissertation in an indigenous language. Quoting Ghandi, “English rules without Englishmen”, he prompted the audience to reflect on the difficulties for students to learn in a foreign or second language. He also raised pedagogical questions around class management and the possibility for students to express disagreement and openly debate with their lecturers in class. He argued in favour of truly welcoming students, knowing their names, where they are coming from and their learning constraints, but also understanding the richness of their lives and family bonds in Africa.

The presentation spurred a number of questions from the audience, related to learning African languages and the external pressure exerted by businesses in recruiting students with good English language skills. Overall, Nyasha provided areas for reflection to consider reshaping university courses’ content and start including more diverse experiences, knowledge, and paradigms in the classrooms.

The A-to-O of Questions to Ask about Whether Your Course Needs Decolonising

A. Language: What language is used on the course or module?
B. Lecturers’ language: How many African languages does the course lecturer know?
C. Race: What is the racial composition of the department offering the course?
D. Black South African: How many Black South Africans are in the department that is offering the courses?
E. Race sensitivity: How often is race discussed in examples used on the course? How often does the course mention the race of people used as examples?
F. Apartheid/ Pre-1994 South Africa: How often is “apartheid” mentioned in examples? How many examples used in the course refer to apartheid/pre-1994 South Africa?
G: Post-apartheid/Post-1994 South Africa/”Rainbowism”: How many examples used in the course refer exclusively to post-apartheid/post-1994 South Africa?
H: Dissent: Does the lecture environment allow students to disagree with the lecturer? How does the lecturer deals with students who disagree with him or her?
I: Paradigm wars: How many paradigms are part of the course, other than the so-called “Western” paradigm?
J: Students: To what extent are students allowed to bring and insert their personal lives into the lecture space? Does the lecturer attempt to know the names of all or some of his or her students? Has the lecturer ever been to a township or rural area?
K: Social hierarchy/class: How often are poor people cited in examples, as people, and not just as problems?
L: Place Naming: How many indigenous place names are cited in examples?
M: “Other” Geography: How often are townships and rural areas named and consciously included in the circle of discussions? Has the lecturer ever been to a township or a rural area?
M: How, not What: To what extent does the lecturer focus on how students learn, instead of merely what they learn?
N: Critical application: Does a course allow independence of thought and critical application?
O: Course outcomes and objectives: What outcomes are expected on the course?

About Nyasha Mboti
Nyasha is currently working on a book on Apartheid Studies that will be released soon.
He is Head of Department and Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Johannesburg. He has published over twenty-five articles in prestigious peer-reviewed local and international journals.

About Loïse Jeannin
Loïse is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Johannesburg. Her topics of interest are inclusive education and professional development programs for university lecturers. She has taught in several universities in France and Thailand, and is now focusing on her research.


  1. I think we must be careful in not overstretching the myth that students only learn better in their home languages, whatever the status of their home language.