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Sustainable Empowering Learning Environments:
Conversations with Gramsci’s Organic Intellectual Sechaba Mahlomaholo and Vhonani Netshandama Abstract In order to understand the role, the character, the nature and the place of intellectuals (us) and intellectual work, we use Antonio Gramsci’s concept of organic intellectual as a point of entry. This theoretical position enables us to talk from a vantage point about the public intellectual who has to move in the direction of engaged scholarship where research is about discovery, integration, sharing and application between and among the intellectuals and all instances of civil society. Through this theorization, grounded in Boyer’s notion of scholarship of engagement, we look at the unfinished business of emancipation from the legacy of capitalist apartheid’s social arrangement. To concretise our argument we use examples from the school and the university education scenes. The point we attempt to make therefore is that; intellectual work is always political because the past and the present experiences (capitalist apartheid) as well as future aspirations (liberation) always inform what we say about ourselves, what discursive practices we value and valorize as legitimate knowledge, and finally, how society in general is ultimately (re-)structured.
***** 1. Background One of the recently established research teams at the North-West University is called the Sustainable Empowering Learning Environments for Social Justice (SELEN). This name describes both its modus operandi as well as the theme under which its activities are operationalised.1 In putting SELEN together, we were especially aware of the rampant dysfunctionality in the education, hence the learning of the majority of South Africans. We were also aware of the power of education and learning as important instruments that could be leveraged towards the improvement of the general lives of all South Africans.2 It was thus strategic and politically prudent for us to focus on the improvement of education and learning through our theorization, research and practice. What legitimatised and gave us a clear mandate, were the new South African government’s educational legislative and policy directives which collectively among others emphasize that:
74 Sustainable Empowering Learning Environments All teachers and educators are key contributors to the transformation of education in South Africa. The National curriculum Statement visualizes teachers who are competent, dedicated and caring. They will be able to fulfil the various roles outlined in the Norms and Standards for Educators. These include being mediators of learning, interpreters and designers of programs and materials, leaders, administrators and managers, scholars, researchers and life-long learners, community members, citizens and pastors, assessors and subject specialists.The SELEN team consists of 15 academics from the university and professionals (officials and teachers) from the Department of Education in the North West province. While the team formulates and operationalises research projects, it at the same time informs policy and practice in an action research mode because the professionals therein are better enabled to execute their work practically in the schools and the communities. Academics also are better able to prepare their pre-service teacher trainees through curriculum that has been enriched from experiences in the field. This arrangement complies with, and operationalises Gramsci’s views about the organic intellectual who is firmly located in the community and does not see himself/herself as detached from the experiences of that community.Like Gramsci would assert, the hegemonic discourses and interests of the dominant capitalist apartheid ideology were supposed to be more buttressed through the production of a class of people like us - as academics and professionals - who materially have a stake now in the advancement of the capitalist apartheid ideology in terms of the privilege we have.5 Thus one could see our place as contradictory in terms of class location as we operate within the perimeters of the context of the dominant hegemonic sphere, but hope to advance the agenda of the underclass in terms of creating opportunities for colleagues, schools and communities from the subaltern social stratum to access the same privileges as us. We see our SELEN work as creating more opening and cracks in the dominant hegemony by encouraging transformatory discourses.
In the implementation of its agenda SELEN has identified schools in the province where the need for support is the greatest. The approach is not to perpetuate dependency syndrome among these schools but rather to enable them to stand on their own and face the challenges of our historical legacies with confidence and strength. To achieve this objective we conduct workshops on monthly basis per schools to help establish what are called communities of learning.6 These communities of learning in the respective schools are made up, firstly of all teachers in the schools together, secondly they are made up of school management teams (principal deputy Sechaba Mahlomaholo and Vhonani Netshandama and heads of department) separately, thirdly of teachers of particular grades together and finally of teachers in particular subject disciplines, respectively.
We support these communities of learning in designing strategic plans for each member individually and for the whole team. In a nutshell, these plans are towards the operationalisation of their roles as described in the educational and policy documents of the new South African Government through its Departments of Basic Education and Training as well as the provincial Education Departments requiring them to become competent, dedicated and caring mediators of learning. The emphasis of these strategic plans is on them taking responsibility in refining their own competencies and strengths as interpreters of curriculum, designers of programs and materials for learning, becoming leaders and administrators, scholars, researchers and citizens of a democracy who also provide pastoral care for all.7 In implementing the above, we do it in consultation with respective teachers as participants and not mere recipients of prescribed ‘knowledge.’ At every stage of this ‘research-in-practice,’ all participants have to demonstrate increasing ability to take charge of their responsibility in terms of decisionmaking and good practice of their roles.
After the strategic plans have been formulated based on SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats as well as identification of priorities for success implementation of their plans) we then support the communities of learning in the implementation and monitoring of their plans. At least once a month we hold report back meetings to identify problems and possible improvements in the implementation of their plans.
These meetings take various formats. Sometimes teachers listen and watch their peers demonstrate some new and effective skill of teaching they found useful in enhancing performance of learners and so on, at other times these meetings provide a non-threatening space where teachers gradually practice some of their newly acquired skill towards the teaching of some subject and so on. Sometimes these meetings are for reflection and validation of each other’s work and morale support in times of insecurity and uncertainties.
Through these teams at school level, and their monthly meetings, the teachers have gradually come to find power and strength in what they are doing. Researchers in SELEN also report in their publications and conference presentations on the discussions at these meetings as well as the achievements of the participants in terms of learner and teacher performances which seem to steadily increase. The focus has shifted from the deficit approach to learning as we all work towards and search for stories of success to tell to each other and beyond, and this has reinforced our believe in ourselves. This has further weakened the hold of the disrespectful and undermining capitalist apartheid on our psyche as we create these alternative counter-hegemonic conversations.
76 Sustainable Empowering Learning Environments This has made learning in the mentioned communities sustainable because now teachers report to being more confident in taking their responsibilities as subject specialists, action researchers, leaders and managers of their classrooms and schools.8 They are also supported by the officials who are informed by research in the execution of their duties. All participants are showing signs of empowerment. We have all moved from the position of helplessness to which we were relegated by the system which undermined our status as creative human beings capable of initiative and effecting positive change.
The positive outcomes are not for the teachers and the schools only, SELEN has actually become a community of practice itself where we reflect very intensively on what we do at the university as we prepare pre-service teachers and as we interact with practicing teachers in schools. During these reflective sessions we look at how we are constituted, we debate issues of racism, sexism, oppression and exclusion from all levels of education as well as how these can be reversed using our privileged positions of intellectual workers. We do not affiliate to any particular political organization as SELEN since we are aware also of our differentiated preferences with regard to that. What binds us together is the transformational agenda in educational theory, research and practice. Through our actions we thus advocate for universities to be engaged in community issues in the same manner as we are doing. Based on feedback from the community, our practices are appreciated as we are seen as striving towards equity, social justice, freedom, peace and hope, especially in education.
2. Gramsci’s Organic Intellectual Without sounding too presumptuous, it is my view based on the above discussions that our work as SELEN is beginning to define our roles as organic intellectuals. It is true that we may not be making significant dents at the macro-political levels of our unequal society, however our awareness of the role that the economic base of our society plays in assigning educational privileges and opportunities, has enabled us to have this focus as our starting point.9 As emerging organic intellectuals our target is towards creating the alternative to the current hegemony and monopoly in distributing (or hording) educational resources and opportunities hence better jobs according to certain racial and class affiliations.Whereas our historical past advanced divisive agendas by recreating inequality in education, our work is expressly political in that we are attempting to reach out to those rural and poverty stricken black communities whose lack of access to education still determine their station in life.11 We may not in the true sense of the concept of organic intellectual be working towards the overthrow of some regime, rather we are strongly playing an advocacy role aiming at ensuring that the declared democratic principles of Sechaba Mahlomaholo and Vhonani Netshandama equity, social justice, freedom, peace and hope by the South African developmental state do encompass all, especially young people who are the future of our country. It is in these small spaces of class room learning where the fiercest contestation or rather, wars of position as Gramsci says are being waged in order to finally to deal a death blow to the divisive capitalist apartheid legacies.The idea of the organic intellectual enables us to leave the ivory towers of the university and to be in the community where in a reciprocal manner we learn from the cutting edge of practice and thus be informed to refine our theorization of learning.