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Teaching, learning and transformation

5 October 2011

In the early 1990s I was working at the University of South Africa (Unisa), and the political order in South Africa was changing. There was a lot of talk of the need for “transformation”, but people were not very clear on what should be transformed into what. Some of us thought that it would be rather nice to transform Unisa from being a Broederbond-controlled brainwashing machine, designed to indoctrinate students with the ideology of apartheid, into something more educational, and suitable for a free society.

I’ve been encouraged to post this after reading some of the posts of fellow blogger Clarissa, who writes about her teaching experience and academia, and often gives some sound advice to students, for example here How to Read Accounts of Historic Events | Clarissa’s Blog. That was the kind of thing I used to write in tutorial letters.

At that time at Unisa I wore two hats. I was lecturing in the Missiology Department, and I also worked in the Editorial Department. Since Unisa was a distance learning university, most of the “lectures” took the form of printed study guides, and these were edited and translated (from Afrikaans to English, and occasionally vice versa). So the Editorial Department was the last stage of quality control of study material going to students. And we also saw just about everything the university produced, and we were probably the ones who knew, better than anyone else, which courses were good and which were bad.

As part of the transformation excercise we arranged a seminar, where an educationist, David Langhan, came to help us discover criteria for good and bad study material.

As part of the exercise he asked us to give him a bunch of second-year student assignments from as many different departments as possible. He looked through these and picked four to use in the seminar. One was excellent, one was good, one was poor, and the last was excruciatingly bad.

I was quite chuffed to discover that his “excellent” example was from the Missiology Department. Langhan said it showed that the student had a good grasp of the material, argued a coherent case, and showed the ability to think for himself.

I was also not at all surprised to discover that the excruciatingly bad one was from the Education Faculty. The Education Faculty believed in rote learning of “concepts” couched in a made-up obscurantist jargon which they said was “scientific”. If you wanted to know what was wrong with South African education, and what was most in need of transformation, the Education Faculty at Unisa was it. They had a captive audience of 30000 teachers who wanted to increase their chances of promotion by gaining better academic qualifications, and to them the Education Faculty peddled its ideological claptrap.

I once edited a first-year study guide, Fundamental Pedagogics 101, and after the first chapter went to see the lecturer because there were problems with the text.

“Who crossed this out?” she yelled.
“I did, because I didn’t understand it.”
“Your’re not supposed to understand it, this is specialised stuff.”

I pointed out that if I, with two degrees, couldn’t understand it, the chances of a first-year student straight out of school understanding it would be a lot slimmer.

“They’re not supposed to understand it,” she yelled, “they’re just supposed to learn it.”

So how did we in the Missiology Department teach students to think for themselves?

With difficulty.

Because many of the students had been to schools where they had been taught by teachers who had been trained by educationalists like those at the Unisa Faculty of Education (and they wouldn’t have liked to be called educationalists. They preferred to describe themselves as pedagogicians).

Since it was a distance education university we rarely saw the students face to face, and our main contact was through marking assignments and responding with printed tutorial letters. But once or twice a year we would have “group visits” where students could come and meet the lecturers, and ask any questions they had about the study material and discuss it. Usually most of the questions concerned the content of the exam paper.

At one such gathering I explained how I marked the assignments. If they regurgitated the study guide (one student just copied several pages from the study guide, and submitted that as an assignment) then if they did not give a reference to where they had found it, it was plagiarism, and they would get 0%. If they cited it, they would get 20% for honesty. If they wrote in their own words and showed they understood it, they would pass (50-60%). If they showed that they understood it and were also critical, they would get 60-75%. If they showed that they had read widely, and came up with fresh ideas, they’d get a first – over 75%.

Right at the end of the class, as they were leaving, one of the students asked, with a rather amazed expression on his face, “Do you mean you want us to think for ourselves?”

Got it.

Only the chances are that his next session would be with the Educational Faculty, where they would quickly knock that nonsense out of him.

How did this work out in practice?

One of the courses I taught was a third-year one, “Mission as African Initiative: the African Independent Churches.”

Because Unisa was a distance education university, and most students had full-time jobs, they could take up to ten years to complete a Bacherlor’s degree. So third-year students could have been studying five or six years or more.

One of the assignment questions had been set by my colleague Inus Daneel, who had taught the course previously, and I kept it because it was very good and very revealing, and I also used it as an exam question.

What criteria would you use for a theological evaluation of the African Independent Churches, and what preliminary conclusions would you draw about the Christian nature of these groups, on the basis of the evidence available?

In answering the assignment, 80% of the students failed to answer the first half of the question at all. They would plunge into their evaluation of the African Independent Churches without mentioning the criteria they would use.

And even the ones who did mention the criteria were disappointing.

One student was a Roman Catholic nun. She had done very well in the other assignments. But in this one she said that since the text book for the course (Quest for belonging by Inus Daneeel) used the Reformed “Marks of the Church”, she would use those as her criteria. That was disappointing. She was a Roman Catholic, but wanted to hide behind a Reformed persona because that was what the text book said.

I tried to get the students to see what the question said. It was not “What criteria would Inus Daneel use” but “What criteria would you use?”

In the case of the Roman Catholic Church the “Marks of the Church” are derived from the Creed — the Church is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. So for a Roman Catholic the criteria would be unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity.
I wrote in a tutorial letter:

Naturally a theological evaluation will be very subjective, as it will depend on your own theological point of view. Daneel, for example, as a Reformed theologian, uses the Reformed Notae ecclesiae as criteria. In writing such an assignment, you should try to state your own criteria and your own theological point of view, so that there is some standard of comparison. Some of you did not do this at all, and you will have received much lower marks.

For example, one might note that the Nazareth Baptist Church founded by Isaiah Shembe teaches that Jesus is not equal to the Father, but is subordinate, and that Shembe identified himself with the promised Comforter.

On two points, therefore, Shembe’s church differs from the majority of Christians – in christology and trinitology. You should therefore briefly state your own christology and trinitology, and then say how it differs from that of Shembe. If you merely say what Shembe’s belief was and do not state your own, you have only half answered the question: What theological criteria would you use ….?

You should also, of course, not make the mistake of generalising from Shembe’s christology to that of all the other independent churches. I have mentioned this example because Shembe’s christology and trinitology were quite distinctive.

And the last point indicated another problem. At that time there were some 7000-10000 African Independent Churches in South Africa alone, yet many students generalised from one or two denominations to all of them.

In spite of emphasising this point, however, when confronted with the same question in the exam, only about 50% even attempted to state the criteria they would use.

The point of all this is to show that knowledge is not some fixed and perfect entity out there, that we only have to tap into, and having done so we can then confidently cite it as the Voice of Science. In the natural sciences, that might be so, at least to a certain extent. But in matters like theology, we always evaluate from a certain viewpoint, and before we can evaluate the theology of others, we need to be able to say “where we are coming from”. But many of the students didn’t even seem to realise that they had a viewpoint.

And so, when David Langhan said that a missiology student’s assignment was the most excellent one, and showed evidence of him thinking for himself, I was pleased. At least something was getting through.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Irulan permalink
    10 October 2011 11:44 am

    fascinating, Steve.

    I studied UNISA missiology at the Hons level in the late nineties. Did you write any of those papers?


    • 10 October 2011 12:49 pm

      I may have contributed parts of them, can’t remember now. The one where I wrote the whole study guide was MSB 303-G – “Mission as African initiative: the African Independent Churches”. It was a 3rd-year undergraduate course.

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