Complicated conversations and alternative voices: The SAERA Curriculum studies SIG on education discourses amidst COVID-19

Petro du Preez (NWU), Lesley le Grange (SU), Suriamurthee Maistry (UKZN), Labby Ramrathan (UKZN), Chris Reddy (SU) & Shan Simmonds (NWU)

Several members of the SAERA Curriculum Studies SIG convened a video conference to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic in relation to both basic and higher education contexts. During this conversation various critical perspectives were presented. The group wishes to continue the debate and invites scholars from diverse backgrounds to contribute to the discussion. Below are some departure-points to initiate such complicated conversations.

  1. Current discourses about education amidst the COVID-19 pandemic are marred with an obsession to ‘save the academic year’. We are concerned about the narrow interpretation of what constitutes an academic year. The turbulent context in which education finds itself as a result of this pandemic, requires extraordinary measures. One being a reconceptualisation of the span of an academic year that does not necessarily coincide with the calendar year. As long as a narrow interpretation of an academic year is accepted, the danger exists that the discourse becomes that of constriction or abandonment of the ‘academic year’.
  2. COVID-19 surfaced in South Africa (as in other countries) alongside the deep-seated neoliberal contouring of the socio-economic landscape including the education sector. This sector has been marked by perverse neoliberal principles such as an obsession with competition, a culture of performativity and surveillance, and so forth. Dealing with the pandemic against this background has further exasperated the insidious manner in which these principles operate and also illuminated the stark inequalities in society. Unveiling the perversity of these principles are imperative when engaging in complicated conversations, especially when faced with a crisis such as COVID-19, as it facilitates a renewed, refocused engagement with the status quo and by so doing present us with an opportune moment to reflect on the normative nature of education. The principle of competition manifests, for example, in the race between universities to be the best in delivering their curricula in (emergency) remote teaching/learning contexts. Performativity, as it relates to assessment discourses and the obsession with the measuring of learning is worth further discussion. An increasing culture of surveillance among academics because of prescriptions from top management of institutions on how remote teaching/learning must unfold, are further examples.
  3. The pandemic coerced universities and some schools (those who have the means and goods) to turn to emergency remote teaching/learning. Remote teaching/learning requires well-established online learning management systems and infrastructure, i.e. data, devices, etc., to enable successful ‘delivery’ of curricula. However, the COVID-19 crisis has laid bare the immense challenges of and epistemological access as some students might be disadvantaged by the sudden and rapid change to a different mode of provision. In particular, students who are used to the contact mode of provision, might find it extra challenging to adapt to a digital mode of delivery; not because they are not digitally literate, but because they might not have sufficient access to digital platforms.
  4. Emergency remote teaching/learning and the quest to save the academic year refocused attention on curriculum coverage and overload, as well as performance-based assessment.
    1. Curriculum coverage has been the major focus of saving the academic year by both school and higher education. Perhaps it is an opportune moment to reflect on the curriculum itself and ask the fundamental curriculum questions of what and whose knowledge is of most worth in the current context and beyond.
    2. Teachers have for long also raised their concerns regarding curriculum overload. In the light of the limited time to ‘complete’ the academic year, it might be an opportune time for some sober curriculum weeding.
    3. Assessment discourses related to summative testing, measurements of success, national assessments and large scale international testing that serve as judgements of education success have become the order of the day in the past two decades or more. All of these however tend to focus on measurable trends that can be singled or teased out for highlighting poor performances, excellence or deficits that need “fixing”. These forms of assessment are touted as scientifically formulated, reliable and valid but are decontextualized and assumes a “one size fits all” implementation process and is an integral part of the current curriculum. The purposes of assessment are wider than just measurement of learning and generally involves gathering evidence from learners that shows learning, development and assists with future learning. Conditions therefore need to be favourable for all learners and assessment needs to take into account access to resources, styles of learning, levels of cognitive development and so on. This is difficult to ensure when engaging in ERT based on access to technology or in a time of crisis when time constraints enter into the fray. An important principle of assessment is to ensure fairness to all learners and purely summative approaches will not ensure fairness. Other forms of assessment with different purposes need to be invoked and foregrounded and included in times of crisis such as the Covid 19 pandemic we are currently experiencing. These include formative or developmental assessment, also called assessment for learning and provides learners with assessment opportunities other than pen and paper tests during which learners supported in their learning and mastery of competences. Another approach is assessment as learning which includes self and peer assessments. This involves ongoing processes and occurs when students reflect on and monitor their progress to inform their future learning goals. These approaches can be employed in the current crisis context as they de-emphasise rote learning associated with summative assessment and provide broader opportunities for learners at different levels to be assessed in ways that provide evidence for judgements, diagnosis and growth opportunities and self-learning.
  5. Schools are not only spaces where learners access knowledge, it is in many cases understood as a space for sustenance, where learners’ thirst and hunger for both knowledge and food are quenched. The National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) provides more than 9 million children with meals at schools every day. Closure of schools during the lockdown and level 4 of the Government’s risk adjustment strategy means that these children might not be receiving adequate nutrition. In fact in the Western Cape province, some schools opened their gates to learners during the lockdown to provide them with food. Therefore, when considering when schools should be opened, the total needs of learners should be taken into account including their need for bodily sustenance. We need to ensure that we do remain trapped by Descartes’s cogito, “I think, therefore I am”.

Finally, COVID-19 might be a time to again raise the question as to the purpose of school and university education.

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