History Outside the Classroom

How experiential learning encourages decolonial thought in primary school learners

In the first term of this year, my St Mary’s Waverley colleagues and I took our Grade 6 pupils to the University of the Witwatersrand Art Museum (WAM).

It was their first outing off campus in two years, and the bus was abuzz with excitement. The exhibition, which was a collaboration with Standard Bank, was entitled Seen, Heard and Valued and it celebrated WAM’s 40 years of collecting historical and contemporary African artworks and artefacts.

My former experience as a student assistant and docent at the museum gave me the insight to know that an exhibition is a conversation prompt: a ‘period-less’ sentence.

This was especially true of an exhibition such as this, which was exploding with artworks from many decades and many cultures, and which embraced many different voices – from the contemporary to the historical.

The timing of this exhibition and our tour to the museum sat neatly alongside our exploration of Mapungubwe in the history module of social sciences, and while there were no artefacts originating directly from Mapungubwe, it allowed us to discuss the artworks at the exhibition in the context of that module.

We saw how artworks create narratives and celebrate formerly unexplored civilisations, and how crucial it is to honour the aesthetic and cultural value of African objects and stories in our own history.

We encouraged our students to read the labels and use the accompanying educational resource provided by the museum to create their own conclusions. We took our cue from author Robert Fisher, who, in his book Teaching to Learn, proposes that we should, ‘encourage children to look for alternatives, to be alert to the multiplicity of possibilities’.

Museums create a unique environment for learners to explore these possibilities and cultivate their own opinions and ideas outside of the traditional classroom setup, without being bound by set syllabi. The dichotomies of wrong and right fade away in museums.

University of the Witwatersrand Art Museum

Engaging with energy

The exhibition’s title came from researcher, academic and author Brené Brown’s definition of connection. She wrote: ‘I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued.’ In the museum’s educational supplement, the curators consider what it means to create our own meanings and cultivate our own conclusions.

Drawing on Brown’s quote, they suggest that, ‘In the process of sharing our opinions about what we see, think and feel we make connections between ourselves, the artworks and our community. We learn how to find our own meaning in artworks, and how to value different interpretations.’

I urged my group to select their favourite object in the museum and to try and explain why this work was attractive to them. Many answers were so insightful and well-considered it was hard to believe these ideas came from 11- and 12-year-olds. It might be colours, symbols, unusual materials or a simple beauty that drew them to their preferred work.

Some of our students recognised objects that reminded them of their own cultural heritage. Other students noticed similarities between the Mapungubwean artefacts we had been exploring in class and these – most notably the repeating cattle iconography.

In our history classroom, we had talked, perhaps ad nauseum, about the golden rhino, the discovery of glass beads at the Mapungubwe site, the clay pottery – and how all these objects, if they did not prove, at least supported certain historical hypotheses about the Mapungubwean kingdom.

But these classroom images of decontextualised, ‘flat’, objects would never be able to capture our students’ imaginations in the same way as a life size Nigerian Mwo Maiden Spirit mask, a massive Jackson Hlungwani installation, or the Noria Mabasa drum carved from a single tree-trunk.

We have to ponder how to begin to connect an outing such as this to ‘decolonialism’, the sociological term that hovers in academic circles but terrifies us in the basic education field. We need to find ways to integrate the practice of art into our classrooms.

St Mary's School Waverley history outside the classroom

Recognising relevance

Professor Zodwa Motsa, executive director of the University of South Africa’s Department of Leadership and Transformation wrote last year that traditionally there have been ‘educational pillars that have sustained the Euro-American culture while [muting] African indigenous knowledge and cultures in the institution of learning even post our political independence.’ It is here where our conversations should start, and let’s turn the volume up! Motsa adds that we:

Recognise the validity and relevance of African knowledge in the global knowledge production…[and] cultivate respect for people and their cultural and knowledge systems. Respect the coexistence of cultural diversity, [and work towards including this] in curriculum development.

Arguably, we should not talk about decolonialism in a junior school – it is too large and complex a concept to unpack with children. The best route, as educators, is to develop mechanisms to practise and embody decolonial thinking in our classrooms and beyond (for learning is always happening).

This is of course easier said than done – especially when we are still tied to certain pedagogies and syllabi that we must adhere to. (For one + one always equals two, and cat is always spelled c-a-t).

When I walk through our Junior Primary, I am always amazed by how the teachers seem to seamlessly include the ‘normalisation of Africanness within the curriculum’ into their teaching practice; from singing hymns in isiZulu, to creating Ndebele huts out of recyclable waste, to moving away from Aesop’s Fables and instead considering an African alternative such as the isiZulu folktale Why the Warthog Goes about on its Knees.

The foundation phase teachers are constantly creating new methodologies to embody the African spirit of our school, and the mixed-cultural heritage of our student body.

It becomes slightly more challenging in the Senior Primary or Intermediate Phase. Bound as we are to certain pedagogical and educational milestones, and the National Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement CAPS curriculum, we need to find ways to become creative in including decolonial thought in our educational practice.

St Mary's Waverley experiental learning

Allow alternative approaches

Learning beyond the classroom is a persuasive first step. Go to the museum! By allowing learners to see alternative histories to those in the media and to engage physically with objects that represent a shared heritage closer to home, we can begin to unshackle the syllabus from the textbook and draw it into a more tangible reality.

We all come into a space with our own baggage. Our own ‘histories, experiences and ideas’ become the backbone for fresh possibilities. Friedrich Engels wrote about:

The great basic idea that the world is not to be viewed as a complex of fully fashioned objects, but as a complex of processes, in which apparently stable objects, no less than the images of them inside our heads (our concepts), are undergoing incessant changes…

This is how I felt in an art museum in Braamfontein surrounded by 60 pre-pubescent girls. Many of these learners had never been to an exhibition such as this. To see the ‘stable object’ actively undergo change as we walked through the cavernous space is what teaching, to me, is all about.

They giggled in groups at the bums and boobs, sat enthralled watching the artist interviews that were screened intermittently throughout the exhibition, and asked profound questions about Sam Nhlengethwa’s Portraits of Death and Santu Mofokeng’s Motouleng Caves series.

There was a playfulness and an earnestness in the different gallery spaces, an initial timidity, a growing confidence and ultimately some revelations – about themselves, their history, what a museum is, and how to engage beyond the school walls.

Ultimately, as educators we find ways to open their eyes, and hope that with each new blink the ‘multiplicity of possibilities’ extends further.