Listening before telling: pairing indigenous knowledge with the school curriculum

A team of researchers set its sights on developing context-relevant teaching tools by using indigenous and local knowledge in the Cofimvaba district in the Eastern Cape. Tebello Letsekha relates the team’s experiences.

South Africa’s transition to democracy in 1994 resulted in a number of changes to the schooling system. Following these changes, school learners had to learn in the context of the Revised National Curriculum Statement (RCNS) from Grades R to 9, which was published in 2002, and the National Curriculum Statement (NCS) from Grades 10 to 12, published in 2003. The NCS was designed in such a way as to ensure flexibility, so it could be adapted to local conditions and needs at school level.

From its side, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) expected these curricula to be interpreted and implemented differently in diverse contexts. Yet, schools in so-called rural areas were still unable to take advantage of the opportunities created by the NCS owing to limited resources.

Applying indigenous knowledge to teaching
This article reflects on the journey of researchers involved in a three-year study that aims to develop context-relevant teaching tools using indigenous and local knowledge in collaboration with local teachers and community members, in the Cofimvaba district in the Eastern Cape.

The study, now in its second year, is titled ‘Promoting and learning from Cofimvaba community’s indigenous knowledge systems (IKS) so as to benefit the school curriculum’. It focuses on promoting the direct participation of teachers in planning, researching and developing learning and teaching support materials (LTSMs) for use in the classroom.

To realise this aim, the project first pursued ways of identifying and making use of local and indigenous knowledge (IK) that would benefit the school curriculum, and then forged links between the school and the wider community.

Contextualising IK within the schooling system
In the South African context, IK refers to a body of knowledge embedded in African philosophical thinking and social practices that have evolved over the years. In the educational context, IK is understood as constituting a challenge to Western thinking and conceptualisation.

A number of studies have expressed the value of IK, and the need for educational processes to be properly contextualised within the local knowledge and language. Such a status quo would lead to linkages between the school or education system, the home, and the wider community of schools.

While the value of IK in education has been recognised, this recognition is yet to translate into practical curriculum processes.

Employing participatory action research, the researchers aim to better understand the Cofimvaba community and the schools that are being used as research sites, as well as work with practising teachers towards contextualising the school curriculum.

The research site: Cofimvaba’s sociocultural and economic background
This study is located in Cofimvaba in the Eastern Cape, which is predominantly rural and characterised by high levels of poverty and unemployment. The community is characterised by critical skills shortages, small scale subsistence farming, a reliance on indigenous plants, food insecurity and a high incidence of HIV/AIDS. Furthermore, the Eastern Cape performed the worst in the 2011 final senior secondary examinations; the five worst performing districts were all located in the Eastern Cape.

Giving teachers a voice
Study methods are qualitative in nature, adopting participatory action research methodologies. The research team is working collaboratively with teachers and indigenous knowledge holders, who serve as community-based researchers.

Values of collective inquiry and experimentation are employed, informed by approaches to indigenous knowledge systems (IKS), and grounded in the experience and sociocultural history of the Cofimvaba community.

In order to understand the Cofimvaba community’s IKS and at the same time attempt to integrate it into the school curriculum, a series of workshops were held. For the most part, the workshops took the form of a dialogue between the participants and the research team, and between the participants themselves. These conversations were important in bringing to the fore the opinions of the participants in their understanding of IKS, and the value it could add to their teaching. The discussions also gave the research team a deeper understanding of the teachers’ needs and how best to engage with them in working together to meet these needs.

One-on-one sessions between teachers and the research team were also held. During this process it was realised that although the teachers were excited about being involved in the project, they were concerned that the Eastern Cape Department of Education and its officials might deem their involvement an added responsibility that would take them away from their teaching duties.

The team attempted to allay these fears by pointing out that the project was in line with what they needed to be doing in the classroom. This cautious attitude towards the project was found to be an impediment towards robustly instilling the concept within the classroom and the school curriculum.

Finding the focus
During the first year of the study, in an attempt to be as inclusive as possible, researchers worked with more than 40 teachers from seven schools in the Nciba Circuit in Cofimvaba, without putting limitations on who could and could not participate. This meant the team had to develop teaching and learning materials for eight learning areas (subjects) for 12 grades (Grade R-12). At the suggestion and request of the teachers, the scope and focus were narrowed down to a single phase over two terms. During that phase teachers chose their own learning area.

The researchers have since developed and delivered the first set of teaching and learning materials for the foundation phase. These materials were informed by the data and conversations held with various Cofimvaba people and included posters and number charts (Figure 1 and 2).

The research team believes that the path it has travelled so far can provide useful lessons for researchers and scholars involved in educational interventions, particularly in rural contexts. During the implementation of the project the team adopted a dynamic approach to planning and activities, allowing the project to adapt to the context and continuously learning from it.

Knowledge, and in turn content that finds its way into school books, is fluid and complex. However, it is essential that it is shaped by local contexts. The fact that local knowledge is valued by all and is beginning to ‘see its way into the classroom’ has further strengthened the team’s relations with the community. It has also led interested parties in the community to take a more active role and greater responsibility for the development of context-relevant teaching and learning materials.

During this process it is important to constantly bear in mind that collaborative research among groups with various skills and education levels can lead to manipulation of participants, where those perceived to possess better skills and higher social status can dominate those perceived to be weaker. Manipulation and power relations that can stifle progress, even with participatory methodologies, must also be guarded against.

The team acknowledges that being consciously sensitive to power is crucial to maximising the use of such methods for truthfully empowering targeted beneficiaries. Drawing on the principles of IKS, it also recognises that it is crucial to respect local people’s knowledge and experience.

Author: Tebello Letsekha, researcher, Education and Skills Development programme, HSRC.

The article draws on a conference papers, Letsekha, T., Wiebesiek-Pienaar, L. & Meyiwa, T. (2013), The Development of Context-relevant Teaching Tools Using Local and Indigenous Knowledge: Reflections of a Sociologist, a Sociolinguist and a Feminist Scholar. The full paper is available at