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Exploring Power and Privilege Using Participatory Learning and Action Techniques


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In contexts of extreme inequality in terms of resources, power and privilege, such as South Africa, students preparing to enter caring professions need to develop the capacity to become critical, thinking and caring people. This would include imagination, a desire for learning, respect and recognition, and democratic practice across racial and class differences. A Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) approach provides a valuable basis from which students can engage in experiential learning about differences and inequalities. In addition, the approach can encourage developing health and human service professionals to be critically reflective in relation to social, political and cultural assumptions they may hold about themselves and others, becoming effectors of social change. We examine how the use of PLA techniques in pedagogic practice provides an environment in which students are able to share their locations and histories across differences of race, class and gender. We describe a joint project involving senior undergraduate students of the Social Work and Occupational Therapy Departments at the University of the Western Cape, and Community Psychology at Stellenbosch University in 2006 and 2007. The article describes how the PLA exercises contributed to students' knowledge of self and others towards anti-oppressive professional practice.
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Social Work Education: The
International Journal
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Exploring Power and Privilege Using
Participatory Learning and Action
Vivienne Bozalek
& Linda Biersteker
University of the Western Cape , South Africa
Early Learning Research Unit , Cape Town, South Africa
Published online: 06 Oct 2009.
To cite this article: Vivienne Bozalek & Linda Biersteker (2010) Exploring Power and Privilege Using
Participatory Learning and Action Techniques, Social Work Education: The International Journal,
29:5, 551-572, DOI: 10.1080/02615470903193785
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Exploring Power and Privilege Using
Participatory Learning and Action
Vivienne Bozalek & Linda Biersteker
In contexts of extreme inequality in terms of resources, power and privilege, such as South
Africa, students preparing to enter caring professions need to develop the capacity to
become critical, thinking and caring people. This would include imagination, a desire for
learning, respect and recognition, and democratic practice across racial and class
differences. A Participatory Lear ning and Action (PLA) approach provides a valuable
basis from which students can engage in experiential learning about differences and
inequalities. In addition, the approach can encourage developing health and human
service professionals to be critically reflective in relation to social, political and cultural
assumptions they may hold about themselves and others, becoming effectors of social
change. We examine how the use of PLA techniques in pedagogic practice provides an
environment in which students are able to share their locations and histories across
differences of race, class and gender. We describe a joint project involving senior
undergraduate students of the Social Work and Occupational Therapy Departments at the
University of the Western Cape, and Community Psychology at Stellenbosch University in
2006 and 2007. The article describes how the PLA exercises contributed to students’
knowledge of self and others towards anti-oppressive professional practice.
Keywords: Collaboration; Anti-discriminatory Practice; Diversity; Blended Learning;
Experiential Learning; Higher Education; Social Justice; Reflective Learning; Students
This article examines the value of Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) techniques
for the education and training of health and human service professionals given the
ISSN 0261-5479 print/1470-1227 online q 2010 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/02615470903193785
Vivienne Bozalek, University of the Western Cape, South Africa; Linda Biersteker, Early Learning Research Unit, Cape
Town, South Africa.
Correspondence to: Professor Vivienne Bozalek, Social Work, University of the Western Cape, Private Bag X17, Bellville,
Cape Town 7535, South Africa. Email:
Social Work Education
Vol. 29, No. 5, August 2010, pp. 551–572
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legacy of apartheid and the deepening poverty and inequality of contemporary South
Africa. It focuses on a transinstitutional and transdisciplinary module entitled
Community, Self and Identity, designed and implemented in 2006 and 2007 by
academics at the Universities of the Western Cape and Stellenbosch, two higher
education institutions in the Western Cape, South Africa. In this module, learners
from various health and human service professions were provided with opportunities
to engage experientially and in dialogue with each other, using and reflecting on PLA
techniques in a series of face-to-face workshops and virtual learning experiences. The
article adds to previous writings on this collaborative teaching endeavour (Bozalek
et al., 2007; Leibowitz et al., 2007; Rohleder et al., 2007, 2008a, 2008b, 2008c; Swartz
et al., 2009), which examine the project from different vantage points. Our particular
focus in this article is on the value of PLA techniques for initiating critical engagement
about positioning and privilege between diverse groups of students, as a pedagogical
tool for anti-oppressive and reflective practice towards social justice.
Anti-oppressive or anti-discriminator y practice is regarded as an important
approach in social work education to deal with inequities and institutional and
cultural exclusion (Dalrymple and Burke, 1995; Dominelli, 2002; Mullaly, 2002; Pease,
2002; Thompson, 2003, 2006; Rattansi, 2007; Thompson and Thompson, 2008). It is
our contention that PLA techniques are potentially powerful tools for the education
and training of social work students to become critically reflective and imaginative
practitioners, not only in the particular location of South Africa, but internationally in
both southern and northern contexts. In this paper we demonstrate an instance of how
PLA techniques can be used in higher education for students to engage with each other
in building bridges across differences in institutions, professions and other forms of
positioning. In analysing students’ engagement with each other through the use of
PLA techniques, we draw on principles from theorists who use anti-oppressive, critical
reflective and social justice perspectives to examine the impact that the experience
had on them.
Participatory Learning in a Higher Education Policy Context
In South Africa today, higher education policies are informed by the necessity to
promote inclusivity, to redress the skewed distribution of resources and divisions on
the basis of race (Department of Education, 2001a, 2001b; Winberg, 2006).
Furthermore, social service policies such as the Service Delivery Model for
Developmental Social Services and the Integrated Delivery Model (Department of
Social Development, 2004, 2006) have identified the necessity for multi- and
transdisciplinary teamwork in service delivery to address poverty and inequality in
South Africa. This imperative calls for commitment and will on the part of educators
and students in the higher education sector to engage in innovative collaborative
endeavours. The Community, Self and Identity project discussed in this article is an
attempt to promote these goals by engaging across professions and across institutions
which were established to serve different racialised groups in the apartheid era.
Students who are becoming professionals need to gain experience of engaging across
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differences themselves in order to gain the confidence to address social development
issues across professional domains and practise from an anti-oppressive perspective.
What are PLA Techniques?
PLA has evolved within the family of participatory methodologies used in development
practice and is based on the epistemological perspective that expert and professional
knowledge needs ‘to be humble and appreciate peoples own knowledge and ways of
knowing’ (Chambers, 2007, p. 19). PLA has several sources, including participatory
action research (e.g. Hall, 1979, 1981; Mbilinyi, 1982, 1993; Mies, 1983; Maguire, 1987)
and popular education (Freire, 1970). These approaches are democratic, call for a critical
self-consciousness on the part of the researchers/facilitators as well as a concern with
social justice, and seek to lead to some action based on the needs identified by the
communities involved. The development of PLA has derived from practice and
experiential learning, led by NGO workers especially in India with support from research
institutes, notably the Institute for Development Studies, United Kingdom (Chambers,
1997, 2007). The PLA methodology is interactive, allowing for the development of new
insights and action plans. It commonly uses visual learning methods which are adaptable
and used flexibly to learn from and to evaluate peoples concerns. These are accessible to
people with different levels of literacy and the different types of representation
themselves may act as a catalyst for different ways of thinking and knowing.
The educational aspect of PLA supports the development of students’ critical
consciousness or reflection, a key element of anti-oppressive and critical reflective
practice for health and human service professionals (Dalrymple and Burke, 1995;
Dominelli, 2002; Sakamoto and Pitner, 2005; Fook and Gardner, 2007; Thompson and
Thompson, 2008). Thompson and Thompson (2008) distinguish between traditional
approaches to reflective practice which have little focus on the wider political and
social aspects of situations, and critical reflection which pays particular attention to
the social arrangements of inequality and privilege. PLA techniques promote this form
of critical reflection referred to by Thompson and Thompson (2008) as the techniques
provide opportunities to examine issues from political, social and economic
perspectives (Freire, 1970; Hall, 1979, 1981; Tandon, 1981; Mbilinyi, 1982, 1993; Mies,
1983; Maguire, 1987). Through the process of collaborative interaction, par ticipants
are able to view their situations from alternative perspectives. This view of knowledge
articulates well with the arguments of Sen (1995) and Nussbaum (1995, 2000), in that
they assume that those who are marginalised have internalised discursive practices
which naturalise their disadvantaged positions.
Institutional Context of the Project
The University of the Western Cape (UWC) is an historically black university,
currently known as an Historically Disadvantaged Institution (HDI). This reflects its
history as an apartheid-state creation, as it was specifically designed to be a university
for those categorised as ‘the coloured population’ of South Africa. The Western Cape is
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also home to the better academically resourced University of Stellenbosch (SUN), an
historically white university or Historically Advantaged Institution (HAI) reserved
under apartheid for white Afrikaans
speaking students. Today, UWC remains a
comparatively under-resourced institution serving mainly working class African and
coloured students, speaking mainly Afrikaans, English and IsiXhosa. English is the
language of instruction at UWC, which for the majority of students there is not their
home language. SUN remains a well-resourced predominantly white universit y, with
students who are typically from middle class backgrounds. The language of instruction
at SUN is Afrikaans, the home language of the majority of students.
A central concern for health and human services professions currently in South
Africa is the importance of transforming relations between students from HAIs and
HDIs and between different professions which are differentially placed in terms of
status recognition, and in terms of access to resources. With these concerns in mind,
the project team met to deliberate upon the best pedagogical practices to engage
students across differences of profession and institution. The team included a lecturer
in social work at UWC, lecturers in psychology, an educational development expert at
SUN, and a member of an NGO who is an expert on PLA techniques. Out of the five
team members, four were white and one coloured; four were female and one male; all
were English speaking and middle class and shared a history of involvement in the
political struggle in South Africa, and all were over 40. The most notable absence in the
team was of African language speakers. Team members had a common interest in
innovative pedagogical practices and a desire to develop practices which would
promote social justice in the post-apartheid context. The team has formed a
community of practice where teaching, research and reflection have led to a rigorous
self evaluation of pedagogical practices and a series of conference presentations and
collaborative publications (see Bozalek et al. , 2007; Leibowitz et al., 2007; Rohleder
et al., 2007, 2008a, 2008b, 2008c).
The team spent a great deal of time deliberating on how best to implement a
transinstitutional and transdisciplinary course which would address issues of
inequality and privilege across the different institutional contexts. Students studying at
HAIs come from relatively privileged sectors of society, with access to better secondary
school education and literate parents as well as other privileges and resources than
their counterparts at HDIs. To deal with these inequitable relations of power, the team
decided that PLA techniques would be a suitable modality for students to begin their
engagement with each other. We knew that students between HAIs and HDIs had very
few opportunities for interacting with each other, due to apartheid legacies of
geographical separation which continue to affect interactional patterns of
communication in contemporary South Africa. In providing students w ith
opportunities to work collaboratively on the themes of community, self and identity,
it was hoped that they would be able to become more aware of differences and
inequitable economic, social, political and cultural structures and practices.
We considered PLA techniques to be a useful pedagogical tool for a number of
reasons. Firstly, we anticipated that due to their differing academic literacy skills,
immediately engaging in writing exercises would disadvantage those from the HDI,
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thus privileging the group of students who were already in positions of relative
privilege. Furthermore we assumed that engaging in PLA experiential exercises—in
both drawing and reflecting their communities and life trajectories—would lead to
more participatory parity (Fraser, 1997; Fraser and Honneth, 2003) between students
from different professions and institutions. We expected this outcome as the privileged
group of students would be in a situation of learning from those who had experienced
greater levels of discrimination. Secondly, the techniques allow students to consider
issues of where they have been placed in relation to resources and the privilege and
harm emerging from their positioning in relation to resources in the light of their own
experiences. Thirdly, students are given the opportunity to interrogate the point of
view of their everyday social practices by engaging in PLA techniques in dialogue
with their peers, as well as reading and commenting on critical texts on community,
self and identity.
One of the major goals of having students engage in the PLA exercises is for them to
come to the realisation that it is possible to occupy contradictor y positions of
privilege and disadvantage, and to develop shared understandings about health and
social service delivery with students from different institutions and professions. The
process of PLA in class and then their interactions around this in a virtual
environment would have the effect of realising this goal. Sharing stories from their
PLA drawings also has the potential of providing an opportunity for students to
critically view their understandings of social issues by exposing them to the
differential impact that these issues have had on their own lives and those of students
from other institutions and professions. We hoped that there would be opportunities
for students to challenge each other so that knowledge could be deepened
(VeneKlasen et al., 2004).
Finally by using PLA techniques we intended to enhance students’ reflexivity in
relation to their own situations so that they would be in a better position to deal with
the capabilities and marginalisation of those with whom they will work. It is a way of
enacting and thinking about techniques which they will be implementing in their
professional practice.
The Project and Participants
In 2006, the seven-week Community, Self and Identity module included approximately
95 students, 50 of whom were studying fourth year Social Work at UWC and 45 who
were studying Community Psychology in Psychology Honours and the Bachelor of
Psychology at SUN. In 2007 the module was extended to include Occupational
Therapy students at UWC as well, totalling 105 students. Tables 1 and 2 show the
students’ identifying details in 2006 and 2007.
As can be seen from Table 1, the majority of the SUN students were white (73%)
with no African students, and spoke Afrikaans (53%) or English (38%). Among the
SUN students were four exchange students from the Netherlands who had enrolled in
the community psychology course. In contrast, the UWC students were coloured
(62%) or African (38%), with no white students. The majority spoke Afrikaans (44%)
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or one of the main African languages (in this case isiXhosa and seSotho) (34%). The
UWC students were generally older than the SUN students, and the overwhelming
majority of students in both institutions were female.
In 2007 the pattern is similar with the majority of SUN students white (70%) and at
UWC coloured (62%) or African (32%). Students at SUN spoke English (41%) or
Afrikaans (29%) while at UWC they spoke predominantly English (49%) while 32%
speak African languages. An overwhelming number (91%) of students across
disciplines and institutions were female. A significant change in 2007 was that UWC
students dominated the groups, with each group of six or seven students having only
one SUN psychology student.
Learning outcomes for the module as a whole were for students to:
Table 1 Student Identifying Details in 2006
University Stellenbosch Western Cape
Number of students 45 50
Age Range 2152 2148
Mean 24.1 yrs 27.4 yrs
Median 22 yrs 25 yrs
Gender Female 38 44
Male 7 6
Race African None 19
Coloured 12 31
White 33 None
Language African None 17
Afrikaans 24 22
English 17 11
Dutch 4 None
Table 2 Student Identifying Details in 2007
University Stellenbosch Western Cape
Discipline Psychology Social Work Occupational Therapy
Number of students 17 44 44
Age Range 2052 20 37 2042
Mean 27.4 yrs 24.3 yrs 23.5 yrs
Median 22 yrs 23 yrs 23 yrs
Gender Female 12 42 42
Male 5 2 2
Race African 2 18 10
Coloured 3 25 30
White 12 1 4
Language African 2 18 10
Afrikaans 5 14 3
English 7 12 31
Other 3 None None
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communicate with peers as virtual partners on reflective and academic issues;
apply particular Participatory Learning Action (PLA) techniques;
engage with peers from different disciplinary, social and institutional backgrounds;
interrogate the notion of ‘community’ through examining their own experience,
engaging with literature on the topic and sharing ideas across disciplines and
institutions with virtual classmates;
reflect on constructions of social, professional and institutional identities, and
use PowerPoint to prepare and present an interdisciplinary account of the
relationship between identity, community and professional practice.
In order to meet these outcomes a range of learning activities were developed, using
the PLA experience as the platform for further engagement and reflection. Rubrics
were developed to assess each of the outcomes, however, these are not discussed in this
article as the focus is upon PLA techniques and their contribution to the learning
opportunities to meet the course outcomes. The learning activities are outlined in
Table 3.
The project began with a workshop held at the University of the Western Cape at the
start of February in both years, which was attended by all the students and facilitators.
Students were assigned to workgroups of six. Each group was divided to include a
balance of students from each discipline. Students were randomly selected to fill these
allocations and remained in these workgroups for the duration of the project. Each
group had its own facilitator who interacted with them throughout the module.
The PLA exercises were the focus of this first workshop. After this event students
were required to engage in online communication sessions with members of their
group; hand in several worksheets to their group facilitators; engage with selected
course readings; write a final reflective essay on the course; and prepare for the final
face-to-face engagement, at which the groups had to do a PowerPoint presentation on
their experience of the course to the rest of the class. Although the students actually did
the PLA exercises in the first workshop only, these exercises provided the central focus
point or platform for the module, as all subsequent exercises are based upon the
students’ responses to these, including engagement with critical literature on
community, self and identity.
Techniques used in the Workshop
At the initial workshop, students engaged in a community mapping exercise in which
they drew their home and neighbourhoods, indicating available resources and things
they would like to change. In a second exercise, they drew their ‘Life River’ which had
led them to enter their respective studies, important influences, and good and difficult
times. Students shared and spoke about their drawings within their groups. This gave
them the opportunity to explore and interrogate their own constructions and ideas of
community’ and those of students who may be perceived as different from them in
terms of their racial, class and gender identities. The tasks were both explained by the
facilitators and written instructions were available in isiXhosa, Afrikaans and English,
the predominant student languages.
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Table 3 Outline of the Project
Timing Activities and content
First face-to-face one day workshop
at Historically Disadvantaged
(Black) Institution
E-learning training. Input on PLA techniques—origins and what they are. Experiential exercises in community
mapping and life river. Small group interactions across institutions and professions, narrative sharing of PLA
exercises, sharing, meeting over tea and lunch.
First online postings—Week 1 Students post responses to images of PLA drawings of community and life river which have been uploaded and
respond to other group members’ postings on the virtual learning environment (VLE). Worksheet on workshop
experiences and what was learnt about self, own profession and institution, others’ professions and institution,
PLA. Reflection on own work, the impact of the responses of others on students’ perceptions of themselves, their
communities. Reflection on community map and life river of one person from neighbouring institution.
Second online postings—Week 2 Students reflect on community maps from students from other profession/institution in their workgroups.
Comments posted to groups discussion forum on the commonalities, differences and themes which emerge.
Students respond to each others’ postings.
Third online posting—Week 3 Students read literature provided online on ‘community’ and ‘community work’ and post in the discussion forum of
their group their views of the notion of community integrating thoughts on readings, personal and professional
Fourth online posting—Week 4 Students post comments responding to two other group members from different disciplines on their notion of
Ongoing Group project preparing PowerPoint presentation of learnings about relationship between identity, community and
professional practice.
Second face-to-face workshop at
Historically Advantaged (White)
Presentation of group projects.
Reflective essay (submitted
online)—Week 6
Students submit a short essay paper on learnings through working together, specific processes that facilitated learning,
how learnings connect to previous understandings of notions of ‘community’, ‘self and ‘identity’, influences if any
for future work, as well as evaluative comments on resources, products, tools and activities.
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Facilitators were aware that these techniques, especially the Life Rivers, could arouse
powerful emotions and leave students feeling vulnerable and exposed. To try and
prevent this, students were warned at the beginning of the exercise only to draw what
they were w illing to talk about. Some chose not to disclose too much and one declined
to do the Life River exercise. However, most went ahead and while many of the
students’ reflective essays indicated discomfort in sharing ‘personal things w ith
strangers’, especially when their experiences had been painful or ‘things that you were
not proud of and had buried’, they almost all felt strengthened by the process of
How the PLA Exercises Contributed to Students’ Knowledge of Self and Others
towards Anti-oppressive and Critically Reflective Professional Practice
In this section we provide some examples of students’ drawings, and go on to analyse
students’ online worksheets, reflective essays, discussion forums and evaluations to see
whether there are indications that the use of the PLA techniques achieved the intended
Students’ Drawings
Figures 1 3 are maps of three very different communities and the challenges faced by
people living in them. Figure 1, drawn by a coloured student at UWC, shows a typical
urban working class community with poor quality, overcrowded services, high
unemployment leading to many people on the streets, shebeens (small informal
businesses that sell alcohol) which contribute to crime and a lack of safety, a lack of
recreational facilities, and exposure at school to substance abuse and other peer
pressures. In contrast Figure 2, Ikhaya Lam (My home), drawn by an African student
from a rural area, shows a community lacking basic infrastructure, such as clean water
and sanitation, having to fetch wood for fuel and vast distances to basic services such
as the clinic, police services, school and to church. This isolated rural environment is
one in which children play safely together. Figure 3 depicts the affluent university town
of Stellenbosch where facilities and resources are abundant, as are part-time work
opportunities. The student’s chief concerns were for her personal safety on account of
crime, and that her family support system is far away.
In Figure 4 a UWC student’s river shows positive early experiences but major life
stresses through deaths of significant people
and financial difficulties as an obstacle to
higher education. In Figure 5 a SUN student indicates that her major life challenges,
apart from some difficult times in high school, have been deciding on the direction her
studies should take.
Analysis of Students’ Reflections
We have utilised principles identified in writings on anti-oppressive and critical
reflective practice (Dominelli, 2002; Mullaly, 2002; Thompson, 2003, 2006; Sakamoto
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and Pitner, 2005; Fook and Gardner, 2007) and social justice pedagogies (Adams, 2007)
to examine the students’ reactions to the PLA exercises. These principles were consonant
with what we hoped to achieve by introducing PLA techniques. To summarise, this
included illuminating students’ own capabilities under constraining circumstances,
enhancing their reflexivity and raising awareness of difference, power relations and
inequitable social, political and cultural structures and practices.
We have selected typical quotes from the majority of the students’ reflections on the
PLA exercises which demonstrate how the PLA approach enabled these capacities.
Many of the students’ general reflections indicate that the PLA exercises were a
powerful stimulus for enhancing reflexivity and sensitising them to inequities and
constraints in a way that was not too threatening. One of the students commented on
this aspect:
The drawing exercises let us “play”, and took the “seriousness” and nervousness out
of the situation we were placed in.
Figure 1 Urban Community Map: University of the Western Cape Student, 2007.
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Hodge (2005) similarly noted that resistance and anxiety can be ameliorated through
the use of a pictorial medium, and using the drawing as a focus can help concretise the
extant strengths.
In their essays there were several comments on the visual exercises as a stimulus for
group interactions which provided new insights about themselves as well as others and
allowed for self expression.
... as soon as you start drawing one thing you immediately think of all the other
things that link up with your initial idea. After the drawings had been made, I was
Figure 2 Rural Community Map: University of the Western Cape Student, 2007.
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surprised to see the things that were in front of me on my paper. Thus, I learned that
with these techniques one can gain insight and perspective, especially when sharing
and listening to others’ interpretations, into your own world, ideas, thoughts and
self-perceptions. (SUN, white male, psychology)
The two exercises were chosen from a range of possible PLA techniques for their
complementarity. The mapping highlights the different circumstances in which
students live and different values placed on resources, and the Life River highlights the
personal, itself a reflection of societal patter ns. This included the differing
circumstances and trajectories of students and the obstacles they had to overcome,
as well as the similarities that students identified though they come from very different
circumstances. Drawing of the rivers not only enabled participants to track their own
life experiences and how these had shaped them as individuals, but also served to
facilitate group identity formation and communities of practice (Wenger, 1998) in
which they worked for the entire module.
I’ve learned that I’m not so different at all from other people. I’ve found out that
even though I come from a different background, I have something in common with
people other than my race, culture and tribe. I’ve learned that the history of
apartheid still has an impact in my life. I found that it’s hard for me to express myself
to other races because I feel uncomfortable around other race ... (UWC, African
female, social work)
Figure 3 Urban Community Map: Stellenbosch University Student, 2006.
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This exercise (the drawing of the “Life Rivers”) was challenging for me, as I expected
that my group members would not be able to identify with me. During this activity I
realised that basic human emotions are handy and effective tools to help individuals
with significant differences to identify with each other. Even though our group was
aware of our differences, we saw how we all experienced pain, sadness and joy and we
used this as starting point to learn from and identify with one another. (SUN, white
female, psychology)
Some students did, however, find the exercises particularly anxiety-provoking. One
student found that as she was speaking she ‘ got flashbac ks to certain events that I have
pushed so far out of my mind that it made me emotional in front of people I don’t know’; a
second said that just thinking about what to leave out ‘already made me think of sad
experiences that happened to me and this made me feel vulnerable. Group facilitators
Figure 4 Life River University of the Western Cape Student 2007.
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continued to be in close touch with their group members for several weeks after the
exercise and were in a position to follow up with support or referrals, but this did not arise.
The discomfort that these exercises cause is important for learning about privilege
and exclusion and forms part of what Boler (1999) refers to as a ‘pedagogy of
Figure 5 Life River Stellenbosch University Student, 2006.
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discomfort’. This affective dimension of reflection is an aspect of higher education
which is largely neglected in favour of a cognitive emphasis, yet it is a crucial focus to
incorporate as students’ responses to learning , particularly about matters such as
difference, inequalities and privilege (Boler, 1999; Wong, 2004; Comerford, 2005;
Thompson and Thompson, 2008).
Increased Self Awareness
The diverse composition of student groups provided opportunities to explore ideas
and feelings about race, class and language as well as about how they would be viewed
by other professions.
Through mapping my own community and the available (and blatant scarcity of)
resources, I got the opportunity to reflect on my community not only in terms of
resources, but also communal ethos (including prevailing prejudices, attitudes
towards gender, and even racism). (UWC, coloured male, social work)
There were a number of learnings of a more personal nature especially in relation to
the Life River exercise:
The river of life ... required me to recall memories that I had forgotten and actually
helped me realise where my need to enter the field of the helping profession comes
from. I also found that in order for me to be a helper I needed to give attention to my
past and how it influenced the person that I am now ... (SUN, white female,
Self awareness for critical reflection and a focus our own biographies are important in
the process of becoming anti-oppressive practitioners (e.g. Healy, 2005; Fook and
Gardner, 2007).
Understanding Power Relations and Social Inequities
In order to better assist their future clients to realise their capabilities and challenge
their marginalisation, students involved in the caring professions need to reflect
critically on the impact of majority social systems on both themselves and others
(Comerford, 2005; Cooner, 2005). As Swigonski (1996) notes, privileges make people
feel at home in the world and take for granted that they are the centre of their world
where social, political, economic and other resources are available. Exclusion, on the
other hand, de-centres or marginalises individuals who have less access to such
Moreover, those who are marginalised are commonly deprived of the discursive
space to define themselves in their own terms and have, therefore, to subscribe to the
definitions of themselves by those who are in power in order to survive. The PLA
techniques were designed to provide students with adequate space to be able to express
themselves in relation to their experiences of marginalisation and privilege. The goal
was to provide an opportunity for students to externalise issues—in other words to
regard them in the complexity of their socio-political context rather than seeing them
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solely as personally or internally generated. Connecting the effects of prejudice and
oppression along lines of race, class, and gender to students’ own lives has also been
found to be beneficial by educational writers such as Wolk (2003).
UWC has been identified in a recent study to be the hig her education institution with
the most impoverished students in South Africa (Breier et al., 2007). The PLA exercises
foregrounded inequities of power and resources and several students indicated feelings
of marginalisation in relation to certain majority social systems, for example inferiority
in relation to dominant languages and impoverished rural backgrounds.
I am easily intimidated by people who are fluent or for whom English is their first
language, because it is my fifth language, learning and knowing is a challenge to me ...
noticed that I was the only black person in my group. (UWC, African female, social
Lack of resources ... and lack of development was common in most of the
communities but I felt so small ... because I was the only person talking about the
rural area and this made me feel that my group members might be shocked about
how bad rural areas are. (UWC, African female, social work)
Reflections on differences in access to resources indicate that several more-
privileged students from both institutions were shocked by their ignorance of the vast
discrepancies between communities while others felt challenged to address the root
causes of these imbalances.
Group discussion made me aware that people in my group don’t even have running
water at home. This made me aware of the fact that I was once again taking privileges
for granted. (UWC, coloured female, occupational therapy)
The discrepancies in the distribution of resources among various geographical
communities were highlighted. Some group members regarded this state of affairs as
natural and not necessarily problematic, while others were plagued [by] this
injustice. The first-world/third-world dichotomy urged us all to consider the roots
of this issue as well as contemplate whether and how these imbalances may be
rectified. (SUN, white female, psychology)
The people from the UWC had a total different background comparing to me. For
me that was particularly interesting because I have never the opportunity to actually
talk to such people. (SUN, white female, psycholog y)
The above student’s reflection underscores the lack of contact between white and black
as well as middle and working class students which may exist in other countries, but is
endemic to the effects of geographical separation due to apartheid.
Life histories also indicated different positioning due to gender (Pease, 2001) and as
one student wrote:
One of the important things that came to light in our discussion is the lack of power
women have in our (working class) communities. Women fall prey easily to men and
they get victimised everyday without any recourse to lean on or draw from. Men still
fail to display the respect due to women and continue to put women at the periphery.
This made me hate my place in the world as a man. (UWC, African male, social work)
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As well as highlighting inequities, the exercises were also valuable in that students
recognised the capabilities of those who deal with difficult circumstances, both at an
intra- and inter-institutional level:
The information that we were confronted with was eye openers, reflecting suffering and
human resilience. The Black ladies in our group shared moments of true hardships:
from unwanted pregnancies to having to make do with the bare necessities of life and to
survive to be fourth year Social Work students. Even learning from our white group
members what its like to never have experienced want was interesting. (UWC,
coloured male, social work, referring to African and white students in his group)
It is really amazing how some people managed to cope with the circumstances they
were faced wi th. Hearing the stories made me feel so ashamed when it came to
analysing my problems; it sounded and looked like a dream to theirs. (SUN, white
female, psychologist, referring to UWC students)
In discussing these experiences and making them visible in these small collaborative
learning communities, the PLA techniques provided the opportunity for students to
consider both the impact of the local socio-political context, and their agency in
relation to it, and so to generate alternative stories that could be useful for them in
their personal lives and in their practice as health and human service professionals.
Diversity and Inclusion
An appreciation of diversity is essential for inclusive practice (Dalrymple and Burke,
1995; Thompson, 2003; Comerford, 2005; Cooner, 2005) and the group experiences
were useful in providing an opportunit y to dialogue in a diverse group (Sakamoto and
Pitner, 2005). Many students described their discovery of new aspects in relation to
different sociocultural practices and family structures.
There are also some differences and similarities within South African context. Some
of the cultures share the belief that for someone to be a man he has to go for
initiation ceremony ... One of the group members showed that to us when she told
us about her strong belief in her culture. For example in what she wants to decide she
contacts parents first. (UWC, coloured male, social work)
Some students reflected on the implications of diversity for their future professional
Being bundled into a group with strangers from diverse cultures, disciplines, races,
ethnicity, and socio economic backgrounds was anxiety-provoking to say the least, and
quite invasive considering that we were expected to share quite personal experiences
with these strangers. This encounter gave me a meaningful glimpse into how our
clients must feel when they sometimes lay their souls bare to us as social workers,
occupational therapists, or psychologists ... (UWC, coloured male, social work)
Commitment to Action and Change
Commitment to action and change is an essential aspect of both PLA and anti-
oppressive practice (Dalrymple and Burke, 1995; Chambers, 1997; Adams, 2002;
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Sakamoto and Pitner, 2005). The mapping of students’ communities and sharing of
these appeared to be a powerful stimulus for them thinking about themselves as
change agents, both for students from poorly resourced communities and for
privileged students who were humbled by their privilege and felt a sense of
responsibility and social justice.
This was a great tool in making us (a)ware to what is really need in our communities
and that we can became change agent for our communities. We can be that resources
in our communities. (UWC, African female, social work)
The community maps were a great idea. I learned (about) the conditions that many
of my colleagues have faced. Many of them do not have the most basic of resources
available to them in the places where they live ... It strengthened my desire to get
involved in the community and to make a change, as small as it may be. (SUN, white
female, psychologist)
The above quote and others in which students identify themselves as historically
privileged in relation to their peers could be seen as a contribution to the notion of
‘responsible well-being’ or recognition of obligations to others posited by Chambers
In order to move forward to address and redress inequities and forms of
marginalisation in South Africa, we have argued for the necessity to pay greater
attention to how to develop health and human service professionals who value their
own attributes and histories, and who can develop a criticality to issues of power and
its effects on their world as well as an empathy for ‘the other’ as VeneKlasen et al.
(2004, p. 9) perceive it:
They begin to question the world and their place in it, affirming their own sources of
power and discovering how other forms of power affect their lives. As they question,
they develop and deepen a sense of personal worth, a critical and compassionate
worldview, and the skills and willingness to act both indiv idually and collectively to
improve their world.
Students’ responses to the Community, Self and Identity module indicate that PLA
methods provide a base which facilitated students’ abilities to achieve the learning
outcomes as identified on page 557. These included students’ abilities to reflect on
their social, professional and institutional identities and the PLA methods provided a
unique opportunity for them to engage with one another, given the apartheid legacy of
geographical, cultural and social separation. They could examine how they were
positioned in relation to their own resources and trajectories, and evaluate this against
those of their peers. This provided a space in which they could begin to interrogate the
notion of community. By sharing their drawings and stories, students were able to
acquire a richer understanding of power relations and identity constructions on both
an experiential and conceptual level and were able to gain access to knowledges that
had previously been obfuscated due to apartheid separation and its subsequent effects.
The understandings that emerged from interactions with each other in relation to the
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PLA methods were subsequently built upon in their virtual communications on
reflective and academic issues and their interdisciplinary PowerPoint presentations.
A degree of participatory parity in the classroom was achieved in that students
appeared to have to come to respect their own abilities as learners and co-creators of
knowledge. Both educators and students gain from questioning their values and
assumptions in what Megan Boler (1999) refers to as a pedagogy of discomfort’ and
Davidson (2004) calls a ‘decentring of the academic self. The extent to which these
gains are sustainable and the degree to which these PLA techniques and the subsequent
reflection and interaction with their peers across institutions and professions impacts
on students’ attitudes and behaviour in the workplace is the subject of a further study
by the research team. Students who have left the higher education institutions and are
now in the workplace will be followed up and the impact of the PLA techniques on
their current attitudes and abilities to deal with differences across race, class and
profession are in the process of being studied. This will be reported on in upcoming
We have identified several initiatives in higher education which incorporate
pedagogical practices dealing with social justice and inclusiv ity (e.g. Boler, 1999;
Waghid, 2001; Boler and Zembalyas, 2003; Comerford, 2005; Cooner, 2005). However,
we have not found any literature which specifically utilises PLA techniques for this
purpose. Furthermore, the response to written articles (Bozalek et al., 2007; Leibowitz
et al., 2007; Rohleder et al., 2007, 2008a, 2008b, 2008c) and conference presentations,
in both national and international contexts suggests that the approach used in this
module is innovative and unique. Since marginalisation and inequities are a common
issue across international contexts, we believe that PLA techniques would be useful in
the higher education context in American, European and Australasian contexts as well,
especially in the current climate of massification of higher education. The course
designers intend to build a model based on the experiences of conducting this module
over a three year period and make this available on a website so that it can be
While this approach has much to offer, it presents a number of implementation and
sustainability challenges.
The interdisciplinarity and working across inst itutions poses problems for
curriculum planning. University and facult y structures would have to be targeted
to convince them of the importance of incorporating the module as a permanent part
of the curriculum.
As a blended (face-to-face and online) learning module, it requires a high staff to
student ratio (one to six) to facilitate social interaction in student learning .
Facilitators need to be able to respond adequately to emotional discomfort and
distress which can emerge or referral services need to be available. This requires
additional resources.
Facilitators require additional training in an online learning management platform
and PLA technique s and, for future running of the module, we would have to pay
more attention to this, including the facilitator’s own positionality and racialised
experiences of the world (Milner, 2007).
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Despite these challenges, the investment of time and resources appears to be a
worthwhile endeavour but research is needed on the longer term impact on both staff
and students’ professional development.
This work is based upon research supported by the South African Netherlands
Research Programme on Alternatives in Development (SANPAD), the National
Research Foundation, UWC Research Fund and the VLIRR Fund. The authors would
like to acknowledge the contributions of the other members of the design and research
team, Leslie Swartz, Brenda Leibowitz, Paul Rohleder, Ronelle Carollissen and Lindsey
[1] Afrikaans and English were official languages during the apartheid era.
[2] Poverty and AIDS related deaths are a very common experience for UWC students.
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... The Community, Self and Identity (CSI) project, as it became known, was set up to investigate whether and how, through dialogue and the exposure to multiple perspectives, both students and academics might be enabled to question dominant knowledges and assumptions about issues of community, self and identity in South Africa. Thus, issues of power, privilege and difference informing academics' and students' professional and institutional positions were central to this project, in the context of apartheid-designed higher education institutions and geographical areas of South Africa which still affect human settlement and movement, with little contact between students and academics across UWC and SU Bozalek and Biersteker 2010). ...
... The academics decided to use participatory learning and action (PLA) techniques within the course because they could potentially allow the experiences of black, working-class social work students to be foregrounded and appreciated. PLA techniques are interactive, usually practised in groups and often rely on visual methods, where the participants are asked to draw something and then discuss it with other participants in their groups afterwards (Bozalek and Biersteker 2010). As an approach, PLA, which is part of participatory action research (PAR), views participants themselves as experts of their lives, and the educator as a facilitator for amplifying the becoming-with of the participants. ...
... As an approach, PLA, which is part of participatory action research (PAR), views participants themselves as experts of their lives, and the educator as a facilitator for amplifying the becoming-with of the participants. PLA techniques can be regarded as a form of arts-based approaches (Bozalek and Biersteker 2010). ...
... Some of the theories that undergird my teaching include situated learning, critical social work, feminist theory, family systems theory and narrative theory. Critical for me are the activities that infuse my SOTL in the South 6(1): April 2022 Agherdien, Pillay, Dube, Masinga teaching using participatory action research (Bozalek, 2014;Bozalek & Biersteker, 2010) and ...
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The #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall student protests accelerated the call for a decolonised higher education space. Much complexity and debate exists around the notion of a decolonised curriculum, how to frame it, describe it and/or enact it. Within this debate, the positionality and identity of individuals who design, implement, and evaluate curricula are important. The purpose of this article is to reflect on how theory-informed pedagogical reflections can assist in our understanding of decolonisation. The four educator reflections include our personal accounts of pedagogical philosophies, methodologies, and practices. A major focus is social work, which aims to enhance the well-being of all persons especially the disadvantaged, the marginalised and the voiceless. Through belonging to a community of practice, we embarked on the process of articulating our voice, positionality, and identity and how this informs our teaching, which is both personal and political within a South African higher education context. We provide our ways of knowing regarding how we (try) to contribute to social justice and equity ideals. We conclude with our consolidated view on an envisioned, decolonised education in the global South context. We recommend an approach that values ongoing, collective reflection, critical questioning, and agitation of how a decolonised curriculum can be envisaged. The contribution that this article makes is in the value of collective reflection, coupled with embracing personal stories/biographies to theorise decolonisation.
... Consequently, SWE uses and develops approaches to meet these expectations, for example, reflective learning (Gould & Taylor, 2017;Halton et al., 2007;Pawar, 2016;Pawar & Anscombe, 2015) . collaborative learning (Knowles & Singh Cooner, 2016;Vapalahti & Marttunen, 2020) or participatory learning (Bozalek & Biersteker, 2010;Granosik, 2018). The purpose of this article is to discuss qualitative findings based on the actions of social pedagogy 1 students from the University of Lodz (Poland) whose education employs the transformative approach (Brooks, Kandel-Cisco & Bhathena, 2021;Mezirow, 1994Mezirow, , 2012 and critical action learning (CAL) method (Pedler & Trehan, 2010;Rigg & Trehan, 2004). ...
... One year after starting this memoir, I attended a workshop where I had to draw my "river of life" from childhood to current context and then explain in ten minutes what we had drawn (Bozalek & Biersteker, 2010). I noticed that all the participants, mostly women, in the session would have liked more time to talk about their drawings and the communities in which they find themselves and that they wanted to be heard. ...
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This is an autoethnography of a black woman who tracks her educational trajectory through and beyond Apartheid South Africa. In addition to the formal educational journey, the inseparable cultural education is included. For comparison, she employs the stories of other black women in similar academic positions and institutions in South Africa, to depict an inclusive, yet often exclusive, reality of being a black (Black, mixed, Indian) woman academic in South Africa. Deconstructing the academic experiences in these spaces aims at “unsettling [white occupation] grip over mundane as well as high stakes decisions” (Arday & Mirza, 2018b). In South Africa, more black women acquire undergraduate degrees than any other group, yet they remain underrepresented in the acquisition of postgraduate degrees, senior academic and top management positions. Currently working in academia in South Africa, the author aims to understand the development of sense of identity and show how this influences the interplay, and thus the progression, of the individual within the higher education context. Previous studies investigating black women academics’ positions and perspectives of social, cultural, and educational experiences are relevant. However, this thesis addresses the role of experiences and perceptions as vital influencing factors in the interplay between individual and institution. This thesis takes on a role adding to the “polyphony” of voices and perspectives from black academics. It aims to contribute to “loosening the grip of positivism on theory and practice in the human sciences” (Lather, 2017). As theorists, we do not automatically reflect deeply on the political influences on our professional lives. Reflection is, however, key, not only to connecting past and present, but in improving future experiences for ourselves and others. The act of re-collecting past experiences can be cathartic and educational. It allows us to “weave” and connect the dots between who and where we were as opposed to the world we aspire to (Lather, 2007). The purpose of this “weave” is to identify and examine patterns, to make sense of and improve the world we inhabit. Framed theoretically within critical and intersectional feminism (Crenshaw, 1989; hooks, 1994), this study is grounded in experiential storytelling. Stories which are seldom taught as History address issues which are often rather avoided. Using a unique methodology, the collected data is assigned thematically for analysis, to show the centrality to understanding why black women remain on the lower rungs of academia is the interplay between individual and context. The results of this study signify problematic avoidance and silences around the need of a caring environment for all academics, but especially for black women. It shows that due to historical, societal, and cultural silencing of black women, there is a need to develop a vocabulary to describe the experiences by and of black women in academia. Cultural capital, or lack thereof, influences a sense of belonging and inflicts other “micro-aggressions” upon the black woman academic (Sue, 2015; Henkeman, 2016). Relevant transformational features cannot adequately be addressed, much less achieved, if the spaces to navigate these discussions are not radically owned equally by all but also accepting that it is time for the amplified voices of black women.
... Hence, a focus on the collective, rather than the individual, was central to ensure the space remained 'more open and fluid, as a self-constituting public sphere and to see those who participate as committed to local action but with a wider emancipatory vision for their work' (Kemmis 2008, 97). Nevertheless, the process was dynamic and fluid, with recognition that complete consensus and resolution is not always possible in a 'messy' real life context (Bozalek and Biersteker 2010). All of these programmatic components proved powerful in stimulating the important critical and affective engagement, which resulted in 'generative themes' (Harms-Smith, Rasool, 2020) identified both during the workshop and in the later analysis and interpretation (Boler and Zembylas 2003;Zembylas 2018a). ...
Both students and scholars have identified the critical imperative to prioritize decolonization and pedagogical and curriculum transformation in South African higher education institutions. The ongoing context of coloniality, persistent race-based inequalities and hegemonic Western-centric epistemologies led to the Rhodes and Fees Must Fall protests by students at South African universities. As a result of the questions raised by students during these protests, the Department of Social Work at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) embarked on a process of working towards decoloniality in their social work programme. This paper describes the unfolding critical participatory action research process toward decoloniality undertaken by this department. Various theoretical perspectives, including communicative action, reflexivity and ‘decolonising the mind’ informed the process of decoloniality that began at the UJ Department of Social Work. The process of critical reflection, dialogue, analysis, development of methodologies and initial implementation of changes that were used in this department may offer useful insights for working towards decoloniality in other academic settings.
... The World Health Organization (WHO, 2014) and the Indian National Health Mission (NHM, 2018) have endorsed the use of PLA to improve the health of women and children. PLA techniques have also been used to engage multiple stakeholders and recipients in collaborative primary health projects with migrant communities in Ireland (de Brún et al., 2017;O'Reilly-de Brún et al., 2016), prevent violence against women and girls through women's groups and health activists in rural India (Nair et al., 2020), empower sex workers in Cambodia (Busza & Schunter, 2001), and decolonize methodologies and examine power and privilege in higher education institutions in post-apartheid South Africa (Bozalek & Biersteker, 2010). However, critics have raised cautions about the adoption of participatory approaches, especially questions over whose knowledge counts in terms of social domination and unequal gender relations (Mosse, 1994). ...
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For over 3 decades, participatory learning and action (PLA) techniques have been prominent in formative and evaluative studies in community-based development programs in the Global South. In this paper, we describe and discuss the use of PLA approaches at the beginning of a community-based program for prevention of violence against women and girls in Mumbai's urban informal settlements. We adapted six PLA techniques as part of a formative community mobilization and rapid needs assessment exercise, addressing perceptions of violence prevalence, sources of household conflict, experiences of safety and mobility, access to services, preferences for service and support, and visualization of an ideal community free from violence. We describe the collaborative process of developing and implementing PLA techniques and discuss its relevance in generating contextual and grounded understandings of violence as well as in identifying factors which can potentially enable and constrain interventions.
... The first two articles in the Special Issue report on SARiHE, and explain how its theoretical framing, drawn mainly from the global North was interrogated for its appropriateness, even though our thinking had been developed through 'southern theory' (see, for example, Connell 2017), theories of rurality (see for example Balfour, Mitchell, and Moletsane 2008) and, subsequently influenced by decoloniality (see, for example, Mbembe 2016;Ndlovu-Gatsheni 2013). They also describe the participatory methodological approach, a democratic and decolonising mode (Bozalek and Biersteker 2010), that involved undergraduates as co-researchers. Similarly, Montgomery's article highlights how doctoral researchers from myriad countries -here mostly in the geographical South -used 'Northern theories' to frame the research they conducted into how rural and ethnic populations accessed higher education. ...
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This article is an attempt to understand the Freirean educational approach from the lens of critical pedagogy. In particular, the philosophical and methodological tools that Freire critiqued and advocated in his work on 'Pedagogy of the Oppressed, first published in 1968, have been discussed dividing the concepts into two sections. First, the article sheds light upon the banking concept of education taking account of its pedagogical and literacy mechanism as proposed by Freire. Second, it introduces and highlights the problem-posing concept as a critique of the banking concept emphasizing Freire's notion of dialogue, praxis, and conscientization. Next, it takes account of some possible pitfalls of the Freirean approach concerning some pieces of evidence of the Freirean era; then, it notes down few misinterpretations of Freire's notion of dialogue advocated by pseudocritical educators. Finally, the article concludes with a precise note on what has been examined in the article and signifying the importance of problem-posing education for becoming a 'transformative being'.
Paradigm shifts in education have, in most cases, been linked to changes in the context and content of education. Most nouveau ideas in education in the 21st century have been linked directly or indirectly to globalization. One of such shifts is the re-invention and importance of lifelong learning. The dialogue on lifelong learning and its content-dependent characteristics have imposed the need for a diversity of perspectives beyond the traditional Western perspective. The purpose of this chapter is to present the theoretical framework for blended learning from the perspective of the holistic indigenous African education, which was in its entirety blended and lifelong. The chapter uses reference to the interconnectedness of lifelong education to all facets of life in traditional Africa. It analyzes the connection between formal, non-formal, and informal, the use of observation, initiation, and apprenticeship, the environment, and a host of other blending variables, to build and develop the arguments.
This book, by one of the leading theorists of social work, tackles a subject of crucial importance to students and practitioners alike: how social workers can enable their clients to challenge and transcend the manifold oppressions that disempower them (whether through poverty, disability, mental illness, etc.). It moves from a discussion of social work's purpose and ambitions to an exposition of theory and, from there, to the practice arenas of working with individuals, in groups, within organisations, and within a wider social and political context.
In this revised and updated edition, Neil Thompson presents a clear and accessible analysis of the complexities of discrimination and oppression and the challenges of making equality practice a reality. Critical of the orthodoxies and oversimplications of 'political correctness', Promoting Equality combines analysis and understanding of the latest theory with practice examples and insights. This important book will be of value to students, practitioners, managers and educators in a variety of professions and settings concerned with people and their problems, and will play a major part in promoting equality and valuing diversity.
Critical reflection in professional practice is popular across many different professions as a way of ensuring ongoing scrutiny and improved practice skills. This accessible handbook focuses on a description and analysis of the theoretical input as well as the approach involved in critical reflection. It also demonstrates some skills, strategies and tools which might be used to practise it. The cross-disciplinary approach taken by the authors will appeal to a wide range of students and professionals and combines neatly with useful discussion of the complex educational and professional issues which arise from the practice of critical reflection. Throughout the book, the authors provide pertinent examples from their own practice, referring to relevant literature, providing annotated bibliographies, and noting where additional resource materials are available to provide further illustration. Practising Critical Reflection is key reading for a variety of students across social work, health sciences and nursing, as well as health care and social welfare professionals.
This book, by one of the leading theorists of social work, tackles a subject of crucial importance to students and practitioners alike: how social workers can enable their clients to challenge and transcend the manifold oppressions that disempower them (whether through poverty, disability, mental illness, etc.). It moves from a discussion of social work's purpose and ambitions to an exposition of theory and, from there, to the practice arenas of working with individuals, in groups, within organisations, and within a wider social and political context.
Synopsis - This social work text is conceived as a complementary volume to "Social Work: Themes, Issues and Critical Debates", although it is usable as a stand-alone introduction in its own right. Focusing on social work values, on areas of particular practice (ranging across work with children, families and vulnerable adults) and on management issues relevant to all social workers whether they are managers or not, it offers an overview both of the practicalities of social work and the principles underpinning practice.