“How is the knowledge I’m imparting to my students grounded in reality?” asked the teachers of specific subjects at African Leadership Academy in a quest to be as innovative and relevant as possible in a world starving for solutions to problems. Most of us know the traditional curriculum model: math for an hour, English for another, resulting in a rigid school day with hardly any connection made between our subjects. Could you easily and seamlessly see the links between geometry and art, or between literature and science when you were at school? When you studied Shakespeare, did you know how science was viewed in this time, or was it merely and painstakingly about trying to figure out what the words all meant in modern-day English?
Solutions-orientated and holistic education necessary
People are in reality confronted with complex challenges every single day, requiring them to tap into their vast internal ‘knowledge pool’. Distinguished educationist and philosopher Lionel Elvin said, “When you are out walking, nature does not confront you for three quarters of an hour only with flowers and in the next only with animals.”
African Leadership Academy educators Lebo Mothibatsela (subject head: Entrepreneurial Leadership), Lisa Simelane (subject head: African Studies) and Mopati Morake (subject head: Writing and Rhetoric) found a way to integrate their subjects and approach their teaching in an interdisciplinary fashion. The three subjects are part of the African Leadership Academy’s unique curriculum that 16-19 year olds from all over the African continent do over two years. In addition to these three subjects, learners complete their A-Levels through Cambridge University. Find out more about the two year-course here.
The introduction of Omang – an innovative, interdisciplinary program
Mothibatsela, Simelane and Morake coined their new interdisciplinary program “Omang” which means identity in seTswana, and is the central teaching theme, connecting the subject areas. In other words, all teaching will answer to the question “How can Africans (as they uniquely define themselves) make a change?”
The Omang program aims to prepare students to find their own identities. It’s explained in Omang’s concept note: “Through our interdisciplinary curriculum, we come back to the question, Who am I? with students interrogating what African identity is, has been, and can be. Importantly, they will ground their understanding of identity in relation to other Africans and the world around them.” Morake believes that an interdisciplinary teaching approach, embodied by Omang, asks us to consider many different viewpoints and possibilities.
Educators in the Omang Program “team teach” and have regular professional feedback sessions, so that their material remains relevant and that their teaching maintains its excellence. They address their concerns about the challenges interdisciplinary teaching presents, such as the fear of subjects not being adequately covered and that students are may miss out on crucial concepts. But, the team has ensured that the scope of each subject is covered thoroughly. On the other hand, redundancy is eliminated, because teachers are always ensuring that everything is meaningful and grounded in reality.
For the team, “making new knowledge” is important. So is addressing the root causes of problems so as to identify opportunities and create African-centred solutions. Lessons are designed in such a way that enables democratic conversations, student-led learning as well as continuous growth and feedback.
Measuring success – critical, adaptive and imaginative students
When assessing the success of Omang program, the team will show that students use their skills and knowledge to bridge theory and practice; that students have the capacity to take action by using ideas and concepts to build something of value for their community; be able to reflect on the type of leadership they model and; be critical readers, knowing how to actively read and interrogate sources.
“We want students to find meaning in everything and to identify the relevance of each concept they learn to three levels – the self, community and the world,” adds Morake.
What’s really innovative about the Omang program is the autonomy awarded to teachers to conceptualize their teaching approach. A bit daunting of course, but teachers have the freedom to create lesson plans to shake things up and keep them on their toes. “We’re always learning” says Morake. An interdisciplinary approach suggests that no one, not even subject specialists can assume to know everything about teaching.
Mothibatsela cites the example of the Finnish education system, where teachers are constantly in dialogue with one another to foster co-operation and teamwork, all in the best interests of the learner and the broader community. Finland’s schools are revered the world over for their innovation and effectiveness in dealing with challenges. Like the classrooms in Finland, those at African Leadership Academy are designed in such a way that promote shared learning. Moreover, teachers are not seen as the all powerful repository of knowledge and the learners, mere sponges of teaching material. African Leadership Academy’s new Learning Commons is a bastion to student-led learning. Read more about it here.
Omang is currently in pilot phase and has a longer-term goal of making learning agile and adaptive. The team echo Professor Taylor’s thoughts: “The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.”