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Wholeness, head-heart-hand integration and different ways of knowing
Author: Daniel Bugan
Published: 07/06/2024

​​Economic and Management Sciences (EMS) academics, as part of the RISE Africa 2024 Action Festival, shared how the faculty’s Diploma in Sustainable Development programme takes an integrated approach to higher education learning.​

RISE Africa is a platform dedicated to reshaping the narrative around African urbanism. The RISE Africa 2024 Action Festival, therefore invited participants to present their ideas, solutions and successes in building equitable, sustainable and vibrant communities and cities.

The Diploma in Sustainable Development, a programme offered by the EMS School of Public Leadership, is a comprehensive three-year undergraduate programme that equips students with focused knowledge and practical skills in sustainability and social entrepreneurship.

A panel affiliated to the Diploma in Sustainable Development programme participated in a session entitled, “Education for wholeness: Exploring the transformative potential of whole-person education”. The panel consisted of Vanessa von der Heyde, co-director at the Sustainability Institute, Shaun Dunn, lecturer in the diploma programme and Ruenda Loots, programme leader and sustainability-focused lecturer. Antoinette Mralasi and Chwaita Jaay Mpeqeka, alumnae of the diploma programme and currently pursuing an Advanced Diploma in Sustainable Development, also participated in the panel discussion. Von der Heyde was the panel facilitator.

In their session, the panel argued that a changed approach to higher education can foster learning that speaks to wholeness, head-heart-hand integration and different ways of knowing.

Loots started off by explaining what the Diploma in Sustainable Development is about and what makes it different from other mainstream programmes.

“Our programme is different in terms of what we teach and how we teach,” said Loots. “It is a multidisciplinary programme, which is quite rare at an undergraduate level. It includes some social science, political aspects, a little bit of natural science and some business all mixed together through the lens of what it means to be sustainable. The programme is also very experiential and we focus on immersive learning. We also think differently of the relationship between facilitator and student and we like getting our hands dirty and we focus on igniting joy and curiosity for our students.”

Mralasi explained the Diploma in Sustainable Development from a student’s perspective and how it has impacted her.

“The diploma offers students an opportunity to learn skills and gain knowledge in an interactive and collaborative way so that we are well equipped to operate in this complex, economic world. Through the programme I have gained an enquiring mind that seeks to understand the meaning behind everything I do. Before the programme I was not a very engaged citizen, I was more focused on myself and the different ways I can make money. But now I care about making a social impact and facilitating capacity building for the betterment of Africa. I have also become much more of a dynamic professional who cares about adapting to different circumstances and I’ve also improved many social skills and my public speaking abilities. I am more determined to make a meaningful impact.”

Dunn spoke about the kind of education that South Africans need more of in today’s world.

“Having grown up in a township, I feel that education has to be relevant and contextual. We need to bring African voices into educational spaces. We need more traditional knowledge systems that address local cultural, social and economic needs. What I have experienced with the Diploma is this holistic development that promotes the whole person, including the emotional, social and spiritual. Within the South African schooling system, the physical is mostly catered for and we often find that the element of the spiritual is neglected. Part of the African knowledge system is embedded in the aspect of the spiritual.”

“The diploma also focuses on life skills, eco-literacy and citizenship education. There is a focus on practical and vocational skills that prepare students for the working world to become the best versions of themselves. It also includes entrepreneurial skills underpinned by a strong ethical foundation to drive our economy. Our government does that in a way with a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, but it also needs to incorporate the social sciences and the arts in order to build a robust society and encourage innovation. Education should not just churn out students to go into the world to fill a gap, it should also allow them to thrive.”

With regards to the head-heart-hand method of learning, Loots spoke about the role the heart plays in education.

“The heart speaks to the African concept of Ubuntu – we are who we are through others,” said Loots. “When I walk into the classroom, I am becoming more and more aware of the fact that we are whole people. We are all in some shape or form dealing with life at any given moment and the idea that we simply switch that off and switch our brain on in order to engage with learning is ridiculous, it just doesn’t work that way. I’ve learnt that if we listen to our hearts and respond to that, it enriches the learning experience. Who we are as individuals and as a learning community when we come together in a learning space must come before the content.”

Mpeqeka explained how she experiences the role of the heart as a student.

“The heart plays a very important role because it nurtures empathy and compassion and that brings a sense of social responsibility because it allows us to have a deeper connection with each other and to empathise with other people. You don’t necessarily have to be part of a community or society for you to understand what they are going through, but because of the heart you are able to connect and also to find solutions in that space,” said Mpeqeka.