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New book on building knowledge in higher education in South Africa
Author: Wiida Fourie-Basson
Published: 03/08/2020

What does it mean to decolonize the science curriculum at a higher education institution? How can lecturers help students to bridge the gap between abstract and applied knowledge of chemistry, specifically in the case of first year medicine and engineering students?

These are only two of the topics covered in a new book on Building Knowledge in Higher Education, published by Routledge as part of a series on the use of Legitimation Code Theory to enhance teaching and learning in higher education. Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) is a sophisticated framework, comprising several distinct tools, which enables scholars to shape their research and teaching practice within the context of social justice and knowledge-building.

Prof Ingrid Rewitzky, Vice-Dean for teaching and learning in the Faculty of Science, says since the establishment of the Faculty's teaching and learning hub in 2013, several lecturers have been engaging with Legitimation Code Theory and presenting their research at international LCT conferences.

In the chapter “Decolonizing the science curriculum: When good intentions are not enough", Dr Mags Blackie, from the Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science, and Dr Hanelie Adendorff, senior adviser at SU's Centre for Teaching and Learning, investigate the “Sciencemustfall incident during the #Feesmustfall student protests in 2015. Using Legitimation Code Theory's concept of specialization codes, they show how current decolonization attempts might be perceived as perpetuating past injustices, despite every intention to respond positively and effectively: “We explore the relations between the actors, ideas and objects in the field of science to reveal what is at stake and what needs to be addressed," they write in the abstract to the chapter.

They argue that it is “almost impossible" to find common ground in this debate, and that to equate indigenous knowledge systems with scientific knowledge would be to “completely eviscerate science". They then suggest an alternative approach and rephrase the question in terms of autonomy. In other words, simply adding indigenous knowledge to the existing curriculum, as in bringing traditional beer making into the microbiology curriculum as an example of how it is practiced in Africa, still serves the purpose of science as a western concept. But when science is placed in the hands of students as a tool to explore their own lived circumstances, they argue, “it still has the feel of science, but a science that is starting to look beyond itself to some extent".

In the chapter “Missing the target? How semantics can reveal the (mis)alignments in assessments", Dr Blackie and Dr Ilse Rootman-le Grange, blended learning coordinator for the Faculty of Science, explored the gap between first year students' theoretical understanding of key concepts in chemistry and their ability to transfer that knowledge into other domains, such as medicine and engineering.

“Chemistry is a hidden science," they write, “As a subject in its own right, it took far longer to emerge than the closely related disciplines of physics and biology. This is precisely because the molecular and atomic understanding of matter is neither intuitive nor obvious to the casual observer. Precisely because of this profoundly abstract nature of the subject, students have no real life context, or frame of reference for Chemistry".

Using the semantics concept from Legitimation Code Theory, called LCT(Semantics), their assessment of the questions asked in the final chemistry exam for first year health science students showed that the questions primarily assessed students' grasp of the language of chemistry, but failed to adequately test the depth of their conceptual understanding of the subject.

Other chapters in the book from SU lecturers are “From principle to practice: enabling theory-practice bridging in engineering education" by Karin Wolff; “Building the knowledge base of blended learning: implications for educational technology and academic development" by J.P. Bosman and Sonja Strydom; and “Legitimate participation in program renewal: the role of academic development units" by Gert Young and Cecilia Jacobs.

Two more books in the series will feature authors from the Faculty of Science: Decolonising knowledge and knowers: struggles for university transformation in South Africa and Enhancing Science Education: Exploring knowledge practices with Legitimation Code Theory, to be published in 2021.