Paper presented at the 3rd Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Touch me I'm sick"
8 & 9 September 1997, University of South Africa Regional Office, Durban

Dialogue between aliens

Mary van der Riet

Rhodes University, Grahamstown

Parents tend to avoid schools, and teachers tend to avoid parents. What makes each so alien to the other? This paper is a report on a demonstration of the Dialogue game which got Danish and Scottish parents to parley (with some wine and beer) and Grahamstown teachers and parents to argue with each other (without the wine or beer) and led to improved communication between these alien creatures. What do you expect a 12 year old child to know? Who is responsible for teaching it? The Dialogue game is in the process of being South Africanised. Join the debate about the morals and ethics of what should be in the school curriculum.

Researchers located in the socio-cultural cognitive school highlight the problems inherent in the division between formal and non-formal education processes. Formal education contexts, for example schools, are bastions of abstract, decontextualised, 'disembedded' (Donaldson, 1978) knowledge. Scribner and Cole (1973) argue that the 'school represents a specialised set of education experiences which are discontinuous from those encountered in everyday life and... it requires and promotes ways of learning and thinking which often run counter to those nurtured in practical daily activities' (p. 553). Brown, Collins & Duguid (1989) develop this argument by labelling school activity 'inauthentic'. At school children learn precise, well-defined problems, formal definitions and symbol manipulation. However, learning in the non-formal education context for example the home, is embedded in practical, everyday processes. Brown et al (1989) argue that the assumption of a distinction between knowing and doing in formal education does not necessarily produce usable knowledge, or competence.

If, as Langer (1987, p.6) argues "literacy behaviours gain their functional value from the contextual settings that cultures and subcultures provide for their uses, (and) in each case they may reflect different modes of thinking and reasoning", the potential for discord between the learning contexts of the home and the school is immense. Scribner & Cole (1973) contend that differences in the social organisation of education promotes differences in the organisation of learning and thinking skills in the individual. If one views literacy as a way of thinking, then perhaps parents and teachers have, and foster in their children, different ways of thinking. In addition to this, if the context in which the parent operates is so different to that of the teacher in the school, how does the parent make sense of the teacher's work, or the teacher make sense of the parent's work?

Macbeth (1996) has questioned the assumption that formal education is the only site of a child's learning. The home element of the child's learning - both actual and potential - is usually ignored in national curricula with the implication that schools can provide the whole of a child's education. He argues that a child's education should not merely be equated with schooling. Most of the learning which persists and has an impact on subsequent life, what he calls significant learning, is acquired outside of the school.

The repercussions of a disjunction between home and school learning contexts are numerous. If knowledge assists in the creation of identity (Langer, 1987), the superiority and power of the formal education system results in a lack of credibility of non-formal education and non-formal educators, for example, parents. The school and its educators are seen as credible, authoritative and expert, holding and maintaining the knowledge of the future. This serves to alienate non-formal educators from the formal education sphere. This could lead to a breakdown in the authority of these educators in relation to their children. In contemporary formal schooling, the relative power of the stakeholders in education attests to these dynamics.

An examination of the ways in which parents (non-formal educators) are engaged in the school context is revealing. Although different schools might involve parents in disparate ways the model remains the same: parents are peripheral to the educational processes in the school. Parents are involved in school committees, in fundraising exercises, in school governance, but not in the learning processes in which their children are engaged. This is unless something goes wrong, in which case parents are then called in to reinforce the school's aims. Given the above arguments about the validity of knowledge in formal education systems, parents might be being marginalised in the education process for two reasons. Either their knowledge is superfluous, because it is not from the appropriate domain (it is too practical or context bound, and not necessarily abstract, logical or disembedded), or it is assumed that parents have the same knowledge framework as that of formal education and therefore this knowledge is already incorporated into the process of formal education. Whatever the reason, parents are not involved in the production of knowledge in the school. The role of the parent is relegated to the early years of the child's life, and parents leave education to the 'professionals', becoming customers of the education service (Macbeth, 1996).

In South Africa, this problem is compounded by the systematic attempt to segregate education and apportion resources and expertise unequally. From the inception of Apartheid, Africans had minimal access to formal education. The Bantu Education system was designed to create individuals who were 'drawers of water and hewers of wood'.

In protest, African school children rejected this inferior education and the authority it represented. An irony which South Africa is presently confronting is that this rejection forms an integral part of the alienation of African children from their parents (ACORD, 1992). To provide an historical background, students, frustrated with their parent's submissiveness and lack of action, took the struggle against apartheid education into their own hands. Many parents resisted their children's attempts to challenge the system. Children protested against their parents wishes and in the process rejected parental guidance and authority. Thus, in addition to the gap between formal and non-formal education, parental knowledge and expertise became even more marginalised. One has only to examine the nature of current parent-teacher-student interaction in the former DET schools to realise the immense power wielded by students (Van der Riet, 1994).This is in direct contrast to the power wielded by their white counterparts in former Model C schools.

Given this context, an interesting turn of events is the changes in education policy. The new Schools Act (1996) emphasizes, amongst other things: the parents primary responsibility for education, their inalienable right to choose education, and their central role in school governance. All of these imply the capacity and willingness to engage with formal education. This paper argues that parents, in their present marginalised position, are not able to do this. This capacity needs to be built and attitudes about the relevance of knowledge need to change. Schools must see parents as important in the knowledge production of the school. Perhaps more importantly, parents must see themselves as important in this process. One step towards this is to make explicit what it is that parents and teachers believe about knowledge; what they value and why; and who they think should be responsible for the management of this knowledge. Embedded in this are all the assumptions about and experiences with knowledge parents and teachers have on a daily basis. This paper reports on a research process which accessed these beliefs, some of which confirm the disjuncture between the formal and non-formal education contexts, and some which directly challenge this gap.

The Dialogue Game

The Dialogue game, developed by the Danish Skole og Samfund a national parents organisation, is a tool to access these beliefs and explore the dynamic between parents and teachers. It is perhaps significant that this game developed in a country which has an organised parent body.

The game challenges players to decide which range of skills, knowledge and attitudes should be taught to children, and where these should be taught - at home, at school or both. This game creates the environment necessary for the interaction of stakeholders in education. Its content matter - what is important for the child to learn - differs from that of the usual interaction between parent and teacher (parents meetings, school committees etc). It thus can access the values, beliefs and customs of the participants. One could say it accesses the cultural psychology (Shweder, 1991) of the participants. Researching this game also accesses stakeholder's attitudes to their responsibilities about learning and reveals the dynamics underlying the lack of communication between parents and teachers, parental marginalisation, and teachers' defensiveness about engagement of parents in the school (Safran, 1996).

The process of the game

The essence of the game is for the players to decide what knowledge is important, and where it should be taught. The 'knowledge' is contained on packs of 80 cards. It is best played in small groups of 5 to 10 people. The game is structured in two parts. Firstly, players must decide whether a 12 year old child should know what is on the card (for example, how to peel and boil potatoes, or how to calculate the circumference of a circle). These cards are put onto a YES, and NO pile. Secondly, the players must decide who should be responsible for teaching the knowledge, the home, the school, or both (for example, teaching the 12 year old to have respect for other people's religions). When the groups come together, comparisons can be made between the cards chosen by each group. If the game is played in a school meeting context, action can be taken on the cards which have been placed in the BOTH pile.

In essence, the game is not meant to be 'researched'. The need to record all information constrains the process of engagement with the task. However, researching the game reveals significant issues in parent-teacher interaction.

Research methodology

This research adopted a qualitative and exploratory research approach, implementing the game formally in two schools, and piloting it in another two. As the sample is not very broad, the following comments are informative rather than predictive. The game is also being 'South Africanised' both in translation and in ascertaining the relevance of certain concepts on the cards. Thus, this research should be seen as a pilot phase, rather than the end result of the process.


Two schools in Grahamstown were approached and were willing to engage in the activity. These were a former Model C school and a former DET school. It was intended that the parents in the former Model C school would come from a wide range of socii-cultural and economic backgrounds, and therefore provide some diversity to the group. However, this did not happen. Although the school is multiracial, no black parents volunteered for the game and all the parent participants, and the teacher participants were white. The parents and teachers from the former DET school were all black.

As the schools were not familiar with the game they requested that the researchers introduce the game to the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) before it was introduced to parents more generally. Volunteers to play the game were then requested from the parents and teachers that came to the PTA meeting. One could argue that those who attend meetings already have an attitude of partnership towards the school and therefore the sample was biased. This potential bias is acknowledged. Further research with a wider group of parents and teachers who are not active in the PTA will be necessary.

The sample was thus in the former Model C school (C): four parents and four teachers, and in the former DET (D) school: five parents and three teachers.

Preparation of the game for the schools

Although the game originated in Denmark an English primary school version, developed from the Danish version by researchers in Scotland, was used in this research. It is thus based on the British and Scottish curriculum. There were therefore various changes which had to be made to the game.

As the parents at School (D) were not fluent in English, the concepts on the cards were translated into Xhosa. This posed several challenges to the researchers and the translators in terms of concept equivalence. A back translation process as proposed by Brislin (1985) was conducted.

As time constraints would not allow for all the cards to be used, they had to be sampled. This proceeded as follows: all 80 cards were assigned independently to categories of knowledge independently by four researchers. These researchers then met to debate the construction of these categories, and the placing of the cards. The categories were as follows: general knowledge/sport/other, life skills/body, language and communication, values, science/mathematics/technology, biology/natural sciences. There were overlaps between each knowledge category and the incorporation of knowledge into each category was hotly debated.

To sample the cards, they were placed in their knowledge category, shuffled, and placed upside down. A card from each pack was then taken to compile a complete pack until all the cards were included. A second pack of 80 cards was then ordered in the same way. Thus was to ensure that each school discussed the cards in the same order.

Data collection

Data was collected in two main forms. Firstly, the content of what knowledge the players thought was important, and where it should be taught was recorded through noting which cards were selected and where they were placed on the board. Secondly, the player's reasoning about the importance of a card, or the responsibility of teaching that knowledge was recorded on audio tape. The verbal interaction was then transcribed and, where necessary, translated into English.

Data analysis

The data was analysed using a basic content analysis approach. Use was made of the framework of knowledge categories outlined above (life skills/body; language/communication; science/maths/technology; natural/biology; sport/general knowledge/other; values). The process of analysis was as follows:

First, what cards, in which categories and who chose or rejected them was recorded in tabular form. This was analysed for similarities and differences across the two schools (School C and School D), and across the Parent and Teacher groups in each school.

Second, the verbal interaction related to the selection of cards was analysed to access the participants criteria for valuing or rejecting knowledge.

Third, what cards, in which categories were placed in which site (home/school/both), and by whom, was recorded in tabular form. This was also analysed for similarities and differences across the two schools, and across the Parent and Teacher groups in each school.

Fourth, the verbal interaction related to the placing of cards and who provided what reasons for placing the cards in particular sites was analysed. This analysis of the player's reasoning patterns accessed their perception of the role of the home and school, and their perspectives of partnership between the two contexts.

Discussion of results

For the purposes of this paper, only certain parts of the data will be discussed. This is presented below in two sections.

A) What knowledge was considered important/unimportant, and the players reasoning processes about this knowledge

B) What site should be responsible for imparting the knowledge, and the player's reasoning processes about this

A. What knowledge is important

Although the game was played by the different groups at different rates, most of the cards player were accepted. Those cards that were rejected are outlined below.

Players Cards rejected
Life skills/ body General knowledge/ sport/ other Values Language/






C Teachers * Able to plan a basic household budget *Know the rules of soccer
C Parents *Able to recognise the flags of two other countries

*Know the name of the leader of the United States of America and England

*Able to play chess

*Know the rules of soccer

*Have had experience of playing at least one type of musical instrument

D Teachers *Basic knowledge of sez and reproduction in humans *Know the name of the leader of the United States of America & England

*Able to play chess

*Understand the effects of convenience foods on lifestyle eg. KFC, take-away, pre-packaged food.

*Know the story of Cinderella

*Understand the expression 'too many cooks spoil the broth'

*Read regularly for enjoyment

D Parents *Able to play chess

*Know in which cities you can find the Statue of Liberty and the Pyramids

Knowledge was rejected because it did not relate to the world of the child and was not seen as useful. For example, know in which cities the Statue of Liberty and the Pyramids are to be found; able to play chess, know who Beethoven was, know the rules of soccer; know the name of the leaders of the USA and England; able to recognise the flags of at least two other countries.

What is significant here is that parents used this reason more than teachers indicating perhaps that they have different criteria for valuing knowledge. This raises a broader issue. If being literate is defined within the context and use of particular skills (Langer, 1987) and in this case parents define 'literateness' differently, might parents and teachers not foster different ways of thinking? This highlights the need to pay attention to the social purposes to which literacy skills are put.

Another reason why knowledge was rejected was that it was not relevant to a particular school context. That schools might have different value systems was not necessarily recognised. An example was that of the Model C school rejecting the card know the rules of soccer. Their response was:

T1: We wouldn't expect that ...

T2: We would answer...this is a biased question, its a loaded question.

T1: It would go across the department of our experience

T3: I think it would be nice if they knew the rules of soccer, but...

The age of the child was also used as a criterion to value knowledge. Knowledge was rejected if it placed too many demands on the child or was deemed inappropriate for the age of the child. For example both sets of teachers argued that basic knowledge of sex and reproduction in humans was beyond the 'mental' scope of a 12 year old child. This is in direct contrast to the parents reasons for valuing this knowledge. Both parent groups argued that this knowledge was essential knowledge for the child's survival in current times. School C parents argued that children grow up surrounded by other siblings who are developing, and they need a framework to understand what is happening. School D parents argued that child abuse was rife in the township context and children need this knowledge to be aware of what is happening around them. So, while teachers focus on the cognitive capacity of the child, parents seem to be more connected to the real life context in which the child lives.

The child's level of ability and interest in certain types of knowledge was also used as a criterion. What is interesting here is that parents, rather than teachers, provided this as a reason. Examples here are have had experience of playing at least one type of musical instrument; able to play chess; able to retrieve and store text on a computer. This might be an indication of the way in which parents see the child as a person, whereas teachers tend to focus on the child as learner, or, as a pupil, where affective issues are not primary.

Knowledge was also rejected if the resources to actualise that knowledge were not available. For example, able to retrieve and store text on a computer. Although the game required the players to state what they think should happen, ideally, this type of response seems to indicate that teachers' and parents' vision is constrained by lack of material resources.

As more cards were accepted than rejected, what becomes most significant in an analysis of the process is how the players reasoned their decisions. Below is an outline of some of the main criteria for selecting knowledge.

The players argued that certain knowledge is important because it encourages and develops independent thinking and acting. This equips the child with life skills for the future, and makes them aware of potential danger. For example, know how to call ambulance, police or fire brigade by telephone; able to peel and boil potatoes; understand common symbols on a weather chart (eg. as on television); know about the uses of common electrical/gas appliances in the household; able to sew a button on a garment; able to plan a simple household budget. Other knowledge specifically prepares the child for the reality of the today's world. For example, know about danger from going with strangers; have discussed questions about death; basic knowledge of sex and reproduction in humans; basic knowledge of healthy eating.

The players also argued that some knowledge develops an appropriate way of behaving in the child, and of relating to others. This develops the character of the child. For example have respect for other people's religious views; able to respect different viewpoints in a discussion; have respect for other people's property; able to co-operate with others in a team activity; know how to care for at least one type of household animal/pet.

A rather vague reason was provided for needing general knowledge. Somehow, knowing general knowledge and being aware of one's surroundings equips the child. Parents argued that some of this knowledge was 'common knowledge', but they were unable to articulate why this knowledge was important. For example, know in which cities you can find the Statue of Liberty and the Pyramids; know the name of the leader of the USA and England; able to recognise common trees, eg. Oak, Mimosa, Acacia; know the Roman numerals; know the differences between an African elephant and an Indian elephant. It is interesting that teachers (particularly from School C) chose more of these general knowledge type cards than any of the other players but without fully reasoning why. For example their argument for know who Beethoven was, was merely 'Children must know who Beethoven was'. This seems to indicate an assumption of the value of general concepts, an approach which epitomises formal education. However, some of these 'general' concepts are culturally laden. This is demonstrated by teachers from School D rejecting similar general knowledge cards on the grounds that they were not related to the world of the child.

Some knowledge or behaviour was seen as important because the school requires this knowledge. For example, commitment to getting homework done, and able to calculate the perimeter of a rectangle. The fact that the players could not articulate why this knowledge was important is perhaps an example of a reverence for abstract, formal knowledge. This hints at the perception that formal education processes impart knowledge that is unquestionably valuable.

Certain knowledge was seen as valuable because it was enjoyable or stimulating. For example, have simple knowledge of magnetism, read regularly for enjoyment, and have discussed questions about death. Parents seemed particularly aware of the child as an inquisitive, proactive learner, rather than only as a pupil.

In sum, parents and teachers demonstrated different sets of criteria for valuing knowledge. Teachers shared an understanding of the task of learning and moved through the cards at a rapid pace, with very little discussion, or disagreement. This ability is perhaps a consequence of their experience of how formal education organises and structures knowledge, and of the process of its acquisition. Decisions my be relatively easy to make because the curriculum has already defined the abilities and capacity of a 12 year old child. The teachers' perspective seemed to be bound by teaching and learning in the school context. Perhaps for them learning and education do equal schooling as argued by Macbeth (1996). An example of this is that teachers at School C saw understand the expression 'too many cooks spoil the broth' solely in terms of language competence. Parents, on the other hand commented on the value inherent in this expression. The fact that teachers see knowledge predominantly in the framework of the school, is perhaps the reason why they tend to adopt full responsibility for the education process, as opposed to seeing it as a partnership.

There were other examples where parents emphasised the value rather than the content of a particular card. For example, have respect for other people's religious views. Parents argued that children should know how to respect other views, but a full knowledge of other religions was not required. Parents therefore seem much more situated in an everyday, practical context, in which the child is seen in relation to other siblings, the family and the broader community.

Teachers, however, seem to be very context-bound. This seemed to go beyond the context of the school, to the context of a particular school. For example, the reasoning behind the value of certain types of knowledge in School C seemed to be based on a set of values particular to that school which were used to discern valuable and not useful knowledge. This is clear in the discussion about know who Beethoven was:

T2: I think that's part of our class music programme

Facilitator: So, classical music is important for children?

T3: I think that children should also have some of their own...

T2: I was thinking that in many homes its not part of their culture or (musical heritage), but in school we should be exposing them to all forms of music. So if its not happening at home, then it should be happening at school

In this discussion, 'all forms of music' seems to be 'classical music'. One could ask the question - where is marimba, jazz, and R & B?

Responsibility for knowledge

Where should knowledge be taught?

Although the issue of what knowledge was put where is of interest, the main focus of this discussion will be on the reasons parents and teachers gave for why certain contexts should be responsible for particular knowledge. A related issue is their perception of a partnership between home and school. However, as a gross generalisation, the following table outlines where the players placed the cards from the six categories of knowledge highlighted earlier.










The home is responsible because...

The most interesting finding in this section was the recognition, by parents, that the school is not the source of all education. Parents argued that education is a broad process and that some knowledge is only appropriate to certain contexts. For example, able to peel and boil potatoes. Parents from School D specifically commented that 'School does not teach (the children) important aspects of culture'. In this case they were referring to have discussed questions of death. Parents also acknowledged that the school might not have the capacity to teach all types of knowledge (in this case referring to respect for other people's religious views).

Parents also seemed to be aware of the deficiencies of the school environment. They commented that it lacks resources for teaching life skills (such as access to household animals and plants) and is constrained in many ways. For example, multi-age classes affect the teaching of basic knowledge of sex and reproduction in humans to children. They also asserted that not all significant activities occur in the school. In response to have been to a play School D parents argued that plays take place in the community, and not in the school.

This contrasts with the theoretical argument that formal education is valued over and above that of non-formal education. However, it is significant that teachers did not use this as a reason for ascribing responsibility to the home. Perhaps parents have more of an awareness of the sites of significant learning referred to by Macbeth (1996), than teachers do. Teachers seem to see the school as the site of all education.

Teachers, on the other hand seemed to view the responsibilities of the home (parents) and the school (teachers) in the form of a time-line. In this approach they seem to restrict parental responsibility to a particular time period - before the child has entered school. For example, School C teachers commented that 'They must prepare the child before the school otherwise it is too late'.

The school is responsible because...

The reasoning patterns in this section were not too surprising. Most of the responses of both parents and teachers seem to reinforce the notion of the formal education environment as the purveyor of expert knowledge in possession of technological resources and skills. For example, know how to select and retrieve text on a computer and have had experience of playing at least one type of musical instrument.

The most direct argument in support of the view that the school represents a domain of knowledge which is important and valuable was presented by the teachers at School C. They argued that the school should teach children about Beethoven and chess because they might not learn these in their own cultural contexts. Parents were also of the view that the school handles knowledge on a more general level and should therefore assume responsibility for knowledge such as taking care of household animals.

Although one can acknowledge that schools do have access to resources, knowledge and skills (especially on a technological level) which parents lack, the assumption that the school should assume a greater responsibility in managing the educative process than the home has its own problems. There seemed to be some evidence either of parents handing over responsibility to the school, or teachers adopting the view that parents were neglecting their responsibility and therefore the school should assume this responsibility. For example, parents argued that the teacher spends more time with the child than the parent and therefore should assume responsibility for teaching more general skills such as the rules of soccer and changes in the body at puberty. This view merely serves to strengthen the perception that education is equal to schooling.

Both are responsible because...

In this section, the most interesting finding was that the differences between parents and teachers in criteria for valuing knowledge seemed to influence their attitude towards the idea of a partnership between home and school.

The overwhelming argument from the teacher perspective for joint responsibility was that parents were neglecting their responsibilities. In a sense, this view is no different from the basic model of parent-teacher interaction in which the parent's role is marginal and the main focus of their engagement with the school is to reinforce the ideas and programmes of the school. This support is clearly on the school's terms.

Parents on the other hand demonstrated a completely different approach to the whole process of educating. Learning seemed to be seen as a continuos process, not bound by context. Children, in this context were seen as social beings, and the knowledge being taught was seen as complex with many applications. For example, parents commented that informal activities at home such as games assisted in the development of knowledge. They commented that skills and knowledge could be followed up in each context. For example know that some things can be recycled; able to respect different viewpoints in a discussion; know the dangers of smoking; able to swim. They acknowledged that their own relationships with their children differed from their child's relationship with their teachers. They commented that basic knowledge of sex and reproduction needs to be the responsibility of both home and school because children do not necessarily ask their parents questions about sex. They seemed to see knowledge in a more flexible sense than the teachers. For them, the expression 'too many cooks spoil the broth' was a value, an expression in English, and something which guides activity. Teachers, on the other hand, saw this merely as a language skill.

The one point both parents and teachers seemed to agree on is that a partnership between the home and the school is necessitated by historical inequalities in access to resources. For example, able to swim and able to operate a video recorder.

Perception of partnership

In sum, teachers seem to see less partnership in the construction and imparting of knowledge than parents. Teachers seem to be judgemental of parental behaviour. Parents were seen to be lacking in resources and expertise, or to have failed in their duties. At the very most the role of parents was acknowledged as being in the years before the child entered the school.

Parents, on the other hand, seemed to be more open to seeing knowledge as a complex, involved process, the development of which happens in more than one context. They recognised the school as the site of more abstract, generalised knowledge, with more resources, but also seemed to see knowledge development as a continuous process. It is argued here that as a result of this, parents seem to view partnerships as more likely and possible than teachers.

In both School C and School D, teachers tended to divide the responsibility for knowledge more definitively in either home or school contexts and did not see the point of partnership. In fact, the following argument indicates this view. A little into phase two of the game, a teachers at School C asked if one should have any cards on the 'both' pile:

"Because I think that there'll be very few... we'll see if there are any, that you can split 50/50. For example, this one (religions), I think this should also be taught before school"

Parents, on the other hand tended to put more cards into the both pile (sex, religions and healthy eating). In fact, in School C, teachers did not seem to see the point of the partnership. If they mentioned it is was to emphasize what parents 'must' do, not what needs to happen. Thus they had a high expectation of what parents should be doing at home while School C parents believed that these things should be developed in partnership. For example, be conscientious about not dropping litter, know about the danger of going with strangers, basic knowledge of healthy eating and know why cleanliness matter.

In School D, teachers placed a little more emphasis on the partnership, expecting parents, rather unusually, to assume joint responsibility for science/maths/technological knowledge. However, generally, teachers did not seem to trust parents, or believe that they had the capacity to educate, or take responsibility for education. For example, School D teachers tended to take life skill issues (such as: know how to call an ambulance, police or fire brigade by telephone; have been to a play, have respect for other people's religious views, have discussed questions about death) as a joint responsibility, where as School D parents saw them as responsibility of the home. This sharp distinction between the home and the school contexts made by School D parents might be an effect of the marginalisation of African parents from formal education.


The following discussion about basic knowledge of health eating captures the dilemma parents are in quite aptly:

P2: Both

P1: No, I don't think both, more at home.. It's up to the parents to teach...the teachers will enforce it, but it's actually up to the parents to really teach them healthy eating

P4: How are the teachers going to enforce it if they don't know it?

P1: They can enforce it by what they teach them, but I actually think...

P4: And what if they go home and get a plate of slap chips, but they say no, I want an apple and the mom says well a plate of slap chips is what you're getting

P2: And if the teacher says have an apple a day... Teachers know better than parents you know that...

P1: Well, when I have brown bread only in my house, boy I tell you...

P2: I say both

P1: Both

This interaction highlights a number of tensions. Parents have an educative responsibility, but feel that they lack knowledge. Teachers cannot control the home environment, but also assume that their knowledge is better. One of the consequences of this is that children then begin to become critical of parents. Parents react either in an authoritative way, or hand their responsibility over to the teachers. None of these scenarios are healthy.

If, as Langer (1987) argues, culture provides opportunities for learning, and different educational experiences lead to different functional learning systems (Scribner & Cole, 1973), the role of both the home and the school context needs to be acknowledged and developed. At present there seems to be a mismatch between the operating of education systems and the multi-sourced learning patterns of children. This research supports the argument for a well worked out partnership between the home and the school, the parent and the teachers, which goes beyond administrative, financial and managerial matters. However, this research also indicates that there might be fundamental differences between the perspectives parents and teachers have on knowledge. This alienation, as well as the perception parents and teachers have of each other, affects the way in which a partnership is perceived and practised. Given that the opportunity for change and transformation of structures and systems is never more available than the present, it needs to be seized. The perspectives of parents and teachers about knowledge, its value, construction and development, need further exploration. These perspectives need to be revealed to the stakeholders in schools so that they can be heard and appreciated. The Dialogue game seems to provide the opportunity for stakeholders to hear each other. Perhaps, if incorporated into a process of PTSA capacity building, it will lead to them listening to these different views.


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Donaldson, M. (1978). Children's Minds London: Fontina

Langer, J. A. (1987). Language , literacy and culture: issues of society and schooling. Ablex: New Jersey.

Macbeth, A. (1996) Parent-teacher partnership in the individual child's learning: research implications. Unpublished paper presented at the ERNAPE Conference, Copenhagen, 21 - 23 November, 1996

Safran, D. (1996). The psychology and politics of parent involvement. Unpublished paper presented at the ERNAPE Conference, Copenhagen, 21-24 November

Scribner, S. & Cole, M. (1973). Cognitive consequences of formal and informal education. Science. Vol 182, pp. 553-559.

Shweder, R.A. (1991). Cultural psychology - what is it? In J. W. Stigler, R.A. Shweder & G. Herdt (Eds.). Cultural psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

South African Schools Act (1996), Pretoria.

Van der Riet, M. B. (1994). Parenting in turmoil: the role of African parents in formal education. Unpublished paper presented at the Families and schools: Global perspectives for a multicultural society conference, Oakland, California, 28 October.

Mary van der Riet lectures in the Psychology Department at Rhodes University. She is involved in teaching both undergraduate and postgraduate courses in development and psychology, culture and psychology, and cognition in society. She is particularly interested in the way cognition develops in cultural contexts. She has conducted research into the process of story-telling in a rural South African context as well as the value of participatory research techniques. She hopes to become rich and famous in some small town somewhere one day.

Paper presented at the 3rd Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Touch me I'm sick"
8 & 9 September 1997, University of South Africa Regional Office, Durban
critical methods society - -