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

[email protected]

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