How can we hand the baton on when the map is still painted red?

Globes with world map

When I was in primary school I used to enjoy maps. Most schools seemed to make use of blue bound atlases which gave rather greater prominence to countries of what, then, was called the Commonwealth but earlier editions had undoubtedly labelled The British Empire. Every page was littered with countries coloured red highlighting the extent of our soon to be declining national influence.

The red coloured representation of countries in the atlas still exists in some publications. It represents an unspoken but still present set of relationships. For some they are a representation of colonial domination, for others a representation of the relationships of dependence or at least reliance and for others they point to the spaces where our failures in previous generations call us to attempt to respond to current needs.

The questions of how power is exercised and dependence continued in our cross-cultural working relationships is a thread woven through the fabric but which is rarely discussed and very quickly pushed aside.

There is a significant impact on the learning built upon the relationships that develop which in turn affect the shared understanding of the outcomes (van den Bor, 1985). The deferential understanding of the relationship between teacher and student has many roots. The colonial history gave teachers status which continues although the status is not reflected in the rewards. There is also a recognition of education as a process which places great value on achieving qualifications to the extent that education becomes valued not for what is learned but for its own sake – what is seen by some as ‘diploma-disease’. The impact of political processes in the local sphere and international aid delivery also create challenges for the teacher and student (Abukari and Corner, 2010; Merriam and Young, 2008; DuPraw and Axner, 1997; Rodrigues et al., 2000; Rodwell, 1988; Tikly, 2001; Zuber-Skerritt and Teare, 2013)

The history of Africa is reflected in there being many voices speaking on behalf of its peoples. This unilaterally adopted role of spokesperson has not been unduly reduced by the end of colonisation. Power has not been returned to Africans who remain voiceless (Ramose, 2003). Learning Histories create ‘reflectionable knowledge’ – often in the form of stories which, in turn, promote further inquiry and more effective forms of conversation (Kleiner and Roth, 1996). These jointly-told tales allow participants (researcher and researched) to tell their shared stories and reveal their co-created knowledge and insight (Kleiner and Roth, 1996; Van Maanen, 1988). Learning is seen, in the South, as communal, informal and lifelong. Compared to the privilege given to abstract and theoretical knowledge in the North, learners in the South favour everyday experience (Merriam and Young, 2008). Those of us travelling southwards to help learning and development initiatives have a duty to understand the epistemologies of our Southern colleagues (Merriam and Young, 2008).

Working with small groups in classrooms has a tendency to perpetuate the sense that the trainer, at the front, is an expert. The fount from which knowledge can be absorbed and reproduced more-or-less accurately time and again depending upon the competence of the participants – trainer and students.

The classroom is, perhaps, the epitome of a space where power is exercised. Conventionally, classrooms are not a place of practice. Instead they are spaces which are convenient places to deliver the wisdom of the one to the many. Palmer (1993) offers the hope that might actually become places ‘in which obedience to truth is practiced.’ What happens in the classroom is happening in the world. Our learning and doing shapes our relationships in the world. The training space is, conventionally, not so very different. The resistance of students to engage in shared discovery of knowledge preferring to receive the knowledge of the trainer and tendency of the educators/trainers to allow themselves to be placed upon the metaphorical pedestal both value the knowledge of the one over the that discovered and created together.

The traditional classroom approach works against the powerful capacity for a community of learners to work together to co-create knowledge (Palmer 1993:36). It is too easy to embrace what Palmer calls the ‘pedagogical convenience’ of the large group. Put enough scholars in a room and it becomes easy to dispense the wisdom of the one to the many.

Conversations with my colleagues have underscored the change in knowledge. What we discover together is different in context and content depending upon where we are co-located. Our shared understanding is unique to the people and place. The knowledge that is re-created in the learning process has both different application and impact drawn from the context. Truth is communal and mutual rather than objective or subjective. “Truth is between us, in relationship, to be found in the dialogue of knowers and known who are understood as independent but accountable selves.” (Palmer 1993:54)

However it is also notable that power relationships in these conversations were the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’. Power forms an identifiable undercurrent but yet despite being obvious to all it was rarely spoken of directly.

Failure to address the powerful questions leaves us with a risk that we maintain unwittingly racial and cultural divides. If we are to avoid this drift to maintain an institutionally racist structure we may have to have the courage to walk away and let local people take local initiative with local agency.

Holding onto power is no longer an option.

Abukari, A. and Corner, T. (2010) ‘Delivering Higher Education to Meet Local Needs in a Developing Context: The Quality Dilemmas?’ Quality Assurance in Education 18 (3), 191–208
DuPraw, M.A. and Axner, M. (1997) Working on Common Cross-Cultural Communication Challenges [online] available from <> [8 September 2016]
Kleiner, A. and Roth, G. (1996) Field Manual for a Learning Historian Version 4.0. Cambridge, MA: MIT-COL and Reflection Learning Associates, Inc.
Merriam, S.B. and Young, S.K. (2008) ‘Non-Western Perspectives on Learning and Knowing’. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 71–81
Palmer, P.J. (1993) To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey. San Francisco: HarperCollins
Ramose, M.B. (2003) ‘Discourses on Africa: The Struggle for Reason in Africa’. in The African Philosophy Reader. 2nd edn. ed. by Coetzee, P.H. and Roux, A.P.J. Cape Town: Oxford University Press of Southern Africa, 1–9
Rodrigues, C.A., Bu, N., and Min, B. (2000) ‘Learners’ Training Approach Preference: National Culture as a Determinant’. Cross Cultural Management – An International Journal 7 (1), 23–32
Rodwell, S. (1988) ‘International Assistance to Third World Educational Management Training: A Critical Examination of Alternative Strategies’. International Journal of Educational Development 8 (2), 117–128
Tikly, L. (2001) ‘Globalisation and Education in the Postcolonial World: Towards a Conceptual Framework’. Comparative Education 37 (2), 151–171
van den Bor, W. (1985) ‘Problematical Aspects of Expatriate Educational Research with and in Developing Countries’. International Journal of Educational Development 5, 167–181
Van Maanen, J. (1988) Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Zuber-Skerritt, O. and Teare, R. (2013) Lifelong Action Learning for Community Development. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers