About the Author(s)


Kanyakumarie Padayachee Email symbol
Department of Public Management, Faculty of Management Sciences, Durban University of Technology, Durban, South Africa

Savathrie Maistry symbol
Rhodes University Community Engagement, Rhodes University, Makhanda, South Africa

Geoffrey T. Harris symbol
International Center of Nonviolence (ICON), Department of Public Management, Faculty of Management Sciences, Durban University of Technology, Durban, South Africa

Darren Lortan symbol
Department of Mathematics, Faculty of Applied Sciences, Durban University of Technology, Durban, South Africa

Citation


Padayachee, K., Maistry, S., Harris, G.T. & Lortan, D., 2023, ‘Integral education and Ubuntu: A participatory action research project in South Africa’, South African Journal of Childhood Education 13(1), a1298. https://doi.org/10.4102/sajce.v13i1.1298

Original Research

Integral education and Ubuntu: A participatory action research project in South Africa

Kanyakumarie Padayachee, Savathrie Maistry, Geoffrey T. Harris, Darren Lortan

Received: 01 Dec. 2022; Accepted: 04 June 2023; Published: 24 Oct. 2023

Copyright: © 2023. The Author(s). Licensee: AOSIS.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Abstract

Background: South Africa is beset with violent, antisocial practices and ways of life hindering peaceful co-existence and participatory democracy. This makes a targeted early education programme to develop a socially responsible generation imperative.

Aim: Based on a larger research project, this study aimed to highlight the value of participatory action research in determining the outcomes of an early childhood development (ECD) Integral Education (IE) and Ubuntu approach for incorporation in the education and training of practitioners.

Setting: Three ECD practitioners were selected to participate in this study, which was located in a township in the south of Durban in three preschools (urban, semi-urban and rural).

Methods: Lewin’s PAR method was used to explore, develop and evaluate an intervention for change. Data were collected through focus group and participant interviews, observations and journal entries and then analysed thematically.

Results: The findings revealed that, personally and professionally, the practitioners experienced positive changes through adopting an integral approach that included becoming more introspective and reflective in their practice.

Conclusion: Educating and training early childhood practitioners to develop the appropriate knowledge, skills, attitudes and values to adopt and implement an ECD IE and Ubuntu approach are essential for developing a new generation of socially responsible citizens for participatory democracy in South Africa.

Contribution: The findings highlighted key components of an ECD IE practitioner training programme based on the integrality of the mind, body, heart, spirit and community. Thus, the development of a caring, compassionate and humane society in democratic South Africa can be enabled.

Keywords: Early childhood education and training; participatory action research; integral education; Ubuntu; social responsibility; active citizenship; South Africa.

Introduction

South Africa has a deep and long history of violence, at the core of which are the centuries of colonial rule and decades of grand apartheid, underpinned by patriarchal relations. In addition, throughout these hundreds of years, generations of the oppressed majority waged struggles for liberation against successive illegitimate and repressive regimes (Office of the President 2019:10). Not unexpectedly, therefore, post-apartheid South Africa is a highly unstable social order as a consequence of the reproduction of these older patterns of violence as well as new forms of violence (Von Holdt 2013:591). The various manifestations of violence, including antisocial and deviant attitudes and behaviours that manifest in wider society, inevitably reflect in the country’s schools (Meyer & Chetty 2017:122). A national-level survey conducted in 2012 (Burton & Leoschut 2013) found that 22% of learners had experienced violence at school during that year. A similar finding was reported in the 2008 national survey (Leoschut 2013), and there is no reason to believe that there has been any improvement in these levels since 2012.

Consequently, the overall community and societal environment that young children in South Africa are exposed to is not a healthy and peaceful one. Exposure to violence on a regular basis has been linked to antisocial and deviant behaviour among youth (Weaver, Borkowski & Whitman 2008:96), evidenced in the prevalence of school violence. It seems clear that more considered responses and preventive initiatives towards social transformation are urgent.

The early childhood period, generally between birth and 9 years, is considered the most important developmental phase throughout an individual’s lifespan. This is because what happens to the child in the early years is critical for the child’s trajectory and life course (Irwin, Siddiqi & Hertzman 2007:6). The behaviour, attitudes and values that children are exposed to in these formative years will determine much of their later behaviour (Burton 2008:6). Thus, UNICEF proposes Early Childhood Development (ECD) interventions as a transformational force to reduce crime and violence levels, minimise discrimination and inequality in society and contribute to political stability for sustainable democracy (Viviers 2009:3–5).

Accordingly, a larger research study titled Integral Education for Early Childhood Development: Building Values through Indigenous Knowledge (Padayachee 2022), on which this article is based, developed an ECD Integral Education (IE) and Ubuntu curriculum framework to foster social responsibility and citizenship. The study comprised three sequential phases: exploratory, developmental and evaluation. The results of the exploratory phase revealed a gap in the ECD curriculum regarding explicit engagement with prosocial values and confirmed the benefits of applying an IE/holistic approach with Ubuntu in the preschool phase.

The development and evaluation phases of the study, described in this article, used a participatory action research (PAR) method involving the author and three ECD practitioners from three ECD sample sites to develop, implement and evaluate an ECD IE and Ubuntu intervention. As a research method, PAR engages people usually regarded as ‘subjects’ of research in aspects of research design and/or process (participatory) with an explicit intention of co-creating knowledge and generating practical changes (action), thus creating ‘participative research communities’ during the research (Banks et al. 2013:264).

The PAR method described in this article focuses specifically on the ECD practitioners during the preparation, development, implementation and evaluation of the intervention. Thus, the article seeks to highlight the outcomes of an ECD practitioner training programme, jointly created by the author and the ECD practitioners. Through this collaborative development of the ECD IE and Ubuntu model, PAR influences the practitioners’ acceptance of the programme transforming their education and training to emphasise the promotion of social responsibility and citizenship in South Africa in the preschool phase. Early childhood development practitioners would need to change their practice from the mainstream approach, which privileges cognitive development to an IE model that develops all domains of the child equally. Participatory action research changes simultaneously individuals and the culture of the groups or institutions to which they belong through mutual agreement to work together to change themselves, individually and collectively (ed. McTaggart 1997:32). Consequently, the use of PAR was considered apt in these phases to encourage the participants to work together as agents of change.

Context of the study

Research studies and policy statements globally confirm that early learning opportunities make a real and lasting difference in children’s lives. The National Integrated ECD Policy (DSD 2015:8) indicates the prioritisation of ECD because of the overwhelming scientific evidence of the tremendous importance of the early years for human development.

Democratic South Africa in the 21st century is engulfed in violent, unethical and antisocial practices including the pandemics of poverty, corruption and patriarchy, pointing to an urgency for social change (Devenish 2012; Pendlebury & Enslin 2007). Thus, the development of a new order for democratic South Africa through early education for social responsibility and citizenship is both essential and viable. The ECD National Curriculum Framework (NCF) for children from birth to 4 years (Department of Education [DoE] 2015), however, is ineffective in achieving this outcome mainly because its pedagogic approach fails to develop all the domains of the child. Thus, the larger study proposed a holistic IE approach to educate the whole child in all dimensions – mental, psychic, spiritual and physical (Adams 2006:35; Partho 2007:19). Integral education, as developed by Sri Aurobindo (1872–1950), has specific characteristics: (1) the awareness and integration of all the human dimensions are essential to education, (2) all processes of life and areas of knowledge are interrelated and (3) self-knowledge and knowledge of the world are equally important educational aims (Adams 2006:80). Through this integrality in the ECD curriculum, the child is encouraged to develop naturally with a deep understanding and awareness of the interdependence and interconnectedness of all beings for harmonious co-existence. The integration of Ubuntu in the South African context reinforces social responsibility and citizenship for participatory democracy.

Conceptual framework

The concepts of ECD, IE, Ubuntu, social responsibility and citizenship relevant to the study are presented in this section. In addition, the PAR method, which guided these phases of the study, is explained.

Early childhood development

The Education White Paper 5 on ECD (2001:5) describes ECD as an overarching term that applies to the processes by which children from birth to at least 9 years grow and thrive, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, morally and socially. This incorporates a comprehensive approach to policies and programmes for children in this age category with the active participation of their parents and/or caregivers. Its purpose is to protect the rights of the child to develop its full cognitive, emotional, social and physical potential. Thus, ECD is expected to provide for the holistic growth and development of children. The actual translation of this, however, into qualitative implementation appears ineffective, especially with regard to the capacity of the current ECD programme to develop children holistically.

Despite the government’s concerted efforts, through policy, at redress and transformation, ECD is still failing to develop children holistically to meet the demands of a society in transition, one that is emerging from centuries of racial oppression, institutionalised violence and authoritarianism (Office of the President 2019:62). It seems obvious, therefore, that children would need an education that sets out to mitigate the effects of the terrible past. In acknowledging the education potential of the early years for lifelong learning (DoE 2015; DSD 2015), the critical values of democracy, cooperation and solidarity should be specifically included in the ECD programme, enabling a new order of socially responsible citizens for a transformed society. In addition, the proficient training of teachers in interpretation and application of the ECD programme is a sine qua non to achieve the indicated outcomes.

Integral education

Integral education that originated in India from the writings of Sri Aurobindo (1872–1950) is an approach to education that has universal application. Aurobindo’s intense analysis of human and social evolution derived from reconciling Western science with Eastern metaphysics through his education in the West and spiritual enlightenment in the East (White 2007:121). In his writings on education, Aurobindo formulated a theory for fostering the growth of integral consciousness in every child across the globe (Raina 2002:374). Its aptness to South African children is the possibility of transformation through the simultaneous growth and development of all human aspects within an affirming and supportive cultural milieu.

Sri Aurobindo challenged the Western concept of education involving the rational faculty only and excluding the core (spirit) of one’s being. To him, education should incorporate all that is innate in a human being to realise fulfilment and completeness. Similarly, Gardner (1983, 1993) argues that modern Western education focuses almost exclusively on the development of the rational mind, with little attention given to the maturation of other dimensions. Consequently, most individuals reach adulthood with a somewhat mature mental functioning but with poorly developed physical, vital, emotional, aesthetic, intuitive and spiritual intelligence (Gardner 1983, 1993 cited in Ferrer, Romero & Albareda 2006:19). By contrast, IE aims at the multidimensional inquiry and the collaborative construction of knowledge (ibid).

The chief aim of education, according to Aurobindo, is physical and spiritual development. Other important aims include training the senses, achieving full and harmonious mental development and developing a conscience and morality. The heart of a child should be developed to show extreme love, sympathy and consideration for all living beings (Partho 2007:189–221), essential for a new generation of socially responsible citizens in South Africa and inspired by highly conscious and developed teachers.

Ubuntu

Ubuntu that has its roots in African traditional society and philosophy means humanness or the quality of being human. It is a value system that generates among its adherents a strong sense of the self and the community to engender compassionate, harmonious and respectful coexistence. The White Paper for Social Welfare (DSD 1997) describes the application of Ubuntu:

The principle of caring for each other’s well-being will be promoted, and a spirit of mutual support fostered. Each individual’s humanity is ideally expressed through his or her relationship with others and theirs in turn through a recognition of the individual’s humanity … It also acknowledges both the rights and the responsibilities of every citizen in promoting individual and societal well-being. (p. 12)

Explicit in this definition are the values of social responsibility and citizenship. Although the guiding principles of Ubuntu espoused in this policy document and others resonate with the values promoted in the study, implementation appears deficient. According to Ntuli (1999 in Msila 2015:5), the spirit of Ubuntu has long disappeared and given way to the cultural and moral collapse in South Africa.

Moreover, the marginalisation of Ubuntu underscores the failure of education to transmit intergenerationally the enduring values and best traditions (Marfo & Biersteker 2011:2). The Eurocentric traditions that have governed educational practice on the continent together with the history of colonial domination supporting those traditions could have profound implications for African children’s sense of worth and identity. Early childhood education, therefore, may present the ideal opportunity to revive the continent’s rich values and social mores (Marfo & Biersteker 2011:14) through the introduction of Ubuntu for curriculum transformation in democratic South Africa.

Social responsibility and citizenship

According to the White Paper 5 on ECD (DoE 2001:9), the early years have been recognised as the ideal phase for the transmission of the values that are essential for a peaceful, prosperous and democratic society. Considering this opportune time, it seems negligent that the ECD curriculum and programmes fail to include the fundamental principles of democracy – social responsibility and citizenship – to prepare children from the earliest years for a new social system. In proposing values-based education in South Africa, Pendlebury and Enslin (2007:238) argue that it was naive to assume that transforming an evil social order as apartheid could be accomplished quickly.

Ubuntu has the potential for providing a compelling vision of human thriving if promoted alongside both democratic participation and socioeconomic justice (Swartz 2006:560). Shepherd and Mhlanga (2014:1) maintain that Ubuntu can be realised if these values are emphasised at an early age through the education system. This has the potential to lead to a society with morally upright citizens who respect fellow citizens, tolerate people of diverse cultures and citizens who work towards common objectives for the betterment of the society (Makuvaza 1996, in Shepherd & Mhlanga 2014).

Conceptually, the ‘democratic’ values of social responsibility and citizenship proposed in the study resonate with the values and principles of Ubuntu and are most apt to contribute to social transformation especially in the early years as children develop an understanding of the social world and how people treat one another.

Participatory action research

A PAR approach includes the exploration of some societal problem characteristic of social science research, which assumes that the understanding thus gained will bring about change. The understanding of action researchers, dating from Lewin’s (1946) classic article, is that change occurs because of carefully designed interventions and that researchers should carry out such interventions. Standard texts on action research (e.g. Bradbury 2015; Johnson 2011; eds. Kaye & Harris 2017; McNiff 2013) are broadly in agreement that the approach involves a number of stages summarised as:

  • Exploration of the nature, extent, causes and consequences of a problem.
  • Planning of an intervention to bring about change.
  • Implementation of the intervention.
  • Evaluation of the short-term outcomes.
  • Reflection on the process and, where time permits, modifying the plan and carrying out a new intervention.

Similarly, in the case of this study, the development and evaluation phases of the study used a PAR approach to facilitate the active involvement of the ECD practitioners thus enabling them to become agents of change and/or improvement as a consequence of their action. According to Israel et al. (1998:179), the collaborative partnerships in this approach extend to all phases of the research in which all parties participate as equal members.

The findings from the exploratory phase of the larger study (Padayachee 2022), which were further confirmed in the development phase of the PAR, identified the endemic violence and other social ills rearing in South African society as reflective of the growing indiscipline in the preschools. In this context, participants acknowledged the urgency for change, hence the participating ECD practitioners’ willingness to participate in the study and contribute their knowledge and experience.

Research design and methodology

Introduction

The larger study on which this article is based applied a community-based participatory research (CBPR) approach in the exploratory phase by means of close collaboration with all role players – ECD site supervisors, ECD practitioners, parents and community members. This method was deemed important to ascertain firsthand the actual experiences of communities who are generally rendered voiceless in the formulation of policies and curricula that directly impact their lives. The development and evaluation phases of the study continued this participatory ethos in the use of the PAR method. Community-based participatory research and PAR work through creating ‘participative research communities’ during the course of the research resulting in considerable overlap between the two (Banks et al. 2013:264). Thus, three of the ECD practitioners together with the author were co-researchers in the PAR component of the study.

Study location

The study was conducted in three preschools in Umbumbulu, a township on the South coast of Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. Umbumbulu township, 40 kilometres away from Durban, forms part of the eThekwini Metro and is home to about 250 000 people, who live lives like those of their parents and their grandparents. It is underserviced with virtually no economy and a place where much suffering has taken place because of sporadic political and faction-based violence in the past (Machen n.d.:2/1–4). Although democracy has enabled more roads, schools and clinics and the gradual delivery of electricity and water, the fundamental problems of poverty, unemployment, crime and political violence remain very much a part of the fabric of communal life (Machen n.d.:3/1–4). It is within this context that the larger study viewed the urgency of education interventions, generally, and ECD interventions, particularly.

Research sample

In each of the three preschools included in the action research, one practitioner represented it (Table 1). This selection was based on:

  • The interest, commitment and capacity to participate;
  • the agreement to constitute a research team with the researcher;
  • the undertaking to complete all research tasks for the duration of the study and;
  • being a classroom practitioner in the class of 3–4-year-olds (preschoolers).
TABLE 1: Participating practitioners for the action research project, early childhood development.

An initial face-to-face meeting was arranged by the author with the participating ECD practitioners included in the study. The purpose was to propose and discuss participation based on the study topic, the research process and the expectations of both the researcher and the participants. All present in those meetings were encouraged to ask questions and to seek clarity where required.

The researcher was confident that the sample competently represented the whole population. It was not the aim of the study to achieve generalisability but to gather from the practitioners their experiences, knowledge and insights to inform the development, implementation and evaluation of the intervention.

Data collection

The collection of data for the PAR component collectively spanned 14 weeks from 18 January 2020 to 30 April 2020. The development and implementation phases adopted qualitative methods (focus group interviews, participant interviews, observations and journal entries), while the evaluation phase used both qualitative (focus group interviews, participant interviews, observations, journal entries and post-application-practitioner evaluations) and quantitative (pre- and post-test questionnaires) data collection methods (Table 2). Thematic content analysis was applied to identify the main themes (Braun & Clarke 2006; Nowell et al. 2017).

TABLE 2: Comprehensive representation of data collection during the action research project.

Initially designed to conclude on 30 April 2020, the intervention implementation was, however, forced to terminate on 18 March 2020 in response to the national COVID-19 lockdown and closure of the sector (DSD 2020).

Ethical considerations

The mandatory ethical clearance for the research was granted by the university with which the researcher was registered through the ethical clearance letter issued by the Faculty of Management Sciences Research Ethics Committee (REC 77/17). In addition, the KZN Head of the Department of Social Development (DSD) granted permission for the research study in the preschools (letter dated 14 August 2017).

The research process

The development of the intervention commenced with a series of preparatory workshops organised according to the following four topics:

  • introduction to IE
  • philosophy of IE and Ubuntu
  • application of IE and
  • preparation of self.

The purpose of the workshops was to facilitate the co-creation of the ECD IE and Ubuntu intervention and its subsequent implementation and evaluation in the sample sites.

The implementation of the intervention was in the classes of 3 to 4 years old children of the three ECD practitioners in the three preschools. The sample was six children per class (three practitioners × six children), based on the class register of names arranged in alphabetical order and separated by gender. Three girls and three boys were selected after every fifth name in the lists of both girls and boys.

The evaluation of the intervention used both qualitative and quantitative data collection methods. Data collected through the quantitative method were largely confirmatory and corroboratory. Mixed methods are used to assess the credibility of inferences obtained from one approach or strand and are generally confirmatory questions (Teddlie & Tashakkori 2009:287).

Preparatory workshops

This first part of the development phase was based on the understanding that the participants were trained in the mainstream approach to ECD. Hence, the workshops to introduce and discuss a holistic ECD IE and Ubuntu approach were conducted over 2 weeks and included self-study activities and assignments. Data collected from the workshops were audio-recorded and transcribed for thematic analysis.

A brief discussion capturing the content of each session for an understanding of an ECD IE and Ubuntu approach, together with relevant responses from the practitioners, is presented.

Introduction to integral education

In the first workshop, responses indicated that the purpose of education was to develop a child holistically in both academic and social skills, to navigate the real world for life at home and work, to inculcate respect for religion, parents and other people and to promote lifelong learning. Significantly, these aspects are not key features in mainstream education but align strongly with an IE holistic approach.

The aspect of knowledge sources included personal experiences, parents and grandparents and highlighted the value of alternate knowledge sources that resonated with the study’s inclusion of indigenous knowledge (IK) for cultural context and identity. Participants drew attention to the loss and erosion of cultural values because of the dominance of Western culture. The responses to the introductory questions suggested a deeper understanding of education, especially the contrast between holistic and mainstream approaches.

The gap in the NCF (DoE 2015) in adequately addressing the development of all aspects of the child, especially social and emotional skills, was highlighted considering the incidences of deviant and antisocial behaviours and attitudes. This was evidenced in the practitioners’ comments, ‘… seems to develop anger in them’, ‘children pick up bad behaviour’, ‘selfish behaviour’ and ‘prejudices from their homes’.

Practitioners indicated that the discussions introduced the reflective practice and their role in guiding the children.

Philosophy of integral education and Ubuntu

The philosophical underpinnings of humanism and holism in IE and Ubuntu were interrogated, especially regarding the holistic development of individuals within an interconnected and interdependent collective.

Discussions centred on Ubuntu’s sense of communalism and co-existence founded on the social bond linking community members and included an awareness of a ‘higher consciousness’ on which IE is based. Higher consciousness is a state of mindfulness while being conscious of everything and everyone around and appreciating everything (Aurobindo 1972 in Adams 2006:35). Participants accepted that achieving this state started with encouraging the child toward an inward journey to learn about themselves. This was evident in the following responses, ‘deep level of the emotional part’, ‘mind is more linked with your heart’, ‘spiritual aspect’ and ‘connection with your inner self’. Thus, a strong correlation between the ‘higher consciousness’ and values of compassion, love and empathy was made and emphasised the need for an education that developed these qualities in children.

Implementation of integral education

Responses in this session included an understanding of the fundamentals of an IE approach with reference to all-round development according to each child’s unique and inner makeup, the development of self-awareness and integrated learning with no separation into subject areas.

Comparisons between mainstream models and IE were explored with responses indicating that IE was directly opposite to mainstream education, which was mainly directed by the mind, filling the child with prescribed knowledge while excluding active participation. In addition, children were not encouraged to think for themselves, creativity was undeveloped, intuition or instinct stifled and all learning was curriculum based, whereas IE was more external and internalised. Accordingly, the existing ECD programme was inadequate to effectively prepare the child for complete development.

Participants believed that curriculum developers seemed to have little or no knowledge of the conditions on the ground since programmes based on global trends were often irrelevant to the children. An IE approach, however, offered the child a range of opportunities to develop with their own agency and guided by the teacher their intellectual, creative and moral capacities for self-awareness, self-discovery, self-expression and self-education.

Preparation of self

Responses from the practitioners on the personal changes required for IE facilitation, especially the personal or inner development, were encouraging. There was an acceptance of the basic principle that the IE teacher could only succeed in changing others if she herself changed. This necessitated a close observance of weaknesses and strengths in character (sincerity, honesty, morality and ethics). In addition, a pledge of a lifelong commitment to learning, growing and self-actualising had to be undertaken. This agreement was evidenced in ‘prepare yourself to be a teacher’, ‘if you want to teach children about values, you shouldn’t have to teach, they should learn these from you’, ‘they must be the manifestation of who you are as a teacher’ and ‘children learn through you’. According to them, IE expected them to engage with the child to give sufficient space to think about situations and possible actions towards teaching self-awareness and independence.

Finally, according to the participants, empathy was important because it initiated change in life and encouraged children to act when a situation demanded. They would feel for others and learn to ask, ‘what have I done about …’. This sense of collective well-being was critical to the study’s proposal of building social responsibility and citizenship in the early years through IE and Ubuntu.

In summary, the workshops presented a comprehensive overview of the key aspects of the transformative ECD IE and Ubuntu approach. Gaps in their ECD training were highlighted, among which were the holistic development of children for life readiness and lifelong learning, the cultivation of a deep sense of spirituality and the recognition of the cultural context of the child. Finally, they understood and accepted that teaching based on an IE approach meant embracing an integral way of life.

Development of the intervention

The intervention programme encompassed broadly the four key IE aspects of child development: psychic, vital, mental and physical. An IE programme is premised on the integrated, equal and simultaneous building of intrinsic strengths, ethical and aesthetic senses, self-awareness, human senses, character, core human values, mental faculties and daily physical activities (Dini 2018), which IE teachers acknowledge and understand as critical for whole child development.

The first is the psychic aspect that includes the development of profound qualities and values like generosity, selfless love and self-giving, deep compassion, devotion and reverence, the pursuit of truth, reality, beauty and sincerity.

The second aspect is vital (life) education that includes the whole spectrum of emotions and feelings and is the source of all relationships, with other humans, with the environment and with the world at large.

The third aspect is mental education, including both intellect and intuition, with a pronounced de-emphasis on the intellect and concomitant emphasis on developing the intuition, especially in the early years.

The fourth aspect, integral physical education, aims at freeing the body of all psychological influence, developing its own awareness and evolving along natural lines.

Drawing on the data from the observations and informed by the practitioners’ knowledge and experience, a daily or weekly intervention was developed. This was based on ECD IE activities and exercises (Dini 2018). Indigenous stories, poems and songs collected during and after the community focus groups were included. The pedagogical design of the programme followed the model of the National Early Learning Development Standards (NELDS) daily and weekly programme (DBE 2009), adapted where relevant for contextual aptness.

Thus, the intervention programme, co-created with the practitioners and including the wider community, reinforced the participatory ethic used in the study, generally, and in these phases, particularly. The practitioners’ own agency in the development, implementation and evaluation was a significant milestone in the overall research process.

The observation notes on each of the 18 children in the sample were loosely guided by the developmental domains, which underpin all activities and programmes in the IE classroom. In addition, the practitioners were encouraged during these phases to keep journals of personal reflections on their thoughts, ideas, suggestions, comments and challenges relevant to the study.

Although the detailed observations on the children are outside the scope of this article, the salient points of the journal entries have been included. These offer valuable insights into the practitioners’ own experiences of their understanding of an ECD IE and Ubuntu approach and demonstrate the transformative effect on their practice, instructive in the development of a practitioner training programme. The journal reflections of the practitioners are reflected separately as Journals A, B and C representing Sample Preschools A, B and C.

The following extract, while revealing deeply personal recollections for the practitioner, is significant to the study in drawing attention to the value of the IE programme in improving the capability of preschoolers and the gradual inward journey of the practitioner, critical for self-awareness and deep self-reflection expected of IE teachers:

‘… But doing this work … I can see if only my parents knew all the things I know now, it would have made a difference in my life … I’m learning a lot about myself; things I didn’t know I knew about me. I think I’m slowly finding the inner child I never thought was there.’ (Practitioner A, female, NQF level 4)

The personal reflections that follow reinforce the critical importance of the early years of children’s learning for sustainable development and growth underscoring the central argument in the study. More importantly, it points to the practitioner’s commitment to teaching with the requisite knowledge and skills, essential qualities for an IE practitioner:

‘I think ECD is an important factor in a child’s life, it ensures the holistic development … It has also helped me a lot with the understanding and knowledge … I started to see things differently … gaining knowledge to what the most important qualities should a teacher or anyone have when looking after toddlers.’ (Practitioner B, female, NQF level 4)

The deeply insightful responses below concern the new learnings about child development arising from the IE programme with which the practitioner engaged. Her comparison between the conventional way of teaching and child development and the IE holistic approach resonated with the central argument that the existing ECD programme was inadequate in developing the child holistically. Equally, it echoes the views of the other two participating practitioners about deep reflection and heightened self-awareness as essential preparation for IE teachers:

‘… I have realised the gap in our learning and teaching process compared to an IE teaching and learning approach … not every child learns in a similar way to the other … I am on the journey of self-reflection, of looking at things from another perspective and being open-minded … every day different milestones reached, different emotions out of them, different backgrounds … so many values and behaviours were noticed. … We as teachers really think we are taking them from a clean slate … we tend to do forced learning because we believe their learning relies on us … the IE approach has changed the way I look at the child.’ (Practitioner C, female, NQF level 4)

Overall, the pre-programme observation period was fruitful on a range of levels. Most importantly, it introduced the practitioners to one of the fundamental tools of IE, which is observation of the self and the child. Moreover, the close observation of the children made the practitioners aware of the strengths and weaknesses in children to adjust programmes and strategies accordingly. The ECD IE and Ubuntu approach is based on understanding the uniqueness of every child. More meaningful, especially for the purposes of this article concerned with ECD IE practitioner training, was the incremental awareness of the changes in the practitioners and to their teaching and learning methodologies.

The implementation of the intervention programme commenced at the beginning of March 2020. In addition to the learning objectives that guided the overall teaching process, the key principles of the IE programme, personal change, human values, ethics, happiness, self-mastery, mental agility, mindfulness and body training (Dini 2018) undergirded the daily programme. These served as daily incentives to the practitioners to promote and experience the benefits of an IE approach.

Central to an IE approach is a deep connection between the practitioner and the child to understand a child’s individuality. This alternate approach, however, is inconsistent with the mainstream approach that is largely a ‘one size fits all’ one in which the practitioners in this study had been trained. The personal and professional changes expected of them in applying an IE approach were unreservedly appreciated and accepted. Two of the journal entries captured during the implementation of the intervention demonstrated their incremental transformation and endorsement of the programme:

‘… I got to learn more about being in class and how I teach. With this [IE programme] it is going to change me and how I teach … how to prepare myself and how I teach in class.’ (Practitioner A, female, NQF level 4)

‘It always feels good to be part of a change … developing a child to be a better someone … not every child will be as expected and not every child reacts the same to changes … we need to find a way of understanding a child and their level of capabilities … I am most happy with the programme … for the first time in 8 years … I felt so involved in positivity, so involved in change … which is most gratifying.’ (Practitioner C, female, NQF level 4)

These personal reflections indicate IE’s transformative approach to the ECD teaching and learning processes and one that is more likely to usher in a new generation of socially conscious children as proposed in the study.

Evaluation of the intervention

The evaluation of the short-term outcomes of the intervention used both qualitative and quantitative data. Practitioners completed the pre-implementation evaluation, which included questions that related directly to their education experience and practice. As a subjective measurement tool, it explored the extent to which the existing ECD programme promoted a reflective practice.

The practitioners reported the changes in themselves as teachers, generally, and as becoming reflective practitioners, specifically. They evaluated the merit of the approach and the programme and the differences they saw between the way they were and how they were changing, suggesting the potential for further growth. Integral education demands highly conscious and developed teachers who have committed themselves to their own ongoing integral growth (Adams 2006:80). The practitioners appeared to be sensitised to the needs of the children and to invest in their development to the highest potential.

The response of the ECD practitioner in this entry demonstrated a deeply personal transformation of self-realisation and emotional healing, possibly enabling transparency and honesty in her classroom practice. The interrelatedness between her self-awareness, the anticipated changes to both her teaching and her life and the positive outcomes of the intervention were indicators of the affirmative effect of the implementation:

‘… they allow you to reflect and encourage self-awareness, it makes me think daily, as I’m doing with and for the class … I am constantly reflecting … I never had knowledge of IE, little did I know it was going to change my life and the way I teach in class. It has improved my knowledge and skills. The relationship I have with the children in my class has improved … I get to know them better than before I started this programme … I have grown a bond with the parents and also the learners …’ (Practitioner A, female, NQF level 4)

The ECD practitioner’s transformation in this entry tended more toward the professional (teaching style) than the personal and clearly endorsed the programme’s beneficial effect. Her new insights into particular aspects of child development were encouraging in terms of the efficacy of the intervention:

‘This programme has allowed me to be more open-minded, it changes the way I thought teaching should be and has shown me that children can learn a lot through play. As a teacher it has allowed my creative side to shine bright … how play can influence a child’s personality … it develops a child holistically.’ (Practitioner B, female, NQF level 4)

The ECD practitioner here, as in the previous one (Preschool B), acknowledged the opportunities for creativity through the IE approach. Unlike mainstream programmes and rigid implementation of the curriculum, an IE approach eschews any form of imposition on the child. Instead, it draws from the child’s own nature, needs and inclinations indicating that the child must be encouraged to expand according to its own nature (Partho 2007:196). Additionally, the response demonstrated that the implementation of an IE approach enabled a deeper, personal engagement as opposed to the perfunctory one associated with the mainstream approach:

‘… allows me to be creative … changes the total dynamics of teaching and learning process for me … it brought freedom to the pedagogy. As a teacher, you will always want something that will be flexible … it allows you to create your own activities. … through IE we are developing reasoning and independent problem-solving. Children enjoy learning when they are given chances to participate effectively …’ (Practitioner C, female, NQF level 4)

In summary, the journal entries during the evaluation phase confirmed the beneficial outcomes of an IE approach to personal growth and development and teaching and learning outcomes.

The post-implementation evaluation was a self-assessment tool to determine the implementation experiences of the ECD practitioners in three critical areas: the teachers, the children and the IE programme. This final stage of the evaluation is particularly significant to the aim of this article because it offers a comprehensive overview of all aspects of the ECD IE and Ubuntu programme. The findings presented persuasive justification for the development of an ECD IE practitioner training programme to develop caring and compassionate citizens.

In the first category (teachers), the questions explored their understanding and experience of teaching and facilitating, self-preparation and awareness, relationship building, personal change or transformation and teacher–child relationship.

In the second category (children), the questions investigated the following with regard to a comparison between the existing curriculum (NCF) and the IE intervention: behaviour and attitude changes, changing from within, holistic development, Ubuntu and cultural identity and building character and self-awareness.

The third category (programme) examined the IE programme directly and included questions on the differences or similarities between an IE and a mainstream (DoE 2015) approach, flexibility in an IE approach, classroom impact, application challenges and strengths and opportunities for change.

Perceived outcomes for teachers

Difference between teaching and facilitating: Essential to IE is a facilitative approach as opposed to a teaching one that presupposes the teacher as the sole repository of knowledge. Practitioners noted the observable differences between the two approaches during the IE implementation. Teaching was associated with inflexibility and regarded as ‘a set to rules’, ‘deliverance of the matter’, ‘immediate outcomes’ and ‘according to the curriculum’. Facilitation, however, was a learner-centred approach conducive to participatory engagements with children, expressed as ‘learn together in a group’, ‘understand the children’, ‘express themselves’, ‘engage more with the children’ and ‘bringing out and focusing on the wisdom of the group’. Thus, participants were inclined towards facilitation for progressive, effective and sustainable learning.

Self-preparation and awareness: Responses to the changes to which they committed in preparation for the implementation period suggested a heightened awareness of their teaching practice and a willingness and readiness to embrace change as evidenced in ‘awareness of teaching and learning’, ‘introduction to different teaching methods’, ‘change my pedagogy’ and ‘change my attitude towards each child’. The practitioners’ responses indicated that the positive changes augured well for improved learning possibilities.

Building relationships: In consideration of the imperative in IE to work within a supportive and nurturing ecosphere for the advancement of the child’s learning and development, practitioners were required to initiate and maintain stable and affirming relationships. The responses confirmed the establishment of greater parental and family participation through the efforts of the practitioners. The insights into people’s attitudes and behaviours and the closer relationships with children were highlighted in this section.

Transformation of self: Establishing personal changes in the participating practitioners as exposure to the IE programme was crucial to understanding the depth of engagement. Transformation of self could only occur when practitioners had demonstrated meaningful involvement with the IE philosophy, principles and practices. In this regard, responses included innovative and transformative practices, demonstrated in ‘teaching and learning in fun and different ways’ and ‘acceptance of certain situations and working around them for a better change’.

Teacher and friend: Respondents in this category confirmed the need to be both a friend and teacher to the child while acknowledging the necessity of boundaries. Relationships based on openness and closeness with the child created the opportunity for uninhibited counsel and support from the teacher, manifest in an IE learning that a friendly teacher may be more effective and impactful than the most learned or competent one (Partho 2007:188). In this context, responses included ‘makes things easier for everyone’, ‘learners open up to you’, ‘you are able to help them’ and ‘keep close bonds’.

In summary, the responses demonstrated their collective affirmation of the characteristics of an IE teacher to achieve the goals of an ECD IE approach.

Perceived outcomes for learners

Behaviour and attitude changes: Although respondents recorded few observable changes because of the reduced period of implementation, there were promising indications of small developments. There was a noticeable demonstration for the first time – ‘they never did or even known to be important’ – of values such as responsibility, appreciation and gratitude. In addition, the exercises on concentration appeared to be engaging the children to the extent that when omitted the children were ‘all over the classroom and distracted’.

Changing from within: The understanding of ‘changing from within’ is based on a deeper consciousness with respect to behaviour and attitude change in ways that are not superficial or learnt by rote but are the result of reflection and introspection. Responses indicated minor changes in children, including being ‘comfortable to express their feelings’ and able to ‘play freely with others’. In addition, the limitations of the mainstream approach were raised in relation to the development of spiritual well-being and independent thinking through the co-creative participation of the ‘mind, body, heart, surroundings and love for nature’ that are encouraged with an IE approach.

Holistic development: While the mainstream NCF (DoE 2015) approach is associated with the holistic development modality, its implementation was problematic. This was highlighted in the responses that pointed to its singular focus on the development of ‘intellectual capabilities’ and excluded ‘holistic growth’ that could, if applied, ‘develop all aspects of the person’. According to Miller (1997:153), children learn through their feelings and concerns, their imaginations and their bodies, not only through their minds. Thus, focusing on one aspect of experience implies that our latent spiritual qualities are not as highly valued as rational intellect.

Ubuntu and cultural identity: Intrinsic to an IE approach is cultural affirmation and identity, which the study proposed through the explicit inclusion of Ubuntu in the intervention. Respondents were unambiguous about their beneficial impact, evidenced in, ‘… kids understand their culture and identity’, ‘they understand their values in life’ and ‘telling stories in isiZulu caught their attention’.

Character building and self-awareness: The participating practitioners interrogated ways in which character building and self-awareness were realisable using an IE approach. They understood self-awareness as ‘knowing your values, personality, needs, habits, emotions, strengths, weakness’, all of which relate to character formation. Respondents maintained that an ‘IE approach is the right tool’ to engage children in prosocial and benevolent behaviour as noted in ‘develop responsibility’, ‘develop critical thinkers’, ‘see others as humans that they share space with’ and ‘trim certain behaviours because of the consequences’. Conversely, the NCF (DoE 2015) ‘does not talk about children developing a sense of humanity, sense of seeing others as humans before judgement and sharing love with animals, nature and people’.

Overall, the responses indicated slight but noteworthy changes and positive reception of the programme, suggesting further favourable outcomes.

Perceived outcomes for the programme

Differences and similarities between integral education and mainstream: Respondents addressed the issue of the comparison between the NCF (DoE 2015) and the IE approaches based on the intervention implementation. In general, they confirmed that the NCF mainstream approach was largely inadequate in developing children’s social and emotional skills with its focus on cognitive development. In this regard, responses highlighted the uniform pace of learning in the mainstream system, while an IE approach facilitated the development of ‘social and life skills even if they don’t make academic gains’. Additionally, specific programme and approach differences between mainstream and IE were indicated, including the mainstream physical development component that comprised physical training only while IE included self-realisation and inner wellness. Other IE benefits emphasised were ‘connection with nature and gratitude towards nature’ and ‘showing gratitude towards everyone’.

Flexibility to adapt: Responses to the IE programme’s flexibility to adapt to children’s needs and natures referenced the rigidity of the NCF (DoE 2015) in not allowing ‘teachers and learners to be flexible and work according to each and every child’s uniqueness’. Conversely, the IE programme was flexible and adaptable allowing ‘children to be themselves before any teaching and learning process even begins’. In addition, the IE approach was ‘easy for them to adapt because the approach is to facilitate not to be fed with information’.

Classroom impact: Respondents evaluated the outcomes of the intervention based on its implementation and their own views. Generally, they highlighted the gains and the specificities of the programme that were working in the best interests of the child, as demonstrated in ‘mastery of one’s body and its functions’, ‘mastery of one’s character’, ‘development of the ethical and aesthetic sense’ and ‘values … change the atmosphere in the class or even the workplace’.

Implementation challenges and strengths: Overall, the practitioners identified some of the challenges around the reorganisation of the existing routine and the children’s ability to adapt, which is a universal concern with systemic change. In addition, particular aspects of the programme, such as the breathing exercises and inner evaluation, were challenging to apply on account of children ‘not understanding the reason behind it’. The strengths highlighted in the implementation included ‘allowing them to be themselves’, ‘praising them for each individual’s positive behaviour’ and ‘connecting with nature and exploring their strengths and abilities’.

Opportunities for change: The respondents were unequivocal on the potential and benefits of the IE programme and identified particular changes likely to be accomplished as a result of their training and experiences in the implementation period. Some of these responses regarding changes in children were ‘… differentiate between wrong’, ‘have a background of who they are … at an early stage’, ‘allow children to approach their feelings’, ‘to be positive decision-makers and independent adults’ and ‘have Ubuntu towards one another’.

In total, the responses indicated the greater benefits to applying an IE approach. The challenges identified were around replacing existing programmes and did not detract from the strengths and advantages of an IE approach.

Overall, the participant interviews post-implementation of the intervention constituted a significant part of the evaluation process. As a comprehensive qualitative evaluation instrument, the data furnished thorough information on the outcomes of the implementation. The key findings in each of these aspects effectively constituted the key components of the ECD IE and Ubuntu training programme for practitioners. Based on the integrality of the mind, body, heart, spirit and community, its primary objective is to enable a caring, compassionate and humane society.

Conclusion

At the core of the PAR method is its focus on effecting change through collaborative action. In this study, the practitioners identified the violence and deviant behaviour among the youth in South Africa as impacting negatively on young children and increasingly evidenced in their preschools, as well as in the later phases in schools. This bodes ill for the future of South Africa and its fledgling democracy. The envisaged change was to develop in preschool children the necessary values, skills and knowledge to create a socially responsible and civic-minded new generation for participatory democracy in South Africa. Thus, changing the existing ECD teacher training programme to one applying an IE approach would foster the equal and synchronous development of all human dimensions: body, instincts, heart, mind and consciousness for the wholeness of being. According to Miller (1997:153), the holistic education paradigm is essential for children if they are to develop into emotionally healthy, morally secure and democratically inclined citizens.

Consequently, pivotal to the IE practitioner’s training is an engagement in personal transformative practices to cultivate the integration of mind, body, emotions and spirit (Adams 2006:80; Murray 2009:38). The quality of the practitioner’s personal being and life must inspire the child. Her interactions, relationships and personal actions ought to illustrate the values of a deeper life actually lived in the world (Partho 2007:181). Thus, transformation is an ontological process of a change in being in the world.

Finally, the findings in these phases were consistent with the prerequisites to becoming an ECD IE practitioner and facilitator. These included changes to their perspective and practice in acknowledging and adopting an integral way of life manifest in their committing to lifelong learning, to growing and developing, to self-actualising and to self-reflecting in which case, the prospect that early childhood education based on an IE approach with Ubuntu looks hopeful for building social responsibility and citizenship in South Africa.

Acknowledgements

K.P would like to acknowledge the co-researchers, Zanele Mpisane, Sindiswa Msomi and Nomusa Mtshali for the invaluable contribution to this action research project. Their dedication and commitment to the project from the beginning to the end are greatly appreciated and highly valued.

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no financial or personal relationships that may have inappropriately influenced them in writing this article.

Authors’ contributions

K.P. designed and conducted the research, collected and analysed the data and conceptualised, planned and wrote the manuscript. SM and G.H. contributed to the design and structure of the article, verified the results and supervised the writing. D.L. assisted with the acquisition of the research funding and supervision. All authors provided critical feedback and helped shape the research, analysis and the manuscript.

Funding information

The authors would like to acknowledge funding for the larger study, namely:NRF and SAQA grants, as well as DUT internal scholarship for Research and Post Graduation Support.

Data availability

The authors confirm that the data supporting the findings of this study are available within the article and/or its supplementary materials.

Disclaimer

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any affiliated agency of the authors.

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