Repository logo

A constructivist approach to Theory U as a transformation model in academic development within South African higher education.

Thumbnail Image



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



Rampant industrialization, rapidly shifting geo-political dynamics and an increasingly complex global social context, which is punctuated by bewildering, unpredictable and unprecedented transformation, is having a profoundly debilitating impact on human society. With no precedent to draw from, the overwhelming nature of these changes has resulted in many societal ills such as feelings of alienation, helplessness and societal fragmentation. Although the evolution trajectory shows transformation to be an intrinsic part of the human experience, paradoxically, humans generally do not cope effectively with change, especially drastic and sudden change without a conscious and constructive intervention. Hence from the perspective of this thesis, what is of major concern about pervasive transformation is its impact at the micro level of the mainly Black learners at academic development programmes in South African higher education. This must be seen within the context of the debilitating effects of apartheid, and the macro transformation pressures that were brought to bear on South Africa and which manifested in the significant socio-political shift from apartheid to a democratic system of governance. Research based on interviews and observations with Black students studying engineering at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, Durban, revealed that there were many, mainly non-academic factors that impacted on academic success; that the starting point towards overcoming academic deficiency and challenges, was to adopt an alternative ontological and epistemological perspective. These findings are supported by similar research on academic support programmes at other South African universities such as the University of the Witwatersrand (Agar, 1992:95) where surveys conducted with students have confirmed that among the problems which most influence their academic progress, non-academic problems are rated the most influential. Hence, the more an educational initiative addresses both the educational and socio-economic needs of students, the greater the impact on academic success that initiative is likely to have. It needs to be noted that a study of academic development in South African higher education cannot be pursued independent of the complex social system of which it is part. Besides having to contend with generic social transformation as a result of globalization as well as political changes at the local level, Black learners languishing from the effects of apartheid subjugation even after the onset of democracy, still bear the significant brunt of having to transition from socio-economically and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds to pursue academic study, often at formerly „White‟ tertiary institutions. Unfortunately, the lack of academic preparedness, insufficient cultural capital and a myriad of non-academic ontological factors, have resulted in high failure, slow academic progression and increasing attrition rates. In spite of the extensive prevalence of academic development programmes at many institutions of higher learning, academic problems experienced by Black learners seem to be on the rise. This has raised critical questions about the implementation and epistemological approaches of academic development. This is more so since the dominant structural adjustment implementation model coupled with the mechanistic teaching methodologies applied in academic development programmes have largely proved ineffective in addressing learning problems which are systemic in nature. Through critically engaging the conceptual and applied strengths of the Theory U transformation model, the research proposes this model as an alternative to the mechanistic and reductionist methods which have thus far permeated the academic development discourse. This alternative approach challenges the prevailing educational orthodoxy whereby learners are perceived to be „passive‟ learning beings, and replaces it with a model which approaches learning from the premise that all „knowing‟ is subjective and that through a constructive „mindful‟ consciousness, learners can construct their own meaning of reality. Since education is fundamental to redressing the inequalities of the past and developing the potential for the future, there is an urgent need for an alternative approach. However in a fluid and vibrant context such as presented in South Africa, one cannot search for absolute answers, but needs to be receptive to alternative ways of thinking and to harness these with research findings as a route map for further exploration and meaning-making. Emerging research in such diverse fields as quantum physics, consciousness and various transformation discourses (which include Post-postmodernism and Nondualism) derived mainly from contemplative Eastern philosophical traditions (such as Buddhism), point to a new realization. This realization advocates that the alternative approach does not reside in the „grand narratives‟ which were reified during the eras of Enlightenment and Modernity, but that the ability to change our realities resides within each individual. This awareness posits the individual centrally within his/her reality. In other words, through conscious awareness and transformed mental models, individuals can construct a new reality. This research thesis seeks to develop a deeper understanding of the processes of learning and adaptive intelligence, particularly as applied in rapidly transforming, complex social systems. The approach involves the engaging of the human subject in a „mindful‟ process of deconstructing inhibiting thought patterns and then constructively, constructing new meaning. The parameters of the research have been set by the researcher in accordance with the established practitioner-researcher methodology. This method provides a voice to educators and classroom practitioners to interrogate their own experiences in order to improve their praxis.


Ph. D. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban 2012.


Student development programmes--South Africa., Academic achievement--South Africa., Students--Attitudes., Students--Social conditions., Educational change--South Africa., Social change--South Africa., Theses--Management studies.