Recognition of Prior Learning as ‘Radical Pedagogy’

Recognition of Prior Learning as ‘Radical Pedagogy’

The Case of Workers’ College in South Africa – final draft

“We taught one another what we knew, discovering each other’s resourcefulness. We also learned how people with little or no formal education could not only themselves participate in education programmes but actually teach others a range of different insights and skills. The “University of Robben Island” was one of the best universities in the country… it also showed me that you don’t need professors.” – Neville Alexander1.


This article argues that a model of Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) in use at a Workers College in South Africa, may be seen as a form of ‘radical pedagogy’. Drawing on documentary sources, focus group interviews and observations, it describes an educational philosophy which aims to build the competencies of labour and community activists, facilitate their self-affirmation and dignity, and provide an access route to post-school education. It documents and attempts to theorise how this philosophy is enacted in classroom pedagogy, and explores some of the tensions and challenges encountered. The article concludes by acknowledging the unique contribution of these education practices to an understanding of what ‘RPL as radical pedagogy’ might look like.

KEYWORDS: worker education, radical pedagogy, recognition of prior learning, experiential knowledge, political consciousness, social transformation, labour studies.


This article presents a research study aimed at exploring a model of Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) in use at the Workers’ College, Durban, South Africa. The Workers’ College views RPL as a tool to simultaneously build the competencies of activists in labour and community organisations working for social transformation, facilitate their self-affirmation and dignity, and provide an access route to post-school education.

The study is part of a larger four year research project funded by the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA), entitled ‘Specialised Pedagogy: A comparative study of RPL practices within the changing landscape of the NQF in South Africa’. One of four case studies2, the Workers’ College study focuses specifically on the integration of RPL practices into the classroom pedagogy, the content of educational materials, and into assessment tools in the College’s diploma programmes. These programmes are aimed at activists in labour and community organisations.

RPL usually takes the form of an assessment practice which takes place before entry into a programme of learning. The distinctive feature of the RPL practice at the Workers’ College is that it forms an integral part of the pedagogy of the College. Furthermore, this model of ‘RPL as radical pedagogy’ is located within a strong conceptual framework (critical Marxist theories and activist values) and within an educational agenda geared towards the benefit of the collectives from which the individual learners come, and through which they are recruited onto the programme. Therefore, the aim of the College is not merely for the content and education process to be informed by, and relate to, the experiences and practices of the individual learners, but also to that of the labour and community organisations. In addition, individual experiences are not merely recruited. They are interrogated through personal reflections, robust debates, group and class discussions, inputs and interventions by the facilitators and through exposure to, and critical engagement with, texts, concepts, theories and debates from mainstream academia.

The educational philosophy of the Workers’ College’s is to begin with learners’ ‘struggle knowledge’, to reflect on it, validate it through peer engagement, and link such experiential knowledge to the theoretical, codified knowledge base of academia. In this way the College aims to create a different knowledge base that will start to interact with formal disciplinary knowledge bases, giving them greater value and relevance for College learners. This approach also seeks to engage critically with dominant discourses and to challenge the social injustices that lead to some kinds of knowledge being undervalued and unrecognised. In order for the Workers’ College education project to achieve its goal of contributing to the formal knowledge base of academia, it needs to acknowledge that there is conventional or formal knowledge that resides in institutions of learning that has always been dominant. It has to acknowledge equally that experiential knowledge is often dismissed as being less important. The College’s approach to RPL attempts to explore, and if necessary, challenge, the relationship between formal knowledge in the academy and experiential knowledge.

The recruitment of knowledge, and in particular, experiential knowledge, is not restricted to that of the learners. Over the years the College has also encouraged the recruitment and involvement of facilitators or educators in its education programmes from the broad landscape of trade union, community, non-governmental organisation (NGO), civil society, and academic backgrounds. Their experiences have also contributed to a rich exchange of varied experiential knowledge which has shaped the education programme and discourse of the College. This exchange of experiential knowledge has also impacted on the organisation itself and the way in which it interacts with learners, and the broader constituency that it serves.

This article provides an overview of the educational philosophy of the Workers’ College, against the background of its history. It then explores in greater detail how this educational philosophy is enacted in classroom pedagogy, and demonstrates the significance of activism as the organising principle of its curriculum. It concludes by noting some of the tensions, contradictions and challenges that the Workers’ College is grappling with while also acknowledging its unique contribution to our understanding of what ‘RPL as radical pedagogy’ might look like.


The Workers’ College was established in 1991 originally as part of the University of Natal, Durban, (now the University of KwaZulu Natal – UKZN), but subsequently became independent. The decision to establish the Workers’ College was born out of the realisation that there were very few worker education organisations and institutions in South Africa that addressed the specific education needs and realities of trade unions and community based organisations. In addition, education programmes that were designed for trade union activists were usually in the form of seminars and workshops conducted over a few days, without any form of assessment, and with little or no continuity or follow-up. From 1992, the Workers’ College started providing a variety of education programmes for trade unionists. These were designed as one-year certificate courses requiring learners to attend classes once a week as the learners were working adults.

The decision to seek formal accreditation for the courses arose as a result of pressure from the various trade unions for formal recognition of their members’ learning. However, it must be noted that the Workers’ College’s education programmes were designed around particular content and outcomes to meet the needs and challenges facing such organisations that were not to be found in any of the higher education institutions. Initially, an agreement around formal accreditation was reached between the Workers’ College and Ruskin College (Oxford, United Kingdom) but because of the geographical distance between the two institutions, the arrangement became impractical.

In 1997, an arrangement was established with UKZN, giving effect to an accreditation link in the following way: the four, one-year Workers’ College diplomas received UKZN Senate approval as alternative access qualifications into a degree programme. Assessment of learners’ performances in the four diplomas would be in the form of class participation, assignments, and written and oral examinations, moderated by UKZN; and a joint Workers’ College / UKZN diploma would be awarded to all successful diploma graduates at a graduation ceremony held at UKZN.

In 2000, a part-time five-year Bachelor of Social Science (B. Soc. Sci.) degree was designed, in collaboration with the Industrial & Working Life Project (IWLP) based at UKZN, for the Workers’ College diploma learners. On successful completion of the Workers’ College diploma course, learners would qualify to enrol for this degree. The diploma served as an entry qualification should the learner not have a matriculation (matric) qualification, or if the learner did have matric, then the diploma served as a 16-credit UKZN module. Prior to 2000 only trade union representatives served on the College’s governing structures, but in 2000 the Workers’ College amended its constitution to include community activists and organisations as learners and as part of its governing structures.


As the College sees it, the method of engagement with the content is that of connecting the experiential learning and knowledge of the learners, all of whom are activists, with theoretical and academic knowledge. This pedagogy is steeped in an adult education approach with a specific focus on equipping trade union and community activists with practical and theoretical capacities to strengthen their activism and their organisational practices. This approach is shaped by the history of Workers’ College as a worker-centred, civil society-based organisation born from the liberation struggle and grappling with the complexities and intricacies of a neo-liberal, democratic dispensation in a globalised world.

It is therefore logical that the pedagogical practices of the College are informed by the experiences of the liberation struggle and the practices and discourses within today’s organised civil society with regard to the potential of education to be a tool of liberation and justice (or oppression and injustice), a weapon of struggle (or of the maintenance of the status quo) and a means of empowerment (or disempowerment).

It is particularly important to consider that the Workers’ College inherits and is part of a rich history and herstory of trade union education, mass mobilisation, political education, popular education and popular theatre in South Africa that has long established traditions and practices of participatory, democratic educational practices (Kallaway, 2002; Cooper, 2007). The recruitment of people’s experiences and the confirmation, affirmation and reconstruction of their knowledge base featured prominently in the educational practices of the liberation movement and organised civil society organisations in South Africa. These practices took place within a problem-solving pedagogical framework out of which a conceptual framework was evolved. At times people’s material conditions, the problems and challenges they faced, would be used as pointers to expose them to systemic, institutional and structural issues responsible for their suffering, and therefore introduce them to concepts and ideological constructs such as capitalism, socialism, racism, sexism and democracy. At other times, the concepts would be presented and then related to the people’s experiences and conditions.

As much as there has been a tapping into various theories, from Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed to Marxian pedagogical traditions and critical pedagogy approaches such as that of Giroux’s (2012) borderless pedagogy, the Workers’ College’s educational practices have mainly been developed in the midst of action, shaped by practice, experience and experiment, and informed by the ever-changing socio-economic and political landscape, as well as the fluid and dynamic organisational environment of the labour movement and community organisations.

Policies, Programme Structure and Purposes

Learners who come onto the diplomas are drawn primarily from activists within the trade unions as well as community-based organisations and local branches of civil society organisations They are selected through the following processes:-

Notices and application forms. These are sent to labour and community organisations which have an existing relationship with the College.
Submission of the application form. This form requests information on personal details, prior education within their organisations and in education institutions and programmes, their organisational membership and positions held, and an undertaking from their organisation to support their application.
Invitation to write an assessment test. Should the application be in order, then the applicant is invited to write a test. The test seeks to determine their ability to communicate in English as well as their understanding of their roles in their organisation and broader society.
Invitation to an interview. Successful completion of the assessment test (a 50% mark) results in the applicant being invited to an interview which allows the College to get to know the applicant, assess her/his verbal skills, understand their personal and organisational circumstances, inform the applicant about the diploma programme, determine which diploma is suitable for the applicant, explain some of the rules of the programme and determine whether the applicant can get time off from work to attend the residential blocks, the revision programme and the examinations.

Though basic English literacy skills are considered in the entry test, emphasis is placed on experiences and competencies related to labour and community activism, and a basic understanding of historical and current social, economic and political realities of South Africa. The RPL admission policy allows for applicants without matric to be considered, based on how they fared in the entry test, on recommendations from their organisations, and on their length of experience, and the leadership position they hold in their organisation.

The Workers’ College offers four, one-year diplomas equivalent to a level five National Qualifications Framework (NQF) qualification. The four (4) diplomas are:
• Labour Studies Diploma (LSD)
• Labour Economics (LED)
• Political and Social Development Diploma (PSDD)
• Gender and Labour Studies Diploma (GLSD)

These are all recognised for the purposes of access (with limited credit) into the Bachelor of Social Science Degree, otherwise known as the Industrial and Working Life Programme (IWLP), at UKZN. Each diploma programme is structured into six modules with five modules delivered in five-day residential blocks. In a normal programme, a day consists of four sessions: two in the morning with a tea break, then lunch and two sessions in the afternoon with a tea break. Quite often each module or block has extramural activities such as site visits, debates, guest speakers, sporting activities, and viewing of documentaries, which act as enrichment for the course. The sixth module is based on project work that is carried out in the activists’ sites of practice.

In 2010, one of the six modules was designed to focus on activism, which has helped to further develop the College’s approach to ‘in-curriculum’ RPL. This activism module serves as a generic introduction to the themes and focus areas of the diploma programmes. Its goal is to facilitate a process for learners to draw on their experiences, skills and knowledge – including political, social and economic – acquired through life struggles and activism, and to have such knowledge documented, acknowledged and recognised as being of value. The themes and values adopted in this first module are threaded through the diploma programmes and joint sessions with all the learners, engaging holistically with learners’ experiences and informing their further engagement as activists in the workplace and the communities in which they live.

Planned Curriculum

The first phase of the research project sought to document the historical development and educational philosophy of the Workers’ College, and its findings are set out in the section above. In the second phase, the research sought to obtain a more detailed picture of, and a critical ‘outsider’ perspective on, forms of pedagogy in use at the Workers’ College. It focused on both ‘curriculum as planned’ as well as ‘curriculum in action’. In particular, it focused on what experience is valued and recruited, and how such experience is recruited for learning and knowledge production. Thus, the focus was on the pedagogical methods used to recruit experiential knowledge which included the teaching/learning orientation (teacher or learner centred); the teaching methodologies and tools of mediation (Daniels, 2001) used; the teaching and learning materials used; and the forms of assessment.

Data collection took place during module three of the 2012 residential diploma programmes and was carried out by two researchers who had no previous involvement with the Workers’ College, but who were part of the larger SAQA RPL research project. Their research entailed observations of one session of each diploma programme over two days; an observation of a supervision session for module six, where supervisors gave individual feedback to learners on the progress of their projects; two focus group interviews with College staff and facilitators; and a systematic analysis of course workbooks, readers and assignments from module three (the ‘curriculum as planned’).

We acknowledge that this was insufficient to provide a comprehensive understanding of what experiential learning was recruited and how, but it did provide an insight into one section of the planned curriculum and snapshots into the pedagogical approaches of the different facilitators. Findings revealed that RPL was functioning at different levels and in multiple ways at Workers’ College:
• at pre-entry, where admissions criteria prioritised certain types of activist experience;
• within the diploma programmes themselves, where learners’ experiential knowledge provides the scaffolding for epistemological access to the Workers’ College curriculum;
• and at the end of the programme, as a route for successful learners from the diploma programmes to access the specialist higher education Social Sciences degree at UKZN.

Despite this prioritising of activists’ experiential knowledge, the planned curriculum of the College (as characterised by readers and resource packs containing mostly academic texts), is conceptually dense, and strongly conceptually oriented. This was confirmed by facilitators in the focus group interviews, but the point was made that Workers’ College sees this conceptual knowledge as providing a necessary ‘specialist discourse’ for trade union and community workers to become better activists in their sites of practice. Although it was acknowledged that some of the concepts are quite complex, it was pointed out that many of the learners would have already encountered them in their line of work, and so would not be unfamiliar with them. As the Director remarked: “The context of the education discourse in Workers’ College is educating workers for the community and for the trade unions” (focus group interview [FGI] 15/06/2012).

Furthermore, notwithstanding the apparent conceptual orientation of the curriculum, in practice this theoretical knowledge is largely mediated through learners’ experience. Observations of classroom practice showed that this process frequently begins in an inductive way, where the facilitators begin by drawing on the learners’ experiential knowledge, and interpreting and re-contextualising this in relation to conceptual knowledge. Following this, concepts are then relocated back to the real world: working deductively, the concepts are either applied to case studies or re-contextualised alongside learners’ experience in order to deepen their understanding.

The study thus revealed that the facilitators’ pedagogy acts to mediate the engagement between learners’ individual and collective (organisational) experiential learning and the conceptual knowledge of the curriculum. One of the facilitators remarked: “It’s about taking the learners from where they are and developing them further”, and that: “We demystify concepts first, by describing them in experience, and then explore them in a more distanced, measured way”, for example how globalisation affects their daily lives (FGI 15/06/2012). Working with learners’ experiential knowledge to arrive at more abstract, conceptual understandings provides learners with an academic language of description. When the facilitator subsequently works backwards from abstract concepts to learners’ experiential knowledge, this helps learners to understand and critique their experiential learning, their assumptions and their organisational, activist practice: “… (we are) pulling them out of their context in order to put them back in again” (ibid).

Drawing on learners’ personal experience as the starting point for creating knowledge is seen by facilitators as particularly significant as a means of empowering learners; as emphasised by the Director of the College, “the hierarchical structures of the unions disallow the personal”. The Workers College’s emphasis on the personal is seen as important in strengthening an activist identity: “If you can’t transform yourself you cannot transform broader society” (FGI 14/06/2012). The recruitment of learners’ personal experience is also seen as facilitating their assimilation of theoretical knowledge: “they appropriate the knowledge for themselves and can operationalise it, they are not just acquiring it” (FGI 15/06/2012).

Facilitators emphasised that learning does not only take place in the classroom. The facilitators spoke of field trips that they had organised, such as to the informal traders’ market in Durban, where the learners could see “concepts in operation”. Poetry, drama and other creative activities, such as drumming, were used to explore some concepts – for example, the issue of diversity – experientially.

The dialogical process of inductive recruitment of experience, relating experience to abstract concepts, and then deductively relating these to particular contexts, seems to enable learners to “transcend their local context” and “access the academic and specialised knowledge that gives rise to abstract, specialised and context-independent knowledge structures that are the prerequisite for [formal] self-directed learning” (Haupt 2005: 47).


A research study by an exchange learner at UKZN, Elayna Tillman, in which she sought to explore how Workers’ College “develops in its learners a consciousness about their role as activists in transforming society”, shows that the notion of activism is key to the purpose of education at Workers’ College of “developing critical and informed activists in civil society” (Tillman 2012: 4). This topic was further explored in the focus group interviews with Workers’ College facilitators and staff, to try and gain a more in-depth understanding of how this manifests in the diploma programmes.

As explained by Workers’ College staff, all four diploma courses start with a common ‘Activism’ module (module one) in which learners’ experience of activism is explored in relation to their life, community and work, and this forms the basis for all further learning at Workers’ College. Activism is defined in this module as “when an individual or community or organisation engages in activities…to address challenges facing their respective constituencies … and all forms of oppression and exploitation based on class, race, gender … for the betterment / improvement of their livelihood” (Workers’ College, 2012, p. 1). The module explores and exposes the learners to different values, as “… people may be walking the same road but have different values” (FGI 15/06/2012) and it shows how their values are shaped by the predominant values of their organisations. It must be noted that there are different forms of trade unions, those that want to bring about social change and those that confine their work to addressing ‘bread and butter issues’ within the work place, thus working within the system. Not all the learners have an awareness of themselves as activists for change when they come to the College, “but we make them into activists” as “not all the unions have the discourses of change, even though we assume they do” (FGI 15/06/2012).

The diplomas, therefore, expose the learners to activist discourses, especially socialist perspectives on oppression and exploitation, the interrelationships between various forms of activism and the issues and causes advanced by these forms, and related activist strategies for action. Activism is explored broadly in relation to learners’ personal life struggles (by drawing on their personal experiences), as well as more specifically in relation to their organisational experience (drawing on their activist experience), from the perspectives of the four different diplomas respectively. A facilitator explained that: “The discussions help raise their [learners’] consciousness and embrace other perspectives and understandings – for example, looking at homophobia and corrective rape and how this is a violation of personal rights, and how in a similar way workers’ rights are abused in the workplace” (FGI, 15/06/2012). Learners are urged to develop a balanced perspective and to challenge existing ideologies and knowledge – both their own and those of others in academia, in the trade unions and in their communities – but are also constantly reminded to respect difference at all times.

The Director observed that all sessions were geared towards building not only understanding of social structure but also consciousness of agency, so that the learners learn how they can act as agents in their organisations, which further “heightens their consciousness” (FGI, 15/06/2012). It was clear that this notion of ‘consciousness’ is an important one at Workers’ College; in particular, consciousness of being an activist and what this means. The curriculum of the first module outlines how learners are explicitly oriented to the principles, values, and ethics of activism, which they then apply in the context of the College, actively learning these roles in social interactions and “conscientising others not to oppress them” (ibid).

The values of activism are lived at the College through participatory and critical learning processes and through open, democratic and non-discriminatory debate, which draw on learners’ prior learning experiences. Of key importance is that they learn to think critically, to “turn the lens on themselves” (FGI, 14/06/2012) from the outset. It was explained, for example, that learners are asked the same questions at the beginning and again at the end of this first module, and they then reflect on how their perspectives have shifted during this short time.

It was further explained that the diploma programmes emphasise collective learning, through group work as well as peer review of each other’s assignments. As the Director remarked: “collectivism has become an underlying theme and value, which is reflected in how they help each other” (FGI, 15/06/2012). With learners from all four diploma programmes together in the first four sessions of the activism module, learners are introduced to collective and collaborative learning and activist values right from the start. Activist values are also woven through all other sessions, learning activities and social interactions.

These activist values become embedded in the facilitators as well, as they “learn from each other and from the learners”, sharing their own experiences and struggles with the learners in a collective fashion. This has the effect of shifting and equalising power relations and eliminating “the disjuncture between the values of the lecturer and what they are teaching”, which is so often evident in higher education institutions (FGI 15/06/2012).This sharing of learning and experiences was clearly observed in the different sessions; one of the facilitators from the Gender Studies diploma commented that she shared things with her learners that ‘not even her mother knew’. An example of egalitarian social relations between learners and staff, and of identifying collectively with activists’ struggles was observed on two occasions when all the learners and facilitators were assembling for a late afternoon seminar, and some learners spontaneously started singing activist, ‘struggle’ chants. Within minutes, all the learners, staff and facilitators present were chanting, whistling, and ‘toyi-toying’ (a form of collective singing and dancing to protest or send a message) in solidarity.

The Workers’ College pedagogy also encompasses the emotion and the body. The theme of healing appeared several times in the course of the research: a restoring of people’s humanity was considered as a vital outcome of the Diplomas, helping learners to overcome feelings of inferiority in terms of their educational backgrounds and knowledge capital. As the Director pointed out:
Healing happens quite naturally within the class, because of what they do. Their story comes through in the broader story of the collective – they locate themselves in a context through their stories: ‘I am an activist because…’. These stories are then located in the broader histories and current contexts of activism, and the values that bring them all together (FGI 15/06/2012).
As Tillman (2012: 8) observed: “once the humanity of the oppressed is restored then it follows that they will recognise themselves as agents and will act to effect change and transform their environment, essentially what the Workers’ College sets out to do”.

It seems that the activism module, and especially the first four sessions which all the learners do together, acts as an RPL module in itself, locating learning within learners’ experiences and initiating them into the normative discourse of the College. In the other modules RPL is integrated into the learning activities, which are based on the diploma-specific subject matter. The discourse of critical activism, with its embedded values, principles and ethics for social change, therefore appears to be the ‘golden thread’ for all four diploma curricula and for all social interaction at Workers’ College.


There were two main tensions or disjunctures which were visible to the outside observer and which were raised in the focus group interviews in order to ascertain staff’s responses: the question of how to effectively integrate text-based tools of mediation into the curriculum; and the tension in the relationship between the overall aims and objectives of the Workers’ College and the nature of the tools of assessment, that is assignments and exams.

Classroom pedagogy at the Workers College draws substantially on oral and visual tools of mediation that are familiar to learners. It was shown earlier however that the College’s pedagogy also relies heavily on texts that are often conceptually dense. A common problem experienced by facilitators, and raised in one of the focus group interviews, was the difficulty learners have in coping with the text-based material; not only struggling to read, but also to understand the texts. This may be understood against the fact that most students come from black, working class backgrounds where their schooling was poor; furthermore, English is in most cases their second or third language. The facilitators discussed and shared their different techniques in dealing with the barriers that learners encounter in dealing with academic texts; these included letting the learners choose one of their members to read the text aloud to the class; getting people in the class to take turns in reading out one paragraph each; or the facilitators reading key excerpts or short sections from long texts to stimulate discussion. However, although these strategies may enhance learning, explaining the texts was still time-consuming. Facilitators suggested that local written accounts of case studies should be sought as much as possible for interrogation and critique, as this would make it easier for learners to access the readings. The issue of text-based tools of mediation nevertheless presents a challenge to that dimension of RPL at the Workers’ College which seeks to enable access for learners to higher education, as learners need to acquire the ability to engage confidently with academic texts in a higher education context3.

Another tension or disjuncture lay between ‘RPL as radical pedagogy’ and the nature of the assignments and exams. The Director explained that the final mark for each of the first five modules completed for each Diploma is comprised of a combination of: examinations (50%); assignments (40%); and participation (10%). The fieldwork module, module six, is marked incrementally, as the different stages are completed. To the outside observer, the assignments in the learner workbooks appeared very academic in nature, with a focus on assessing understanding of general, abstract concepts and contextual issues, and not explicitly drawing on experiential knowledge in any way. Similarly, there seemed to be a disjuncture between having a formal examination at the end of each of the first five modules on the one hand, and the experiential pedagogical approach that characterised classroom practice at the College on the other.

In the focus group interviews, however, facilitators expressed the view that the assignments are based on issues that affect the learners in the community, in their organisations and in the workplace, and that they are given “the tools to critically reflect and critique these” in class. They argued that because of the way the learners process this knowledge in class through ‘RPL pedagogy’ and in terms of their own trade union and organisational discourses, they are able to make meaning of the questions in the assignments and exams and to use examples from their own lives to answer the questions. It was emphasised that the aim of the diploma programmes was for the learners to acquire “a way of interrogating the world”, as this interrogation helps them to highlight their own values and put these values under scrutiny, rather than acquiring knowledge for its own sake. However, it remains an interesting challenge as how to devise creative approaches to assessment that are compatible with, and that promote ‘RPL as radical pedagogy’.


The Workers’ College case study raises some interesting theoretical issues, challenging some of the assumptions often made in the literature about ‘experiential learning’, as well as putting pressure on dualist models of pedagogy.

Traditional theorizations of RPL draw largely on adult and experiential learning theories (Andersson & Harris, 2006). The classic experiential learning cycle of Kolb (1986) starts with experience, and proceeds to abstraction from that experience in a fairly ‘open’ way. That is, it draws preliminary lessons, understandings and concepts from that experience. These understandings or concepts are seen as having primary relevance for the individual learner concerned. In this model, after this initial process of conceptualisation, ideas, concepts or information from outside of learners’ experience are brought in to deepen or challenge understanding. The resultant ideas/understandings are then used to inform practice/action. This model, then, uses experience in a primarily inductive way.

With the Workers’ College, a close analysis of the lesson plans in the learners’ workbooks, as well as the pedagogy in the classroom, shows a different pattern. Generally speaking, experience is first recruited in an open inductive fashion (where no specific conclusions are pre-figured), followed by a move towards ‘closed’, inductive recruitment of experience, where learners engage in individual and collective dialogue between their experiential knowledge and the conceptual and theoretical content of the curriculum. There is therefore a dialectical movement between ‘theory’ and ‘experience’ often ending with the application of concepts back to concrete experience, in order to deepen understanding of the concepts or to re-order and re-interpret experiential knowledge.

It seems that the model of experiential learning in use at the Workers College is not that of the humanist, Kolb, but rather that of the more materialist thinker and educationalist, Vygotsky. Both models actually provide a role for formal theory or formal concepts. In Kolb’s model however, these are secondary and brought in later to test or enrich the ‘everyday’ concepts that have already been evolved. It is these everyday concepts, organically derived from personal experience, that are given primacy.

Vygotsky presents a far stronger role for formal theory, while also retaining a role for ‘everyday concepts’. Vygotsky (1986) differentiated between two kinds of concepts (or processes of concept formation) which represent two different forms of reasoning: what he called ‘scientific concepts’ (ie. formal concepts) that develop through instruction and ‘spontaneous concepts’ (or ‘everyday’ concepts) that develop through experience. Although their paths of development are different they are related and constantly influence each other; the process is essentially a unitary one. Both formal and ‘everyday’ concepts have a development curve; but the development of formal concepts leads the development of spontaneous concepts. “Systematic reasoning, being initially acquired in the sphere of scientific concepts, later transfers its structural organisation into spontaneous concepts, remodelling them from above ……” (Vygotsky, 1986: 172)

The Workers’ College case study seems to present a fruitful example of how a formal body of theory (what Vygotsky would have called ‘scientific concepts’) derived mainly from Marxist/neo-marxist, critical and feminist theories, is introduced to learners consciously and explicitly. Initially, ‘everyday’ experience is drawn on selectively to illustrate the meaning of concepts. Thereafter, conceptual tools are used to recontextualise ‘everyday’ concepts that activists bring with them, deepening their understanding and, most importantly, systematising their everyday thinking. This process seems to act as a good springboard for a form of RPL that is both inclusive of everyday, experiential knowledge but also prepares learners for the demands of academic study.

In accounting for this approach, a key factor seems to be the strong contextual purpose of the Workers’ College curriculum and its notion that the task of bringing about radical social change is served and enhanced by providing learners with a strong set of conceptual resources. However, these theoretical resources – while being general and abstract in form – must at the same time be meaningful, and useful to learners as social activists. Furthermore, the Workers’ College philosophy is clearly one which does not regard established conceptual frames as remaining untouched in this process. The College holds the view that in the process of re-contextualising learners’ experiences, these experiences may in turn act to challenge or change established theory.


The radical approach to pedagogy by the Workers’ College is not new in South Africa, especially in adult education and within organisations that work towards social change. There are many such organisations that have and continue to mediate experiential and academic knowledge, in an attempt to find new and alternative solutions.

‘RPL as radical pedagogy’ as practiced within the Workers’ College attempts to mediate between the ‘struggle’ knowledge of activists who come onto the diploma programmes, and a set of theoretical frameworks whose concepts relate to such experiences, directly or indirectly. It also attempts to facilitate a process for activists to understand their current existence and develop their own, independent world view in opposition to the dominant knowledge system and culture that prevails in our globalised society. With the embedding of ‘RPL as radical pedagogy’ within an accredited programme, however, the College also seeks to provide an access route to the academy, and therefore a way into the dominant knowledge system which may undermine their own experiences and world view. The Workers’ College has to work within this tension, all the while strengthening the confidence of its learners to challenge dominant knowledge paradigms.

The Workers’ College views education in the broad context of bringing about change in the intellectual understanding, contributing and developing new knowledge and responding creatively to the conditions and realities of society. The aim of RPL within the Workers’ College and similar institutions is not primarily one of credit seeking but rather one of liberating the individual and communities. This liberatory pedagogy should be integral to wider pedagogical discourses and education practices.

This case study has cast light on the Workers’ College’s RPL practices and provided an opportunity for the College to address the possible gaps identified and build on the innovations identified by the study. It will strengthen the Workers College’s attempts to develop ‘best practices’ of RPL in the context of a developing country where the struggle to achieve equality, redress, restoration of dignity and social cohesion is of utmost importance.


1. Former revolutionary and struggle hero Neville Edward Alexander (22 October 1936 – 27 August 2012) was best known as a proponent of a multilingual South Africa. He was a co-founder of the National Liberation Front and a director of the South African Committee for Higher Education.
2. The other three case studies focus on RPL into undergraduate study and postgraduate study at two South African universities respectively, and on a private provider of RPL services to the corporate sector. The research project as a whole is funded by SAQA.
3. For further discussion on the role of tools of mediation in RPL in relation to workers’ education, see Cooper (2006).


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