Is the NQF modernist, constructivist or post-modernist?

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

I came across this interesting question in an article written by Samuel BA Isaacs, previous CEO of SAQA, and published in the SAQA Bulletin Volume 12, Number 2 of February 2012. The Bulletin is rather outdated, but the question is not. Here is my attempt at answering the question.

The NQF does show some characteristics of modernism in the sense that its objectives are logical and aimed at supporting quality in education and training, lifelong learning. It is contemporary while keeping pace with changes in technological and social environments. The objectives of the NQF supports the modernist notion that science and reason can be used to achieve accuracy, objectivity and reliability in the process of knowledge creation.

Through the years, since the inception of the NQF, learning institutions and quality assurance bodies experienced it as a system that is bureaucratic, prescriptive, procedural and structured, which are elements of a modernist paradigm. Although some of them might deny this, all quality assurance bodies follow evaluation procedures based on specific criteria, procedures and timeframes from which they do not deviate. 

The elements of modernism that can be linked to a constructivist philosophy are that the NQF is formulated in a structured, hierarchical (three sub-frameworks) manner while being implemented and managed in an orderly manner through centralised control.

Constructivism can be regarded as the conscience of the NQF. All stakeholders are given an opportunity to participate in the development and review of the NQF, so that learning institutions and quality assurance bodies can contribute through their own understanding and experience, i.e. prior knowledge. In a constructivist approach, all stakeholders should be allowed to ask questions and to participate in the exploration, research and development processes. Sadly, such flexibility was neglected in the development of the NQF. The intelligence and prior knowledge of experts were utilized selectively and subjectively in the formulation of the NQF. I need to add, though, that Dr. James Keevy, who is probably the best-informed South African authority on NQF systems worldwide, played a valuable and pivotal role in the initial development process, but that is not typical of a constructivist approach.

Post-modernism supports a pluralistic epistemology which utilizes multiple ways of knowing. This means that the NQF, to meet the requirements of post-modernist philosophy, should have been much more flexible in its approach to quality assurance of learning institutions and learning content. Post-modernism values the multiple opinions of individuals and communities. In his article, Isaacs mentions that many stakeholders were consulted in the development process. This would be typical of a post-modernist approach.

Modernism and post-modernism have certain elements that fit together, for example, modernism articulates traditional beliefs and practices with modern ideas and needs while post-modernism links opinions, value-systems, and knowledge to specific cultures. This is largely achieved through the use of language.

Both modernism and post-modernism are technicist, meaning that they adopt a critical and interpretive approach to the achievement of quality education and training. The NQF meets these characteristics. However, this is not necessarily a good thing.

In closing, the NQF needs not be exclusively modernist, constructivist or post-modernist. It can, and probably do, show characteristics of all three and some other paradigms.  For example, there are elements of critical theory in the NQF. The NQF questions knowledge and learning methods, it acknowledges the role of power and social position on education and training and it goes beyond prevailing assumptions of understanding. It also shows characteristics of feminism by promoting the role of women in the education and training system. It also shows characteristics of positivism – quality assurance of education and training as well as the learning process as such follows a cycle of control which includes observation, experimenting, and measurement. Judging from the manner in which the NQF is implemented I would think that it is largely based on a modernist philosophy.  

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