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Ubuntu: I Am Because We Are

There is a story about a western anthropologist who interacted with a group of children in South Africa. He placed a basket of sweet fruit near a tree and had the children stand several metres away. He told the children that whoever got to the basket of fruit first would get to keep it all to themselves. He then started the race, “On your mark, get set, go!” What these children did surprised him. They held each other’s hands, and then ran toward the tree and basket of fruit together. In this way they were all able to share the fruit. The anthropologist asked them why they ran the race that way. Their response was “Ubuntu. How can one be happy when all the others are sad?” Ubuntu, which comes from the Zulu and Xhosa languages, represents a South African ethical ideology that focuses on people’s relationships and partnership with each other. It means, “I am because we are.”

I believe that the philosophy of Ubuntu can help us dig into an essential element of the vision of Christian Deeper Learning: celebrating learners as God’s image-bearers, particularly in the context of classroom community.

It is important for students to know what it means to be created in the image of God and to impress on them the high calling this gives them. The paradox in education arises as we strive to emphasize not just the value of each individual but also that of the community of learners. Good education allows opportunities for both to be nurtured and celebrated.

Deeper learning can be defined as the practice of taking what is learned and applying it to new situations. The skills involved in such learning include critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, and learning to learn. Students engaged in deeper learning are not simply developing cognitive skills; they are also cultivating interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies. Celebrating each other, as opposed to simply pursuing and celebrating individual achievements, confirms for students their value and the importance of their contributions.

As Christians, we are called to love God and love others. Another way of putting this may be to say that we are image-bearers of God, who are interconnected, called to love our neighbours and care for our broken world as part of God’s story of redemption. Shifting education from knowledge transfer to learner transformation is in alignment with this idea, as it puts the learner first, giving more value to the person than to the subject matter. 

Deeper learning encourages learners to be more inclusive of others both in their classroom and around the world. Considering learning to be a communal activity rather than just an individual activity really resonates with me. Learning this way goes way beyond our own individual goals and desires and looks at what would be beneficial to others and to the world in which we live as we consider the impact of our learning and actions from a just perspective. Collaboration celebrates and values our identity as a member of Christ’s body. Learning should not be teacher-focused, but neither should it be entirely student-focused. When teachers and students collaborate, the learning is rich and meaningful for all. They each play a part in the learning journey.

Intentionally having students develop their interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies for better learning is an area that has not always been given the attention it deserves. Group work has often been assigned with focus merely on meeting academic goals rather than on truly building social-emotional skills that students need. Fortunately, over the last few years, and especially as a result of the pandemic, students’ mental health and interpersonal skills are getting more attention. I think that how we authentically value each student has a greater impact on learning than we have given it credit for. Valuing students as God’s image-bearers and as members of a collaborative learning community requires more than acknowledgement—it needs to be integrated into the ways that we design and celebrate learning. 


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