Department of International Development and Social Change

Dr. David Bell

Promoting Learning through Service

Growing up white in South Africa and going through the privileged educational system as a politically active student during apartheid, and later as a teacher in the new system, ignited David Bell’s double passion for education and development.

Bell, who joined the IDCE faculty in Fall 2002, brings to the International Development and Social Change Program a remarkable combination of practical experience and research in the field of education and development.

Bell developed his interest in the role of formal and non-formal education in individual development during his undergraduate training in education and psychology at University of Port Elizabeth. Bell then obtained his M.Ed in guidance and counseling from Rhodes University in South Africa. His thesis on the impact of in-service teacher education allowed him to further explore topics such as power relations, change and transformation.

Bell’s doctoral thesis for his Ed.D. at the University of Massachusetts was inspired by what he saw as the misuse of academic education by British colonial rule and the apartheid government. This abuse of education ranged from withholding access and resources from the majority of South Africa’s population, to a deliberate indoctrination into an uncritical way of thinking. Black schools were further segregated along ethnic lines and aimed at developing low-level functional skills in learners in order to perpetuate a social structure that oppressed the masses and privileged the white minority.

The South African educational system was fundamentally transformed with the fall of apartheid. “The new government did not attempt to reform the old system; it thoroughly transformed it” says Bell. “Critical thinking skills and measurable learning outcomes were emphasized in the new system and teachers are gradually being held accountable for the quality of education of their students.”

A product of this transformative process was the creation of a national qualifications framework that was established to affirm prior and different forms of learning and knowledge and to provide equitable access to education for all South Africans. Bell became interested in how educators in the new South Africa were able to utilize the institution of education for social change and transformation. His doctoral thesis, “An Inquiry into the Emergence of Transformative Leadership in Higher Education in Post-Apartheid South-Africa: A Phenomenographic Study (2001),” focused on African conceptions and contributions as a counter to the hegemonic western paradigms of educational leadership and the affirmation of African ways of knowing and doing.

Bell’s early professional experience included a role as regional director and program manager at the Center for Cognitive and Community Development at Vista University in Pretoria. There he facilitated the Commission for Establishing Community Service Learning and Community Outreach and developed programs and courses in empowerment, cognitive development and transformation.

In 1995, Bell managed a Community Empowerment Project funded by the Kellogg Foundation. Working in four communities in South Africa, Bell facilitated programs that focused on whole community development and highlighted education as a catalyst for social change in historically black and coloured urban and rural communities.

“The social capital within these communities had been fragmented, so it was difficult to negotiate entry into these communities,” Bell recalls, “and it is difficult to state how effective our interventions were in terms of promoting education and community participation and empowerment. We tried to create an appreciation for the role of teachers in individual development, and promoted schools as community assets both for adults and children.”

Bell and his team worked with civic organizations and organized community workshops on cognition and empowerment.

Participating in a community development project was central to Bell’s professional development, and service learning became an important component. Bell brings this practice to his courses at IDCE: “Participatory Research Methods” for graduate students and “Local Action, Global Change” for undergraduates.

The “Local Action, Global Change” class centers around student activism and advocacy, linking it to topics such as globalization, homelessness, and HIV/AIDS, says Bell. Students are required to participate in a social activism project through placement with local agencies and to bring that experience to the discussions in class.

“What makes service learning unique is that students take more responsibility for their own learning,” notes Bell. He feels it is important to deconstruct the boundaries between formal and non-formal training and to explore ways of formalizing and giving academic credit to experiential forms of learning.

Bell feels the greatest asset of the IDCE program lies in the quality of students it attracts. He is pleased to add his expertise to the ID Program, with its network of graduates practicing development in all parts of the world.