Critical Analysis of Adult Learning in Non-Western Contexts: Critical Theory in “Ayanda”


Ayanda is a South African film depicting the life of a young artist, struggling to maintain her late father’s garage running. Blecher (2015) explores successes, turmoil, and rifts produced within Ayanda’s family and friends as she fights to keep a declining business open against their advisement. The film also highlights how learning in a South African context can look and demystifies a culture often viewed through a Western lens as an other stricken with poverty and war. The utilization of a film-within-a-film method showcases African culture and demonstrates complex experiences and plurality of the African continent. When critically analyzing the film, the dominant nature of Western consumption of media comes to the forefront and points to critical theory as an appropriate lens for adult learning experiences for protagonists Ayanda and David. Through exploring the themes of power, underlying gender norms, and ways of knowing, I will exemplify why critical theory is appropriate, and I will identify types of learning experiences best suited for the main characters. Finally, I will discuss concepts worth further exploration to broaden our understanding of adult learning.

Critical Theory Overview

Critical theory serves as a framework to challenge hegemonic assumptions we come to believe as normal or right. Ideas of “correct” ways of knowing and learning are pervasively socialized through education and social institutions resulting in these false notions (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baugartner, 2007). Additionally, Merriam and Bierema (2014) asserted critical theory aids in analyzing and critiquing social conditions that produce the power dynamics; thus, promoting the internalization of dominant ideology. In turn, this lens serves an emancipatory purpose. Below, a short video explains critical theory in a visual manner to help digest its function.

Critical Theory for Ayanda and David

Considering the explanation above, in conjunction with various themes and the context of the film, critical theory is an appropriate framework for the learning experiences of Ayanda, and the mechanic, David, who are situated in the South African context of Yeoville, Johannesburg. Critical theory encompasses various perspectives including feminist pedagogy, post modernism, and multiculturalism. Meriam and Bierema (2014), however, explained all critical perspectives in essence serve to critique and dismantle the status quo in some capacity. Specifically, they explore the power dynamics produced by race, social class, and gender, that result in the favoring particular groups’ interests (Kilgore, 2001). A question critical pedagogy attempts to uncover is, whose knowledge counts? For Ayanda, there are implications of both gender expectations and power dynamics due to her identity as a woman with no formal education; this is exemplified through hierarchical tensions with family and friends. For David, his lack of formal education and status as a refugee from Nigeria also produces unfavorable power distributions reflected in interactions with authorities.

Gender norms and the resulting assumption of women’s capacities underpin Ayanda’s efforts in running her own business and working out of her late father’s garage. For example, her uncle undermines her capabilities when he states, “what do you know about running your own business?” while fully supporting Ayanda’s younger brother in the running of his business. Ayanda additionally faces criticism and reactions that consider her ideas of refurbishing cars to sustain the garage as radically ambitious, considering it is not typically viewed as women’s work. For both Ayanda and David, power deriving from lack of formal education arise through interactions with both family and authorities. During an interaction with her uncle and a family friend, the friend comments about Ayanda’ mother, “[she] has always raised uneducated kids,” as he proceeds to show off his own children’s educational credentials (Blecher, 2015). The family friend proceeds to assert formal education as the sole revolutionary measure for change. David is frequently disrespected and harassed by the police, depicting a hierarchy stemming from his vocation and lack of formal education. He is referred to as a “grease monkey” and bad worker, often targeted by authorities.

The picture below exemplifies two major institutions influencing whose knowledge and what knowledge is seen as valuable. Political power and various forms of media reiterate Western hegemony. As seen in Ayanda, the Western idea of formal education is still viewed as most valid although the characters push past those assumptions. Ayanda’s ways of knowing including her affinity for expression through art and David’s skill at fixing automobiles are not valued through a Western lens.

Designing an Adult Learning Experience

Given the underlying tensions of stereotypical gender norms, ways of knowing, and value of informal education, designing a learning space that intentionally redistributes power is crucial for all; especially for non-Western learners. Drennon (2003) concisely discussed the power dynamics ever-present in any learning space especially ones with minoritized identities. False notions of neutrality is a concept spewed in Western education, but the reality is positionality stemming from social identity and context contribute to whose knowledge is centered, subjective, or viewed as valid. Utilizing this as a basis, the importance of being conscious of power dynamics in a space for Ayanda and David is vital. For Ayanda and David’s environment to be conducive to their learning, it would be pertinent for the facilitator to create space for their voices to be heard, model vulnerability, and interrogate their own beliefs or internal biases about South African culture and identity (Drennon, 2003; Merriam et al., 2007; Sandlin, 2005). Specifically, for the characters this could be providing them the space to talk about their understanding of running their business without it being seen as wrong or less than. Additionally, a facilitator must be willing to disrupt spaces and create productive tension when other learners engage in racist or discriminatory remarks (Drennon, 2003); all contributing to the redistribution of power. For David especially, having someone help name the injustices against him could support his feeling more confident despite not having formal education.

Below an article explores education in post-apartheid South Africa. Those facilitating learning must be conscious of the implications of history and how that might arise in the class room. Becoming familiar with students’ histories or having someone who has lived/can identify with the experiences or culture can also function as a tool for redistributing power and facilitating learning more equitably.

As Merriam et al. (2007) expand on, collective or communal learning is critical in non-Western cultures. Throughout the film, Ayanda relies on the relationships with family and friends to support her idea of refurbishing cars to keep the garage open. Therefore, creating spaces with dialogue and group problem solving would work well for the protagonists especially in working through ways to keep the garage open. Semali (2009) explored the potential for centering African ways of “knowing, thinking, and doing…” p. 36. Capitalizing on informal learning such as Ayanda’s artistic ways of refurbishing furniture, and David’s skillful reconstruction of old cars can be centered in a learning experience. In the film, the importance of story-telling comes across through the vignettes of various African people’s experiences. Merriam and Bierema (2014) discussed the promotion of ways of knowing to supporting the connection between past experiences and current learning. Once again, for Ayanda and David, the art of manipulating materials or other forms of expression such as oral story telling could serve as a means of connecting to their learning while centering their skill set.

Future Exploration

The course explored various adult learning theories and nuanced the ways identity, contexts, and power implications influence the way we might think about adult learning. However, something to be investigated in the future would be how intersectionality specifically influences the learning context. Although the authors discuss the ramifications of context, social institutions, and power dynamics, intersectionality itself is not addressed. The plurality of intersectionality it is worth exploration considering the ways social institutions enact oppression to varying degrees. Also worth exploring are the implications of being a person of color deriving from a collectivist culture while being born in the US which is known to promote individualism. The implications of experiencing one culture at home but socialized in Western education can result in dialectical tensions which might produce dissonance for a learner. Exploring how adult educators can become more familiar with the tension of that identity would result in a better employment of learning tactics.


Overall, when facilitating learning for adult learners, and really for anyone, the importance of considering the implications of both the learner and facilitators nationalities is vital. Through interrogation of those implications, steps toward creating a learning space which acknowledges and incorporates minoritized ways of knowing and redistributes power can be a more feasible goal. continuously asking oneself critical questions such as who informs the knowledge? Who benefits? and who is excluded will produce for a more decolonized learning space and work toward moving away from hegemonic Western ideas of learning.



Blecher, S. (Director). (2015). Ayanda and the mechanic. Array Studios. Retrieved November 16, 2018.

Drennon, C. (2003). Naming the power dynamics in staff development. Focus on Basics, 6B, 20–23.

Kilgore, D. W. (2001). Critical and postmodern perspectives on adult learning. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 89, 53–61.

Merriam, S. B., & Bierema, L. L. (2014). Adult learning: linking theory and practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. (2007). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Ch. 9 Learning and knowing: Non-western perspectives

Semali, L. (2009). Cultural perspectives in African adult education: Indigenous ways of knowing in lifelong learning. In A. A. Abdi & D. Kapoor (Eds.), Global Perspectives on Adult Education (pp. 35–51). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.