Education by David Macfie

Let me first establish some credentials that allow me to talk on this subject.

First, I have been educated to honors tertiary level. (Double honors in Mathematics and Physics)

Second, I have a teaching qualification. (Post Graduate Certificate in Education cum laude)

Third, I have worked as a teacher.

Fourth, I have tutored since I was at university.

Fifth, I have watched and studied trends in teaching and learning for many years.

So, with this background, what do I believe the problems are with the South African approach?

  • Our Education system in recent years has become more and more bureaucratic and less and less aligned with world trends in potential careers and market demand for qualifications. Teachers are expected to spend a huge amount of time on “administration”, little of which contributes to anything other than providing jobs for bureaucrats, who add no value to education whatsoever. This is, of course, my opinion. Many will disagree. But many will agree also.
  • Our reported statistics are misleading – a seventy percent pass rate in Matric only measures the percentage of those who managed to survive the system until they sat Matric. It doesn’t take into account the forty to fifty percent of kids who never get that far. So the seventy percent should actually be seventy percent of let’s say sixty percent. (those who got there) That’s an overall percentage of a mere 42% – hardly a number to inspire anybody, particularly when the pass marks have been dumbed down to help more kids to pass. So less than half of our kids manage to leave school with a certificate and only five to ten percent go on to successfully complete tertiary education – now we’re down to four or five percent of the total number that started school in the first place. How bad is that? Are you really surprised that we rank so low down in the world for our educational capabilities.
  • The system is focused on passing exams not on preparing for life. This is a serious misalignment that results in students studying subjects of no interest to them and no use for coping with the challenges they will meet after they go into the job market and real life. Many do degrees just to tick the box “Got a Degree” and don’t enjoy their studies. And, many with University Degrees, cannot find work because their degrees are in subjects that are not in demand. To make matters worse, many employers don’t just want relevant degrees, they want experience – so the job seeker has to find “interning” jobs, which are close to slave labor.
  • The approach to education was set down many years ago and focused on the market needs of that time. Subsequent revisions of the system, concentrated more on tweaking than they did on fundamental change. CAPS is a perfect example. There are volumes of material laying out this “new” approach but, fundamentally, I taught the same mathematics and science that I learned at school. What changed was the administrative burden that was heaped on teachers and the “buzz word” generator style of describing the process. In fact, the whole system is set up to teach people to learn and create a bunch of jobs for central administrators, who are ‘monitoring’ the overall performance of the system. You have to take a whole bunch of subjects to hone your learning skills, whether you’ll ever, ever again need any of the content – pretty ineffective and inefficient, I’d say. And to many kids, throughout their educational careers, most of the stuff is boring and feels unnecessary. In this context, the Syllabi and Curricula attempt to present a holistic approach that covers much more than is required to teach someone to learn. I was once advised that “an eighty percent strategy, one hundred percent executed is far better than a hundred percent strategy eighty percent executed.” What this means, in simple terms is, ‘less is more’. What we currently have is ‘more is less’.
  • There is a chronic shortage of good teachers, particularly in rural areas, and many teachers are poorly trained and don’t really meet the necessary and sufficient skill levels required to be competent. To make things worse, many good teachers leave the profession because of the frustrations of the bureaucracy and the lack of financial reward.
  • At the same time as teaching is hampered by out of date and inappropriate management and delivery of content, the world has changed in terms of students’ preparedness for learning. The way in which many live their lives, with the advent of social media and the internet and the increasing culture of instant gratification makes many unsuited to the current teaching methodology, particularly bearing in mind the inadequacies of the syllabi and curricula. The result is that many students have a bad attitude to schooling and learning and this translates into disruptive behavior at school.

There are many other things that I could mention in the vein of what’s wrong, but they are extensions and variations of the above so let me now move on to what I think should happen.

In short, I think we should take a completely new approach based on some basic fundamentals.

  1. We need to begin education earlier – as early as two years old. Research shows that children are in the “absorbent mind” stage between the ages of two and six. Concentration here should be on fun-play based education that builds a love of learning together with the solid linguistic and numeric fundamentals that are needed to enable the gaining of skills on any and all subjects later. This early learning must be sociable, engaging and enjoyable so that children like to come to school and really enjoy the process. In a sense the learning should be a by-product of the experience rather than a goal of it. At this stage the goal is to train the brains to be stimulated by learning and taught to assimilate it, thus laying a strong foundation for lifetime learning. The most important outcome must be that 100% of the children enter the next level of education ready, willing and able to take full advantage of it. This is not the case at present. Too many children reach primary school or high school without the skills to fit in there and flourish.
  2. We must radically rethink our approach to teaching and learning. First of all our system is based on an old idea of what’s required. So all that follows afterwards is flawed. The exams system we use is such a flawed concept. WE talk a lot about continuous assessment but we don’t practice it. Let me return to a statement I made earlier:

The system is focused on passing exams not on preparing for life.

To take this idea further there are two things that radically affect what we should be trying to do:

  • The world has fundamentally changed in the past three decades. We are now looking at a totally different mindset in the under-thirties. They are not pre-programmed into traditional careers and many new careers have opened up. People are much more likely to follow their passions than before and can’t be faulted for that because most, if not all, of these passions can lead to hugely successful careers. This demands a completely different approach to school syllabi and curricula. Also, today’s youth is an extremely social individual, who wants to interact and share on a scale never before seen. This should also affect the way that schooling is delivered. As well as this, devices like smart-phones, iPads and laptops, games platforms and so on, play a huge role in the lives of today’s youth. Again this must feature in the education strategy. There are moves in this direction but I don’t think they have gone all the way.
  • The second thing that makes a huge difference to the way we should rethink about education is called the “nine intelligences” a theory promulgated, in 1983, by Howard Gardiner, an American developmental Psychologist. In this theory Gardiner suggests that we all have a unique blend of these intelligences, some stronger, some weaker that shapes our preferred methods of learning and also our passions in life. See the Infographic below – click the image to enlarge. ( )

What I particularly like about this theory is that it explains many things that didn’t make sense with the old ‘3R’s’ (Reading, Riting and Rithmatic) together with the IQ methodologies that went with them that shaped our previous education approach. To make it even better, the theory neatly fits with the way the world is now working – people following many new and different careers based on their passions as opposed to a rather regimented idea of what education should provide.

In my view the two things I have outlined above make a paradigm shift in the approach to education not just desirable but completely essential.

“Be more specific,” I hear you cry.

Right. What I’m suggesting is that from early childhood we begin to profile children according to their unique mix of the nine intelligences and at the same time we test our profile by observing the behavior of the children to determine what they particularly enjoy doing. We sort of do it now but in an informal and unstructured way, – ‘Peter loves sports’, or ‘Jane loves dancing’ or Sipho wants to be a musician’. But then we spoil it by trying to hammer these little square pegs into round holes. I believe that the curriculum at schools should cater for a complete range of subjects that allow the streaming of children according to their dominant profile intelligences. Subject choices should be tailored to the intelligences profile and only one subject should be compulsory – Life Preparedness (LP) –a variation on Life Orientation that focuses on life skills like banking, budgeting and managing your money, buying a house, driving a car, taking job interview and so on. LP must not veer into learning for the sake of learning, it must focus on real skills for real life. To make this even more fitting we can, early on, identify the range of careers that will ideally suit a child’s particular profile and, as the child moves through school and then to tertiary education, we can train him/her to be ideally prepared and suitable for careers that he/she will love, and, as a bonus, he/she will be more desirable and suitable to prospective employers in areas offering those careers.

Of course this is more complicated than what we have now. Some will say it is too impractical. My response to that is “So you’d prefer to continue sending people out into the world completely unsuited to anything!” Our challenge is to ideally prepare our children for life, not tick boxes on an administrative checklist.

  1. The next fundamental is how we must re-engineer teaching. One challenge of the new approach that I am suggesting is that we have teacher shortages as it is, in terms on numbers of teachers and an even more serious shortage of good teachers. If we can’t cope now, how can we possibly cope with an expansion of subjects on offer? The answer is not to try to create a solution to the current problem, but rather to create a different problem, which can be solved. The different problem is how to make the really good teachers available to all the children. (Even if we have to build in language translations.) And the way to do that is to automate the delivery of subject content. I have been thinking about how to do this for a while now and I have a plan, but I don’t want to let anyone else steal my thunder so I won’t go into detail here. Suffice it to say that it won’t be a set of PDF’s that require self-study, it will be a properly interactive, multi-media, social experience that will turn learning into a really cool, tons of fun journey through the subject. The platform must be available on iPhones, iPads, laptops and PC’s so that education is available easily to all and the good teachers must be accessible via the platform. When it is not necessary to have good teachers in every classroom, the style of teaching changes away from the “Stand and Deliver” style to the “Teachers as Facilitators” style that doesn’t require an expert grasp of the subjects. This means that poorer subject related teachers may be fully effective as facilitators, because they don’t need the in-depth subject knowledge. This means that teacher training will change to provide two streams – the ‘expert stream’ (Fewer in numbers) and the ‘facilitators’ stream. (Greater in numbers)
  2. Another fundamental that I believe is key is how to manage education overall. I think the government structures that manage education are far too large. I believe that education cannot be managed at a distance, by using bureaucracy. This approach sucks the life out of the process and adds an unnecessary burden on real delivery. So my suggestion is that provincial and municipal education structures should be disbanded and that the Education Minister in cabinet has a specialist staff who have the responsibility of the platform. All administration requirements may then be handled automatically using the technology. Lesson plans become redundant because they are automated and content is vetted by the central ‘Platform’ team before it is released. This provides real control without the administrative overhead. Schools can also be measured and managed in the same way. People who are currently working in structures that become unnecessary should be reallocated elsewhere and preferably trained as teacher facilitators so that they can make a real contribution at the sharp end of education. Subject related content will be prepared by the core of good (Specialist) teachers and then embedded in the platform. This approach will provide more consistency, better delivery, better control and more efficient and effective management at a future reduction in cost.
  3. The last fundamental is the question of assessment. I believe that continuous assessment is correct, but I also believe that mastery of any given topic is a very individualistic thing. Every student is different in the ways they learn and the pace they learn at. At present the pace is determined by the ‘universal average’ pace that is ideal only for the ‘universal average’ student, who of course doesn’t exist. However, a properly designed and implemented platform will allow each student to spend as long as they need on each topic before letting them move to the next one. Because each student has individual access to the platform, they are not constrained by the group. Continuous assessment becomes a reality and master is achieved one step at a time. This is far better than the current approach. A full variety of quizzes and tests can be provided and repeated as many times as the student requires before moving on. Dependency on final exams is also now redundant. This should be replaced by practical real life assessments based on demonstration of skills rather than exams. (Just as it is in real life jobs)

In conclusion, I believe that for us to move from the bottom of the pile, in education worldwide, all the way to the top we have to look at the issue differently and take a bold and radically different approach that is more aligned to real world imperatives and student aspirations than our current system. We have to step out of our current mindset, which has clearly failed us, and move to a futuristic and heuristic approach which each student can tailor to his/her own preferred way of working.

I urge educators “to boldly go where none has gone before” and grasp this opportunity.