South Africa

South Africa

Op-Ed: Active Citizenship Requires Active Learning – The Case for Valuing Life Orientation

Op-Ed: Active Citizenship Requires Active Learning – The Case for Valuing Life Orientation

Life Orientation has received, like many aspects of the country’s education system, a lot of bad press. But is it really so bad? There might well be a place for it. By RENE FERGUSON & MEETALI JAIN.

Life Orientation (LO) as a subject in the national curriculum has been extensively criticised in the media over the last year or so. Influential educationalists, department of education officials, principals of schools, teachers and parents have expressed the belief that LO is a complete waste of time and that the time assigned to it should be devoted to subjects that require greater cognitive demand, such as maths, science and technology.

The influential Ministerial Task Team Report on the National Senior Certificate, which appeared in May 2014, called for LO to be dropped as an examinable subject after Grade 11. One parent opined that “geography, history and LO add absolutely no value to us, they only test one’s ability to memorise facts in parrot fashion.” (1) Others feel that the sole purpose of LO is to teach learners how not to get HIV.” (2)

Indeed, the disdain for LO is so palpable that in a recent Twitter conversation, Jonathan Jansen tweeted: “Disagree if you wish, but LO should be taught by parents, not by teachers”. He urged parents to disregard LO marks, because everyone gets more than 70 or 80 percent, “unless you’ve spent time in prison.”

There are supporters for maintaining LO, but their motivation tends to be to keep the matric pass rate high. Some, like Rufus Poliah, Chief Director of National Assessments and Public Examinations, say that doing away with LO as an examinable subject in Grade 12 will negatively affect the “positive psyche” of learners, and increase the failure rate. (3)

As members of the Know Your Constitution Campaign, a collection of civil society organisations, Chapter 9 institutions, and government entities committed to transforming education and training programmes in South Africa to align with the Constitution, we firmly disagree with both Jansen and Poliah. LO presents real opportunities for great cognitive skills development in learners, particularly in the area of critical citizenship education, and is one of the few spaces in the school curriculum that appreciates multiple modes of learning, aiming to equip learners to engage on personal, psychological, neuro-cognitive, motor, physical, moral, spiritual, cultural, socio-economic and constitutional levels. (4)

We of course recognise that LO, as it is currently interpreted and taught, often does not live up to this intention, but we argue that this is based on a deficit interpretation of the subject, not the potential of the subject itself. As Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga recently stated, education is not “merely an academic exercise” and LO opens up the possibilities for developing learners into “well-rounded individuals, ready to contribute to society.” (5)

We agree with Minister Motshekga. There is no other place in the curriculum that directly equips learners with the knowledge, skills and values that enable them to cope with the demands of the “real world” and to take their place successfully as active citizens in a diverse democratic society. Hence LO provides our youth with a political and constitutional education as they become knowledgeable about the workings of our democracy and the human rights values required to inspire social cohesion. The subject moreover develops the ability to make important decisions about health, relationships and lifestyle choices. And it does all of this emphasising creativity and critical engagement.

For the reasons noted above, we believe the Ministerial Task Team’s recommendations in respect of LO are seriously misguided and we therefore strongly disagree with them. One of the recommendations where LO is concerned is that it would be removed from the promotion requirements for the NSC; a second is reduce the Grade 12 LO curriculum content retaining only sections related to physical education and career counselling; a third suggests that a formal summative assessment should be introduced at the end of Grade 11 which serves as a pre-requisite for entrance into Grade 12; and a fourth, is to integrate sections of the Grade 12 curriculum on personal well-being and citizenship education into the Grade 10 and 11 curricula.

A main problem that we see related to these recommendations is associated with the assumption that learning about key issues of citizenship can simply be turned off at the end of Grade 11 as if there is nothing more to learn. Whilst it cannot be denied that physical education and career counselling are important in the education of Grade 12 learners, so are those topics that allow young people to engage critically with issues of democracy, diversity and human and Constitutional rights. One only needs to look at print media or social media to see the persistence in society of issues such as racism, sexism, gender discrimination, sexual orientation, xenophobia, freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression and many others. Secondary school learners are exposed to such issues perhaps even before their teachers and parents are because they are internet savvy, particularly since the advent of the smart phone. Consequently, our youth are faced with a barrage of information and opinions and it would be irresponsible not to provide a platform in the education system whereby they can engage with such issues responsibly, creatively and critically.

By Grade 12 young people have invariably reached a level of maturity that allows them to debate and discuss such issues, to evaluate them, to construct and deconstruct their opinions of them. Physical fitness is necessary, so is “fitness” for career choices, but intellectual, emotional and ethical “fitness” are equally important for young people to navigate their way in a world of diversity, conflict and competition. In response to the criticism that Life Orientation is not cognitively demanding, one has to wonder what this could mean. Is it not that the problem lies with the content and manner in which LO is delivered in schools? We acknowledge that much of the content of what is taught in LO is irrelevant and the methods by which it is taught are highly ineffective. Relying heavily on textbooks only with little opportunity to explore topics through other means does leave the subject wanting. Be that as it may, it is not sufficient justification to throw out the baby with the bathwater. We need to change the obstacles in the system prohibiting the important learner and societal goals of LO from being realised.

What are these obstacles? First, the subject encompasses too much. It includes modules on everything from physical education to career counselling to personal development, citizenship education and more. The CAPS curriculum is currently designed with a maximum of only 18 hours of Democracy and Human Rights learning over three years between Grades 10-12 – a negligible amount to properly consider meaningful engagement with citizenship issues. Given our very recent history of racism, segregation and lack of respect for diversity and human rights in South Africa, we argue that more time should be devoted within LO to citizenship education including in Grade 12, rather than being relegated to Grade 10 and 11 or even done away with completely.

Second, it is clear that many teachers are ill-trained to facilitate LO effectively. If Life Orientation’s reputation is to improve, it is imperative that the Department of Basic Education develops rigorous and ongoing training programmes for LO teachers which ensure, as a departure point, that they themselves understand the curriculum they are asked to teach.   To make a difference, LO teachers must not only be knowledgeable about the content and skilled in appropriate pedagogies, but also have the desire to teach. Unwilling teachers and teachers who lack the content and pedagogy are clearly not equipped to ensure that the subject is taught to evoke the interest of their learners and to ensure that the goals of learning are achieved. Training programmes need to emphasise skills such as “emotional intelligence, working in teams, managing diversity, decision-making, conflict resolution, planning, time-management, creative problem-solving, flexibility, intrinsic motivation and relationship- and communication skills”(6), and we could add to this list training in critical thinking.  In addition, educators must be encouraged to engage with “the new politics” of living in a globalised society, rather than insisting on “going back to the old ways.”

Third, the current manner in which LO is assessed through a standard examination which requires learners to learn by rote without recognising the multiple forms of learning and assessment possible in the subject must change. Methods of assessment should be experimented with. Finally, schools need to honestly examine the manner in which citizenship is or is not reflected in school management, classroom practices and teaching styles.

Once these obstacles are addressed, we can consider how to make LO the beginning of a long process of developing active citizens in this country, indeed the very process of realising a constitutional democracy. In short, our education system needs to be integrated within a broader framework of “transformative constitutionalism” that encourages learners to think creatively about becoming “innovators,” and not just followers, under the Constitution. (7)

As Minister Motshekga correctly points out, the current state of our society insists that we not “give up the one opportunity to educate our children on the morality our country so clearly needs… We should strengthen [Life Orientation] academically if needs be, not scrap it.”   One need only look at the recent racist incidents in Cape Town, some of which involved students from the University of Cape Town, along with recent incidents from the University of the Free State, University of Pretoria, and University of Stellenbosch, to see that even at university level, students are not forced to grapple with the racism, sexism, classism and other prejudices embedded deeply in our past and present. Where, if not in these educational settings, will learners/students be forced to confront important issues of citizenship, diversity and tolerance? Recently, a Sowetan teacher said on radio that young people do not have platforms from which to express their grievances. As a result, their anger and frustration is often vented through violence. Should citizenship education at school, continuing into university, not be such a platform?

As the commentator TO Molefe has advocated, institutions like schools and universities “should be places where … compulsory formal programmes [exist] for the entire cohort of students and from staff to chancellor.” Molefe queries how, given our recent history, anyone could disagree with “a formal, structured and guided study of ourselves, our histories and personal positions in relation to others and society.” (8) And, as community artist Emile YX! has poignantly stated, the basic principles of physics suggest that any force can only be countered by an equal and opposite force. What is the equal and opposite force remedying the devastating legacy of colonialism and apartheid?

We agree with these positions, and would support not only the strengthening of LO, but also the introduction of a compulsory first year university course, across disciplines, that focuses on citizenship and human rights education. Both interventions are necessary to counteract the residues of our past that continue to haunt us.

And lest it be misconstrued that to engage in this type of study lacks rigour and is merely emotive and subjective, let us examine the meaning of cognitive education. A dictionary definition of ‘cognitive’ suggests “of or relating to the mental processes of perception, memory, judgment, and reasoning, as contrasted with emotional and volitional processes.” Bloom’s Taxonomy guides us here. If indeed creating, evaluating, analysing and synthesising are examples of higher-order thinking, LO presents numerous opportunities for this type of learning. Indeed, as one example of this, the annual National Schools Moot Court Competition, a high school initiative requiring learners to argue a fictitious constitutional case in a court of law, before judges and using law and policy arguments, develops many of these skills. When asked about the skills they gained through their participation in the 2014 Competition, learners responded with “developing confidence,” “writing, research and speaking skills,” “law interpretation skills,” “applying the law to the facts,” “quick and logical thinking,” and “teamwork.” (9)

These responses support the principle that Life Orientation’s value lies with the opportunity to recognise multiple intelligences as postulated in Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences theory, or to practice different ways of thinking as postulated by Edward de Bono and his various Thinking Hats. Hence, whilst we recognise and accept the importance of developing skills in maths and science to a learner’s development, these ways of thinking are not the only ways of thinking. These subjects cannot replace the importance of the type of thinking and action associated with rigorous democratic citizenship education.

In 1994, we committed ourselves to building a new kind of society. If we are to remain true to that vision of a new constitutional dispensation, we must be committed to transforming our country’s political and social institutions and power relationships in a democratic, participatory, and egalitarian direction. (10) Such transformation will not occur through inertia or osmosis; indeed, it will require an active process of developing new ways of being and thinking and knowing. This change must start, and be nurtured, in our schools. DM


  4. Revised National Curriculum Statement, Department of Basic Education 2003 at 19.
  5. JAN-JAN JOUBERT and SIBONGAKONKE SHOBA, 11 Jan 2015 Sunday Times “Life Orientation needs to be taken seriously as ‘ a serious subject’”.
  1. The Ministerial Task Team Report on the National Senior Certificate (NSC) 26 May 2014 at 86.
  2. KE Klare “Legal Culture and Transformative Constitutionalism” (1998) 14:1 South African Journal on Human Rights 146–157; see also Professor Geo Quinot, Inagural Lecture, Stellenbosch University, September 2011 at 5.
  4. Evaluations of 2014 National Schools Moot Court Competition, on file with author.
  5. Karl Klare “Legal Culture and Transformative Constitutionalism” South African Journal on Human Rights 14 (1998) p. 150.

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