Defend Truth


Are young South Africans actually learning?

Dr Scott Firsing, an American and permanent resident of South Africa is an Adjunct Research Fellow at Monash University, South Africa where he previously served as a Senior Lecturer and Head of the International Studies Department.He is also a current research fellow at the Institute of Global Dialogue based at UNISA. Scott's other current appointments include Director of the North American International School (NAIS) in Pretoria and Director of Public Engagement at the Aerospace Leadership Academy. The founder of the African NGO Young People in International Affairs, Scott is a former employee of the United Nations, Department for Disarmament Affairs, and a former Bradlow Fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA).

Teaching young South Africans at a university level over the last few years, as well as speaking to dozens of teachers and headmasters from around the country at all education levels provides clarity on a number of serious concerns in terms of South African education. Several glaring issues become noticeable after a very short period of time including too much memorisation, a lack of comprehension and analytical thinking, and a general limited understanding of the current world we live in.

Young South Africans are great at memorising things. If you tell them a fact, especially a fact on an upcoming matric exam, they will remember it. We can’t downplay this aspect of learning. It is an important part of gaining knowledge, remembering and recalling specifics. It is one of the domains of cognitive learning, but unfortunately it is one of the simplest parts of the learning taxonomies.

It is the next five levels under Dr Benjamin Bloom’s 1956 cognitive taxonomy where I believe the South African youth are lacking. Once one has a certain ‘knowledge’ you then have to be able to comprehend this knowledge. You have to understand it, be able to interpret it and then extrapolate on the facts. If you can do this, can you apply this material in new situations? Can you analyse the material and break it down into parts? Can you synthesise the information and assemble the parts together to see or form new patterns? Can you evaluate and judge the value of the material? Okay, done? Now what does all this together tell you?

It becomes all too apparent when teaching first year university students that they don’t have the ability to do get through those five levels. It is either they have never been taught this way, they lack the overall knowledge to reach valid conclusions or lack motivation and are used to jumping on Google to search for answers. The latter is fine when it’s a simple question like who is the president of South Africa, but what happens when the question is complex and you can’t find the answer on Wikipedia or a think tank website? They typically try to avoid the question altogether and answer around it using whatever they can find on the Internet in order to try and get a passing grade. Even this is dependent on their research and writing skills, which I found to be lacking.

Nevertheless, other education experts like Elizabeth Simpson eventually revised Bloom’s taxonomy and created the psychomotor domain taxonomy. It includes physical movement, co-ordination, and the use of motor skills areas and deals with the development of physical tasks. This key change or the ‘create’ factor essentially involves using motor skills and actually doing something. Therefore the question is: Are South African learners ‘doing’ things in schools, particularly high schools?

To be fair, I know of certain schools that do implement hands-on projects, but I also know many do not. Unfortunately this is not just at the secondary level. I had a gentleman recently approach me from Denel Technical Academy at the Waterkloof air show who highlighted this very problem. He shared a story of a recent engineering graduate from a top South African university who began working in his factory. “Can you pass me the #10 spanner?” he said to the new employee. A blank stare came over the young man’s face. It eventually became clear he had no idea what his employer was talking about.

Another issue exposed at the air show was the lack of content being taught. It is extremely difficult to analyse and synthesise a topic if you don’t have all the information. For example, our new Aerospace Leadership Academy had a small 3D printer on display to show the more than 7,000 grade 10-12 learners over the five days. One of the first questions I asked was, does anyone know what this is, pointing to the fifth generation Makerbot compact desktop 3D printer. One ambitious young gentleman raised his hand emphatically and said, “I do… It’s a coffee machine!”

Again, to be fair, 3D printing might be somewhat new when it comes to schools and education. It might not be in the matric exam. However, every South African high school learner should at least be aware of its existence. It is an old technology that made its way to the technological world in 1986, almost 30 years ago. It is terribly important in a number of fields like architecture, engineering, manufacturing, and medicine. Nowadays almost everything from aerospace components to toys are getting built using 3D printers. In fact the majority of Airbus and Boeing aircraft you fly in have a South African part in it, produced at Aerosud in Centurion via a 3D printer.

Now what can we do as educators in South Africa to combat these particular problems? We need to remember Bloom’s revised taxonomy of “Understand, Apply, Analyse, Evaluate, and Create”. We need to teach learning skills such as critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration and communication, and creativity and innovation. We need to teach more than just what is going to be in a particular exam. We need make lessons more hands-on and creative, and then be more careful on measuring stated goals and objectives to determine if the learner is in fact ‘learning’. Incorporate it in your lesson planning like one main project per chapter.

As mentioned at the onset, there are numerous problems in South African education, but actual ‘learning’ has to be one of our top priorities. DM

Dr Scott Firsing is a director at the Aerospace Leadership Academy, the school director at the North American International School and a Research Fellow at Monash University, South Africa.


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