Defend Truth


Compulsory History: Alternatives to a problematic policy


Maryke Bailey is a history teacher who is taking a hiatus from full-time teaching. She has been involved in various education-related projects, including some sessional lecturing and delivering professional development programmes.

The lack of historical knowledge is a symptom of a deeper problem in our education system. Attempting to treat the symptom without any regard for the real issue is pointless.

In recent years there has been a growing realisation that the younger members of our society lack some basic historical knowledge. There are also concerns that fewer learners are opting to take history to matric. In response, a Ministerial Task Team (MTT) was set up to look into the feasibility of introducing history as a compulsory matric subject. This would either happen by introducing a “citizenship” course into the Life Orientation syllabus, or by having all learners take the academic subject of history. The final report by the MTT is due in December. I am convinced that by making history compulsory we are placing added pressure on our struggling learners and teachers, and that we first need to explore measures to strengthen history teaching in our schools before we can even consider this highly questionable policy.

Introducing a “citizenship” component into Life Orientation is a slap in the face of history as a discipline. It is misleading to call it history and I sincerely hope this option is discarded. What I want to focus on here is the idea of making academic history compulsory in the Further Education and Training (FET) phase (Grades 10, 11 and 12).

For argument’s sake, let’s assume that government has honourable reasons for implementing compulsory history. Let’s assume that it has nothing to do with driving state propaganda but everything to do with enhancing historical knowledge, critical thinking, and promoting empathy for the other. In this light it would make sense to introduce compulsory FET history into our fractured society. I would hope that it would also infuse our youth with some substantial knowledge to supplement the vague populist slogans that are doing the rounds.

But the point is, and I hope policymakers will take note, we can’t look at the youth’s poor historical knowledge and the decline of history as a subject choice in isolation. The youth might not know the name of Robert Sobukwe, but many don’t know how to multiply fractions, many struggle with the concept of north, and many can’t even understand and explain a basic text. History is an academic subject. With poor reading and writing skills, it doesn’t really surprise me that fewer learners are opting to take it. The lack of historical knowledge is a symptom of a deeper problem in our education system. Attempting to treat the symptom without any regard for the real issue is pointless.

Our education system is weak largely because the majority of our teachers, while sincere, don’t know how to teach effectively. History is already compulsory for Grades 4 to 9, but many learners display a lack of content knowledge covered in these years. We’re not getting basic history teaching right, so what reasons do we have for thinking we would get it right in the higher grades?

Before implementing history wholesale, I wonder if the MTT has evaluated the knowledge and skills of those learners who did take history to matric in comparison to those who didn’t. A local study like this would be crucial to assess whether compulsory history would actually make a significant difference to our society at this point. Perhaps this study exists, and if so, please let me know, but it doesn’t feature on the June progress report to the Portfolio Committee on Basic Education. Without quantitative data, my experience leads me to assume that the average matric history learner might be vaguely more aware of different historical events, but she/he would struggle to state anything concrete, never mind analytical, about these events.

We can start taking steps to improve history education immediately without committing to a radical plan that will be ineffective at best, or, at worst, contribute to the degeneration of our education system by placing more pressure on schools, teachers and learners. So, here are some alternative suggestions to improve our youth’s historical knowledge:

Strengthen history teaching in the lower grades

Let’s first focus our energy and money on getting history teaching right in the lower grades. We can strengthen history in these grades by doing the following:

  • Create and distribute source booklets for every topicInstead of wasting money on one state-sanctioned textbook that all schools will have to use (yes, this is something that is being considered), the Department of Basic Education (DBE) should leave schools with their current textbooks and channel its funds towards creating high quality source booklets for every topic in the curriculum. The booklets should contain a variety of sources, and have engaging, thought-provoking questions and exercises. A source-based approach can help to improve factual knowledge while developing critical thinking and analytical skills. I really believe this to be the most cost-effective and practical way to strengthen history right now. We can start gradually by piloting booklets for Grade 4s, and track whether there is an improvement in their knowledge and skills before commissioning an entire series.
  • Run effective professional development programmes These should target general teaching skills and subject-specific knowledge and skills. Please note the use of the word “effective”. Intensive, long-term teacher development and mentorship can be effective but it is obviously more expensive than once-off workshops. If we introduce FET history across the board this support will be needed anyway, so let’s uncomplicate the process and just focus on the lower grades at present.
  • Reduce curriculum contentDon’t change the curriculum again. Please! Give teachers a chance to catch their breath. Don’t add anything either. Just take out some content so that teachers and learners can spend time engaging with new knowledge and concepts and give them time to develop their writing and analytical skills, as opposed to rushing through everything at a superficial level.
  • Consider making it compulsory for all schools to offer history to matricBefore making it compulsory for everybody to take history, rather make it compulsory for all schools to offer the subject in the FET phase. This will also provide some indication as to what extent schools are able to find and recruit enough qualified and competent history teachers, which is a real practical consideration should history be made compulsory.
  • Provide financial support for promising students to study general degrees rather than education degreesAn education degree (B.Ed) restricts a graduate to teaching. It also, unfortunately, has low social status, even less than a BA. If we want to attract academically strong people to teaching, we should make scholarships for general BA degrees available to promising students, provided they take History as a major. In return, graduates will need to teach a certain number of years. All they would need is a Post-Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE), which takes a year, or they could also opt to do their PGCE part-time and start teaching immediately. I think we will find that quite a few people will stay in teaching after two years.
  • Channel funds to universities so that education campuses have more support staff Many student teachers need intensive academic support. The staff on education campuses are doing what they can, but there are limits to what they can achieve under the current conditions. Supervisors are also given too many student teachers to oversee during their teaching practical, which is arguably the most crucial element of an education degree. The result is that students are seen once or twice (or not at all) during their practical, and are largely left to fend for themselves. Education campuses need much more money in order to employ the necessary support staff to close the gap between where our student teachers should be academically and pedagogically, and where they are in reality.

The hope that history will achieve certain admirable aims is based on the assumption that we have a functioning education system and a competent and able teaching force. But we don’t. We first need to stabilise our haemorrhaging education system before we can expect it to achieve anything of higher value. By implementing compulsory matric history we are making the same mistake we always do in education – adding another complication before we have solved the fundamental problems. We need to take a long-term view, focus on getting the basics right, and then we can have a more meaningful debate about the merits of compulsory matric history. DM


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