Opinionista Maryke Bailey 25 February 2020

Before embracing 4IR, our schools must get the basics right

Just because 4IR creates opportunity for something, doesn’t mean that it will be universally successful or pan out the way we planned or hoped. Rather, it creates opportunities for a more varied educational landscape, with new challenges that need to be met. 

In almost every talk, article, or conversation that I come across that relates to the future of education, I am informed that a large number of jobs will exist that we don’t even know about yet because of the rapid changes brought about by the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). It follows, then, that since we are preparing our children for an unknown future, that the very nature of schooling and learning will need to change.

Some predict that teachers will become obsolete, or that traditional curricula and exams will fall away as children become more involved in self-directed learning. Content and what we learn will become less relevant and soft skills and our ability to learn new skills will become a greater priority. 

This educational utopia sounds alluring, but in the same way that we don’t know exactly what new jobs will pop up in the future, we don’t know for certain what social and educational challenges we will face. For example, we have more information available at our fingertips than we have ever had before, but this is accompanied by shorter attention spans and little improvement in the appreciation of the complexities and nuances of different situations. 

Slogans and hashtags continue to convince many people, rather than thought-provoking, fact-based readings. Digital communication has developed, but social skills (important for collaboration) are deteriorating, so much so that an elite school in England is taking time out of the school year to take their kids on a device-free week where they learn to connect with their peers face to face and detox from their digital addiction.

Predictions of a paperless future are also not coming into full fruition, at least not yet. Some studies point to evidence that students who handwrite notes tend to retain information better than those who type during lectures, and for all their smart boards and technology, I’ve seen top corporates still resort to white-boards and sticky notes when doing strategic planning. Some schools such as Reddam House in Sydney, Australia, are going back to hardcopy textbooks because they have found that many students tend to absorb details on paper better than those presented digitally. 

Just because 4IR creates an opportunity for something, doesn’t mean that it will be universally successful or pan out the way we planned or hoped. Rather, it creates opportunities for a more varied educational landscape, with new challenges that need to be met. This is due to a variety of reasons including unforeseen obstacles, contextual factors and personal learning preferences. 

I find it concerning, therefore, when I hear politicians and policymakers speak with absolute certainty about what we need to do to prepare our youth for 4IR. Some talk about the need to introduce even more subjects, such as coding and robotics, into every school from an early grade. Some believe we should make it a priority that every learner owns an iPad. Others imply that learning factual content is no longer important, and that we should focus our lessons on developing higher-order skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving (a freakish reminder of the conversations that happened with outcomes-based education).

I don’t mind that these ideas are floated and discussed, but I do mind that there does not seem to be an appreciation that, if implemented thoughtlessly, such changes could be major setbacks to our broken education system. 

Take, for example, the idea that we need to introduce coding at school. How will it work practically? Should schools get rid of another subject? If so, which one? Or should all the subjects lose some time from their weekly lessons and gift it to coding, which means that there is even less time to cover the content. 

We know that many schools struggle to finish their curricula already, and those that manage to finish often do so at a superficial level, which is not ideal for promoting critical thinking or problem-solving. Or do we extend the school day? This consideration brings a range of other issues that need to be addressed such as learner transportation, extracurricular schedules, extra pay for teachers and our learners’ and teachers’ mental health. 

In schools where teachers lack basic subject knowledge and have little confidence in their own teaching abilities, is it really worth adding another complexity that needs to be navigated and will probably be poorly implemented?

Yet, at the same time, there can be enormous benefits to introducing and integrating new subjects and new technology into our functional schools. Some schools are also experimenting with innovative teaching methods that provide more choice and cross-curricular options to learners. So how do we successfully juggle the need to resuscitate the majority of our failing schools while creating opportunities for functional schools to develop and meet the needs of the future?

We need to get rid of our all-or-nothing approach when it comes to implementing educational policies. The government needs to accept that our educational landscape is varied, and that it should be very cautious in insisting that all state schools fit a uniform model. The government should officially recognise that high-functioning schools should be given greater professional freedom, and be granted the opportunity to experiment and innovate with new trends in education. These can provide valuable case studies for what could or couldn’t work in our context. 

At the same time, the state needs to recognise that not all schools are academically functional, and that changes that add another problem that needs to be solved will only extend the time it will take before the school is rehabilitated into something resembling an institution of learning.

But how do we decide which curriculum changes should apply to all schools, and which should be adopted with a more phased approach? I suggest that any policies that are implemented on a nationwide level should consider the following questions:

  • Does it help to stabilise the system?
  • Does it keep the system flexible?

Some national changes that have been introduced over the years have been liberating, such as scrapping compulsory Grade 9 portfolio tasks. This helped to stabilise the system by removing onerous tasks with questionable educational value, and it freed up more time to dedicate to effective teaching and learning. We need more of these liberating policies. But some changes, particularly those that add subjects to the school day or change a subject’s curriculum, place a burden on the system. Whether we like it or not, our education system is in a fragile condition. Some schools are robust enough to deal effectively with extra complexities, but many are barely managing to get to grips with the current problems that they face. 

Let’s return to the example of implementing coding in our schools. I applaud the state for developing a coding curriculum and piloting it in different schools. What will be of great importance in our future is whether the state will insist that all schools teach coding, or whether it will allow individual schools to decide whether it can take on this challenge. 

In order to cope with the obstacles that implementing a national policy like coding might bring, we will have to direct resources and money to solving the glitches caused by a new policy. This means that time, money and energy will also be taken away from fixing problems already identified as crucial – such as improving basic literacy rates. As a result, it will take longer to solve the original issues, hindering our educational improvement as a whole. 

Furthermore, the world might move on during the years we try to force through some proper, basic coding teaching in under-performing schools. We keep being reminded that technology is changing fast. Schools that had taken it up successfully in the early years and whose learners benefited from this, can easily meet the changes because their teachers would have stayed on top of technological trends. 

But just as our weaker teachers become confident in what they are meant to teach, the coding curriculum could change or there will be calls for another new compulsory subject. Having spent years training an under-qualified workforce to go down one path, it will be difficult to switch to new skills or teaching methods.

So, by insisting on placing another complexity on struggling schools we have extended the time it would have taken to get them functional at a basic level, and left them with a potentially obsolete subject or method of teaching and learning. We would have failed to meet the known needs of the present, and failed to prepare the school for the new needs of the future. 

I’m not denying the value of digital literacy, but I do think we need to be careful in steering our educational system down a path that makes it difficult for us to change course when technology brings its inevitable societal and educational changes. We need to ensure that we first focus on stabilising and rehabilitating our education system so that we can produce a nation of informed readers and learners who are able to interpret data with discernment. 

While we are doing this we should lay the groundwork for creating a system that is flexible enough to meet the unknown needs of the future. As more and more schools join the functioning strata of our educational ecosystem, we can start becoming more ambitious with our national policies. Until then, our priority should be keeping our national system simple, stable and flexible. DM

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