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Use this lockdown to fix our education system – starting with our teachers


Dr Louis Benjamin is an independent educational consultant. He is the author of the Basic Concepts Programme, which has been implemented across South Africa as well as in other countries to address learning backlogs of children from severely disadvantaged communities. He is a co-founder and board member of Thinking Schools South Africa (TSSA) and has served as the Vice President for Africa of the International Association for Cognitive Education and Psychology (IACEP).

Why not use the lockdown to immediately address the content knowledge deficits among teachers that are often cited as one of the main reasons for our dismal results? This problem could easily be fixed at a time like this with structured and high-quality online classes.

A time of crisis, as the cliché goes, is a time of opportunity, or more pointedly “do not let a good crisis go to waste”. We are in such a space at the moment in South Africa and, in fact, globally.

As much as the focus is squarely on the health sector and understandably so, there are also opportunities in other sectors, including education. I suspect that the education sector will respond in its usual Johnny-come-lately way, but have the education planners sat and pondered the opportunities that might be on offer at this time?

Think of the education crisis in SA and be assured that it will continue once we are all back at our institutions – in fact, we might even be in a worse off position after the lockdown is over. The pessimists might argue that it will take years for the education system to fully recover from this lockdown and they will be referencing the Covid-19 lockdown as one of the main reasons for our continued and even steep educational declines in the future.

So, would it not be a refreshing idea to come up with some counterintuitive ideas at this time to significantly shift the needle in the opposite direction? Think for a moment in terms of the opportunities: There are over 300,000 teachers at home with no prep, marking or learners to bother them. But most importantly, our teachers are for the first time in a position where they are not being sent from pillar to post to fulfil duties that are not part of their core role as teachers. Could such a situation be a catalyst for some of the changes we have wanted to see in our education system?

There have paradoxically been repeated suggestions over the years to shut down the entire education system for a year to do the work that would ultimately fix the problems (as has been done in other countries). We now happen to be in that space and could start to effect some of the changes that understandably would take time. What should be done and how should it be done? I am not totally clear about this, but I do know that we find ourselves in a total lockdown of the education systems and educational planners should be taking full advantage.

For example, why not immediately address the content knowledge deficits among teachers that are often cited as one of the main reasons for our dismal results? This problem could easily be fixed at a time like this with structured and high-quality online classes. In addition, this would be an ideal opportunity to bring in teachers who have not yet entered the information age and immerse them in the technology in real time.

Was there not a plan in the 2020 State of the Nation Address to give every learner in the country a tablet? Instead, I would say give these tablets to teachers right now with a data package and leave the learners for now – let the teachers get up to speed. Let schools devise their own digital policies in this time and let schools that are more advanced, mentor other schools to get their digital learning programmes going. Then, and only then, let the learners get in on the act.

What else could be done during this time? There is no end to the ideas, but let’s get teachers learning online and starting to place themselves on content, assessment, language and pedagogical rating scales.

Let’s set targets for all teachers to be competent in the Language of Learning and Teaching of their schools. We can do all of this now, but most importantly, let’s start to build expectations of a professional and highly competent workforce so that once our learners are back at school, they can take learning to the next level. Can we do it? Sure, if we have a will to beat Covid-19 – and judging by our efforts thus far, we have the leadership and brainpower to do so.

So then, why can’t we at the same time start to fix our education system? It is also, some would argue, in a state of disaster. DM


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