Opinionista Michael Workman 16 July 2020

Education remodelling: Covid-19 is the catalyst for creating an African curriculum

Covid-19 has given us the gap to develop a truly African curriculum – the present educational system is more than 100 years old and is firmly grounded in the First Industrial Revolution. The curriculum has remained moribund for as long as I can remember.

The Covid-19 pandemic has created the most terrifying working environment of our lifetime. However, it has also given us the most wonderful opportunity to finally put an end to the chaotic, crass, one-sided education system that exists in our country today. Regrettably, every effort made in South Africa so far to address the big issues of equity and equality has had a reverse effect in terms of polarising the poorer, less-resourced schools from the well-resourced schools. Apart from the fact that Covid-19 spreads faster than a veld fire – it is also a killer virus, the number of cases and deaths continue to rise exponentially.

All schools, both public and private, are facing a dilemma with regard to how to continue the academic year, albeit some of the underlying considerations that their decisions are based on are totally separate. Independent schools have resources to continue the academic year, either onsite or online. However, the option does not exist for cancelling the year as this would result in significant job losses. Most state schools do not have the luxury of online learning, nor do they have the infrastructure or monetary resources to adapt facilities for the safety of children and staff.

To this end, it has been decided that different grades must be phased in as the year progresses. But projections show that South Africa has not yet reached the peak of the crisis, and it is only expected to get worse from here. Although daunting, the educational system in our country is left with no option but to accept change.

This educational change is obligatory because it has been forced upon schools. It landed as a surprise package, something no one expected. While I am empathetic towards all those who have suffered, and at the risk of sounding callous, I believe that Covid-19 is a blessing as there is little doubt educational change is necessary, and I predict, good will ultimately come from this epidemic.

Educational change

Covid-19 should not be seen as a waste of time with everyone locked up in their homes. Rather, it should be viewed as a catalyst that has arrived just in time to initiate much-needed change. When this virus does finally subside, schools, like businesses, are going to be very different places.

People are going to work from their own home environments according to their own times. Expensive independent schools are no longer going to be the only appealing option; the present educational system is more than 100 years old and is firmly grounded in the First Industrial Revolution. The curriculum has been moribund for as long as I can remember. There has never been any research done as to why it is necessary for a child in Grade 3 to spend over eight hours at school each day for 12 years or why a linear restrictive school timetable is deemed so crucial to the quality of learning and teaching in schools.

These are issues that are relatively easy to address through research, but for some rather obscure reasons were never seen as critical areas that needed to be looked at. There is no doubt Covid-19 is deadly and is causing havoc, but without it, regrettably, schools would remain the same, continuing to offer a defunct curriculum for another 100 years.

Covid-19 has been the catalyst that has forced a much-needed paradigm shift in the way people view and value schools. Presently, the world of work is driving education rather than education driving the work environment. It’s like putting the carriage before the horse.

A potential new South African curriculum

The biggest issue facing the new “norm” in schools will be finance. Parents cannot simply pay out all the time. Home schooling and smaller schools that offer only academic subjects are some of the options. A crisis often brings with it ideas that are never considered when there is little need.

As for the curriculum, there is no doubt there are many options. Apart from the local National Senior Certificate (matric) exams, the Independent Examination Board and International Baccalaureate are equally available, but expensive. South African schools need to pick up the banner and develop their own curriculum and they need to be part and parcel of the whole process, ensuring that exams are aligned to global standards and procedures.

Since I am of the opinion that epistemology of knowledge supports the reasoning that children under the age of 13 do not think in terms of disciplines, certain subjects could be left out of an already congested timetable (rather than again trying to add on). This would leave more time for teaching numeracy and literacy.

Additionally, other subjects such as the social sciences or cultural subjects are not excluded but rather integrated into the core subjects. This allows for the recognition of communities as separate entities with their own identity.

As much as we attempt to move away from “traditional” teaching methods, classrooms have remained very much the same over the last century. Adding smart boards does not constitute change. We need to revolutionise what we think about classrooms and the manner of teaching. Schools, as we know them with all their buildings and facilities in one location, may not be the order of the day. Small, personal home schools, technology-based learning and blended learning are some of the alternatives already in use and many more innovative methods of schooling are bound to emerge from the aftermath of Covid-19 and the unravelling of traditional schooling.

With regard to the poorer, less-resourced schools, finance must be prioritised for infrastructure and security. Education, without doubt, is a fundamental determinant in resolving many issues such as unemployment, hunger and crime. I do not have to espouse further on the merits of what a quality, safe education could do for the country.

My plea to the government is to use the “benefits” of Covid-19 to finally get education right, because at the moment we are simply wasting money and much-needed resources. Please, let’s think before we act and not repeat the same mistakes over and over – such as importing a curriculum from another country that cannot be implemented because of contextual and historical issues.  

Why do we always look outside South Africa for so-called “experts” when we want to improve our own situation? Let’s rather look at what can be done within our own country, especially if a truly African curriculum is our ultimate goal. There are some very wise people in business and educational academies that are exceptionally capable (eg Jonathan Jansen and Mary Metcalfe) and they are far more knowledgeable about South Africa education than outsiders who may have great academic knowledge but an extremely poor understanding of different global contexts.

Curriculum initiatives collapse before they even begin because of unforeseen implementation issues. Such issues could, however, be avoided if, before a new concept is introduced, an evaluation process is already in place. So often, excellent initiatives remain just that because strengths and weaknesses are only identified at the end of a process rather than at the beginning. The failure of Outcomes Based Education (OBE) can be directly linked to the lack of an effective evaluation policy being in place before implementation.

Thanks to Covid-19, the way is now clear to create our first truly African curriculum. However, for this to happen, universities need to upgrade teacher training so teaching once again becomes a profession, with a qualification requirement of a minimum of an honours or master’s degree.

As already argued, I urge the government, please to take heed of what went wrong with OBE. Covid-19 has paved the way for change and the Fourth Industrial Revolution gives educators an opportunity to reinvent schools.

There must be accountability and responsibility on the part of teachers and in return, teachers should be recognised for their contribution to the growth of the economy and compensated accordingly. Independent schools must be congratulated for their ongoing mentoring of young teachers and be encouraged to broaden their internship programmes. Staff development programmes aimed at personal growth, self-reflection and the inculcation of professionalism must be an integral part of the teaching profession. The expertise of energetic and passionate, mature teachers and even retired teachers should be tapped to mentor the youngsters in a positive and nurturing manner.   

Well-resourced schools should adopt a policy of sharing with less-resourced schools, especially in the realm of technology. Inasmuch as it could be argued that this is already happening, I believe that more priority should be given to this initiative because it could very well break down prejudices that have continued to build up over many years and have done very little to improve much-needed equity.

Furthermore, judging by the school buildings going up during this pandemic, there are obviously massive resources in the well-developed schools. It is necessary for schools to get together and decide on their own futures, but there is little doubt that the private schools could add enormous value to the education of thousands of children in poorer schools, rather than building up their own empires.

Apart from technology and finances, schools could share educational concepts and ideas – for example, the curriculum initiative that was introduced into independent schools some 14 years ago to develop the curriculum and maintain high standards of education. This initiative could be filtered into the public education sector with the collaboration of colleagues in private and public schools. The implementation of Action Research at the outset of this initiative has seen it expand and continue to develop, and has brought together the experience and ideas of thousands of teachers and it is still at the forefront of curriculum deliberation in Gauteng.

As already argued, I urge the government, please to take heed of what went wrong with OBE. Covid-19 has paved the way for change and the Fourth Industrial Revolution gives educators an opportunity to reinvent schools.

Before the horse bolts, let us use the opportunity created by Covid–19 to really make things happen. DM

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