The coronavirus storm has hit every sector of society and the teaching fraternity is no different. It may have been a myth to some, but one thing this pandemic has shown us is that being stuck in old pedagogical practices leads to irrelevance.
With this in mind, our instructional practices as teachers have to transform if we are to achieve the social transformation the curriculum assessment policy statement (CAPS) document espouses.
As education practitioners, we need to constantly ask ourselves: does our classroom practice prepare our learners for the future? In what ways does our current classroom reality hinder what the future warrants and what do we do to mitigate the effects thereof? Now, more than ever, is time to reimagine education as we know it.
Among a plurality of complex socioeconomic challenges with which some of our children contend, in its current form the culture in the schools where I have taught — both as a student and now a qualified teacher — instils a culture of fear and submission and stifles a culture of creativity and curiosity in our learners. In essence, the schooling system prepares learners who err on the side of caution.
My observations on the ground, coupled with empirical evidence, show that any fear-laden learning environment inhibits effective learning. Studies show that children learn better when their learning environments allow them to freely explore the subject matter without any unnecessary restrictions that force them to always look over their heads.
Susan Engel, one of the leading researchers in the field of curiosity, notes: “All children, when they are young, are eager to learn more about the unfamiliar. They put things in their mouths, open lids, peer inside spaces, take things apart, and put things together. Many of their gestures seem aimed at gaining information about the physical world around them.”
As they grow older, this curiosity is stifled at home by some parents who grow impatient with the endless questions. The schooling system finishes the business by often reducing their capabilities to a test score. This places huge — and often unreasonable expectations — on teachers and learners alike.
Apart from the accompanying emotional cost to both teachers and learners, any learner who doesn’t perform by the set standards is adjudged incompetent and in consequence finds it hard to participate in the mainstream economy. No doubt, high-stakes testing has brought the unintended consequences of alarming rates of dropouts in our schools. Teachers who fall short of the set targets are punished; those who meet them are rewarded. This has neoliberalism written all over it. Needless to say, this hasn’t borne any desirable system-wide outcomes.
My experience on the ground shows how we often teach learners what to think, not how to think. If you want to produce meritorious results in the further education and training (FET) phase under which I serve, the golden rule is the religious use of previous question papers. I have never seen a more effective way of taking with one hand what you give with the other. My question always has been: with the use of these past papers, are we preparing learners for the future? Beyond the schooling career, are we confident that these children will cope with the pressures that come with higher learning and/or the world of work?
If a learner can predict with almost certainty questions that will appear in the examination paper, are we “encouraging an active and critical approach to learning, rather than rote and uncritical learning of given truths”, as championed by CAPS?
Year in, year out, I enrol my *learners in national commerce Olympiads to help hone their critical and creative thinking skills. A few weeks ago, I asked them to reflect on what they thought was different with the level of questioning in these Olympiad tests. One learner said: “The Olympiad paper entails higher grade questions. At school level, we are only asked simple questions which you can just reflect on in the corrections of the previous activity in order to attain the correct answer. The only difference is the figures that are used — from there it’s just a repetition of a problem we worked on with our subject teacher. It’s different with these Olympiads; we are asked questions about real life people, careers and businesses.”
In our midst we also have teachers who think a learner who fundamentally differs with them is disrespectful. “In our society, children will always be children, and are not allowed to speak when parents or adults are speaking; in fact, they are not even supposed to be in the room when adults are speaking, unless they are invited,” said one respondent in one study.
Growing up, these children think speaking out against injustices is crime, because old people, sadly, taught them so. Inevitably, they grow up thinking any person who differs with them is a hater. By forcing our views on our learners is to deny them the opportunity to thrive in the present-day economy and that of the future because those who are going to emerge stronger in this unpredictable world will have been exposed early on to a strong learning culture of debate and innovation.
As we have seen with the #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall student movements, young people don’t accept the status quo. It is then clear that, as teachers, we need to create learning spaces where our learners can freely challenge what is considered to be true. After all, this is what a reimagined pedagogy warrants.
The Covid-19 health storm has demonstrated to all of us that the world is changing at a breakneck speed. Thus, schools that will thrive will not only draw on past events but will use the present reality to inform their future. Otherwise, we are denying these kids the opportunity to compete equally with other learners from schools that understand that our pedagogical practices need to align themselves with the ever-changing global community. DM
The writer teaches Accounting and Business Studies (grades 10 and 11) at a high school in Bloemfontein.