I was listening to a discussion on 702 radio about mathematics and in particular Singapore maths, which once again has been ranked number one in the world out of 48 participating countries by Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss). South Africa (SA) not surprisingly, came last.
To this end, I would like to explore certain issues that are crucial to any new curriculum initiative being introduced into education, with particular relevance to South Africa.
First, we are dealing with two totally different countries. Singapore has a population of about 5.7 million, and the South African population is 10 times greater – at the last count, our population was estimated at 60 million.
The Singaporean government is very autocratic and uses a top-down approach to teaching and learning, and because Singapore is such a small nation-state, monitoring can be implemented in well-resourced schools by highly trained teachers, most of whom are subject specialists. Singapore also has a centralised system of education and as such has a national curriculum for mathematics.
The Ministry of Education Report allows for close monitoring of the mathematics curriculum. Furthermore, the children are tested and retested and tested again to make sure they understand the topics or “concepts” covered. Before they write for Timss, they are thoroughly trained, just to ensure they will not struggle in the examination. They also attend extra lessons in maths in the afternoons when school is finished.
Second, Singapore draws its knowledge from the empirical/traditional paradigm characterised by a top-down teaching methodology, which is linear and objective. The teacher in this paradigm is regarded as the fountain of knowledge and as such transfers his/her understanding of knowledge to the child. The second, alternative form of knowledge creation is based on learning being more interactive. It assumes that knowledge is developed through a process, it is more subjective, and there is more than a single truth. Knowledge is unique to everyone and becomes more of a reality as it is discussed by children, through a process of facilitation.
Third, Singapore has become a very stressed nation. Over the years, the people of Singapore have begun to experience more stress because of the pressure they are under in preparing their children for Timss and trying to get them into the best high schools. So much so that the suicide average is more than one person every day. This has now reached 10% of the total population every year. This is very typical of most of the eastern countries, which are very competitive. But at what cost?
It is such a shame to use children as objects that can be manipulated for the sake of a world rating. I am pleased to note, however, that most of the eastern countries, including Singapore, have recognised the tremendous stress that is building within their populations, and their subject advisers are demanding that all extra lessons in maths must stop.
Fourth, South Africa is a country that is polarised between extremes, with 6% of the country being wealthy with well-resourced schools, while 94% of the population is living in poverty. This makes South Africa the most inequitable country in the world. Education is going backwards instead of forwards. Unlike Singapore, South Africa does not have many well-qualified teachers who would be prepared to teach in some of the crime-ridden communities, where there is little infrastructure. And to make things even worse, schools are regularly looted and vandalised.
What is required in South Africa is an evaluation of all schools, state and private, to establish weaknesses and strengths. The findings could then be used to identify failing schools. It must be emphasised that the school is being evaluated, and not the child. Once completed, those schools that are not doing well would be placed on a linear programme whereby the basics in maths, and English, would be taught by quality teachers until such time as a thorough understanding of these subjects is achieved (crucial in the future global world).
Inasmuch as the curriculum could be changing to accommodate the 4IR with science and technology being introduced, the new curriculum could also be used to help teachers develop professionally. Communities need to get involved in the process as well – after all, the school will ultimately serve the community. It cannot be stressed strongly enough that the ultimate success of this new educational plan would rest on the shoulders of the community. Their involvement is vital.
This is an extremely simplistic view of all the issues and problems in education that South Africa faces today. There are many more factors that have to be considered, such as the purpose and nature of change, contextual issues, underpinning values, social justice, equity and equality, implementation process, time frames, quality teachers… the list goes on.
So far, South Africa does not have the best record when it comes to educational change. But with competent teachers and stakeholders involved, who knows what SA might achieve? DM