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When it comes to education curriculum reform in South Africa, context is everything


Michael Workman is a retired educator. He has an M.Ed (Curriculum Theory, Planning, Development and Contemporary Issues in Curriculum Evaluation) from the former University of Natal.

Context is crucial to any form of educational reform. Importing another country’s reform agenda to South Africa will not improve the quality of learning and teaching in the classroom.

To develop a brand-new curriculum in maths and English that will serve the vast majority of schools in South Africa should be based on only one element – context. Far too often when something new is introduced into education it is from a foreign country. There can be only one outcome – even though it may have been a resounding success within its country of origin, it is destined to fail when introduced into a developing country such as South Africa. Context is, in my opinion, the most important aspect in any form of curriculum design which is continually ignored.

Most of the teaching programmes that have reached our shores have been exclusively “packaged” by another country for their own use. The rationale behind this is that schools often buy into these packages because principals are concerned about the quality of teaching. There are many of these packages – or to use a generic term, “models” – still available in South Africa today. Regrettably, the decision to purchase them is based on a top-down process that involves some senior teachers being hoodwinked by excellent sales representatives.

In a recent journal article on models titled, One size fits all, it was advocated that maths models would not be sustainable or pertinent in South Africa because context is more than just tweaking bits and pieces of disciplines such as English or maths so they fit snugly into the school programme. Context relates to everything to do with the school, both implicitly and explicitly – the values of the community and the guiding principles that underpin such values, the culture of learning and the customs and traditions embedded in the school ethos. The list goes on. Why, then, is context so often ignored in educational matters?

It is premised that context is crucial to any form of educational reform. Importing someone else’s reform agenda will not improve the quality of learning and teaching in the classroom. Assuming that models developed in other countries can simply be transferred to South Africa, even if they have been modified, is naïve.

The fact is that only through understanding all the needs in South Africa can anyone attempt to make provision for such issues that are implicitly embedded in the social, economic, political and historical fabric in South Africa today.

For example, 63% of young children in South Africa suffer from severe poverty and 78% cannot read for meaning, while the unemployment rate keeps rising and now sits at about 37%. When all these statistics are tallied, it is no wonder South Africa performs so poorly when benchmarked against other countries in the world.

Poverty and poor education will only serve to exacerbate the already high levels of crime in South Africa. Richard Elmore summarised curriculum models as: the complex process by which local curricular decisions get made, the entrenched and institutionalised political and commercial relationships that support existing textbook-driven curriculums, the weak incentives operating on teachers to change their practices in their daily work routines, and the extraordinary costs of making large-scale, long-standing changes of a fundamental kind in how knowledge is constructed in classrooms.  

To accept the premise that an imported model will inevitably respond to context is ignorant. Learning portability, programmed learning, imported models for maths and English and Outcomes Based Education (OBE) are all good examples of adoption that have failed in attempts to bring about educational change in South Africa and can be likened to what Michael Fullan calls the “adoption era”.

He describes how reform initiatives by the US government in the 1950s through to the 1960s to improve maths and science were ineffective because little attention was paid to contextual issues. The goal for reform was to get innovation “out there” by flooding the system with external ideas to bring about desired improvements.

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga claims there is a dire shortage of good maths teachers. To this end, it is conjectured that models are appealing in that they offer “quick fixes”. Investing in models from other countries implies that South Africa does not have the expertise, knowledge or time to develop a curriculum that will address the social injustices of the past.

What is urgently required are quality teachers that are incentivised and have a thorough understanding of contextual issues. Universities and teacher colleges need to be brought back and teaching courses need to be upgraded. An excellent example of teachers who have made a huge difference to education is at Masibambane College in Orange Farm, Gauteng. They consistently achieve a 100% matric pass rate.

Another organisation that I believe is making huge strides in helping uplift education is the South African Institute of Physics (SAIP). David Wolfe from the SAIP has instituted an initiative to help secondary school teachers with physics and chemistry. Their goal is to “help teachers gain both more knowledge of these sciences and also to introduce them to newly discovered pedagogical methods that will greatly improve learning for children with whom they work”.

Likewise many of the independent schools are also contributing hugely to teacher education through a mentor programme that is supplying schools with some superb teachers.

What is needed is a team of professionals from education departments, the SAIP and schools to review education in South Africa, as well as an efficient and effective evaluation strategy to ensure that schools remain contextually bound and sustainable. That’s if we do not experience another attack by a Covid-19 mutant, which seems to adapt extremely quickly to different contexts! DM


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  • Gordon Pascoe says:

    Excellent article but sadly providing a good education to the populace ranks very low in government, well below corruption, theft and self-importance.

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