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Quality education is the engine of the Fourth Industrial Revolution

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Prof Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg and the author of ‘Leadership Lessons From the Books I Have Read’. He is on Twitter at @txm1971.

As Isaac Asimov said, education is not something you can finish. It is an ongoing journey that has no end destination. An accumulation of qualifications with no deep learning is a pointless exercise.

Over the past few weeks, newspapers, social media and communities have been abuzz with stories about the matric results. As a parent of a recent matriculant, I am both exhilarated and nervous. I am exhilarated because, finally, my son is moving on to this exciting new chapter in his life and officially entering adulthood. I am nervous because he is heading into a highly uncertain world coloured by global pandemics, Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) disruptions, an impaired global financial system, a world where peace is still under threat and climate change poses an existential threat to life on Earth. The litany of negatives is endless.

As my son goes to university, my hope and dream is that he will be educated. Here, I need to differentiate between education and certification. Education is that which transforms you through a complex process, which includes both the formal and the informal curriculums at universities. It requires your mind to have actively absorbed knowledge. Or, more simply, according to Albert Einstein, it is that which remains after you forget all that you have learnt.

Certification is the practice of acquiring certificates, but the contents of what you have learnt to obtain those certificates mean nothing to you. What is needed is “real” education, an asset with a long-term return on investment. I don’t mean this in purely financial terms, but as both a private and public good.

We have entered an era of complexity in the 4IR. We need educated people of calibre. Yes, education is sometimes accompanied by credentials, but that is not the point, and as Isaac Asimov stated, education is not something you can finish. It is an ongoing journey that has no end destination. An accumulation of qualifications with no deep learning is undoubtedly a pointless exercise.

But just any form of education is not enough, and we should all strive for quality education, which is United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4. The UN perhaps best explains this when it states that “… education liberates the intellect, unlocks the imagination and is fundamental for self-respect. It is the key to prosperity and opens a world of opportunities, making it possible for each of us to contribute to a progressive, healthy society. Learning benefits every human being and should be available to all.”

Quality education requires good infrastructure, well-trained teachers, adequate textbooks and a holistic approach to teaching and learning. It is predicated on a rigorous engagement with knowledge as you co-create along with academics, critical and meaningful interactions with ideas, and above all, an unquenchable thirst for discovery.

Perhaps one of the major dilemmas we face as educators and indeed as parents is that the leap from high school to university is often quite tumultuous. There is a distinct knowledge gap, which in part contributes to the woeful student retention figures.

It is estimated that more than 40% of all first-year students in South Africa do not complete their degrees. While this is partly because of financial difficulties, academic performance is a crucial marker. Access to education without success is but an empty promise. As tertiary institutions, we have begun to address this through bridging courses and remedial programmes. This is an additive model, and we need creative solutions to mainstream this into the building blocks of teaching and learning.

Yet, it is apparent that we need a far deeper and more radical intervention, particularly at a schooling level. We need to prioritise communication, logical, numerical, multidisciplinary and technological skills at the basic education level. These skills should contribute to the ability to write computer code, think computationally and have a holistic, multidisciplinary approach to problem-solving. This is necessary to succeed in the 4IR.

As educational psychology professor Kobus Maree argues, maths and the physical sciences help develop soft and hard skills, yet “they aren’t being taught and learned adequately at school”. This refrain is heard at the start of every academic year. 

We often forget that most pupils do not emerge from private schools. There needs to be a view to providing more support to teachers who are often faced with this insurmountable task with little backing. It is crucial that numeracy and literacy skills are prioritised in the early years of basic education. It cannot be acceptable that we are still facing these challenges. We are all in this together as a country, and we need to rethink and reimagine our education system collectively. We owe this to ourselves and to future generations.

We have to look at education as a multifaceted experience. This calls for a different and nuanced understanding of pupils’ skills. Already, many of the learning methods in schools prepare you for the shift to new ways of learning and exploring. However, there needs to be a more significant move towards more student engagement through group projects, peer-to-peer interaction and one-on-one counselling with teachers.

The benefit, of course, is we are talking about the artificial intelligence generation, but they also need to be a generation of creative, adaptable and forward-thinking individuals. There needs to be a fundamental reframing of skills. Appropriately, former president Thabo Mbeki writes in the foreword of my book Leadership Lessons from the Books I Have Read: “Progress must obviously also be assessed in terms of the creation of the ways and means which facilitate the exercise of the gift of thought and therefore the ability to expand the frontiers of knowledge in such fields as the human and natural sciences, mathematics, engineering and the humanities.”

This is how we cultivate a generation of strong and educated leaders. It is clearly the time for all of us in the education sector to rally, collaborate and work together to achieve seismic shifts in our pedagogical approach to basic education. We do need to move beyond our present state through a significant nudge in the right direction. DM

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  • Again, I find your articles immensely frustrating to read, as they seem so jarringly out of touch with the reality that is the charred and lifeless hellscape of public education in SA where no hope exists. The public education system will be the major contributor to the eventual social uprising and soft revolution that is an unavoidable future in SA. Not if, but when.

    And then you again harp on about 4IR in the context of a system that produces a majority of graduates who are unemployable in the formal economy – and I speak form first hand experience.

    Maybe that should be the motto of the department of basic education: “Lets produce an employable youth”.

    But in this jumble of inconsequential opinions in insights, you offer the following ” It is crucial that numeracy and literacy skills are prioritised in the early years of basic education. It cannot be acceptable that we are still facing these challenges.” And yet it is acceptable. In fact the levels of acceptability have only DECREASED in recent years.

    But you accidentally hit a rich vein of truth as to why: “We often forget that most pupils do not emerge from private schools.”

    I suspect that the “we” you mention are you and your colleagues in govt tasked with public education, and perhaps if you were forced to entrust your offspring, and by extension their entire futures, into the system YOU are responsible for, you’ll appreciate the actual desperation of the situation. But alas…

  • Thanks for a good article. I agree with your statement that we are all in this together, hence a collective approach.
    I would ignore the racist tirades from those who cannot countenance opinions coming from black people.

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