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Let’s empower our children to take on the microchip world of the future

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Michael Workman is a retired educator who was most recently principal of St John’s Preparatory School and before that, principal of Carmel Primary. He has an M.Ed (Curriculum Theory, Planning, Development and Contemporary Issues in Curriculum Evaluation) from the former University of Natal.

A curriculum for the Fourth Industrial Revolution must be based on core social values and must be developed with communities in a transparent process so that this watershed opportunity to transform the futures of our children is not lost.

The design of a new curriculum for South African schools relevant to the Fourth Industrial Revolution will need to be focused on clearly identified social values, a crucial requirement for curriculum development. They are the foundations upon which a curriculum is built.

Just as the roots of a tree push downwards in search of nutrients, and the deeper they go and the wider they spread the more powerful the tree, the curriculum must dig deep and spread wide if it is to have any impact.

To this end, South Africans need to be empowered to involve themselves in meaningful discourse and debate over the purpose and nature of a curriculum and what it can do for the people of our country.

Educationist Henry Giroux hypothesises that the role of education is a crucial element in the transformation of the world into a fairer, more equitable democracy. I disagree with Giroux; I believe education is the only means by which the world can change, but it needs to exist alongside other factors, with a priority ranking. Sound values of democracy, equality and equity, as well as other characteristics applicable to the rest of the world, such as collective identity, global vision, cooperation, social skills and critical thinking, need to underpin the new curriculum so that it will relate to all children — in a local, national and global perspective.

Education is an extremely powerful tool that can bring about either positive or negative change. We know, however, that it has been used all over the world to impose power and control. Politicians frequently misuse it for iniquitous reasons. And we know that a curriculum cannot be neutral.

Inasmuch as it is a social construct, it will always have a bias. The notion that a curriculum is a neutral entity, and therefore does not need review or oversight is a dangerous approach. A curriculum driven by an intentional purpose to inculcate a particular outlook may be manipulated for political ends. A definitive example of this is how the National Party used Christian National Education to shape apartheid.    

A curriculum cannot be developed in unhealthy conditions. Poverty, greed and rampant corruption have affected all aspects of our community life and have undermined any possibility of quality education. A healthy school means a healthy community and an unhealthy school means an unhealthy community. If educationist John Dewey is correct in his argument that schools are a reflection of society, then how can schools possibly take on the responsibility to turn their communities around?

It seems an impossible task, especially now, with crime at an all-time high, with the murder rate climbing, with unemployment and poverty spiralling out of control and with incompetent leadership at all levels. These all ensure that a cycle of corruption and self-entitlement continues. How do we believe in the sanctity of life when each day there is a probability that you may lose your life?

Before a curriculum for the future can be developed, the security of our communities must be guaranteed so that children and parents can feel safe. Only then can attention be turned to developing and implementing a curriculum relevant to the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).  

World Economic Forum chairman Klaus Schwab wrote that we stand “on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before.” 

If Schwab’s conjecture about the future is valid then there are two options for educators and communities to consider. The first is to simply ignore his warning and carry on as we are. Regrettably, this is the option I believe most schools will take.

The second is to get serious and prepare for 4IR.  This is very possibly the watershed opportunity that might prevent further polarisation between the haves and the have-nots. And since the minister of finance has given the education department a generous increase, the timing seems good.

This would require cooperation and support from the school community. There is room for the development of a 4IR curriculum that could be piloted in poorer, less-resourced schools with the proviso that all intrinsic and extrinsic aspects are carefully analysed by academics in education, schools and communities before implementation.

Such a process should be highly contextual and systemic, relating to each individual school. This would identify weaknesses before they become insurmountable stumbling blocks. As we well know, things can go radically wrong — outcome-based education being a prime example of this, with many years spent endeavouring to understand, interpret and make sense of the outcomes.

In summary, core social values are the most crucial element in curriculum planning. To ensure that we get it right, the whole process of curriculum development needs to be opened up to every South African for their input. Again, it must be emphasised that education must be mandatory, and it must be our highest priority.

There is the danger that because curriculums are not neutral, a new curriculum could be abused. It is essential for communities to take the lead on this, as schools cannot be expected to drive transformation for communities that are riddled with crime and corruption. Before any effort is spent on curriculum design, the safety and security of the entire school community must be ensured. No one knows what the future will look like, or what sorts of jobs will be required down the line, but it is certain that we cannot just sit back and do nothing. If we do, we will be doing the next generation of children an immense disservice.

Let us rather infuse our schools with values, giving our children wings to fly and empowering them with the confidence to make a real difference in this microchip world. DM

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