School classroom

“I am in love with education, but I feel that education has let me down”.

I have always been a big advocate of the benefits of education, but I have to admit that lately I find myself more and more disillusioned with the current schooling system in South Africa.  I’m finding it increasingly difficult to defend a system which I feel has lost sight of its primary objective – giving children the tools to become capable, passionate, life long learners who truly enjoy their life and work.

I realise that it is unfair of me to generalise.  I have met some truly amazing teachers over the years and have visited schools that left me in awe and made me feel like I was floating on a cloud of inspiration for days afterwards.  But more often than not I am met with young children who absolutely hate schoolwork and with unmotivated, fed-up teachers who sound like they can barely force themselves to get through the school day.

I don’t think any of us would disagree with the facts that our teachers don’t earn enough and that our public schools are under-resourced.  It’s an issue.  A big issue and I simply can’t see a way around it.  Having accepted that I am largely powerless to change this situation though, I would like to move on to some of the other problems that I often encounter within the schooling system and that I feel can be changed with minor intervention.  Some of these problems occur in most countries around the world, while others are unique to the South African environment:

  • South African students truly have very diverse backgrounds, abilities and socio-cultural experiences.   We simply cannot rely on a one-size-fits-all educational approach across the board.  Why do we keep insisting on measuring some abilities, like oral presentation and handwriting skills and completely ignore other abilities like artistic and musical talents?
  • There simply is not enough opportunity for movement in modern classrooms.  We know that physical activity helps to keep the brain functioning at an optimal level, yet we insist that children sit still at their desks and that they only visit the bathroom during specified times.  I have to note, with a certain level of frustration that South African teachers generally have been particularly slow in (and in some cases stubbornly resistant to) adopting corrective measures in this regard.  Techniques that allow for movement, such as “brain breaks” and fidget toys are often used with great success in the most forward thinking classrooms.
  • We are all born to explore – children retain information so much better when they have been allowed to discover details for themselves, yet the primary means of instruction in most schools still consists of piling information onto kids in a drab, monotone fashion.   Life outside of school has become so exciting and schooling simply hasn’t kept up.  Think about the myriad of brightly coloured, sound-effect laden, free-downloadable apps that seem to perform near miracles and then compare that to the typical scene of a teacher giving instructions in a tired voice while handing out black-and-white worksheets.  Schooling simply needs to become more exciting and interactive if it has any hope of surviving the next few decades.
  • Kids of varied interests are simply thrown together and taught using the “cookie cutter” method.  There is limited subject choice (and the poorer a school is the more limited it subject choice becomes) and children are not given enough freedom to explore their own interests.  Did you know that the Department of Basic Education will allow a student to complete a subject extra-curricularly with a teacher at another school if their own school doesn’t offer it? No, I bet you didn’t.  Because most schools would rather not advertise the fact, fearing that it would simply create too much admin for them.  So instead, they force children into choosing subjects and ultimately careers that do not appeal to them simply for the sake of convenience.  Our children need to be allowed more time to read and to research their interests before we force them to make decisions about their careers.  Why not initiate a “career research” period once a week for students in Grades 7 to 9 during which they are free to research any career or hobby of their choice which might ultimately result in remuneration?
  • Schools waste time on irrelevant  pursuits like teaching cursive writing and repeating the same content year in and year out in Life Orientation yet have allowed important subjects such as Geography to die a slow, agonising death.  Many of the students I counsel view Geography as an outdated, irrelevant subject.  But have you ever thought about what would happen if we were to colonize another planet, such as Mars? Suddenly having background knowledge about climatic and geomorphical processes becomes super important!

I am in love with education, but I feel that education has let me down.  No wait, that’s not fair – it’s not education as a process that I am disillusioned with but rather the system through which education is meted out.  For many of us schooling is an institution.  It is the cornerstone of a happy and productive family life, but I feel that we have simply accepted the schooling system in South Africa for too long.  It’s time to start questioning its functionality.  Time to rip out its parts and replace them with newer, shinier bits that will better serve our children, and our society as a whole.