I set out to write about the current South African education system; and what, in my opinion, is lacking in this space, how it is not serving the youth of today and how business (and ultimately the economy) is suffering because of the shortfalls that exist. I was a high-school teacher for 7 years and so this topic in particular is a passion of mine. Before I begin to interrogate this subject, please consider that I am talking in general terms based on my experience and understanding. I know everybody has great school stories and has experienced a favourite teacher; and believed that they benefitted in some way from the system; and we all have bad school stories too. Lots of people have children who are thriving in the current system and lots of people don’t. Lots of business owners, HR practitioners and team leaders recruiting and managing young people within organisations are pleasantly surprised at the calibre of the talent coming into the workplace; and lots of people are shocked at the little even graduates appear to know and do. But my intention is not really to write about the experience of school or education or teachers, my intention is really to look at the fact that we are now living in a world with more information in it than ever before. So I want to ask whether the current systems of learning really equip us (especially young people) to deal with all this information?

Hence my question, is the information landscape in which we currently find ourselves a wasteland or an oasis? What is the school system doing to prepare our children for the amount of information that now exists, openly, for anybody to engage with and interpret, from a skills perspective? So much of what is ‘out there’ is opinion; and are our children being taught how to differentiate between factual information and opinion, for example? What are parents doing to prepare their children (because in my opinion education starts when one begins to understand language) for the new world of work, academically, socially and emotionally; and what are businesses doing to bridge the gap for young people who have often fallen through the cracks of the ‘system’ – both the education and the family systems; and should they be responsible for bridging the gap?

The School System:

As far as I can see governments all over the world are looking at reforming their public education systems, which must indicate that there is a general perception that the old education systems are no longer useful in preparing young people for the new world of work. Essentially governments are asking two critical questions:

a)     how do we prepare young people (on a skills and knowledge level) for a workplace and economy that in unstable, that we don’t understand and that is unpredictable?

b)     how do we maintain our cultural, institutional and economic identities whilst also preparing young people for increased global inter-connectedness?

Historically most public education systems were built for; and modelled on, nineteenth centaury social and economic needs because that is when they were constructed. They were carefully put together for both economic and academic achievement in an industrial, hierarchical and patriarchal age. They were very specific: you were placed in the system according to a bunch of variables like your age, your subject choice, your academic abilities, your ability to work individually; and sometimes your gender. Essentially the system judged intelligence by how well you were able to process information and regurgitate this information in a test; and hopefully along the way you realised that if you worked hard, towed the line, committed to the system and did what you were told to do, you would get a good job. That’s why the system provided a standardised curriculum, standardised testing (of knowledge) and standardised practices. I know I am simplifying this massively. But for the most part this all kind of worked for the type of social and economic system that was then.

But the world has changed.

Young people currently being educated are the most stimulated (visually, aurally and kinetically) generation in social history; and therefore, I would argue, the most stressed. Think about what they process everyday via multiple channels like television, radio, the Internet, cell phones, ipods, ipads, billboards, 24/7 shopping and lights and traffic and newsprint and social media and video games etc., all of which move and make sounds and come in multi-faceted colours and spaces and dimensions. How can a nineteenth centaury education system, as described above, possibly keep up with holding their interest?

Not only this, but also working really hard and doing really well at school no longer guarantees you a good job; and young people know this. So even if they don’t know why, they are dissatisfied, disillusioned and distrustful of the system. Coupled with this they live with the uncertainty of an unstable world, primarily economically and environmentally.

In 1998 South Africa embraced a new education system known as Outcomes Based Education (OBE), which in theory sought to reform education. Very simplistically OBE’s objective was to equip young people for a changing and increasingly diverse and versatile world by focusing on teaching not just knowledge but also skills, values and attitudes. Moreover the system, in theory, focused on what the learner had a) learned and b) been able to apply to different tasks, by way of providing teachers with specific ‘outcomes’. Outcomes, in this context, are essentially variables used to measure a learner’s achievements, supposedly a method to assess what the learner now knows based on what they had been exposed to. In theory OBE is a wonderful system. It allows for holistic and creative learning, facilitates collaboration, fosters lateral or multi-faceted thinking, encourages tolerance of others, embraces the idea that there are multiple types of intelligences, recognises different talents and very importantly makes learning fun – because from a teacher’s perspective there was no prescriptive manner in which you had to teach, as long as you met the outcomes. This is great if you have a confident, creative, innovative teacher with access to lots of resources; and a manageable number of students in your class. This description probably applies to less that 10% of the teachers and school environments (public education) in the world; and South Africa is no exception. In July 2010 South Africa officially dropped OBE; and there has been much in the media pointing out how it did not work.

The Family System:

As the nuclear family began to break down en masse in the late 1970’s and 1080’s the role of the family system as educator and supporter changed and I think for the last 15 to 20 years we have really seen consequences of this. I can tell you from experience that a lot of what parents used to shoulder in terms of social, emotional and cultural education for their children is now shouldered by teachers, school curriculums; and more recently the media, which cannot possibly provide the psychological and emotional support and engagement young people need in the same way as parents and families can.

I think that as children increasingly find themselves in crèches from a very early age they miss out on the wonderful time when they are most curious and perhaps then lose their natural ability to be a divergent thinker and maybe even their desire to learn.  I read somewhere that children between 0 and 6 learn to read and thereafter should read to learn; and if they cannot read by the time they are six, they are less likely to catch up with their contemporaries who can. The skill of reading in itself is becoming antiquated as it competes with other skills like playing video games and navigating efficiently around social networking sites.

A Corporate Response:

OBE wasn’t all bad, but I have to admit that I think what did happen all too often was that teachers were so focused on the outcomes that they forgot the process and as a result how well educated the children who have been through the system since 1998 are is up for debate.

I believe that an over whelming majority of literate learners can recall information. However, that number would drop if we really looked at their ability to comprehend information. Even fewer young people are able to analyse information and I think only a minority can really apply information. It is not their fault, they have never been taught how. And I am not talking about the 12.5 million South Africans under the age of 24 in 2010 who will never in their lives have a job, because they simply will never have the skills set to obtain one, I am talking about Matriculants and even university graduates.

I do believe it is going to become the responsibility of corporate South Africa to assist with fixing this problem, starting with teaching young people the skills of comprehending, analysing and applying information; and how to find information and summarise information. Ironically we have never needed these skills more because there is so much information, but we appear to be getting worse at this.

What is the answer?

I don’t know! It’s complicated and to some extent will be industry specific. Professional services, engineering and medicine will be asking different questions to advertising and IT companies I am sure. But what I do know is that we all have to be asking questions, because our education system is in crisis and I think that it has become a financial and business imperative to help young people with what to do with information. Whether you are a teacher, a lecturer, a parent, a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, a neighbour, an HR practitioner, a greybeard, a manager, a team-leader, or a member of a team we all need to embrace being a teacher and a learner. In order to do this I believe we have to become increasingly self-aware so that we can be humble enough to learn, brave enough to teach and wise enough to know which side of the fence we are on today.

Here are some things to possibly think about:

a)     we have to view differently our human capacity to think and to interpret and engage with information

b)     we have to lose the school-taught perception that everyone is competition with us, that copying is not allowed and that the answer is always found at the back of the book. But rather see that experiences and all types of people can be our teachers, that collaboration and sharing is the way forward and that there are many answers to any given question

c)      we need to really begin to recognise that there are many different types of intelligence. I don’t even think we realise how brainwashed so many of us are into thinking that ‘these are the rules’ and this is how we have to behave. I know some people dress differently and therefore appear to be breaking the rules, but have you ever looked at how creative and innovative you could be if you just allowed yourself to view ourselves as creative and innovative

d)     the system has taught us so well and for so long to absorb information and then regurgitate it that we have forgotten how to ask questions, think independently, learn differently; and teach abundantly

So we are living in the greatest age in social history when it comes to the amount of information we have at our disposal. Is it an oasis, i.e. do we really know what to do with it, or is it a wasteland because we don’t know how to really use it? That being said, whichever way we see it, we face massive challenges: an out-dated school system, a school system (OBE) that failed our children (generally) in terms of skills and knowledge, an unstable economy, a support system in the form of family which is fragile and a workplace that is competitive and time-pressured. Makes you think, doesn’t it? I hope so…

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