Children in Volkstaat Orania learn with all the benefits of technology
AN exclusively whites-only settlement hidden in the expanses of the rural Northern Cape, where the next generation of Afrikaners homesick for apartheid are educated under the fluttering Vierkleur flag and with the latest in computer technology? Surely nothing but a way-out fantasy—right?
Wrong. The settlement of about 700 would-be volkstaaters, that far-right grouping which would like to divorce from black South Africa and establish its own white Afrikaaner republic, is alive and well in a town called Orania. And while their entire life philosophy is steeped in racial exclusion and other outdated concepts, the method of learning at Volkskool Orania is arguably a model for the rest of us to strive for.
Anna Boshoff, daughter of the former prime minister of South Africa, Hendrick Verwoerd, and wife of one of the volkstaat’s key leaders, Karel Boshoff, heads up Volkskool Orania. Fundamentally, says Boshoff, “We’re starting in grade 1 trying to get children self-sufficient and able to maximise their time.”
The learning environment and teaching philosophy is everything Curriculum 2005 asks for, and more. The approach is the epitomy of outcomes-based education (OBE): “We take out the teacher who is the focus in the middle of the class and responsible for all things,” says Boshoff, and nurture “a will to learn—we want to motivate the child to say he wants to know, needs to learn, and learns to love the adventure of knowledge”.
Even more than knowledge for its own sake, Boshoff emphasises that the aim is to teach the students strategies for finding knowledge that is relevant.
With a total student body of 46, it is relatively easy to make the individualised and flexible schooling system work. By handing the students the responsibility for deciding on the content and pace of their own learning, habits of self-discipline and self-evaluation are developed from an early age. Ultimately the aim is to equip these youngsters with qualities and skills that will enable them to become self-employed adults.
The key tool in this system is the computer, which each student uses independently. The teacher then acts as facilitator, marking written work and ticking off the week’s successfully completed tasks.
Teacher Noeline van Rensburg, who facilitates grades 4 to 12 (all of whom sit in the same classroom), outlines how the computerised learning system works. While the students are in grades with specific work that must be covered, it is up to each student to decide what they want to do each week. All work for that week must be completed by Friday at 8.30am, and if successful, the work is ticked off, and the student moves on to the next week’s tasks. Students will pass to the next grade at the end of the year, but “they will drag any subjects they are weak in into the next year”, says Van Rensburg.
Besides the usual subjects, typing is a prerequisite from day one for these computer-based learners, and other practical skills like problem-solving, mind-mapping and personal presentation are also prioritised.
Sixteen-year-old Rachelle Vermeulen is a visitor from Pretoria, in Orania to do revision for her grade 10 exams. Vermeulen believes “this is a good set-up—everyone is happy. This is a good way to learn.” She is home-schooled in Pretoria using the same computer programme—Kenweb—and so can slot in easily with the set-up at Volkskool Orania.
Boshoff emphasises that “the learning period in life is not apart from that of work”. This is not only making the point that learning is as much a part of the work experience as it is of school, but also that conditions within school should prepare the child for what to expect in a working environment.
Many aspects of the school are designed to orient the learners to the world of work. In the classrooms, a large desk space is divided into work stations, with each student supplied with their own computer—much like you would find in a modern open-plan office. In such a context, learners will develop relevant skills like being familiar with operating technology, and learning to concentrate despite neighbouring distractions.
Even holidays resemble the world of work: besides the Christmas holidays which everybody gets, each learner has 15 days’ leave a year, which he or she can chose to take according to his or her needs. While some learners take Fridays off, others take the whole two weeks to go on family holidays.
There are also incentives to motivate the students to excel. The normal eight hours of school can be trimmed, depending on performance: a plus next to all subjects will earn you an hour off the school day, while three pluses next to your subjects would reduce your school day to five hours. Teachers, however, are available for the whole eight hours.
From a teaching point of view, the learner-centred, computerised method of learning makes the usual burden of piles of after-hours marking a thing of the past. Van Rensburg, who has been teaching at the school since 1996, says the most she ever has to mark is creative writing and summaries, which she has time to do in class. “It’s an adventure for me to work here,” she says.
The idea of an independent white-Afrikaner homeland may smack of the apartheid philosophy of racial segregation—one of the reasons that, as one senior official in the Northern Cape Department of Education puts it, the district officers “treat it like a comma, and just go through it”.
Yet in some ways, the determination of these people to pursue a lifestyle in accordance with their cultural beliefs sits within the new Constitution’s democratic principles. Their dedication to their language and traditions is embodied in the emphasis they put on their education system. As Anna Boshoff writes in a document entitled Education in the Light of the Pursuit of Self-Determination of Afrikaners: “Volkstaat education is one of the main components of Afrikaaner freedom.”
—The Teacher/Mail & Guardian, February 14, 2000.