The 2010 industrial action by public servants, particularly teachers, was a cause for great concern. The frustrations of parents, especially those with children in grade 12, found expression in all manner of criticism being levelled at both the government and the teachers on whom the success of these pupils depended. Alleged teacher militancy, intimidation and violence received serious attention from members of the government, who described this behaviour as contrary to the noble and ethical foundations underpinning the teaching profession.
For many parents and other stakeholders, the most pertinent question was: If, as the government declares, education is a national priority, why is it that no firm action was taken to deal with a desperate situation concerning wage negotiations? The Gauteng department of education took decisive action to try to sustain some degree of learning activity, especially for grade 12 pupils. The most pressing difficulty was that grade 12 pupils faced an almost simultaneous challenge because they had to sit for preparatory exams and a final exam within a time frame of one month. The focus on grade 12 did not mean pupils in lower grades were overlooked. However, as in many other countries, matric performance is viewed as extremely important in South Africa and the media devotes a great deal of time to reporting on it.
The unintended consequences of the strike action may have long-term implications for the quality of the class of 2010. The gaps in their knowledge and skills may, in certain instances, take years to address. The objective of the department was to minimise the negative impact of strike action on the quality of teaching and learning. The MEC for education in Gauteng, Barbara Creecy, took the lead and was involved in the implementation of some of the strike interventions initiated by her department, for example, the distribution of study guides to various schools. She also visited a number of schools to encourage pupils to take charge of their own learning by studying on their own, or forming themselves into study groups to continue active learning in the absence of teachers.
The new knowledge-based economy imposes new demands on education and training. It requires pupils who can demonstrate a capacity for thinking. The new phenomenon of “self-initiative”’, of doing things oneself, necessitated by the information age, has seen responsibility for one’s education, career and improvement being shifted away from other people to oneself. There is now common talk of self-capacitation, self-management of one’s career development, self-improvement strategies and so on. After all, the teacher-dependency syndrome that has until now characterised the schooling sector is replaced by self-dependency at tertiary level. We need to teach our pupils self-education skills in preparation for their future learning endeavours as life-long pupils as well as to ensure a productive citizenry.
As part of preparing this article, an informal snap survey was conducted. It involved three local universities — Johannesburg, Witwatersrand and Pretoria — and the Tshwane University of Technology. The testimonies of some first-year students at university reinforce the idea that this is a real challenge. For instance, there was a perception that “all professors do is read out from chapters and finish bulk amounts at one go. It does not matter to them whether we understand concepts or not.” Another student lamented that students struggled to keep pace with the speed at which lectures were delivered. “Professors zip in and out of classrooms with floppy disks and pen drives. They project notes on screens, hoping students can read as fast as they change slides. They are busy changing slides; whether we can process information that fast is secondary.”
Mohammed, an international student in the United States, wrote an article on the subject of self-regulated learning with a very appropriate title: Don’t Give Me a Fish: Teach Me how to Fish. We need to heed the MEC’s call to upscale self-education in our school programme. This can be done by ensuring, among other things, that didactic materials and textbooks are developed to promote independent work and self-education skills, teachers work out pedagogical recommendations to support independent or team work, and teachers use extracurricular lessons to help pupils to acquire general methods and techniques of self-education and self-improvement. Pupils need the support of teachers in the area of self-education skills to leave school prepared to face the challenges of post-matric education and life in general. Although this sounds noble and desirable, one needs to ask whether it is implementable and, if so, how?
Dr Sazi Kunene is college director for Fernwood Business College, run by the Aspire Education Group, and head of quality and regulatory compliance for the group.