Unlocking learner performance

Tapping into indigenous artworks such as Ndebele painting can help learners relate and understand maths and science concepts. (Photo: Delwyn Versamy)

Tapping into indigenous artworks such as Ndebele painting can help learners relate and understand maths and science concepts. (Photo: Delwyn Versamy)

Indigenous knowledge (IK) “can serve as a good entry point for learners to understand the abstract science concepts”. South African learners have been consistently lagging behind their global counterparts, including those from poor African states, in international science tests. This is according to Josef de Beer, a research professor, who delivered a lecture last month at the Potchefstroom campus of the North-West University (NWU).
Titled “Crossing boundarised epistemologies in science education: The affordances of indigenous knowledge”, de Beer argued the case for the inclusion of IK into schools’ science curriculum. He called for more attention to be “devoted to capturing this often orally transmitted knowledge before it is lost forever”.

Improving science performance at schools

De Beer said South Africa can become a “global player in the world economy” and produce “innovative and creative scientists” only if it can greatly improve its science education. He attributed learners’ poor science performance to mostly the “under-developed, pedagogical content knowledge” of science teachers, adding that lack of resources also prevents meaningful inquiry and laboratory-based learning from taking place.

He said IK taps into learners’ everyday experiences and the environments in which they live, eventually leading to meaningful engagement and learning. Said De Beer: “We often forget that learners do not enter the science classrooms as tabula rasa (blank pages) and that they often have very relevant indigenous knowledge, applicable to curriculum themes.” 

In 2008 he and professor Ben-Erik van Wyk of the University of Johannesburg undertook an ethno-botanical study, working closely with traditional healers. During the study they recorded indigenous plant use among the descendants of the Khoisan people in the Agter-Hantam, in the Northern Cape. In the process, De Beer said, he observed that many of the traditional healers follow the so-called “scientific method” advocated in the school curriculum such as formulating hypotheses, making predictions, deciding upon a suitable method for experimentation, and recording and analysing results.

Short learning programmes for teachers

Based on his engagement with the traditional healers, De Beer developed a short learning programme on how life sciences teachers can incorporate IK into the classroom using scientific processes. De Beer said the programme “focuses on processes and methodology rather than on content”. 

In terms of the programme, teachers can visit a local “muti” or traditional medicine market and interview traditional healers about some of the medicinal plants. He said teachers could buy some of these and test their “medicinal claims” in the laboratory, then “formulate hypotheses and develop experimental procedures”, such as simple anti-microbial tests on the plant material. 

Economic development

De Beer said IK also holds many possibilities for both economic development and science education in South Africa. He cited Rooibos and Honeybush teas and the commercial Amarula Cream as some of the country’s successful economic development stories. His current research area is on teachers’ professional development and self-directed learning, hosted by the NWU faculty of education sciences, under the leadership of Professor Elsa Mentz. The research focuses on developing “intervention programmes” on IK in subjects like mathematics, physical sciences, geography and technology. 

Some of the pertinent questions the research poses include: do teachers show agency to overcome obstacles they might face in the school like lack of resources, do they make use of blended learning platforms to improve their content knowledge, does their involvement in the programme make them more reflective, and do they develop metacognitive skills in the process? Because the emphasis is on “inquiry-based learning” during the programme, said De Beer, it is hoped teachers will develop “a more nuanced understanding of the nature of science”. 

International accolades 

Recently De Beer was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of Biology, a registered charity in the United Kingdom incorporated by Royal Charter. The fellowship is reserved for a “select group of eminent scientists who embody expertise in biology” and have made significant contributions to the biosciences. In 2012 de Beer received a research award conferred by the National Association of Biology Teachers in Dallas, US, “for his work in mainstreaming indigenous knowledge in the science classroom”.

Thabo Mohlala

Thabo Mohlala

Thabo reports for the Teacher newspaper, a Mail & Guardian monthly publication. Apart from covering education stories, he also writes across other beats. He enjoys reading and is an avid soccer and athletics fanatic. Thabo harbours a dream of writing a book. Read more from Thabo Mohlala

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