When she released the matric results recently, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga repeatedly referred to the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) and the roll-out of electronic devices to schools in the same breath. It is quite a breath to take, because a device in itself is no more than a tool.
It stands to reason that teachers and parents alike want schools to prepare children and the youth for the future. But preparing them for Industry 4.0, as the fourth industrial revolution has become popularly known, is a tough brief.
The written ministerial statement provides some detail on the department’s take on 4IR in relation to school education. It also refers to 21st-century skills, which generally means the competencies required to live and thrive (if not survive) in a rapidly changing world increasingly driven by technology and in which artificial intelligence is becoming pervasive.
The statement notes that the Brookings Institute found that the South African school curriculum has embedded in it the competencies required for a changing world. These include critical thinking and problem-solving, creativity and innovation, collaboration and teamwork, communication and information literacy, as well as social justice and human rights. Apparently our school curriculum has the potential to foreground 21st-century skills.
The statement also expresses the need for the basic education sector to refocus the curriculum on a competence-based approach, integrating 21st-century skills into all subjects.
One cannot fault the intent expressed in the statement. Our children undoubtedly need to develop the competencies that will equip them (as far as it is possible to do so) for a world that is often characterised by the acronym VUCA — volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.
What is meant by a competence-based approach? Which competencies should be prioritised and how should the competencies be integrated with all subjects?
One could argue that some of the skills mentioned by the minister are not new — critical and creative thinking and problem-solving through schooling have been around for a long time. But as Yuval Noah Harari rightly notes in his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, schools have been rather slack in fulfilling these goals.
Also, in a VUCA world, in which we are flooded by voluminous amounts of information, including misinformation, the ability to deal with complexity and ambiguity is crucial.
Cultivating the four Cs (critical thinking, creative thinking, communication and collaboration), which are widely touted as fundamental 21st-century skills, could go some way towards preparing the youth to deal with complexity and ambiguity.
Many schools in South Africa have poor infrastructure and struggle to do basic teaching. Also, our children do not read well enough and cannot do basic maths. The view of some is that our focus should be on getting the basics right.
So, how can we divert our already burdened resources towards 21st-century skills in our schools? Is this a luxury that we can ill afford?
Improving the so-called universal basic skills of our children, namely literacy and numeracy, is vital. They form the foundation for success in education. But concentrating on these does not need to preclude nurturing the other competencies that children need to negotiate the VUCA world. To me, this is a social justice imperative.
So what needs to be done?
First, the roll-out of connectivity and digital technology to schools is important, though I am not convinced that providing each child with a digital device is the best way to use scarce resources. Nevertheless, digital technology could serve as valuable mediational tools if used purposefully.
The availability of digital technology at schools will also enable the teaching of digital and information literacy. But having digital technology in schools does not equate to education for the 21st century.
Second, curriculums that are loaded with content make the infusion of the competencies required for a VUCA world very difficult. Let me be clear, I am not advocating for a curriculum that is thin on know-ledge. The notion that knowledge is becoming less important to teach because information can be googled is dangerous.
Let’s take, for example, critical thinking and creative thinking. Thinking is dependent on one’s personal knowledge — what one knows. Critical thinking means, inter alia, that one is able to weigh evidence carefully and contemplate alternatives. This requires a knowledge base to draw on. Thinking creatively and innovatively is often the result of bringing together seemingly unrelated aspects of one’s knowledge. So, yes, some facts and detail can be googled, but even knowing what to google depends on what you already know.
I agree with the Centre for Curriculum Redesign (CCR) that the curriculum should be carefully examined to identify the core concepts and essential content that are significant to learn. Relevance is important and, to use the words of the Harvard academic David Perkins, there should be an emphasis on what is “lifeworthy” in the 21st century.
To get “lifeworthy” knowledge to children and youth does not require an overhaul of the existing curriculum, but a pruning of the curriculum content to create space for including 21st-century skills deliberately and purposefully. Trimming the curriculum in this way would be challenging, particularly because many equate quality with quantity.
Another stumbling block is expert bias — experts who would zealously argue for content in their field of expertise to be retained. Nevertheless, deep learning is not possible in a crowded curriculum.
Also, many frameworks have been drafted worldwide for 21st-century education. Some of these are the CCR Framework, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Learning Compass 2030 and Unesco’s Framework of Future Competences, to name but a few. Integrating 21st-century skills in the curriculum requires careful decisions about which competencies to focus on during schooling.
Third, teacher education and development are crucial. Teachers will have to be prepared for implementing 21st-century education.
These are a few issues that initial teacher education must address: How do teacher education curriculums prepare student teachers for teaching in a VUCA world? Are teacher education curriculums overloaded, sometimes with content reflecting academics’ personal interests and topics that are not truly related to our current (and future) reality? Are teacher education programmes assisting student teachers to develop a deep understanding of essential concepts and content?Are we paying sufficient attention to digital and information literacy?
A pilot project on 21st-century education, the Sandbox Project, is under way in a few primary schools. It is being spearheaded by the National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT), whose innovation hub, EdHub, joined similar units around the world in reviewing how schools should contribute to preparing children for the 21st century.
NECT has partnered with Harvard University’s affiliated CCR, the Russia-based Global Education Futures and the University of Johannesburg’s (UJ’s) faculty of education to drive the implementation of this initiative.
A framework for 21st-century learning has been developed and 10 public primary schools (sandbox schools) have been selected in the Waterberg district of Limpopo, where a pilot study will be initiated this year. The Funda UJabule School on the UJ’s Soweto Campus will also participate. The project is meant to inform us about how 21st-century competencies could be infused into schools.
While implementing the pilot, UJ academics and postgraduate students will also research the implications for teacher education. Working in a research laboratory school, such as the one on the UJ Soweto campus, gives us the opportunity to observe and to record how teachers deal with a sandbox curriculum.
The Waterberg schools may show us what the possibilities and challenges are in everyday practice, which is what we need — how to proceed in everyday practice with a feasible curriculum for the future that our children face.
Professor Sarah Gravett is the executive dean of the faculty of education, University of Johannesburg