/ 2 September 2020

A search for the meaning behind Motshekga’s words

Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga praised the hard work of teachers, which she said was behind South Africa's improved matric results, at the National Teaching Awards. (Delwyn Verasamy)
Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)


The National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT) recently hosted a seminar under the theme, Curriculum in a fast-changing world: addressing short-term urgencies, laying foundations for long-term opportunities. As I was intrigued by this topic, I did not hesitate to contribute to this seminar when the invitation came my way to be among the speakers.

I had been reflecting on the Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga’s statement on July 22 during her budget vote speech about the post-Covid 19 curriculum, which left more questions than answers. She said, in relation to the curriculum, that the vision “of the post-Covid-19 basic education is anchored on the immediate implementation of a curriculum with skills and competencies for a changing world”. I was charged for the event.

The minister’s statement indicated immediate action. How soon will “immediate” be? Has the curriculum development work been done or is its development at an advanced stage? Is this for all grades? Will teachers be ready? How will they be supported? Are timeframes realistic, given the pressure on schools and teachers to deal with the Covid-19 ramifications?

So many meanings

The minister used the nomenclature of “skills and competencies for a changing world”. I am not sure if there is a widely shared understanding of how these terms are used colloquially. I wonder about this because various meanings are associated with these terms, depending on “skills and competency” frameworks and their contexts. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development describes a competency as more than knowledge and skills. It involves the ability to meet complex demands, by drawing on and mobilising psychosocial resources (including skills and attitudes) in a particular context.

The 2012 report: Education For Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century, emphasises the need for transferable knowledge in the 21st century. Transferable knowledge includes content knowledge and skills. Skills, as procedures, involve how, why, and when to apply knowledge to respond to questions and to solve problems. Competencies for the 21st century refer to a mix of content knowledge and related skills.

The Four Dimensional Education Framework of the Centre for Curriculum Redesign (CCR) includes knowledge, skills, character, and meta-learning as requirements for learning and adapting in times of rapid change. The CCR refers to knowledge as what we know and understand. Other dimensions are competencies — skills (how we use what we know), character (how we behave and engage in the world) and meta-learning (how we reflect and adapt).

The department of basic education says it adopted the International Bureau of Education Framework (IBE) in 2019. The IBE Framework does not use the term competency, because it is not a competency framework; it defines competence as “the developmental capacity to interactively mobilise and ethically use information, data, knowledge, skills, values, attitudes, and technology to engage effectively and act across diverse 21st-century contexts to attain individual, collective, and global good”. That’s quite a mouthful.

The discourse about 21st century skills and competencies and competencies for a changing world can be quite bewildering. Shared understanding of nomenclature, and specifically what certain terms denote for education, is important because nomenclature inadvertently steers thinking, conversation and practice.

A matter of literacy

Another question that comes to mind is how the notion of skills and competencies for a changing world, referred to by Motshekga, accounts for the literacies that are important for a changing world, such as digital literacy, information literacy and science literacy? Is the assumption that the notion of skills and competencies for a changing world possibly includes these? To be clear, I am not saying that the department, in its plans and actions, does not focus on some of these literacies. I am asking whether these literacies are included when the phrasing of skills and competencies for a changing world is used.

The significance of some of these literacies has been underscored by the Covid-19 pandemic. A recent posting in the World Economic Forum Covid Action Platform (August 13), claims that many of the problems resulting from the Covid-19 crisis are related to a lack of science literacy. The authors argue that science literacy must be included in the basic definition of literacy to empower the next generation to address global challenges, and also to counteract the denial of scientific knowledge and to actively fight misinformation. The Covid 19-crisis also foregrounded the importance of information literacy — to understand the difference between trustworthy information and invalid information on the internet and in social media.

Good foundations

I also wish to make the case to explicitly include the foundational literacies in conversations about competencies for a changing world. The foundational literacies are central to a focus on “skills and competencies for a changing world” because of their fundamental nature. They form the foundation for success in education. Some argue that we should focus on getting the basics right — reading, writing, and arithmetic, the three Rs. They say that we do not have the luxury to divert attention to other competencies. Our children can’t read or do basic maths. 

My counterargument is, first, that the foundational literacies are integral to knowledge and competencies for a changing world because they are foundational. So there is no need to juxtapose foundational literacies and competencies for a changing world. And second, that foregrounding the foundational literacies does not need to preclude cultivating other competencies that children will need to negotiate the world. Indeed, children may acquire basic literacies more effectively in an education environment that nurtures for example, the four Cs — critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. Yes, even small children.

Curriculum for an uncertain future

This brings me to the relevance of the curriculum. The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us that the future is unpredictable. A year ago, we had been oblivious of what was awaiting the world that would disrupt life as we knew it. Also, there is a wide-spread agreement that technological advancements will accelerate change and by implication exacerbate the unpredictability of the future. What is certain is that the children of today will have to deal with an increasingly complex world because of rapid changes. 

David Perkins, of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, writes about reimagining the school curriculum to prepare children for a fast-changing world and uncertain future. He makes a convincing case that school curriculums should be redesigned, using what is likely to matter in the lives that learners are likely to live as a core measure. He coins the term “lifeworthiness” to encapsulate this.

Perkins also makes the case that knowledge that is lifeworthy does not necessarily end up “lifeready” in practice. Here teaching practices come into play. The types of practices that enable conversion of lifeworthiness to lifereadiness are those that aim for meaningful learning and transfer. Teaching for transfer means learners become deeply involved with learning content and allows for repeated practise and exploration. 

The point to underscore here is that teaching to enable the likelihood of transfer requires sufficient time to delve deeply. Content-crowded curricula, coupled with a “covering of the curriculum” mindset, which is prevalent in South Africa, do not allow for this. Covering a curriculum does not mean that meaningful learning will occur.

I am not making the case for a knowledge-thin curriculum. Far from it. In agreement with Perkins and the Centre for Curriculum Redesign, I argue for a curriculum that focuses on foundational knowledge. This implies a curriculum that is structured around core concepts and essential content to allow cultivation of deep conceptual understanding of the essence or core ideas of subjects. 

To come back to the vision of a post-Covid 19 curriculum, I make the case for infusing foundational competencies for a changing world into the teaching of the core knowledge. What these competencies require are debate and careful consideration.