/ 26 January 2024

Diversifying education pathways for ‘life’ success in adulthood

P10 Prof Kat Yassim
A ‘seismic shift’ in mindset is required by educators so that the curriculum can be repurposed and student learning journeys transformed to meet the needs of the 21st century, says Professor Kat Yassim.

New solutions are necessary for a sustainable future

In the wake of the release of the matric results, South Africa fixes its eyes on yet another generation whose destiny is seemingly predetermined by these outcomes. But futurists will tell you that the future is not something to be predicted; instead, it is something that must be created! The call to invest in educational pathways that pave the way for a sustainable future is an urgent one, and is a conversation that cannot be postponed.  

There is an increased need to delve into the current education offered and its propensity to support “life” success, not just academic success. The future of the country’s youth hangs in the balance, teetering between limited opportunities for further education and the pressing need to reevaluate the current educational landscape. 

As we celebrate the achievements of the class of 2023, it is imperative to confront the harsh reality of constrained access, financial barriers, escalating drop-out rates, and surging unemployment. The successes of this class must be viewed within the context of restricted access and funding, coupled with a widening socioeconomic gap and global pressures to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. 

Despite the increasing disruptions triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic and the emergence of transformative technologies like ChatGPT, Midjourney, Dall-E and various other Artificial Intelligence (AI) applications, South African learners — including the class of 2023 — were still provided with a traditional schooling experience that is unlikely to prepare them for the challenges and opportunities of the future. 

A seismic shift in mindset is required by educators and school leaders so that the curriculum can be repurposed and student learning journeys transformed to meet the needs of the 21st century. Education, as we know it, must evolve to equip learners with skills based on their innate ability to apply knowledge, solve problems, adapt and innovate. 

How we measure learning and success should shift to include “life success”, not just school success, which the matric results currently offer.   

The digital divide, often blamed for hindering progress, must be addressed through interventions and innovations, or South Africa will risk losing its global participation and relevance.

While the role of technology in the future of education is simple to define but difficult to envisage, it is a powerful enabler to reshape education and make quality learning accessible to all. Integrating technology into education not only levels the playing field but also nurtures a generation of global problem-solvers, innovators and trendsetters. 

A recent partnership between fast-food chain McDonald’s and Google’s generative AI has resulted in the automation and digitisation of both production and service at 30 outlets globally, replacing the need for humans altogether. The looming threat of job displacement by AI and robots underscores the importance of teaching students “how to learn” rather than “what to learn.” 

Exploring alternative approaches to education has become imperative. My research in poorer schools with notoriously high dropout rates has yielded interesting results. Encouraging enterprising capabilities through living learning laboratories and maker-spaces to ideate, develop prototypes and test innovations, coupled with mentorship, opens doors for learners to explore livelihood prospects beyond traditional schooling. 

Similarly, utilising third spaces for learning, such as school food gardens, fosters practical skills and community collaboration. These gardens provide learners with skills to not only grow their food but also expand into business ventures that yield an income. This is aligned with the Department of Basic Education’s three-stream curriculum, which offers learners academic, vocational or occupational pathways that cater to diverse talents and ambitions, while also offering learners the propensity to co-create solutions to problems related to basic needs for food, shelter, sanitation and unemployment. 

It is this kind of approach to education that must be fostered to not only increase the employability of learners but also their propensity to become job creators rather than job seekers. 

While the potential benefits of this three-stream model are significant, deficiencies in teacher preparation and reskilling pose challenges to its successful implementation. Overcoming these hurdles is crucial for steering South Africa away from a one-size-fits-all, winner-takes-it-all education model, fostering diversified skills development and propelling South Africa into a sustainable future. 

If the words of former president Nelson Mandela are to be believed, that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”, then it stands to reason that sustainability as intention should be the hallmark of all teaching and learning. Therefore, focusing narrowly on the matric outcome within a single academic education pathway makes us remiss in visualising the bigger picture, in which there is a need to invest in creating a sustainable future for our learners.

The need to invest in creating a sustainable future for all learners calls for diverse education pathways and a revamped, repurposed educational system that embraces enterprising learners and alternative learning spaces. Only through such multi-pronged approaches can South Africa truly progress towards achieving SDG 4 — quality education for all, in a world where no one is left behind. 

Professor Kat Yassim is Associate Professor, Education Leadership and Management, University of Johannesburg