Schools should teach attitude

2011-09-08 00:00

ILL discipline among the youth is a topic that comes up generation after generation. The behaviour of young louts during the riots in England, latecomers at schools and the moans of teachers lamenting pupils' lack of commitment to their education are stories that have captured the headlines recently.

When one witnesses the irresponsible behaviour of protesting municipal workers, one has to wonder whether this type of anarchy is a consequence of behaviour patterns learnt in youth, or the exemplars that the young model their own behaviour on.

Whatever the case, there is no doubt that values and attitudes determine behaviour and until we address head-on the weaknesses in our social structures, historically assigned the task of inculcating positive values and attitudes into our youth, many of our current-day social ills will continue for generations.

Many experts agree that the high crime levels in our country are, to a certain extent, the consequence of poverty and desperation. But there is also general agreement that this is not necessarily the prime driver. Many countries with higher levels of poverty have lower crime rates. What differentiates them is a social fabric that is stable, where families and family values are intact, and where authorities and the rule of law are respected and accepted.

A scan through a few books on business management theory will reveal the value top businesspeople place on values and attitudes when interviewing prospective employees. Although the knowledge and the skill are important, a person's attitude and values seem to be the best indicator of potential to succeed.

Increasingly, as the world has sped up and family life has spun outwards from the former parent-centred nucleus to the modern family where children are more independent with access to a greater variety of opinions and stimuli, the space for reconciling long-held beliefs around civilised behaviour and the urgencies of personal liberation and selfishness has shrunk. Rather than confronting deviant behaviour or questionable ethics, parents increasingly opt for avoidance. In South Africa this is compounded by the demise of two-parent families. Only a third of families in South Africa have resident fathers — a consequence of a whole host of historical and social calamities.

We have a situation where, if we want to improve the crime rate as well as the employment rate, we desperately need to focus attention on the values and attitudes of our youth. But, simultaneously, we have a deterioration within the institution responsible for this job.

Could the schools step into the breach? Surprisingly, despite the chaos in our education system and the shocking scores in knowledge and skill levels, there is opportunity to use our current curriculum in a far more creative way that we have in the past to address this problem.

Currently, the curriculum identifies four learning areas: skills, knowledge, values and attitudes, but as any teacher will tell you, mere lip-service is paid to the latter two. All teachers and pupils know that if it's not in the exam it doesn't count. Teachers will tell you that a downside of our new democracy has been the increase in pupils' rights without an increase in responsibilities. The consequence has been a far more stressful teaching environment as the power of teachers erodes and that of pupils becomes increasingly vociferous. But imagine the situation where individual behaviour is marked: where politeness, diligence, punctuality, enthusiasm and co-operation are scored next to the ability to solve an equation or describe the life cycle of a fly. Imagine a syllabus that focuses as much on how to use the knowledge and skills acquired in a social context: developing habits of debate, team work, persuasion and planning, etc. In a world where knowledge is easily acquired off the Internet, where the work place increasingly becomes the site for acquiring task-specific skills, the shifting of focus to life-skill education should not be that difficult. The process of implementing this changing focus can easily be managed through the weighting given to each of the four learning areas.

If we wish to make the education of our children more relevant, we have to recognise that civilisation is more dependent on the acceptable behaviour of its citizens than the acquisition of material comforts and technological advancement.

• Tom Stokes is a member of the Democratic Alliance in the provincial legislature and its spokesperson on education in KZN. He holds a Masters degree in education.

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