The true meaning of good education

2011-04-18 00:00

I AM not much into school reunions­. Inadvisedly, perhaps, I attended the 55th anniversary of my matric year. Reunions of an all-boys' school encourage grown men to revert to their teenage juvenalia.

"Come on, chaps," we were urged in the gents. "College boys don't wash their hands." We few septuagenarians were at a table surrounded by other more youthful and correspondingly more raucous tables. Our elderly ears and our eyes are not what they were. In the hubbub we could not hear what each other said. We all look older and we weren't sure we recognised each other anyway.

Besides, my affection for my alma­ mater is slim. School was for the most part a tedious interruption in my real life. I floated, disengaged and indolent. Little caught my interest or imagination. Projects had not yet been invented. Learning was done by reading the text book. There was no delight to be found at school in literature or poetry, or none that I remember. While some former classmates have gone on to dizzy heights of success, I wager that this is because of their own talents rather than the quality of schooling. Or perhaps my own indolence meant that I garnered­ few benefits.

The school has changed dramatically over 55 years and surely future­ generations will find much more to celebrate. But what should we celebrate? What makes a good school as opposed to a failing school? What yardsticks apply? Is it the percentage of passes in

Grade 12? Or the percentage who get a matric exemption (except that this no longer applies in our new system)? Or the number who gain acceptance into Stellenbosch or Cape Town universities rather than some lesser tertiary institution? Is it the number of boys who make Craven Week or get to play for the Sharks?

We are relieved that the Minister of Basic Education, Angie­ Motshe-kga, has abandoned Outcomes Based Education (OBE). Not that we ordinary people understood OBE, but we gather that it was a bad thing foisted on us by naive liberals­. Except for the more privileged schools, our education system was ill-prepared for such a sophisticated­ pedagogical model.

The arguments for and against OBE continue to rage. On the one hand it seems entirely sensible that effective education should have clear aims and outcomes. Good teachers (sorry, educators in the new-speak) have always known that. The quarrel seems to be about what those outcomes should be. Is OBE a set of principles aimed at ironing out different standards of excellence? Should our schools be like Alice in Wonderland — "All have won, and all shall have a prize"? Is OBE more concerned with skills rather than conceptual understanding? Is it more suited to apprentices than to pupils? OBE seems to be a slippery concept, used by different people in different ways. No wonder our less sophisticated teachers could not make head or tail of it.

Perhaps, though, we have been too quick to throw it out. OBE reminds us that education at its best is concerned that pupils (sorry, learners) should understand what they learn, be able to apply what they learn and have the right attitudes to what they learn. In a nutshell, OBE is concerned with cognition, skill and values.

It is the last of the three that is most difficult. How do we agree on values? How do we measure whether a pupil has developed the right attitudes. To quote from an organisation called Parents Against Outcomes-Based Education: "A high percentage of OBE outcomes concern values, attitudes, opinions and relationships rather than objective information.

A large number of OBE's goals are affective (concerned with emotions and feelings) rather than academic (concerned with knowledge and skills). OBE requires pupils to meet vague psychological objectives relating to self-esteem, ethical judgment and adaptability to change."

Parents Against OBE means this as a criticism. But if that is really­ what OBE is about, I am all for it. Values matter. I want graduates to develop ethical judgment, and be adaptable to change.

How do we choose the school to which we send our children? On the basis of how many leavers achieve a maximum number of A symbols? I'm sure that's important; we need scientists and mathematicians and excellent writers.

On the basis of how many pupils make provincial sports sides? That's important too; many children need competitive sport. It's right for children to learn to be good at maths, to get their bonds and tables­ right, to be good at self-expression and to learn to strive to win. That's what they'll need in life later on. But it's not actually what's most important.

What if a school were to be judged primarily on whether its pupils­ turn out to be nice people? Is that too weak for a marketing slogan:­ "Our graduates are genuinely nice people"? Unless a school turns out young men and women who will grow up to be good people, then no matter how many sports stars or maths wizards it produces, it has failed.

Our modern world has become expert at cognition and skills. Human­ knowledge grows exponentially. The technology out there is amazing. Of course South African children need to be on board with all of that, and of course with our severely compromised national education system we are not yet achieving that. But without values, this knowledge and skill are pointless, even dangerous.

You can't measure "niceness" or "goodness". That's one of the weak spots in OBE. But values matter. Values matter especially in our increasingly cynical, selfish South Africa­. Perhaps, if we had really understood OBE, we might not have been so quick to abandon it. I can't remember imbibing values from my school years. Success of the first rugby XV was the measure of effectiveness. Hopefully, even if OBE has been temporarily sidelined, things are different now?

• Ronald Nicolson is a retired academic­ and Anglican priest.

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