New FET curriculum a positive shift

2008-06-30 00:00

In Suntosh Pillay’s article “Teachers need help” (The Witness, June 24), Pillay certainly paints a bleak picture about the state of education in many schools and about the challenges that many teachers are facing since the implementation of the new FET curriculum. Interestingly, my experiences as a mathematics teacher have been very different from the scenario outlined by Pillay, especially from his suggestion that the new system is “unfriendly, naïve, short-sighted, and downright weak” and that “the biggest problem lies with the content”.

It is important to note that the changes in our education system are not exclusive to South Africa. We have simply followed a global trend in education in which there is increased focus on the application of knowledge rather than simply on learning knowledge for knowledge’s sake. And yes, there are challenges that we are experiencing, but to say that the system is “unfriendly, naïve, short-sighted, and downright weak” flies in the face of reams and reams of global educational literature that argues differently.

This move towards more practical learning is especially obvious in mathematics, where not only has application and modelling become an integral part of the subject, but also topics like statistics and financial mathematics have now been included in the syllabus to keep up with the demands of a changing world. This is in stark contrast to Pillay’s accusation that the new curriculum in some subjects “has intensified the theory at the expense of making content manageable to teach and digest”. In fact, part of the reason why many teachers are battling with the new curriculum is that they are now re-quired to teach for understanding and for life rather than simply teaching knowledge, procedures or “tricks” for the matriculation examination.

In dismissing the current FET system and in making the statement that “maths and physics are in a shameful state at the moment”, what Pillay fails to mention is that under the previous matriculation curriculum, less than 40% of all matriculation candidates took subject mathematics. Of the 40% who did take mathematics, about 41% of them passed — only seven percent passed higher grade and 34% standard grade. Under this previous system, the entire mathematics curriculum was designed to prepare pupils for study at a tertiary level, with an emphasis on theoretical knowledge rather than the application of knowledge.

The situation in mathematics education in 2008 is very different. The FET curriculum aims at imparting not only knowledge but also the ability to use that knowledge. Furthermore, the curriculum is designed to prepare pupils for life and not only for study at a tertiary level. It is in this context that mathematics of some form is now compulsory for all pupils to Grade 12, with the implication that at the end of this year every pupil who leaves school will have some mathematical ability. Surely this is an improvement on the past?

It is interesting that Pillay comments that the failure of the new education system is especially sad for “parents who are hoping that their daughters and sons will become doctors and engineers”. For me, this suggests that his concerns are predominantly for pupils who will look to study at university level and the effect that changes in the education system will have on their career prospects. But this only accounts for about 10% of the entire school-leaving population. What about the other 90% of matriculants who leave school and go straight into the workplace? Surely they deserve an education that will prepare them for the real world? Surely schools and the curriculum taught therein should be aiming to assist those in the greatest need? And surely at a time in our history when debt and poverty are rife, teaching about saving and financial issues is more pressing than about factorising cubic functions?

Pillay is right. Many teachers are disillusioned and the challenges facing education are huge. But at least now we have an education system and curricula that are designed for the majority rather than the minority. At least now schools are trying to prepare pupils for life rather than simply imparting knowledge. We need to acknowledge these successes and look towards a bigger picture that is about more than just the matriculation exam and marks.

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