On my radar | Time to do the maths of life

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Earlier this year, the department of basic education announced that, from next year, it would offer Mandarin as an additional subject in schools.

Departmental spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga says the subject is designed to strengthen future relations with the Chinese. The announcement was met, not unexpectedly, with rumblings and objections, but this language option is already offered in many private schools in the country, and South Africa is not alone in looking at the global landscape to prepare our pupils for the globalised world in which they will have to live and work.

In 2012, The Avenues (AKA The World School) opened the first of its 20 global campuses in New York City. Tellingly, it offers primary school pupils the option of studying Mandarin or Spanish as a second language, but it’s not taught as an isolated subject, as is common. They are taught for 50% of the day in English and the remainder in their second language. This “immersion” programme prepares pupils for the opportunity to travel and be immersed at one of the global campuses (in Beijing, for example) for six to eight weeks at a time. By the time these students graduate from secondary education, they could have completed between 12 to 15 months of learning on five different continents.

What’s even more remarkable is the teachers are encouraged to spend up to a year working on campuses in other countries. It’s a far cry from an education system we know, but it requires resources, infrastructure and, most obviously, affluent parents.

However, there are other radical changes taking place in education systems worldwide. In September 2013, cursive handwriting was removed as a compulsory skill in America, and Finland has followed suit. From 2016, they will also scrap it from the education curriculum and replace it with lessons in keyboard typing. But Finland is also about to scrap traditional “teaching by subject” in favour of “teaching by topic”.

Subject-specific lessons (an hour of history in the morning, an hour of geography in the afternoon) are already being phased out for 16-year-olds in some schools.

These subjects are being replaced by what the Finns call “phenomenon” teaching, or teaching by topic. For instance, a teenager studying a vocational course might take “cafeteria services” lessons, which would include elements of maths, languages (to help serve foreign customers), writing and communication skills. More academically minded pupils would be taught cross-subject topics such as the European Union, which would merge elements of economics, history, languages and geography.

To counter objections from teachers, most of whom have spent their lives focusing on a particular subject, a new system of “co-teaching” has been introduced, ensuring input from more than one subject specialist.

As an incentive, teachers embracing this new system receive a small top-up in salary.

Anyone in the education field reading this will no doubt raise their eyebrows and say this is dangerously close to the failed outcomes-based education programme South Africa embarked on in the late 1990s and scrapped in 2010. And we just don’t have the resources or skills the Finns have to embark on such a radical shift.

However, there is a remarkable, alternative public high school in New York we might just want to emulate. At the City-As-School in Greenwich Village, pupils get jobs, not marks. This revolutionary apprenticeship programme sees them spend two or three days a week in the classroom. The other half of the week, they go out into the real world and work internships for academic credit.

There are no marks, no exams and no class years. Instead of taking tests, pupils complete a portfolio of papers and projects. You graduate when you’ve completed your portfolio. Teachers operate as “internship coordinators”, identifying opportunities within industries, pairing learners with companies and supervising students’ progress with weekly “advisories” in which pupils discuss their internship experiences.

Each internship satisfies one or more academic requirement. For a science credit, you can volunteer as a guide at the American Museum of Natural History. For technology credits, you can write a paper on “the intersection of internet and culture” at Red Bull Studios.

The school is increasingly referred to as a “transfer school”, as it benefits students who struggle in traditional school systems. In South Africa, where the qualification gap between secondary and tertiary education is widening, this model deserves consideration. It’s no coincidence a country such as Germany – where there is a robust apprenticeship programme for pupils concluding their secondary education – has one of the lowest youth unemployment rates in the world. We have one of the highest. It’s time we did the maths.

Chang is the founder of Flux Trends. For more trends, visit fluxtrends.com. Join him on Metro FM tomorrow morning at 6.30am, when he unpacks trends on the First Avenue show

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