OPINION | Garret San Garde: #SAUnrest - Blame the education system

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"The DBE needs to build more classrooms at existing schools, hire more educators and bring the ratio of teachers to pupils to 1:25". (Getty Images)
"The DBE needs to build more classrooms at existing schools, hire more educators and bring the ratio of teachers to pupils to 1:25". (Getty Images)

Former principal and teacher Garret San Garde writes he would postulate that what we saw this past week was not only a failure of our leaders, both past and present (with some notable exceptions) to lead, but can also be seen as a complete and utter failure of our education system.


Like many South Africans who love their country, I watched in horror as a carefully orchestrated attack on our country's democracy and judicial system took place in the form of instigated rioting and senseless violence this past week.

The past week has brought to light some harsh truths that we as South Africans need to face up to or continue to reap the whirlwind.

Over the past 15 years, this country has been ravaged repeatedly by people in power who are greedy, dishonest and incompetent, who are out for all they can steal regardless of how it affects the woman, child and man on the street, and until recently they have done so with impunity. 

The prevailing opinion among some South Africans – that apartheid is in the past and that's where it should remain - shows not just ignorance, but a gross misunderstanding and severe underestimation of the intense pain and anger that still exists in so many people in this beautiful, complex country of ours. It needs to be addressed - urgently - and each individual needs to play their part.

The imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma was simply the match that lit the flame that set fire to the tinderbox that is South Africa today, and too many people are living in denial of this frightening fact.

Utter failure of the education system 

However, there is a deeper issue at play here.

As someone who has been in education for over 20 years and has been a principal for seven of those years, I have a certain (perhaps unique?) perspective on the youth of our country and the future that awaits them.

I would postulate that what we saw this past week was not only a failure of our leaders, both past and present (with some notable exceptions) to lead, but can also be seen as a complete and utter failure of our education system.

The scary reality is that the most of our schools are failing our children, and I don't mean just in terms of grades. I mean failing them from a moral and ethical perspective.

ALSO READ: Howard Feldman | #Unrest: Government shown up by Canola

When you talk about the success or failure of an education system, the evidence isn't always immediate, but really only becomes clear when these children reach adulthood and become mothers, fathers, teachers, preachers, leaders, etc.

The function of an education system is to create essentially good human beings who will contribute positively to their community, country and the world at large. It really is as simple as that. 

It is our job to prepare children for life outside of school, to give them the tools to cope with the complexities of life in the 21st century, and equip them with not only the academic tools but, more importantly, the social and emotional tools to be successful human beings.

To those who think apartheid ended 27 years ago, I say we are still reaping the evils of an education system that benefitted only the few and subjected the majority of children to a system that was designed to create a generation of labourers to serve the minority.

Some managed to rise above this, but many of those very children are now sitting in seats of power without having been given the necessary academic, moral and social tools that a country's education system is meant to provide, to cope and be effective.

Need for 'critical thinking' 

I would argue that one of the most important coping skills that needs to be taught to our children is something called "critical thinking".

In a nutshell, critical thinking is the ability to deal with vast amounts of information, do the research, and come up with our own intelligent, informed decisions, without being swayed by conspiracy theorists or spreaders of false information.

However, it is hard to teach critical thinking when the very teachers who are meant to teach it don't have that skill because they have come from a system that didn't teach it. It's a vicious circle.

Critical thinking is vital to the success of our nation, because it teaches children not to take things at face value. People of the 21st century are bombarded every day with massive amounts of information thanks to the rise and proliferation of social media. It was misinformation on social media that sparked the awful looting we have just witnessed.

This information is available to everyone and anyone with a smart phone, not just the privileged, as was the case with the previous generation.

Without critical thinking skills, how do they discern what is the truth and what isn't?

So how do you teach critical thinking?

Certainly not with a curriculum that focuses on content rather context. Content is absolutely irrelevant without context. That's what children want and need. Why is it important to know about the Groot Trek? How am I going to apply this knowledge in my daily life? If you can't make it relevant, they are not interested.

I believe that schools should be looking at systems such as integrated studies (sometimes known as problem-based learning, or PBL) where students are given real-world problems to solve and then have to present their findings rather than sit a ridiculous written examination. Some schools are trying this and are finding it to be hugely successful.

Children do not have access to technology 

The really concerning thing for me is that I don't see much light at the end of the tunnel (and the light I do see may be an approaching train!), and this has been worsened thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Rather than trying to replicate the classroom online, we should be designing individual work programmes for each student but that ship may have already sailed. We must not, and cannot, ever forget the thousands of children who have no access to technology. We are looking at another lost generation who will be sitting in government in the next 10 years, trying to run the country.

ALSO READ: #UnrestSA: What did the saga reveal about the state's capacity? We ask the experts

While I have great respect for the people trying to solve the education conundrum in South Africa, I don't see powerful, definitive leadership. I don't see people looking at international best practice and asking how we can apply that to our unique country.

There are countries where education is working such as Finland and Singapore. Yes, very different countries compared to South Africa, but there are things we can take and apply to our context. Don't get me wrong. There are pockets of excellence in our country, but these are mostly centred in our high-fee private schools that are mostly inaccessible to 90% of children.

I am sure that we will get through this current crisis. South Africans are, if nothing else, resilient people with a great sense of humour. But where do we go in the long run? Perhaps I can offer a few suggestions:

1. Bring back teacher training colleges. Train our teachers properly. Train them as 21st century teachers.

2. Pay the teachers properly.

3. Look at international best practice and see how we can implement some of what they are doing in our context.

4. Build more schools and equip them to teach 21st century children.

5. Recruit the best and brightest to be teachers.

6. Redesign a curriculum that teaches critical thinking, problem solving, reasoning, analysis, interpretation, synthesising information, research skills, interrogative questioning, creativity, artistry, curiosity, imagination, innovation and personal expression rather than simply 1+1=2.

I love my country, and I have wept for her over the past few days. However, we have been hearing that whistle down the railroad tracks for a long time now, and I can't help but feel that the runaway train has finally arrived. I hope and pray for brave, compassionate and innovative leadership that will bring an ultimate solution. Our children deserve it.

- A pseudonym was used for this article. 

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