Mmusi Maimane | Life Orientation should be scrapped from the syllabus. Here's why

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Life Orientation should be scrapped from the school syllabus argues the writer.  (File)
Life Orientation should be scrapped from the school syllabus argues the writer. (File)
PHOTO: Getty/Gallo Images

To get different results, we must be willing to do things differently. It is time for us to acknowledge that Life Orientation was introduced with noble intentions; however, it has failed to deliver and must be scrapped and replaced, writes Mmusi Maimane.


We must scrap Life Orientation and replace it with a subject that equips and trains students academically and consistently in the disciplines of critical thinking and communication.

Life Orientation was introduced in 2008. It is a subject taught from Grade 1 through to Grade 12, for two hours per week. After 14 years of having this subject in the National Curriculum, it is time to think about its utility, and I argue here that it has low academic utility and must be removed and replaced.

Let us acknowledge that the academic market has placed a low value on its contribution to their assessments of student readiness for university. Some universities do not even consider it when placing students, while others only provide half points for Life Orientation in their APS scoring system. Parents have been sceptical and have spoken out about not finding the LO subject valuable.

Life Orientation is meant, in part, to teach civic education and students critical thinking, but it is not effective in doing so. Business leaders have frequently lamented an issue with the quality of critical thinking skills in workforces. There is empirical data to corroborate our low performance in teaching critical thinking.

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In 2019 the World Economic Forum ranked South Africa 60th overall in competitiveness out of 141 countries; however, they ranked our teaching in critical thinking 95th out of 141, a massive deviation from the overall ranking and placing South Africa in the bottom 50 in the world. Therefore, we cannot empirically or experientially deny that there is a critical thinking skills gap in our education system.

Why is LO not producing critical thinking outcomes? Firstly, the subject is not directly focused on developing habits of thinking and disciplines of thought.

LO is taught for 80 hours per year, and it is instructive to examine the amount of time spent teaching various topics in that yearly breakdown.

Below is a list of the LO topics covered in High school, including the number of hours per year and percentage of learning time spent in Grade 11:

  • Development of the self in society - 9 hours (11%)
  • Health, social and environmental responsibility - 3 hours (5%)
  • Constitutional rights and responsibilities - 4 hours (4%)
  • Physical Education - 28 hours (35%)
  • Career and career choices - 8 hours (10%)
  • Study skills - 4 hours (5%)

Consider that only 5% of the learning time focuses on study skills. That is a grossly insufficient amount of time to teach study skills and habits for only four hours a year. Diving deeper into the LO syllabus, the study skills are focused on for four hours in the second term of the year. We can all appreciate the importance of these study habits and exam skills being taught at the beginning and throughout the year. Most books on habit-forming focus on the value of deliberate and consistent practice when trying to build a habit. You cannot form the right skill set with only four hours of instruction a year.

Why does this all matter? Students are failing due to clearly specified reasons, and we could use these two hours a week to address and solve those issues. Have you ever wondered why students struggle to pass most matric subjects with over 50%, which is what many would consider an actual pass? It is due to the systemic issue linked to thinking skills; without addressing it, we will not be able to reach the full potential of our talent base.

To understand the problem, we need to look at the diagnostic data. The Department of Basic Education (DBE) performs annual diagnostic assessments of the exam performance of students per subject and per exam paper and publishes annual diagnostic reports sharing its findings. After carefully going over a decade of these reports, a trend is clear. It shows a recurrent problem that has remained over the last decade.

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Before I explain how we solve the quality of pass crisis, it's important to understand which skills the exam is assessing. The matric examinations evaluate different types of thinking skills in the students taking the exam. Firstly, they evaluate the student's ability to recall the information they have been taught in a subject. Secondly, they evaluate their ability to comprehend and understand that information. They also evaluate the capacity to use the information they recall and understand in solving problems. Finally, they evaluate the capacity to analyse, critique and evaluate the information itself. Different thinking skill sets are valued differently in the examination. For instance, recall cons for 15% of many exams, while comprehension accounts for 35% and the problem-solving and analysis parts account for the remaining 50%.

According to the qualitative diagnostic evaluation, our students are failing exams because of the following issues. Firstly, there is a limited capacity displayed by students to apply subject knowledge to problem-solving. Students fail to analyse, evaluate and critique the subject matter when required. Secondly, there is a lack of understanding of examination techniques as well as a lack of understanding of terminology. Lastly, students struggle with the language of learning, which is predominantly English, and the reports state that students frequently do not understand the vocabulary used in questions, extracts and comprehension texts.

Together these four challenges consistently result in between 20% and 30% of the students who sit for a particular subject obtaining 50% or more in their final results. For instance, out of the 139 191 students who sat for the economics exam in 2021, only 28 673 (20.6%) obtained 50% or more, and only 13 083 (9.4%) acquired 60% or more.

There is, therefore, a clear need to teach, develop and practice higher-order thinking skills and students’ English vocabulary to help them perform better. This is why I am proposing the removal of LO to replace it with a subject that would teach and develop those skills.

What would replace Life Orientation? A subject called Critical Thinking and Communications (CTC). This would be a subject that seeks to academically develop thinking and communication skills. Developing the skills needed to gather and critically assess information and evidence in a balanced and reflective way. These skills will also equip students to reach conclusions that are justified by a reasoned argument based on the available evidence.

This subject would have a curriculum based on the application of general knowledge and current affairs in the following areas:

  • Conceptual analysis
  • Systems thinking
  • Design thinking
  • Fundamentals of Political and Moral philosophy
  • Strategic thinking
  • Informal logic
  • Critical thinking
  • Civics

These are all different academic thinking disciplines, many of which are already taught at the University level to improve critical thinking in the various academic fields. It is brilliant that Universities are introducing these subjects, but in all honesty, the study of critical thought should not be introduced at the University level, especially not only to the limited number of students who choose to take up those subjects.

CTC is a subject which would directly address the issues identified in the diagnostic reports. Students need time to regularly practise these thinking skills and be assessed on their progress. This is what is holding back their performance in the exams. We need to provide them with opportunities to practise Socratic learning and associated habits of thought. Our students are not failing because they are incapable; they are failing because the system is not teaching them the skills they need to excel. Even the department's reports have been identifying the same issues, but with no systemic answer. This subject would be the solution.

I am frequently asked the following questions when proposing the scrapping of LO Firstly, what would happen to physical education? My answer is that we must integrate physical education into compulsory sporting codes after the school day. We must build gym facilities at schools so that students can have spaces to train. The two hours a week of LO is ineffective in developing healthy exercise habits.

Secondly, I am asked about career counselling in the LO curriculum. My answer is that we must have career guidance offices in every community and dedicated career guidance experts to periodically work with students in thinking through their career options.

A question that comes up is where we would teach students how to deal with their mental health and self-actualisation. We must ensure we provide the right resources for students in their schools and communities to deal with mental health challenges. Mental health is an important issue, and it is one that I know young people are struggling with globally.  Schools need to have trained psychologists who provide counselling and therapy to students. Schools need to have social workers assigned to a school. The mental health issues students go through cannot be adequately dealt with in the nine hours allocated to LO per year. We need long-term therapy and social interventions. The mentorship of our young people is crucial and has been abdicated to teachers in crowded classrooms with limited resources. This is not a prudent approach to dealing with the problem.

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I am asked who will teach this subject. The answer is that currently, we have many graduates who have studied humanities but are unemployed. These graduates are sitting at home without employment, having the skills to teach and develop critical thinking. Many graduates with LLB degrees are unable to find meaningful employment. These graduates can go through what is known as a postgraduate certificate in education and be in our classrooms within a year.

I am also asked why these skills cannot be learnt in the other subjects. Most subjects mention that they teach critical thinking in their respective curriculum, but the reality is that this requires dedicated focus, and learning about argumentative fallacies that could take two hours alone. Learning how to do the conceptual analysis properly could take more than two hours to mention a few necessary elements to build mastery of thinking skills. 

Subject teachers need more time to pay attention to teaching these crucial skills, as they are trying to cover the subject theory to meet deadlines. In addition, the language subjects often do communication exercises in group settings which do not lead to individual mastery. They also do not have dedicated training in these critical thinking disciplines. As a result, it is preferable for dedicated time to be put aside for teaching these disciplines and for dedicated teachers to be assigned to the learning and evaluation of these thinking disciplines.

To get different results, we must be willing to do things differently. It is time for us to acknowledge that Life Orientation was introduced with noble intentions; however, it has failed to deliver and must be scrapped and replaced.

ChatGPT is a popular AI that can have conversations with people. The AI can provide detailed and researched answers to interactive questions. That is what our children are up against. We need to make sure they are ready to face the future with the right thinking and technical skills; otherwise, our unemployment problems will multiply.

- Mmusi Maimane is leader of BOSA.


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