OPINION: 'The Covid-19 crisis is a teachable moment for our education sector'

Sink or swim? (Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images)
Sink or swim? (Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images)

Jacqueline Samuels has twenty years of teaching experience and seven years of lecturing experience. She is currently completing a Master of Philosophy degree in Education and Training for Lifelong Learning at the University of Stellenbosch. 

Last year our eldest son fell ill. In March 2019 he lost his mobility and suddenly, life as we knew it changed. He was in his final year completing his MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery degrees). 

Six years of intensive study culminating in becoming a doctor. In our family, a first-generation doctor. So much anticipation, so much excitement and then . . . 

It is from this backdrop that I would like to draw parallels to our current education system and the Covid-19 crisis.

Not the end of the world

Calvin lost a considerable amount of academic time as he could not attend all classes. He did not do all the assessments needed to qualify as a doctor. He did, however, gain so much life experience.

He could experience life from a patient's perspective. He learnt empathy, perseverance, patience, and compassion. All aspects that a textbook could not teach him. 

For Calvin, education took place, not in a conventional way, but in a deep, soul-searching way. He learnt deep truths about life. Many have said that they are sure that the characteristics that Calvin learned will make him a better doctor, but more importantly, a better person.

The experience of not completing his studies was deeply disappointing for Calvin and our family. 

He looked forward to graduating last year. Yet, we came to realise that one year in the bigger scheme of life is not the end of the world. He does not have a degree to show yet, but he is being educated.

Not in classrooms, but they are learning

Currently, our pupils are not in classrooms, but they are learning. 

Education is taking place. They are learning patience as they must wait for the lockdown to be over. They are learning about the importance of hygiene. 

I am sure that teachers taught their pupils to wash their hands prior to this pandemic. I do however imagine this generation telling their children the importance of washing hands because in 2020 they had to stay under lockdown.

Our education system needs to change its focus on teaching. Currently, we are teaching for assessment. The school curriculum is content-heavy and knowledge-driven. There are aspects of critical thinking, but the focus is knowledge.

Teaching below the waterline 

I have been introduced to a concept called teaching below the waterline. 

The bottom part of an iceberg, the part under the water can be referred to as below the waterline. That is the part that we cannot see.

Gordon MacDonald (2011) used an illustration to explain the concept of building below the waterline. He writes about the Brooklyn Bridge that took fourteen years to build. For three years of that time, people could not see any progress happening. 

Nothing about the process of the bridge was visible to the public. He explains that the engineer pointed out that the most important work was in building the bridge's foundations hundreds of feet below the water's surface.

The part that the public could not see.

Teaching below the waterline means that you are not fixated on the knowledge but on understanding. You teach pupils how to solve problems. You train them to take the initiative. You encourage creativity. You teach them to think critically. 

You are building foundations in learning that they can apply to any area of their lives. You cannot assess what happens below the waterline, but you can see it in the way pupils interact with others. 

You can see it in their decision making, and you can see it in their attitude to life. The education department wants to see the completion of assessments. 

Restricted by curriculum

The success of a teacher has amounted to how much knowledge that teacher can get the students to retain — a regurgitation of facts. Thus a 100% matric pass gets celebrated. A good systemic test result is applauded.

I believe that teachers know how to educate pupils below the waterline, but they are restricted by a curriculum that requires them to focus on assessment outcomes. 

They do not have the time to teach for understanding. They need to get through all the content. We have an opportunity now to relook at what we are doing.

My suggestion is that the education department shifts focus off the current curriculum. 

For the foundation phase. I will suggest the following: 

Time must be spent to build on foundations

The significance of building proper foundations is that no child needs to be left behind. You do not need technology to teach the foundations. You do not even need lots of resources.

Laying proper foundations could perhaps help to close the divide between the privileged and underprivileged.

Strengthen English language studies

Focus on reading and writing. Have spelling competitions. Dictionary games. Play games like scrabble with the students. 

Spend meaningful time with the arts

Listening to a variety of music. Allow students to draw pictures, and to dance. 

Go back to foundational maths teaching

Take students to the foundations where they grasp what education is about, where learning is fun. Imagine a Grade one child having fun. 

Without the burden of assessments

Teachers can prepare foundational lessons without the burden of assessments. Like the Brooklyn Bridge, educators can build on foundations for the rest of the year. We might not see visible results in the immediate future, but we will see results. 

How wonderful it will be when we have students who can read. Pupils who can communicate effectively, who can reason. Pupils who understand the basic foundations of Mathematics. They can think critically.

Pupils who have self-control, pupils who can take the initiative, who can find problems and solve them. Pupils who can be creative, who can think critically.

We might not have the reports to show off, but our children have been educated. If we can accept that education is much more than passing an exam, we have achieved something this year.

I am looking forward to a generation of learners who can adapt, create,and lead us to a better future. A future beyond the pandemic.

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