OPINION | SA education must shift focus from just passing, to developing life long skills

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"The curricula in both basic and higher education systems are still largely theoretical and struggling when it comes to imparting problem-solving skill."
"The curricula in both basic and higher education systems are still largely theoretical and struggling when it comes to imparting problem-solving skill."

A big congratulations to the Grade 12 Class of 2020 is in order. Achieving an overall pass rate of 76,2% despite all the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic is not a small feat by any measure.

The doomsayers who had advised us to abandon the academic year must be licking their wounds and egos right now.

While we have the right to celebrate good academic performance in matric and institutions of higher learning, the fact of the matter is that there is still huge room for improvement in our education system.

The curricula in both basic and higher education systems are still largely theoretical and struggling when it comes to imparting problem-solving skills, critical and creatives skills, as well as innovation and discovery skills to our young people.

The real test of the effectiveness and quality of our education system as well as the knowledge they've acquired from it is to be found in real life - well beyond the classroom and lecture halls and the world of work.

Life is about solving never-ending problems or challenges presented to us by life itself.

Also read: Is the matric pass rate an accurate measure of the health of our schooling system?

The challenges of real life

Preparing young adults for the job market is not and should not be the ultimate aim of an education system.

On the contrary, the ultimate aim of every education system should be to produce young people who are independent, critical, creative and innovative thinkers with the requisite capabilities to solve life problems and discover new knowledge to solve both current and future challenges.

Whether one is employed or not, life will still present us with life problems that will require us to utilize our problem-solving skills to address such problems. It is at that level that the real test of the quality of an education system kicks in.

I do agree that theory informs practice. In other words, the theoretical work that we do at school and institutions of higher learning should prepare us to deal with the challenges of real life.

For instance, solving for X and Y in Mathematics should prepare us to solve the X and Y of real life. But it doesn't help us that much for a learner or student to excel in solving X and Y on paper and fail dismally when faced with real-life problems.

In reality, an examination does not test one's knowledge. In fact, the debate as to whether an examination is or not the right instrument to measure one's knowledge is still on-going.

Although there is a thin line, there is indeed a difference between studying to pass an exam and studying to gain knowledge.

A focus on passing 

Clearly, current trends have shown us that there is too much emphasis on passing the examinations and getting good grades rather than getting the life-changing knowledge and understanding that our young people will need tomorrow to deal with real-life situations.

In other words, our examinations are increasingly becoming an instrument to measure our children’s ability to pass based on what has been taught and not necessarily to gain knowledge on what has been taught.

And this comes about because of the great amount of pressure that learners, teachers, schools, districts, provinces and nations are subjected to, owing largely to our participation in both national and international achievement studies.

While we cannot dodge participation or escape the pressure that comes with these learner achievement studies, teaching our children to gain sound and vast knowledge on different subject matters and beyond is critical.

Also read: How education today can combat disasters tomorrow

Life beyond the classroom 

Preparing our learners for life beyond the classroom and lecture hall situations is also very critical because life will test them, and it will test them so harshly.

We've seen professors, medical doctors, A-rated researchers and other professionals who excelled academically committing suicide when faced with real-life problems such as work pressures, marital differences, financial challenges and others.

We've seen experts who passed their matric exams and post-matric degrees with flying colours throwing themselves into alcohol and drugs when real-life problems hit them.

Apart from personal problems, life also gives us national and global problems that we as the educated cohort have to deal with. At a national level, we are still faced with a myriad of problems such as gender-based violence, corruption, incompetence, crime, racism, inequality, unemployment, a struggling economy, poverty, inequality, etc.

We also have global problems such as Covid-19, global warming, human trafficking, conflicts and wars, water scarcity, the struggle towards achieving sustainable development goals (SDGs) by 2030, food security issues, etc.

Real problems 

These are real X and Y problems of life. All the brains that used to excel in solving X and Y in classrooms and lecture halls are desperately needed here.

This is where they need to be put to real practice in real life. This is where they have to benefit us, the nation and the world.

The fact that we are unable to produce our own Covid-19 vaccine, and the fact that we’ve not made any discovery or invention of a global standing since 1994 should raise red flags to our education system.

The fact that we are ranked 60 out of 131 countries in the 2020 Global Innovation Index, down from 54 in 2012, should also raise a red flag to our education system, in particular in relation to science and innovation skills.

The fact that we are still struggling to prevent and cure dreaded diseases such as cancer, sugar diabetes and Ebola, should also be a challenge to our problem-solving skills and the quality of our education in general.

Passion for learning 

In the words of the former Prime Minister of Singapore, Goh Choc Tong, "what is critical is that we fire in our students the passion for learning, instead of studying for the sake of getting good grades in their examinations".

The former Prime Minister goes on to argue that the students’ knowledge will be fragile, no matter how many 'A's they get, unless they have the desire and aptitude to continue discovering new knowledge well after they leave school.

In fact, the concept of Thinking Schools, Learning Nation (TSLN) was launched and spearheaded by former Prime Minister Goh Choc Tong himself in 1997.

The concept has since become the vision of the Ministry of Education in Singapore. The vision aims to encourage young Singaporeans to perceive education as a life-long process, but most importantly, to develop critical and creative thinking skills in students, and by extension, the working class and the nation of Singapore at large.

Must read: How to study for a future-proof career in the creative industry 

21st Century skills 

In fact, Singapore believes that beyond literacy and numeracy we need 21st Century skills such as problem-solving skills for all students.

In the words of former Prime Minister Goh Choc Tong "thinking schools must be the crucibles for questioning and searching, within and outside the classroom…"

In his opening speech of the 7th International Conference on Thinking on 2 June 1997, Goh Choc Tong advised that schools must become develop future generations of thinking and committed citizens capable of making good decisions to keep Singapore vibrant and successful in future.

Indeed, just four decades after it had attained its independence in 1965, Singapore has developed from a third-world country to a first-world country. The city of Singapore itself has developed from a simple fishing village to a world-class city.

In essence, there are key lessons that South Africa can draw from the Singaporean approach to education. These include the fact that the ultimate goal of education goes beyond the examination grades, distinctions and celebrations into a real-life with real-life challenges and frustrations.

It is for that reason that we have to shift our focus, like Singapore did, towards the acquisition of problem-solving, critical and creative skills for our learners and students, particularly in this age of increasing global competition and artificial intelligence.


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