Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Teaching the dream curriculum in nightmare conditions

Siphokazi Magadla, Bokamoso

One of the enduring memories I have of my life in high school is of my then young brilliant Grade 10 History teacher holding the textbook warning us (paraphrased): “I will teach you this, but just remember that most of it is not history, it is lies”. At that moment I recognised the contested and political nature of the school curriculum.

The conversations about the ‘crisis in education’ often focus on the appalling environment in which teachers and learners are placed in developing and poor countries. South Africa is no different in this regard. If it is not the image of the teacher standing in front of over a hundred students in a small class room with barely any space to pace up and down to get better acquitted with the learners, it is often the lack of delivery of textbooks, chairs/desks and other important material that create an environment that allows teachers and learners to get on with engaging the curriculum offered to them. In this context, it is easy to assume that curriculum is also another aspect of the crisis. This is why I have been most surprised to see the substantive transformation of the high school curriculum which, in the midst of everything else that is not functioning well in education, is often overlooked.

In the past year I had the opportunity to look at the current South African History curriculum, comparing it to the days when I was in high school in the early 2000’s.  I was very surprised to see how visionary and imaginative the curriculum is. While we barely learnt about other African countries in our curriculum, students today learn about Julius Nyerere’s Ujamaa project in Tanzania, the history of Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe and many others. They also learn about the civil rights movement in the United States, the women’s movements, amongst other things. The magnificence with which South African history is portrayed is due to the fact that events are not treated as fact but teachers and learners are allowed to view the same event/s from various vantage points.

Upon examining this curriculum, I have been convinced that if taught well, the student comes out of high school very well prepared for university. In that way, university then functions for these students as a way to provide nuance to debates that they have already been introduced to in high school. My friends who have assisted high school students studying Physics, English and Mathematics have also noted that the current high school curriculum, if taught well, would allow the student to “sail” through first year of university.

My youngest brother is doing his final year of high school. One of the subjects he takes is Religious Studies, in my time called Biblical Studies, which focused only on Christianity. For him, Religious Studies means learning about Christianity, Judaism, Islam and other world’s religions. This means he will finish high school far more open and exposed to diversity in religion that I was when I only learnt about debates within the Christian religion.

It sounds great, right? Then I began to imagine what this means for the teachers who are used to teaching the old curriculum. Would my high school teachers from ten years ago be able to do justice to this curriculum?

The curriculum offers a lot of opportunity for rich discussions in the classrooms and the use of extra material that can be found in museums, libraries, online and in the community itself. I remember how alive the History subject became for me when after school I could easily walk to the Nelson Mandela Museum in Umthatha where I could hear history from Madiba’s mouth. This opportunity allowed me to have a healthy suspicion with regards to how particular events were being portrayed in the textbook when contrasted with how some of the individuals who were part of that very history spoke of them decades later.

An enthusiastic high school history learner complained to me last year that she had suggested to her teacher that they show a movie about the civil rights movement in class, so that her co-learners can get a more vivid understanding of this historical process. The teacher said no. The teacher’s decline of this offer by the learner could have been for various reasons, but I can’t also help to think that perhaps the teacher was uncomfortable to participate in a learning exercise where she was also a learner with her students. So unless teachers are supported by the state and community to fully unpack the different modules in a way where all concerned are co-creators of knowledge, then there is a danger that this learning opportunity may go to waste.

But at the same time it is important to recognise that a visionary curriculum can also be very intimidating for the teacher who has taught History and Physics in a specific way for twenty years to now be required to adapt to a far more demanding module that goes beyond the regurgitation of facts. A colleague with a PhD in History recently commented that the present curriculum is perfectly suitable for someone with at least a Masters Degree. Of course, for the all teachers, with or without a Masters, the curriculum offers a lot of exciting possibilities.

I also worry for all the teachers that are presented with plentiful challenges which include the physical security of students which means that by the time they get to teach they are completely exhausted. For those teachers it is daunting to be presented with rich ideas in an environment that robs both the teacher and learner the space to lose themselves in the world of ideas.

The despair that I have seen with some of our first year university students who do not come from well resourced schools betrays some of the inroads that have been made in the education system and especially the curriculum. The danger here is that in the end as progressive as the curriculum is, the learners that are best able to take advantage of the progress made in what is taught in our classrooms are often those who can afford a better education. The silver lining is that for the young person graduating in education to become a teacher, they can look forward to a curriculum that invites them on a journey where the teacher and learner get to co-create knowledge within a curriculum that allows for complexity, grey areas and certainly a lot of colour and diversity.