The Elephant in the Room

It is no secret. South Africa’s education system is simply not working.

We are failing to educate our children so miserably that The Department of Basic Education has now proposed Grade 7, 8 and 9 learners only have to achieve 20% to “pass” maths. This is a great idea if we want to keep pupils moving through the system and spiralling educational costs down, but a terrible idea if we want those same children to ever have the chance to compete for jobs and income in the real, globalised world.

Perhaps it is time to stop sweeping our problems under the proverbial rug of lowered standards and start considering an entirely new approach to education. Perhaps our failure to compete with global educational norms is, in fact, an opportunity in disguise to rethink what eduction really is and why we do it at all.

The purpose of eduction, at its core, is to teach young people to become self-sufficient, contributing members of society. In other words, to equip our future generations with the skills, knowledge and abilities to either find or create work and become financially independent human beings.

With South Africa’s youth unemployment rate sitting at 38,6%, our schools are, rather obviously, not fulfilling this mandate.

A 20% pass maths pass mark is certainly not going to change this.

The resources currently dedicated to achieving these non-results could, and should, be put to better use. Especially when one considers that even an 80% mark in Matric maths is no guarantee of a job, let alone a long and prosperous career.

In a world where, according to McKinsey Global Institute, 41% of the already scarce jobs in South Africa are under threat of automation by currently available technology, not even a chartered accountancy qualification is enough education to guarantee future employment.

(Incidentally, accountants have a 94% probability of being replaced by robots or artificial intelligence within a decade. So maybe don’t waste four years and R120,000 on that degree.)

The type of memorised knowledge we still teach at schools, is not worth much in a day and age when anyone can access any information they desire, for free, through a simple Google search. The ability to learn, to continue learning throughout one’s life, however, is far more important than any examined knowledge.

This is why our schools should have a much simpler goal than the set of arbitrary pass marks they currently work towards. Our schools should exist to teach our students how to learn, and to inspire them to keep on learning throughout their lives.

Education should not be equated to a pass mark, a Matric Certificate or a University Degree. Those pieces of paper should be a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves. Education should be a doorway to life-long learning.

After all, all anyone needs in order to learn anything they like today is the ability to read and, an Internet connection to access the information online. Knowledge and information, even lectures from top-tier universities, are free and freely available, as long as you can afford the data bill.

So, here’s what I say. How about we redefine the purpose of our schools down to one simple objective – literacy. How about we go back to basics and simply teach our children to read and write. If a child can read well, in any language, they have the ability learn and teach themselves pretty much anything they ever want to learn.

Then, imagine we re-deploy a small fraction of the 200-billion odd rand we currently spend on schools and teachers achieving 20% maths pass rates; to providing every South African child with a reliable, free Internet connection (and perhaps throw in a free daily lunch too).

Imagine we then point our hungry, literate learners at the world’s collective knowledge, sit back and watch the magic happen.

They could hardly do a worse job teaching themselves than we are doing teaching them right now.

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