We live in a vastly different world, one which demands of schools and educators a constant rethink on how to equip our children with relevant and appropriate skills, life skills and values. So, is it happening? Anne Schauffer reports.
Considering the world has always been in a constant state of flux, relevancy in terms of skills, life skills and values taught at schools should always have been a factor, shouldn’t it? For a long time though, education and schooling felt inflexible and distant from the reality of what the world beyond school demanded of its “new recruits”.
“Hericlitus said it over 2000 years ago – change is the only constant in life,” says Waterfall College Principal Bryony Green. “But what impacts education today is that the rate of change has picked up significantly.” She feels that in some respects, this means educators need to go back to basics – to focus on the “soft skills” that will arm school-leavers with the foundation they need to adapt to an ever-changing world.
Ongoing conversations around this constant change, and exploring ways to arm children for the future, are alive and well in the schools we spoke to.
“The world in which these pupils will live as adults will look vastly different to our current reality,” says Claire Keyworth, Senior Primary teacher at Durban Girls’ College (DGC). “Advancements in technology will drastically change the face of the workplace, and we have to identify what our students will need in order to be successful in their lifetimes. This is where 21st century skills are so important – collaboration, creativity, problem-solving, independence, critical thinking. These skills are developed in our school through the Thinking Schools pedagogy, to which we prescribe.
”The Thinking Schools concept is attributed to the late Professor Burden of the University of Exeter. For him, “A great deal of evidence would appear to indicate that a significant proportion of pupils pass through their 15 000 hours of schooling without being required to do much real thinking at all.” Accreditation as a Thinking School was given to DGC’s Junior Primary, an acknowledgement underpinned by the requirement that the school is “an educational community in which all members share a common commitment to giving regular careful thought to everything that takes place. This will involve both students and staff learning how to think reflectively, critically and creatively, and to employ these skills and techniques in the co-construction of a meaningful curriculum and associated activities. Benefits will be shown in ways in which all members of the community interact with and show consideration for each other and in the positive psychological well-being of both students and staff”.
Kate Collins is head of Academics at DGC’s Junior Primary: “As a member of the Thinking Schools SA network team, we’re involved in termly network meetings where content is shared, and this allows our Drive Team to frequently review current practices and reflect on where improvements may be needed. A culture of thinking and learning filters into all areas of the school curriculum, and the curriculum has become more rich, relevant and meaningful. Students are making better connections between their learning and real-world issues.”
This learning real-world connection is at the heart of what Northwood School aims to achieve. For Headmaster Paul Viljoen, “The analogy of a box is a powerful one for me – if we continue to educate and teach within the confines of the traditional box, we will negatively impact our children and, perhaps even more dangerously, we are not equipping them with the skills they will need to be successful, value-adding adults in a rapidly changing global world.
“The curriculum and expectations as set by the Department of Education and the assessment body, that is the IEB, are still valuable, but as schools we surely have to be brave enough and innovative enough to think and teach outside of the traditional ‘box’.
“At Northwood we teach a variety of skills we believe will futureproof our boys.”
Futureproofing requires a multifaceted approach that goes beyond subjects taught: “The past three years have seen us implement coding and robotics as compulsory subjects,” continues Paul Viljoen. “These speak specifically to the skills of programming, engineering, innovation and problem solving. These boys are developing skills that already make them employable, but also entrepreneurial and, as such, they have a better chance of meeting the expectations of a technologically advanced society.”
Bryony Green described how Waterfall College’s ongoing conversation around change evolved and continues to do so: “Covid meant we began to use online teaching strategies out of necessity. Many of the good aspects of blending the use of ‘chromebooks’ and traditional teaching have remained, and this conversation continues. How we integrate technology into our classrooms, how we teach students to discern fake news from reality, how we perceive our world based on what we are viewing online. These ‘soft’ skills are part of our everyday teaching. It is even more important now that we focus on developing those skills that can’t be (easily) automated, like collaboration, creativity, critical thinking.”
Life skills underpin it all. Bryony says “There’s a greater emphasis on the ability to focus, as teens are faced with an abundance of distractions. Those who are able to work independently and are intrinsically motivated are the ones who are going to make it.” She adds, “Post-Covid, there’s a real sense of apathy among teens. We need to encourage a curiosity for learning and an understanding of why it is relevant.”
“Mindset needs to precede skillset,” stressed Brad Cooper, Headmaster of Waterfall Prep: “In a world where we are bombarded by information, it is vital that children are able to discern what is true, whether in terms of comments aimed at them or about the world we live in. This places the focus on developing a strong sense of identity in children and respect for others, so that they can work together to achieve what is required of them in the future, making good choices and decisions.”
It’s impossible to ignore the curriculum and final examination requirements in all this. Brad noted that “One of our teachers coined the phrase ‘the why way’ because, since the establishment of Waterfall Prep in 2017, we have had the opportunity to question every aspect of the way we manage the school. Much of how we do school has come about by necessity of creating an environment for 24 children to meet the needs of the curriculum. To some extent, all schools are constrained by what is expected by the final examination authority and by parents. We have looked at areas where we can be flexible and work to take away unnecessary pressure and fear; things that can reduce a child’s ability to learn and grow.”
The previous drive to achieve over all else, has shifted significantly. Today’s education stresses progress, rather than excelling; about the child’s ability to think for themselves, rather than memorising information; about having the skills to adapt to change. “The emphasis on marks and results, and the mindset that high marks equal success, is a narrative that is damaging the young people of today,” says Claire Keyworth, teacher at DGC Senior Primary.
“We are faced with so many pupils struggling with anxiety because of this way of thinking. We are working towards changing this mindset by showing our students that it is progress over perfection that we value; that each one of them is on their own unique journey; that memorisation of content is no longer necessary (thanks Google!) but rather developing those incredibly important 21st century skills. This approach should be adopted throughout the education sector in South Africa.”
The new approach to education has also involved a significant shift in the traditional relationship between teacher and student. DGC’s Claire says, “In order to develop critical thinking and inquiry skills, the students require a greater degree of independence to discover things themselves. So, the teacher now fulfils the role more of facilitator in many instances, particularly in inquiry-based tasks.”
BUY-IN OF PARENTS
A key piece of this new puzzle is the buy-in of parents. Waterfall College’s Brad Cooper feels strongly: “Never before have children so badly needed structure and guidance at home and at school. It is vital that parents choose a school that reflects the values they espouse at home or aspire to, and that they partner with their children’s teachers to achieve the best outcome for their children. The responsibility cannot lie solely with the school. We work to share resources and thinking with parents to strengthen our partnership.”
Bryony Green concurs: “Parents must encourage students to become involved in school life, and to move out of their comfort zones a little. We work closely with parents, as we believe education is a team effort – child, parent and teacher.”
So, too, Paul Viljoen: “We have also worked hard in engaging with our parents around the topics of working with us to ensure they enforce the same principles that we focus on as a school. To work in partnerships with our parents, in service of our boys, is viewed as critical to our success.”
For Claire Keyworth, “Without buy-in from the parents, all the work staff are putting in to change mindsets and teaching practices will lose its emphasis and value. Parents need to see the importance of progress over perfection, de-emphasise being marks and results driven, and support independence, problem solving and critical thinking in their children. We endeavour to involve parents in this process and provide them with many opportunities to engage with us on this matter.” Dale Charter, DGC’s Junior Primary Head of Academics continues, “The link between all stakeholders – parents, pupils and teachers – is vital in building and maintaining these core values. DGC realised the need to upskill both parents and teachers, and it’s done through termly muffin mornings, keynote speakers, focus group meetings and professional development.”
Listening to the heads and teachers about equipping children for that new world out there, one thing is certain: the school’s role has shifted. It’s far more about building and nurturing a strong individual sense of self than it is about packing in information. It’s also about nurturing compassion, respect and concern for others, and – although strongly led by the school – there’s an interesting sense of collaborative exploration between teachers, parents and children, as everyone navigates the new world together.