New ways of learning. Shouldn’t we be studying the alternatives?

Posted by Flux on 

6 June 2016

Earlier last year the Basic Education Department announced that from this year, it will offer Mandarin as an additional subject in schools. Department spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga says the subject is designed to strengthen future relations with the Chinese. The announcement was met, not unexpectedly, with rumblings and objections, but this language option is already offered in many private schools in the country, and South Africa is not alone at looking at the global landscape to prepare our learners for the globalised world in which they will have to live and work.

In 2012 The Avenues (aka, The World School) opened the first of its 20 global campuses in New York City. Tellingly, they offer their primary school learner the option of studying Mandarin or Spanish as a second language, but it’s not taught as an isolated subject as is common. Avenues’ students are taught for 50% of the day in English and the remainder of the day in whichever second language they have chosen. This 50% “immersion” programme then prepares the learner for the opportunity to travel and immerse themselves at one of the global campuses (in Beijing for example) for 6 to 8 weeks at a time. By the time these students graduate from secondary education, they could have completed between 12 to 15 months of learning on five different continents. What’s even more remarkable is that the teachers are also encouraged to spend up to a year working on campuses in other countries. It’s a far cry form an education system we know, but it requires resources, infrastructure and most obviously affluent parents.

However, there are other radical changes taking place in education systems across the world.  In September 2013 cursive handwriting was removed as a compulsory skill in America, and Finland has just followed suit. From 2016, they will also scrap cursive handwriting from the education curriculum and replace it with lessons in keyboard typing. But Finland is also about to embark on one of the most radical education reform programmes. They intend scrapping traditional “teaching by subject” in favour of “teaching by topic”.

Subject-specific lessons (an hour of history in the morning, and an hour of geography in the afternoon) are already being phased out for 16-year-olds in some schools. These subjects are being replaced by what the Finns call “phenomenon” teaching, or teaching by topic. For instance, a teenager studying a vocational course might take “cafeteria services” lessons, which would include elements of maths, languages (to help serve foreign customers), writing and communication skills. More academically minded pupils would be taught cross-subject topics such as the European Union, which would merge elements of economics, history, languages and geography.

To counter objections from teachers, most of whom have spent their lives focusing on a particular subject, a new system of “co-teaching” has been introduced ensuring input from more than one subject specialist. As an incentive, teachers embracing this new system receive a small top-up in salary and already 70% of the city’s high school teachers have now been trained in this new system.

Anyone in the education field reading this will no doubt raise their eyebrows and say that this is dangerously close to the failed Outcome Based Education programme that South Africa embarked on in the late 1990’s and scrapped in 2010. Although the system is different, we just don’t have the resources or skills that the Finns have to embark on such a radical shift.

However, there is a remarkable, alternative public high school in New York that we might just want to emulate. At the City-As-School, based in Greenwich Village, learners get jobs, not marks. It is a revolutionary apprenticeship program where learners only spend two or three days a week in the classroom. The other half of the week, they go out into the real world and work internships for academic credit.

There are no marks, no exams, and no class years. Instead of taking tests, learners complete a portfolio of papers and projects. You graduate when you’ve completed your portfolio.

Here teachers operate as “internship coordinators”, identifying opportunities within industries, pairing learners with companies, and supervising students’ progress with weekly “advisories” where learners discuss their internship experiences. Each internship satisfies one or more academic requirement. For example, if you need a science credit, you can volunteer as a guide at the American Museum of Natural History. If you need technology credit, you can write a paper on “the intersection of Internet and culture” at the Red Bull Studios.

The school is increasingly referred to as a “transfer school,” as it benefits many students who have struggled in traditional school systems. In South Africa where the qualification gap between secondary and tertiary education is widening, this model deserves consideration. It’s no coincidence that a country like Germany – where there is a robust apprenticeship programme for learners concluding their secondary education – has the lowest youth unemployment rate in the world. We have one of the highest. Its time we did the math.

By: Dion Chang


About Dion

Image credit: Yanko Design


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