14 January 2008

Transformation in education -- or the lack of it

For the last fifteen years or more there has been talk of the need for "transformation" in education. One of the things that was done was to introduce "Outcomes-based Education" (OBE). And what was the outcome?

Mary Metcalfe, former Gauteng MEC for Education, and now head of the Education Department at Wits university writes The Times - Article:
Every year on average for the past four years, of the learners who reached matric, only 17% achieved the standard necessary to proceed to university. A third failed matric

TEN years is a short time in education. It takes four years to train a teacher, seven years to pass through primary education, and many years for changes in curriculum intention to take firm root in classrooms. It may be that the annual matric media circus has focused our attention narrowly on the expectation that for this nation of “miracles” there might be a quick-fix solution after the ravages of apartheid education; that our exceptionalism will mean that because we wish it, “next year” will be better. The hard reality is that we are not making the progress we need in the two most critical dimensions of education performance: quality and equity.

Part of the problem is the resistance of educational institutions to transformation, or for transformation that is too narrowly defined, and inadequately measured.

The biggest tertiary education institution in South Africa is the University of South Africva (Unisa). In the 1990s there were about 30000 school teachers registered there as students at any one time, hoping to improve their qualifications. When I began working in the Editorial Department at Unisa in 1986 I was told horror stories about the Faculty of Education by my colleagues. One was of a translator, translating a study guide from Afrikaans to English. She went to see the lecturer, and said she was unable to translate some of the text because she could not understand it. And the lecturer said, "You don't have to understand it, you just have to translate it."

I thought this was an apocryphal story, an exaggeration for the sake of effect, until I was editing a study guide for Fundamental Pedagogics 101. After labouring through the first chapter I went to the lecturer to try to clarify some problems with the text, and showed her the text as I had edited it. She got very angry: "Who crossed this out?" "I did." "Why?" "I couldn't understand it." "You're not supposed to understand it. This is specialised stuff".

Bear in mind that this was a 101 course, and many students who would be taking it would have come straight from school. If I, having two degrees, could not understand it, how could a school leaver be expected to? The story I had heard was not apocryphal, it was perfectly true, and it goes a long way to explain the malaise in education in South Africa today. It begins with the way that many teachers were trained in the apartheid years, and, because of the failure of transformation, for many years afterwards as well.

Unisa needed to be transformed from a Broederbond institution into one that could do something to improve education for the whole country. People in the Education Faculty kept talking about the need not to "lower standards", but there was no danger of that: their standards were as low as they could possibly get. There was only one way they could go, and that was up. The trouble was that most of the lecturers had themselves been trained in the pseudo-scientific discipline of "Fundamental Pedagogics", and were incapable of transforming anything.

One lecturer finally came to the realisation that "Fundamental Pedagogics" was no longer politically correct, as it had been under the apartheid regime. So what did he do? What was his effort at transformation? When his study guide needed to be revised (Unisa demanded revision of study materials every three years) he simply went through the text with a word processor and used the search and replace function to replace every instance of "fundamental pedagogics" with "philosophy of education". Hey Presto! His study guide was now "transformed" and politically correct in the new South Africa. Never mind that he had not read through the text to see the effect of his changes -- that in many places he had used the word "pedagogical" to refer to the "pedagogics" that had now by word magic become "philosophy", so that it made even less sense than before. But that didn't matter. The students did not have to understand it, they just had to learn it.

Much of the activity of the Education Faculty at Unisa was devoted to devising complicated terminology for ordinary things, to make it sound more "scientific", on the principle of "bullshit baffles brains". "History of Adult Education", for example, was called "Temporal Andragogics", which, quite apart from being bullshit, was also sexist, since it referred only to adult male education.

What Stanislav Andreski said of his own discipline (sociology) applies equally here too:
Sometimes the verbal substitutions masquerading as contributions to knowledge are so inept and gross that it is difficult to believe that the authors really think they are revealing new truths (which must be the case), and that they are not laughing up their sleeves at the gullibility of their audience. One of the crassest examples of such delusions is the recent vogue for the letter 'n', chosen to deputize for the common word 'need' because of its status-bestowing properties stemming from its frequent appearance in mathematical formulae. So by scribbling the letter 'n' all over their pages some people have succeeded in surrounding their platitudes with the aura of the exact sciences in their own eyes, as well as those of their readers who might have seen some books on mathematics without being able to understand them (Andreski Social sciences as sorcery 1972:63).

The attraction of jargon and obfuscating convolutions can be fully explained by the normal striving of humans for emoluments and prestige at the least cost to themselves, the cost in question consisting of the mental effort and danger of
'sticking one's neck out' or 'putting one's foot in it'. In addition to eliminating such risks, as well as the need to learn much, nebulous verbosity opens a road to the most prestigious academic posts to people of small intelligence whose limitations would stand naked if they had to state what they have to say clearly and succinctly (Andreski Social sciences as sorcery 1972:82).

Eventually the head of the Editorial Department could take it no more, and he said that the Editorial Department would refuse to accept any more study material from the Faculty of Education for editing and translation unless the quality improved, as it was defrauding students, getting them to pay fees for worthless study material. He was warned that disciplinary action would be taken against him. I went with him to see Mary Metcalfe, who was then Gauteng MEC for Education. There wasn't much she could do, but at least she could be aware of the extent of the problem. Ten years later, she's still in it up to her neck, and I wish her luck with it. She needs it, South Africa needs it.

The Broederbond rallied round, and the head of the Editorial Department at Unisa was fired. This was in 1996, in the "new" South Africa. He was fired for wanting genuine transformation, and not a farce. He was fired for wanting to raise standards in education, not merely in Unisa, but in the country.

Don't get me wrong. Unisa has produced a lot of good courses. In the Editorial Department we were the last line of defence in the way of quality control, and we saw both the good and the bad. Some was good, some was very good. But the output of the Faculty of Education was very, very bad.

Before ending this rant, perhaps one more story. A few months after the sacking of the head of department an education study guide came up for review. It had been available for three years, so needed to be revised. It was exceptional; it was clear, well-written and useful. I spoke to my colleague who had worked on it the first time round. She said the lecturer had been cooperative, and they had worked hard on it together. I spent a couple of weeks trying to improve it further, and found it a pleasure to work with a text that actually had something to say rather than the usual meaningless platitudes wrapped up in obfuscating language.

A couple of weeks later we got a complaint from the university administration. Why had we wasted so much time and resources revising that course, when all the stock of original study guides were sitting in the despatch department untouched, because not a single student had registered for the course!

Oh the irony of it! The Education Faculty produced one decent course among dozens of bad ones, and no students registered for it.

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