The purpose of 21st century teaching and learning

| April 10, 2017 | 0 Comments


At the Proudly Primary Conference hosted by Cowan House Preparatory School last year, I shared my deep misgivings regarding the assessment regime within some South African primary schools.

In 2015, I was on a school visit at one of our preparatory schools and on the tour I came upon rows of desks such as one would find in a university examination centre. My heart sank because it brought back bad memories of my primary school days, where teaching was assessment-driven, a focus which raised an unnecessary anxiety around learning within me. Obviously, test-centred learning and ranking of pupils were then the norm. I had however assumed (erroneously) that since the end of the 20th century, we had shifted away from an assessment-driven educational model; and that learning was now focussed on student understanding and buttressing their skills for application in high stakes examinations in which performance still has consequences.

The point of it all

The recently retired headmaster of Eton College, Tony Little, in his book An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education, explores the purpose of education when he writes: It is worth peeling away the rhetoric and satire to pin down what we mean by education… There appears to be a choice of two familiar-sounding Latin words: educare and educere. Educere means to lead forth troops, preparing them for battle, which brings with it a resonance of drill. Educare means to nurture, to bring up, to tend and support for growth. The latter is the correct derivation but it is interesting that these two ideas have been confused over the centuries. . . . The two descriptions of education prompted by the educare/educere debate neatly frame the central juxtaposition. Is the education we wish for our young people to be delivered through formal instruction by imparting particular knowledge and developing certain skills, or is it the nurturing of an individual’s natural abilities to their limits? Most of us would say that the education we want for our children is a balance between the two . . . .1 For primary schools, I do not think that we should be seeking to balance between ‘drill’ and ‘nurture’ approaches. Rather I believe that by nurturing in primary school, we better prepare our charges for the ‘drill’. However, I am often told by primary school teachers that they have no option but to emphasise regimentation, because South Africa has a high stakes exit examination that will determine their students’ futures. In effect, the argument goes, all education, and especially from senior primary school onwards, must prepare pupils for the final matric examination some eight years hence, or, if not for matric, then for high school entrance examinations which they will have to pass in order for them to enter into their high schools of choice. Yet another argument is that the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS) dictate testing at particular intervals. For wholly independent schools (those not receiving a state subsidy2) none of these rationales are convincing.

Keep Constitutional regulation close On the question of how closely independent schools should adhere to CAPS, ISASA has always taken the position that independent schools cannot be fully self-determining if they do not have the right to choose their own curriculum and from ISASA’s executive director The purpose of 21st century teaching and learning BY LEBOGANG MONTJANE Independent Education • Autumn 17 13 professionally define how they will transmit their chosen curricula. In order to ensure that this principle is upheld, ISASA strongly advocated with the Department of Basic Education (DBE) that the CAPS regulations, as they pertain to sequencing, should not be applicable to independent schools. As a result, the CAPS regulations were revised to mandate that independent schools should achieve the ‘outcomes’ of the CAPS curriculum. The amending Regulation 5(bA) makes clear that:

[i]ndependent schools must comply with the minimum outcomes and standards regarding the programme requirements of the subjects listed in sub-regulation (a), namely the overview of the relevant subject content, as contemplated in section 2 of the applicable Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement, provided they have comparable content sequencing principles in place . . . .3 This is a discretion granted to all independent schools in line with their Constitutional rights. I encourage all independent schools to have a copy of this regulation at the ready when they interact with district officials.

Independent schools must insist on their rights

Ironically, at last year’s DBE Roundtable on Assessment, our Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, cautioned that we should not let assessments and examinations drive the South African educational system. A more holistic assessment approach should be adopted, she advised. I was struck by how the minister indicated that she viewed CAPS to be a foundational base for schools that should not simply be implemented slavishly without educator mediation. If Minister Motshekga is encouraging public school educators to adjust the application of CAPS to their schools’ circumstances, why then do independent schools not do likewise when the law permits them to? For educative outcomes, contemporary schools must move towards a formative assessment model as professional practice. I can attest to: [s]tudies [that] suggest that actual practices fall far behind the rhetoric of “formative assessment”, with the typical teacher still viewing assessment primarily as a means for assigning student grades and lacking the knowledge necessary for competent diagnosis of learner needs, accompanied with formative strategies.4

Use student-centred models

Formative assessment is a student-centred continuous diagnostic model which aims to close knowledge gaps in each learner. As the Council of Chief State School Officers in the United States (US) observes: “[f ]ormative assessment is a process used by teachers and students during instruction that provides feedback to adjust ongoing teaching and learning to improve student achievement of intended outcomes.”5 This model is best implemented if teachers utilise multiple diagnostic instruments to gauge student knowledge. Madhabi Chatterji sets out the schema for formative rather than summative assessment as:

Classroom assessment practices that are:

• proximal (instead of distal or removed from ongoing teaching-learning environments);

• diagnostic (yielding fine-grained profiles of learner strengths and weaknesses or errors in defined domains, instead of only summary scores on student progress);

• positive and supportive (whereby mistakes are viewed as opportunities to learn and improve, rather than as causes for stigma and fodder for punishing learners . . .;

• cyclic and ongoing (instead of simply culminating exercises, conducted when a lesson, unit, school term ends); and

• co-owned by teachers and learners and supported by schools and external agencies (instead of assessment programmes that outside agents, schools or policymakers adopt and ask teachers to implement).6 In effect, the aim of formative assessment is that students must take ownership over their own learning in partnership with their teachers.

In preparation for Grade 7 entrance exams into high schools, preparatory schools must find out what high schools expect and specifically prepare their learners to excel in these entrance determinates. That is why I acknowledge that the Further Education and Training (FET) phase of schooling is, by compulsion, often lost to preparing for the high stakes National Senior Certificate examinations. However, for preparatory schools to subject children to matric or university examination conditions as a de facto evaluative policy, may prove to be counterproductive to their education or even success, in those gateway tests into high school.

Keep your eye on the right prize

Entering an examination session to convey your excitement of what you have mastered is far better than being taught endlessly for the purpose of being assessed. Learning should not be focussed on what will be on the test, but rather it must become a value in itself for the purpose of seeing the world from multiple perspectives. Passing tests should be incidental to this broader objective. In fact, if students are excited about learning, they will then seek to excel in examinations and not merely scrape by. If we fail to provide a solid foundation for our children to learn for understanding rather than performing well on tests, we will be compromising their ability to become lifelong learners, which is an indispensable disposition in the 21st century. 

1. Little, T. (2015) An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education. London:
2. Regrettably, a substantial number of subsidised independent schools find
that their freedom to administer the curriculum as they see fit, is
encroached upon by district offices who often expect them to comply with
district curriculum calendars and reporting requirements.
3. See:
4. See:
5. See:
6. Ibid.

Category: Autumn 2017

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