SOUTH AFRICA. Karen Mac Gregor finds post-apartheid reforms will stress ideas over information. The teacher drones on and 40 pairs of eyes glaze over: 1066 and all that. By the time the bell rings, the children are asleep. They do not understand why William conquered Britain, or what it means to their lives.
But not for much longer. A quiet revolution is about to take place in South African classrooms. Children are going to have to think.
Already educational experts have "cleansed" the apartheid curriculum. In January 1998, schools will begin introducing a new curriculum, emphasising thought over the cramming of facts: or in the new buzz phrase, "outcomes over information".
The Schools Act dealt with issues of education governance and management, but now is the time to look at what we must learn and teach, said Dr Ihron Rensburg, deputy director general of education.
"We have the opportunity to totally transform education through the curriculum. We're not just talking about the school curriculum, but restructuring of the whole system, including technical and adult basic education and training."
The government's plans for curriculum reform, announced recently, prompted panic on the part of teachers. Teacher organisations had no substantive quarrel with where the education department was heading: they had actually helped to write the first draft of a new curriculum.
But they argued, validly, that a major problem facing the reforms would be whether teachers - many of them poorly-trained and under-qualified or set in their ways - would be able to teach their pupils how to think. The new curriculum, they pointed out, will require very different ways of teaching: 350,000 teachers will need retraining, and new materials have yet to be produced.
South Africa is trying to achieve in two to three years what other countries have done in 10 to 15, says Mareka Monyokolo, a policy analyst for the Johannesburg-based think-tank, the Centre for Education Policy Development.
The new curriculum will be broad in scope and there are risks in implementing it quickly. "There is general agreement that strategies for teacher support and development need to be redefined," said Khetsi Lehoko, chief director of adult basic education and training.
So the government has gone back to the drawing board.
It is now likely that the education department will abandon its plans to introduce a new curriculum at all school levels in 1998, opting rather to phase it in over six years, starting in the first year of primary and secondary school and then moving up the levels until all years are covered. The new curriculum should be fully installed, and reviewed, by 2005. "In the end our objective is to balance the political, economic and social imperatives of speedy implementation with what is educationally sound," said Dr Rensburg.
"Slower implementation will enable us to split the costs of developing and implementing a curriculum over six years, and will give us more time for teacher retraining."
The department will work together with teacher organisations on a major programme of in-service training, starting next year, and on a publicity campaign to help people to understand what the new curriculum is about.
New directions for the curriculum began to crystallise in 1989, when democratic movement organisations started thinking seriously about education policies for a new government. At the core of their thinking was the need to integrate fragmented systems of education and training.
Last year the government passed the South African Qualifications Authority Act, laying the foundations for the National Qualifications Framework, a framework which will "hold together" all education and training set up a system of quality assurance.
At the heart of the framework are unit standards - competencies, or outcomes - which range in complexity from levels one to eight: the first year of school through to doctoral degrees. Unit standards are the backbone of the system.
All qualifications offered by legitimate educational institutions will have to comply with unit standards, will have to be assessed and approved by SAQA or an appointed agency, and will slot into the NQF "The next question was how to change the curriculum to lay the basis for more flexible teaching and learning, focusing on two things: academic understanding of social, economic and political issues, and the application of this knowledge to real situations, " Dr Rensburg said.
The new curriculum will focus on what pupils can do and their levels of understanding at the end of the course, rather than on acquiring a specific body of knowledge. Capable teachers will be able to create their own syllabuses, as long as their pupils achieve the outcomes that enable them to move up a standard.
In September last year the education department set up the Consultative Forum on Curriculum, comprising education stakeholders, provincial education departments and national departments. A National Curriculum Development Committee (NCDC), consisting of heads of the national and provincial education departments, was established to draw up a plan for implementing reform.
"The forum has developed a document detailing the philosophical underpinning of learning programme development," said Dr Rensburg. It will be released for public comment later this month.
Eight learning area committees, comprising representatives of the government and education stakeholders, including teachers, were set up corresponding to eight new "learning categories".
They have been drawing up learning outcomes for their areas. That work is mostly finished: next year the committees will write more detailed curricula, and new learning materials will be developed and published.
"Outcomes will be more than just about learning new skills," said Kate Skinner, spokesman for the South African Democratic Teachers' Union. "They will also be about thinking processes, for example solving problems, gathering information from different sources, synthesising it and following an argument. "
Traditional subjects will be subsumed into the eight broad learning categories: communications; literacy and language learning; numeracy and mathematics; life orientation; human and social sciences; physical and natural sciences; arts and culture; and economic and management sciences.
History and geography, for example, will fall into human and social sciences, while English will be incorporated into both the communications and the literacy and the language-learning categories. Technology is a completely new area, while arts and culture will be new to many of the African schools.
The national education department is responsible for setting a broad curriculum framework and the outcomes required. "These will then be handed to the provinces, which will elaborate on them and develop learning programmes, " said Mareka Monyokolo.
But there have been problems: many of the learning area committees have found that while income-based education sounds nice in theory, it's rather more difficult to articulate in practice.
Dr Rensburg believes these problems can be overcome with a more gradual phasing-in of a new curriculum, and through inter-provincial collaboration. Good progress is being made in bodies such as the council of education ministers and the NCDC.