20 Feb

The internet has given us unprecedented access to information, but does that mean we no longer need to retain the facts traditionally taught at school? Local teachers share their perspectives

story hayley dennyson pictures supplied

At this point in history, I believe it is more important for our children to learn how to be good human beings, than to focus on being able to regurgitate knowledge,” says David Burns, Head of Senior Primary at Highbury Preparatory School. “At the click of a button, you can learn anything from quantum mechanics to how to change the spark plugs on your car. Expert knowledge is becoming defunct – everyone has access to it, although knowledge doesn’t guarantee understanding.”

“In certain subjects, there is still a place for rote learning, as some concepts form building blocks for more complex concepts, such as learning verb constructions, but, generally, more emphasis is placed on the application and synthesis of given facts,” says Kim Davenport, Head of Life Orientation at Maris Stella.

“The sharing of information also forms part of normal human conversation,” says Shane Cuthbertson, recently-retired Executive Principal of Thomas More College. “A level of general knowledge thus remains vital for engagement.”

“Even though lots of information is available on the internet and children do access the internet a lot, it is not used to gain general knowledge, but rather used as a social platform,” says Craig Girvin, Principal at Hillcrest High School. “That is why competitions, such as the Daily News and Varsity College High School Quiz, which tests students general knowledge, are such an excellent platform. I am very proud that Hillcrest High School emerged as the winners of this competition in 2017.”

That said, “We can’t be preparing children for jobs that a machine will be able to do by the time they enter the workforce,” continues David Burns from Highbury. “A recent Oxford study shows that almost 50% of the jobs available in the US market today will have been replaced by machines in the next 20 years. We need to work hard to retain our humanity in this time when machine learning and artificial intelligence is becoming more and more prevalent.

“The biggest focus in teaching should be how we define problems in ways that are solvable. This requires critical thinking, creative thinking and collaboration, which are all areas where human beings still have the edge.”

“At Durban Girls’ College, we have embarked on a Thinking Skills Journey that will empower our girls to develop explicit Thinking Skills, thus ensuring that learning is made more meaningful and enjoyable,” says Carol-Anne Conradie, Head of Junior Primary. “These skills allow girls to experiment with more resourceful and creative problem-solving techniques.

“Our aim is to develop critical, creative and collaborative skills through a visible process and to encourage our girls to incorporate these capabilities across all areas of the school curriculum. Our focus is on process and not merely results, whilst establishing a growth mind-set. This ensures that all abilities are developed and allows for an all-inclusive engagement in learning.

“The benefits of teaching Thinking Skills are improvement of student independence, engagement and learning strategies, whilst building competence and confidence. The Primary School has started this exciting journey by being exposed to Thinking Maps. Our girls learn a variety of thinking tools, which provide a set of graphic organisers that help structure ideas and thoughts, and are all linked to a specific cognitive process.”

“Knowledge management is the next thing,” says Dave Burns from Highbury. “According to an IBM Marketing Cloud study, 90% of the data on the internet has been created since 2016. We need to teach children how to find necessary information, from reputable sources, in efficient ways. Learning is now seen as a more dynamic field; an ongoing process. We are on a continuum that doesn’t end and we have a more fluid understanding of knowledge.”

“We find students asking the most bizarre things because they have ‘read it on the net’,” says Megan Mclaughlin, Head of Life Orientation at Hillcrest High School. “This is also linked to the fact that many are growing up in households where the parental figure is not always present, so they rely on the internet to answer their questions. The teacher needs to play the role of the sieve, sifting out the false information and, hopefully, leaving behind the substance that is useful.”

“It is our aim at St Mary’s to ensure that all the girls develop life skills that will inspire them to become remarkable young women in a world that is marred by distrust, inauthenticity and consumerism,” says St Mary’s Head of High School, Jo Kinsey. “The world is not the same as it was 10 years ago and, therefore, education and school cannot be the same either.

“Education at St Mary’s is focused on teaching our students skills for the 21st century, using various forms of technology and media. We believe that all our girls need to develop these so that they will be successful individuals in their own chosen career. These skills are divided into three main components: learning skills, comprising critical thinking, creative thinking, collaboration and communication; literacy skills, comprising information literacy, media literacy and technology literacy; and life skills, comprising good EQ skills, social justice and leadership.

“Every Thursday we run a ‘Thrilling Thursday’ programme for our Grade 8 students. Project-based learning is incorporated into our school day and the girls are exposed to a variety of topics that cover far more than can be acquired through any textbook or even the internet. From coding with Raspberry Pi’s to critical thinking, design in technology, conversational isiZulu and a deeper understanding of the isiZulu culture, entrepreneurial skills, scientific investigation, to collaborative art works and photography.”

In 2018, many schools will focus on the further integration of technology in the classroom. “Smartphones and tablets are already being widely used in the classrooms of forward-thinking schools,” says Shane Cuthbertson from Thomas More College. “Chalkboards or white boards are no longer enough and interactive ‘smart boards’ should now be present in modern classrooms.”

At Maris Stella, “Classrooms are a lot more group-focused to facilitate discussion,” says Kim Davenport, Head of Life Orientation. “The use of electronic devices makes learning more fun and child-centred.”

“While many classrooms still look the same as they did 100 years ago, the learning environment now needs to be structured differently,” Cuthbertson continues. “The old layout of separate desks in rows is becoming archaic and modular furniture that can be fitted together is now deemed to be more appropriate. This can then allow for collaboration and teamwork more closely related to the modern workplace environment.”

“St Mary’s is a free Wi-Fi campus and we encourage our girls to use technology as a means of creating and learning,” says Jo Kinsey. “While technology is here to stay, we do believe that there is a need to educate young people around the responsible use of all forms of technology and, as a result, this continues to be a focus at all levels.”

“Kearsney’s number one priority is academic excellence and the College is committed to providing world-class facilities to support this drive. The Centenary Centre has been designed to create classrooms that facilitate modern teaching methodologies and the integration of effective teaching and learning technologies. Classrooms are large enough to provide a comfortable and conducive environment for formal lessons, as well as discussion groups and collaborative work, and also provide space for individuals to work on their own research,” Elwyn van den Aardweg continues.

Hillcrest High School has embraced a blended learning approach and employs a full-time technology integrator. The school has been nominated as a Microsoft Showcase School and was identified by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) as one of three schools to pilot the national DBE Cloud Solution, largely due to its use of the Moodle Learning Management System. “We are continually looking at new ways to achieve a more relevant and future-oriented education system,” says Margaret Tracey, Technology Integrator.

One such example is the IT Champion programme, which sees students support both teachers and their peers in the classroom as they make use of Moodle and to facilitate the paradigm shift that comes from blended learning. “Teachers often come out of very traditional methods and using the youth themselves – by the youth for the youth – has been a fruitful approach.” Margaret Tracey continues, “Through our involvement with Microsoft and the Microsoft Education Community, teachers have been able to train themselves and their own learners. This has enabled them to appreciate how powerful technology can be to take teaching beyond the classroom.

“We strongly believe that we need to use technology to make the approach of learning more learner-centred than teacher-centred. In this way, students become more accountable for their own learning, without being ‘spoon-fed’. The focus of the teacher has changed – ‘Not a sage on the stage, but a guide on the side’.”

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