Build­ing a new gen­er­a­tion to out­smart Google

Teach­ing phi­los­o­phy to chil­dren is a grow­ing global trend that could be the key to South Africa turn­ing the cor­ner on its skills prob­lem.

Finweek English Edition - - THE WEEK - Ed­i­to­rial@fin­

about 25% of chil­dren who en­ter grade 1 at gov­ern­ment schools in South Africa don’t make it to ma­tric, while 80% of learn­ers with a gov­ern­ment school ed­u­ca­tion fail their first year at univer­sity. “First-year stu­dents lack in­tel­lec­tual cu­rios­ity and flex­i­bil­ity, traits that are nec­es­sary virtues for learn­ing,” says Can­dess Kostopou­los, who has been teach­ing phi­los­o­phy, in­clud­ing phi­los­o­phy of ed­u­ca­tion and ed­u­ca­tion the­ory, at univer­sity level for the past 10 years. She at­tributes this lack to the fact that chil­dren are not given enough space to en­gage in and prac­tise in­tel­lec­tual cu­rios­ity and flex­i­bil­ity.

Re­search sug­gests that chil­dren who are taught phi­los­o­phy, specif­i­cally crit­i­cal think­ing and prob­lem-solv­ing skills, ex­cel at read­ing and math­e­mat­ics, and have an edge over chil­dren with no ex­po­sure to phi­los­o­phy. In SA, the vast ma­jor­ity of chil­dren tend to strug­gle with read­ing and math­e­mat­ics in par­tic­u­lar.

Phi­los­o­phy for Chil­dren – or P4C as it is known – has taken off in coun­tries like the US, New Zealand, Aus­tralia and Ire­land, where crit­i­cal think­ing is taught at high school and even pri­mary school level. Ire­land’s pres­i­dent, Michael D. Hig­gins, fa­mously said in 2016: “The teach­ing of phi­los­o­phy is one of the most pow­er­ful tools we have at our dis­posal to em­power chil­dren into act­ing as free and re­spon­si­ble sub­jects in an ever more com­plex, in­ter­con­nected, and un­cer­tain world.”

Kostopou­los, who aims to de­velop an African P4C, says that “gen­uine com­pre­hen­sion, deep learn­ing, ab­stract think­ing, and in­no­va­tion all de­pend on the meta-re­flec­tive abil­ity to think about thought – to think about what ex­actly it is that you are do­ing when you use your think­ing to solve a prob­lem.

“As tech­nol­ogy ex­pands, we are go­ing to need young peo­ple who can, as Pres­i­dent Hig­gins pointed out, ask and an­swer ques­tions that aren’t googleable,” she adds.

The In­de­pen­dent Ed­u­ca­tion Board (IEB) has also shown its com­mit­ment to teach­ing phi­los­o­phy in its schools and re­cently in­tro­duced a Think­ing Skills Assess­ment for grade 10 and 11 learn­ers. The assess­ment fo­cuses on two key skills, namely crit­i­cal think­ing and prob­lem solv­ing. It aims to “as­sist schools to de­velop a mea­sure of how they are help­ing learn­ers to cope with the cog­ni­tive de­mands of the fu­ture and with ter­tiary stud­ies”.

But lo­cal gov­ern­ment schools are still lag­ging be­hind.

“The South African cur­ricu­lum is very data in­ten­sive,” says Colin North­more, head of Sa­cred Heart Col­lege in Ob­ser­va­tory, Jo­han­nes­burg. This in­sti­tu­tion has in­vested in de­vel­op­ing an in­de­pen­dent and lo­cal think­ing skills pro­gramme.

“The cur­ricu­lum is de­signed to cre­ate a sit­u­a­tion where low-per­form­ing schools and teach­ers are guided in the scripted way to de­liver on the ba­sics of lit­er­acy and nu­mer­acy. The cur­ricu­lum does not al­low for much lee­way in cus­tomis­ing the de­liv­ery of in­struc­tion to suit the spe­cific con­text of the chil­dren. It uses a one­size-fits-all ap­proach and is thus the anath­ema of crit­i­cal think­ing,” he ex­plains.

“If we con­tinue to ed­u­cate a pop­u­la­tion us­ing an ap­proach to ed­u­ca­tion that is bet­ter de­signed for the 1950s, we will never be able to be­come com­pet­i­tive in the world, let alone in Africa.”

He adds that the ad­vance­ment in tech­nol­ogy and growth of ro­bot­ics in in­dus­try will re­sult in lowskilled work­ers strug­gling to find em­ploy­ment: “It is cru­cial that we find ways to teach chil­dren to be in­no­va­tors and to be able to cre­ate their own ways of gen­er­at­ing in­come and re­sources.”

He ex­plains that at Sa­cred Heart Col­lege they’ve been do­ing crit­i­cal think­ing skills with chil­dren for quite a long time, but the real dif­fer­ence is that they’ve now started to teach it as a for­mal sub­ject.

“Our col­lege has a rep­u­ta­tion for in­no­va­tion when it comes to cur­ricu­lum. It be­came clear to us that most of the think­ing skills pro­grammes avail­able were im­ported from the UK and Amer­ica. That led to the de­ci­sion to in­vest money in de­vel­op­ing the first South African think­ing skills pro­gramme. The most im­por­tant dis­tinc­tion be­ing that we use South African knowl­edge sys­tems, ex­am­ples and sce­nar­ios to help the chil­dren de­velop the skills,” says North­more.

“We have one of the high­est pass rates in univer­sity and par­tic­u­larly one of the high­est first-class pass rates in the coun­try,” he ex­plains, at­tribut­ing his school’s suc­cess to the im­por­tance of teach­ing crit­i­cal think­ing skills to chil­dren. Phi­los­o­phy for chil­dren teaches the right skillset to give learn­ers the op­por­tu­nity to be ahead of the curve in the knowl­edge econ­omy of the fu­ture, he be­lieves.

Can­dess Kostopou­los As­so­ci­ate lec­turer in phi­los­o­phy of ed­u­ca­tion at Wits Univer­sity

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