Education revolution needed for SA youth

If South Africa’s education system is going to adapt to the changing world of work, it needs a revolution.

In his state of the nation address President Cyril Ramaphosa promised that young South Africans will be “moved to the centre of our economic agenda”.

He’d better hurry. With schools settling down to the new year, and the new wave of bright-eyed first-year students attending classes, tens of thousands of young people are enrolled in an education system that risks obsolescence.

Earlier in 2017, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga declared that the country needs curriculum change. She was right, but horribly wrong in her follow-through.

In a speech during visits to schools in the North West, Motshekga said that there were “too many academic schools” in the country. She decried a “colonial landscape of education” in which “everybody wants to go to university”.

She offered a simple solution: more vocational schools. It “does not mean that if you go to vocational college your career is limited – you can be anything, using your hands”.

Decades of state mismanagement of education have left the country perilously close to an abyss. Motshekga is proposing to downgrade the minimum mark required to progress to grades 7, 8 and 9.

In essence, she believes schools should be producing more workers, specifically those adept at skills that technology is making redundant. Vocational schools place greater emphasis on preparing students for specific careers or occupations, but the world of work is changing and careers and occupations are disappearing.

Between automation, robotics and artificial intelligence, an increasing number of skills are being adopted and perfected by technology. Any job that has a formulaic or cognitively repetitive component risks being replaced. This is as true for welding and carpentry as it is for business administration and accountancy.

This poses a problem for Ramaphosa, who concedes that “our most pressing challenge is youth unemployment”. So what is the answer? SA needs an education revolution. Young minds must be equipped with the capacity to create work, not be the work. SA needs creators, not cogs; thinkers, not tinkers.

The traditional model of education – “knowledge transfer and recall assessment” – suited a knowledge economy, where employee placement was determined by a measure of their knowledge. This favoured people who had experience. Today, students have access to such knowledge at the tips of their fingers – with smartphones, it is a tap away.

That’s handy. However, the world has shifted to an intelligence economy where the value of employees is their ability to process knowledge effectively and timeously to the point that it provides strategic advantage. This is strategic intelligence.

Imagine a team who, instead of running on the hamster wheels of sameness, are engaged in strategic intelligence; their former “jobs” relocated to robots and algorithms. That’s a burgeoning reality.

Andreas Schleicher, the director for education and skills and special adviser on education policy to the secretary-general at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris, sums it up: “The world economy no longer pays you for what you know. Google knows everything. The world pays you for what you can do with what you know”.

Ramaphosa’s answer is paid internships through the Youth Employment Service initiative. This is an admirable initiative and one that should be supported, but it is a quick fix. He also called for a jobs summit. Again, it’s short-term thinking. For a strategic, longer-term solution we need to go back to school.

Young people today should be recognised for what they are: curious, active minds, with easy access to knowledge. They should be educated with that in mind. They should be prepared to be able to process that knowledge timeously to inform quality decision-making.

In an increasingly technological workplace, positions for humans will become increasingly competitive. Intelligence, not knowledge, will be the competitive advantage.

An education revolution will not be easy. Entire academic and administrative structures are in place to bedrock the educational status quo. But most teachers do it not for the money or the generous leave but because few things bring them more joy than seeing insight light in the eyes of their charges.

Dedicated teachers in several leading schools in SA, aware of the shifting world of work, have already started the education revolution. They’re growing foxes – agile, adaptive and anticipatory thinkers, prepared for any kind of world.

It’s early days, but the fire of insight, once lit, is hard to extinguish. If there’s one thing we have learned from SA’s youth, it’s their preparedness to be part of a revolution, and Motshekga’s statements are counter-revolutionary.

By Mitch Ilbury, director of mindofafox, and co-founder of the Growing Foxes education programme.

Originally published in the Business Day, 6th March 2018

Image: Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga addresses matric pupils. Photo: Sandile Ndlovu