I would like to enter into a dialogue concerning the state of education in this country, and what I have found in the past 12 years since my early retirement – continuing to teach at five other tertiary institutions. Students have given me a new approach to learning that continues to show significant improvement in the outcomes (for less cost).
SA students are not getting dumb and dumber, as The Times would have us believe in a recent article. In fact, all students are above average – just ask any parent!
And Outcomes Based Education (OBE) is not to blame. Rather, OBE has never been implemented properly, anywhere. The problem with OBE in South Africa, is that we have well defined outcomes but the inputs are not really specified, and nobody knows how to assess the outcomes. How can we expect students to achieve these outcomes when there is no content?
For many years now, I have been concerned about the failure of nearly all the education theories that get promolgated with much fanfare, only to be found wanting after a while. Year after year, listening to the matric results, and the pathetic explanations and excuses for non-performance, I will not be surprised when OBE joins the other theories on the scrap heap. When are the educationists going to realize it’s not about teaching – it’s about learning.
Quite by chance I stumbled across a possible cause of the failure of all these academic theories. I was teaching computer programming to second year engineers on a part-time basis. I took over the course part way through with the traditional chalk and talk. I achieved a dismal 19% pass rate and a 36% average mark.
The next year I changed my approach to a rigourous continuous assessment - and improved to a 43% pass rate and a 46% average. Two failed academic theories.
I had these same students for software engineering the next semester, and asked them why over half of them had failed and what could be done to avoid failure. (Remember in the UK some teachers wanted to eliminate the word 'fail' from the vocabulary?) I then asked them to develop some software to incorporate their ideas.
The following year the computer programming course used their interactive software, together with continuous assessment, and 71% passed with a class average of 56%.
With tweaking of the software and many more questions added, the following year 90% passed with a 63% average. A significant improvement in the learning outcomes. (Each year still had a similar 3 hour written exam.)
What had happened? Quite simply, the theory came from the students, not the academics.
The student has always been the passive actor in education. The student is bombarded with knowledge and information in the hope that some of it will stick in the process. A very small portion of this is assessed through an antiquated examination system, for which the student can cram the night before and forget immediately after the exam. One could theoretically pass through university knowing less than 5% of the curriculum! A new approach is needed that addresses the long term memory, where knowledge and understanding is retained for life - and becomes their common sense.
Recently, I’ve been looking at several of the latest maths textbooks based on the Revised National Curriculum Statement and have yet to find a mention of that branch of mathematics which is the basis of all mathematics – Arithmetic. It seems that Arithmetic has gone out of fashion – together with the rigour and logical understanding of the subject. I suspect that those countries that feature at or near the top of the international maths tests league still follow a structured approach to maths which includes arithmetic.
The idea that students develop a deeper understanding of maths and a greater sense of ownership when they are expected to develop and use their own methods for performing the basic arithmetic operations, rather than tried and trusted algorithms, seems to be without foundation. Students who don’t understand and can’t use the standard algorithms are destined to have problems with algebra. The scrapping of the long division algorithm, for example, discards a prerequisite for the mastery of algebraic polynomial division, finding roots and asymptotes, and later in calculus for the integration of rational functions, Laplace transforms, and so on. Long division facilitates estimation, number sense and other computational skills like nothing else.
The idea that maths concepts are best understood and mastered when presented in context, and that the underlying concepts will automatically follow, makes it difficult for the mathematical concepts to go from the particular to the general. While applications are important, the understanding of the maths of the application should come from the universal concepts.
Similarly, the idea that students only really learn what they discover for themselves is time consuming and doesn’t ensure that they end up with the right concepts. Students learn in a variety of ways, and discovery should only be used sparingly.
The idea that calculators and computers enhance growth in cognitive skills and visualization development has not been found in practice. It still amazes me that students will bring out their calculators for simple arithmetic problems, when mental arithmetic skills are much better suited. In fact, there is no conclusive evidence of the effectiveness of any teaching theory or maths instructional programme. I suspect that none of the OBE maths standards for schools have been recommended by mathematicians or scientists. What is taught is considerably more important than how it’s taught.
The idea that all students learn all subjects at the same rate still pervades the education system. The concepts of social promotion giving a horizontal progression is still very much in evidence in OBE. It’s about time we turned this notion on its head.
We must recognize that students have different abilities and talents, learn at different paces, have different interests – one student’s failure is another student’s success. Students don’t come to education to fail. What is needed is for students to be allowed to progress vertically in each subject, rather than horizontally in all subjects – I prefer the idea of Goal Oriented Education (I call it GO Education) where the student is an active participant, rather than being passive as in OBE. After all, it is their learning!
Academics continue to pronounce on how students learn - and then watch their theories fail when put into practice. The academics need to come down from their ivory towers and ask the students why they fail, and what they need for successful learning. I did this, and some of their replies are (in no particular order):
- free to learn at their own pace and place – when and where that suits them
- don’t want to be constrained by others – either slower or faster
- want to take responsibility for their own learning
- need to know their goals up front and to know when they have achieved them
- don’t want to cram for exams
- don’t want to learn by rote
- want to remember what they have learnt
- want to retain their learning long term
- don’t want to see other students cheating
- don’t want to cheat on their own learning
- don’t want to feel discriminated against on any grounds whatsoever
- want to know that their standard is at least the same as elsewhere
- want the quality of their course to be maintained from year to year – or improve
- want to stretch their thinking
- don’t want to be bored
- want immediate response to what they do – want immediate feedback
- want to be stimulated by learning, to learn more
- want education to be about learning – not teaching
- want to feel they are developing and advancing
- want individual tailored learning environments
- want to succeed
- don’t want to fail
- want to reduce failure rates
- want to be able to demonstrate what they know – not what they don’t know
- want to reduce the cost of learning
- want to complete their programme as soon as possible
- want to be confident in their own ability
- want to be treated as a person – not a thing
- want to make their own choices and decisions
- want their learning to belong to them
- want to be able to improve – always
- don’t want to go backwards
- don’t mind the computer telling them they are wrong – consistency
- don’t want to cover material they already know
- want to measure what they know – not what they don’t know
- want to eliminate corruption
- want to start proper learning at an earlier stage
- want to use alternative languages
I then challenged the students to develop software to address as many of these issues as possible. They came up with iQuiz, an online learning through assessment system that shows significant improvement in the learning outcomes of students – the students have achieved what previous educators have long striven for.
The concept of iQuiz has been developed by students for students, and as such has learning at its heart. The software has evolved since the original student version to remove shortcomings found as it becomes used on a wider basis. It has been restructured to include a set of comprehensive course notes from which the questions are taken. iQuiz is now a convenient interactive, web-based database with more than 85 000 questions/answers that can be accessed from anywhere at any time:
- It does not require any computer skills – these can be learnt as the student interacts with iQuiz.
- It dramatically improves reading, comprehension and spelling.
- It is both convenient and affordable.
- The heart of the system is the large reusable database of questions and answers.
A fundamental facet of iQuiz is that it is transparent. It knows no boundaries or discrimination or cheating or corruption. Our challenge is to develop iQuiz to allow any type of learning through assessment. To eliminate failure. It's not perfect, but our vision is to provide a hub of learning throughout Africa. Our motto: Winning the War on Ignorance.
iQuiz continues to evolve, albeit slowly with my limited resources. It has been used for national diploma, undergraduate and post-graduate courses in a variety of subjects ranging from computer programming, through construction project management and quantity surveying to structural analysis and research methodology.
I have recently been challenged to try and do something about mathematics at schools - but I first had to build the content in the OBE curriculum from Grade R to Grade 12. I would have preferred to start implementing iQuiz at Grade R but pressure has forced me to start at Grade 12 and work down. Bursaries are offered so that no student in a class is left out. It's too early to assess the impact on matric results.