School Education : Let’s move off the beaten track

As an environmental educator I have spent most of my working life thinking about ways of motivating young people to take an interest in learning more about their environment and by doing so becoming part of the solutions rather than part of the problems.

So why is it that I still feel that my work is far from complete ? Why is it that I still spend time pondering on what messages are best to use and how best to use them ? Just how do you get people involved in looking after their environments ? And as I’ve pondered these questions I inevitably come back to the first question. What motivates people to do anything at all, not just with regard to helping to look after the environment ? In fact what drives people to learn?

I’ve found a glimmering of an answer from the work of my son Simon who advises companies on how to make the most of the people they employ. He operates from the position that if employers concentrate on helping staff to discover their strengths and avoid completely any thoughts of what their weaknesses may be, this enables both employers and employees to make the most of their potentials. In other words the simple recognition by individuals of what they are good at opens the door for them to find ways of developing their abilities to the fullest – and of finding ways of using these strengths in their lives.

At the moment education in South Africa is being driven by an Outcomes approach so that learning is results driven. This is commendable. However there seems to be an emphasis on the benefits that our education system has for South African society at large. (Equipping people to contribute positively to the society in which they live.)

Strength-based learning should be for the benefit of both society at large AND each and every individual. It should be the starting point of a curriculum (read: “What learners learn” ) where the education of individuals starts with what they are inherently good at. A classic win-win situation for individuals and society of which they are part. .

The point of this article is to make a case for a concerted effort, perhaps on a pilot basis, to trial a way of managing teaching and learning that will be based on the recognition by individual learners of their own strengths and abilities and, as important, a knowledge by their teachers of these perceived strengths.

Grade 10 is an important year for decision-making regarding choice of matric subjects. If, at the beginning of the year the Grade 10 Guidance teacher could start by asking all the individuals in a class to make a list of their ‘strengths’ and to say why they think that they have them. And then from this position to ask each learner to keep a diary as to how these strengths are being developed or used during the year. (With the process offering opportunities for adding to or adjusting to the list and, if necessary, where to get help to do this and who to ask for it.)

What might this achieve ? Perhaps a recognition by teachers of the value of ‘self-recognition’ as a way of developing the life-skills of learners and a recognition by learners of their own potential strengths as a platform for development.

In most schools there are problems of class sizes and it is often difficult, if not impossible for teachers, with the best will in the world, to pay attention to individual needs. But by helping each individual in a class to start to recognise their strengths, and by encouraging them to look for ways of building on these, teachers are at least acknowledging the importance of each and every individual and at best will be encouraging each to find a path to follow that will make the most of their abilities.