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'Minister, please come down to earth and consult with us who teach these learners'

In this week’s column Alex Tabisher questions the English syllabus that learners are taught and encourages Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekgato consult with those teaching these learners. Picture: Steve Lawrence/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

In this week’s column Alex Tabisher questions the English syllabus that learners are taught and encourages Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekgato consult with those teaching these learners. Picture: Steve Lawrence/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Published Dec 17, 2021

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It is again that time of the year when Angie parades her circus.

She, who is repeating Life of Pi as set work for English Home language speakers on the grounds that there are no funds for a change. She who has reduced critical thinking to the level of comprehension questions or exercises in identifying irony in texts. She who imperiously struts as the architect of the stellar A-grade performances of students who score well despite, not because, of her.

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Nothing in the syllabus, including the choice of required reading and the pathetic question paper, justifies her choices and claims of success. The most basic requirement of required reading is that it revolves around the experiential life and the imagination of the reader. None of her perpetuated choices come close.

The choice of poetry doesn’t deserve any other comment than the effrontery to feed the learners what goes for poetry nowadays.

I accept that we have moved from lofty and exclamatory dictions. I concede the need for more quotidian texts – that is, texts that speak to the reality of the lives of the learners.

But the poems that were offered in the final paper, which I perused minutes before writing this week’s column, are hardly identifiable as poems. The definition of poetry that appeals to me belongs to Auden: Poetry is memorable speech. Or the Romantic notion that poetry is emotion recollected in tranquillity.

Yes, there is a move towards rap or prosaic poems, but the wonder to me is that anybody could proffer the exemplars in this year’s paper as worthy of the didactic effort leaves me somewhat stunned.

Reading a novel should be more than an exercise in content memory. The “teaching” of a novel should not be bent into the expected set of rules that define critical engagement.

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The “teacher knows and will tell us”, and “we are successful if we show her how much we have retained and are returning in the hackneyed questions that constitute a final paper” is a travesty of the whole notion of teaching language in any syllabus. Language and language usage defines a nation.

In international assessments like PRILLS and others like it, South Africa has always scored among the lower 10 nations (many of who are black) out of 150 competitors.

Is this a reflection of bad teaching, bad choice of material, badly-formulated challenges during assignments and examinations?

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Could I suggest that we change the whole approach to engaging with three texts as enigmatic as Pi, Dorian Gray and Othello. Why don’t we lay out the whole text as a complete story as an opener? Then teach the critical vocabulary so that it is portable across all literary genres, then map out instances where they may occur in the text – and then leave the learners to read the texts on their own without any other interference from the teacher!

This is not as radical as it sounds. The horrible truth is that many teachers present texts with which they themselves are familiar. We say they teach from their comfort zone. Sadly, this inevitably leads to successful “spotting” for high scoring in examinations.

The annual parade of natural top students (think nature vs nurture) continue to contain its insidious cruelty the way that beauty competitions do. Acknowledge the 50 percenter, whose efforts are the absolute best he will ever achieve, yet who never gets rewarded for the effort. It’s always results, and results only, which count.

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So, Aunt Angie, the young will again give you your annual parade of glory and the false claim that you were the architect of their success.

Come down to earth and consult with us on the ground who rear and teach these learners and keep them from dropping out or, God forbid, becoming suicidal. Consult people who know and acknowledge those who don’t but who will support you if you hand out a plaudit to every single participant in the educational arena.

* Literally Yours is a weekly column from Cape Argus reader Alex Tabisher. He can be contacted on email by [email protected]

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

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