Durban - KwaZulu-Natal Education MEC Peggy Nkonyeni has come in for scathing criticism from academics who charge that she is advocating pseudoscience as a means of improving learning.
At issue is Nkonyeni’s suggestion that children’s handwriting be analysed and the shapes of their heads studied to determine their ability and inform their education.
Graphology (handwriting analysis) and phrenology (linking the structure of a human skull to certain character traits and mental capacity) are overwhelmingly regarded as pseudoscience.
There was no scientific evidence that graphology or phrenology had any impact on educational achievement, the academics said.
On Sunday, Nic Spaull, an education researcher in the economics department at Stellenbosch University, said that Nkonyeni’s remarks, made while releasing KZN’s matric results earlier this month, needed urgent clarification. He likened graphology and phrenology to astrology and palm reading, and was angered at the possibility that “careless” statements could guide future policy.
Professor Wayne Hugo, of the University of KZN’s school of education and development, said believing that graphology and phrenology could improve learning demonstrated a lack of educational expertise. Phrenology, Hugo said, was “old racist quackery”. He argued that what did have a direct and dramatic impact on education quality was strong, informed political leadership.
It was earlier this month, as Nkonyeni was winding up her speech to matric pupils, parents, teacher’ unions and MPLs gathered at the ICC, that she shared her wishes for a better schooling system.
“I revisit the thoughts that guide my innermost conscience in the execution of my responsibilities. Visions of an ideal education system dominate my thinking,” she said.
Her wishes included that:
* The education system should have access to graphologists who would analyse the uniqueness of each child’s handwriting “and channel them accordingly”.
* Philosophy be offered at primary and high schools so that children could be moulded into critical thinkers, and chess lessons be offered to all maths pupils.
* Phrenologists be employed to study the shape of a child’s head at Grade R so that they were guided along the education and career pathway best suited to them.
Nkonyeni’s spokesman Isaac Luthuli said that the MEC stood by her statements, and that criticism did not mean that they were wrong.
He said Nkonyeni’s intention had been to communicate that psychological assessment was a tool with which to determine their different abilities, so that teaching could be tailored to pupil’s needs.
Luthuli said academics had a right to their opinions, and Nkonyeni welcomed public debate on any measures which would lead to improved education outcomes.
He added that no idea could become policy simply because Nkonyeni proposed it, and that her views did not necessarily represent those of the national government.
While certain teachers’ union leaders in KZN did not believe that Nkonyeni’s wish to have pupils’ handwriting and heads studied would materialise, Spaull argued that doubt had been cast on the leadership of a department responsible for nearly 3 million children at more than 6 000 schools.
He said Nkonyeni’s remarks could not be brushed off as harmless, by referring to her tenure as KZN’s health MEC, when a furore followed a newspaper report in which Nkonyeni and the national health minister of the time, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, were said to have encouraged the use of ubhejane (a herbal mixture) by HIV-positive patients.
Professor Labby Ramrathan, of UKZN’s school of education, said it was “bizarre” to believe that graphology and phrenology could improve education quality.
Allen Thompson, deputy president of the National Teachers Union, was less cutting, saying Nkonyeni should be afforded the opportunity to explain her remarks.
Anthony Pierce, the KZN head of the National Professional Teachers Organisation of SA, was unperturbed, saying it would not come to fruition, and it did not reflect the department’s plans or strategy.