Newsletter 65 "People's Education"


“Education costs money, but then so does ignorance” Sir Claude Moser

“Good teachers are costly, but bad teachers cost more” Bob Talbert

I was teaching at Manenberg High School during the turbulent political era of the 1980s and 1990s. What a great privilege it has been. Those were the days when progressive teachers were brave enough to challenge apartheid education and the dogma of National-Christian teaching by teaching and implementing “People’s Education”. 

Let me explain the processes at the school where I was Head of Department in the Biology Department. We had a subject meeting one day and all progressed well, or so I thought. A very dear friend and comrade in the meeting raised her hand and made the comment that I (I was naturally the chair of the meeting) was wasting her time. I stopped proceeding and very calmly asked my comrade to explain herself.  She referred me to the agenda stating that it is all business and nothing about the curriculum. After all she said this is a “subject meeting”. That was an Ah-hah moment for me. The team agreed and we immediate implemented the principle of 50:50. Business matters 50% and 50% curriculum content matters with the focus on learning and teaching.

Later in the course of struggle the team decided to change our approach to testing and assessment. We introduced two concepts namely two semesters with 50:50. Content will be “written off” in the first semester. All assessment tasks and test will accumulative be 50% of the total subject mark. At first this principal worked well and the ratio was later reduced to 40:60 and later 30:70 due to the fact that most learners would pass the subject before sitting for the final examination having a negative impact on learner performance of the final examination.

Manenberg High School was the first to admit African learners from “across the railway line” to the school. This presented teachers with a serious challenge with teaching and learning to isiXhosa mother-tongue learners. We had to devise all sorts of strategies. One that come to mind was to print copies of the full lesson as a hand-out to learners. Later we would ask learners to fill in and completed (at first from group of words provided and later from memory or using the textbook) strategic word and phrases left out of the passage.

Then I coined the phrase “Social Biology” in teaching grades 9 and 10. Topics that were introduced were;

  • Definition of Biology
  • Life on planet earth
  • Origin of life – different schools of thought
  • Social issues such as work, unemployment, organ donation, health and state pension and the elderly
  • We asked questions such as; “Is health affordable and accessible?” Is a state pension a right or a privilege” “Will you donate an organ – motivate?”

That year the Circuit Inspector Mr Hattingh received a complaint from a parent saying that I am teaching politics during my Biology lesson. A full investigation was ensued…I am still to be informed of the outcome and yes I was interviewed.

The introduction of these topics has taught me a lot about the nature and purpose of knowledge. One learner in my class challenged me on two occasions during these lessons. The first challenge was about the fact that he is of the opinion that life was transported from elsewhere to planet earth and that humanity is an experiment of super being. I was blissfully unaware of these theories but did research and discovered a whole body of knowledge on these subjects one being “panspermia”. The other challenge was on the definition of social biology…humanity in its social context to improve humanity. The learner indicated that no change can happen whilst we were sitting on our ass in the classroom. “What can we possibly do” I asked. His response was social action. Let us go into the community and start with change. We visited the Old Age Homes and handed out leaflets – for me this was a powerful statement. I wonder what has happened to this boy.

As part of health issues I introduced the concepts of cause and symptoms by revisiting the common cold symptoms and allergic rhinitis. The learners loved it. An allergic reaction with symptoms of the common cold. What do you treat, the “root cause or the symptoms”.

It is important for the reader to understand that all of these topics were integrated with other biology content questions during the formal test and formal examination. Social biology as nearly caused a revolt of unintended consequences. One day a delegation of my learners requested to speak with me. One learner was crying. Their problem was that they enjoyed the lessons and subsequent conversation and participation but they do not have class notes. I explained that I repeatedly asked them to take notes during the lesson but soon realise that I may be asking too much. Henceforth notes were typed and issued by my office.

I hope you have enjoyed this as much as I did reminiscing about an era long gone.

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