The gap between steering documents and teaching democracy in South Africa

December 20, 2010

A thesis presented at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, uses the example of South Africa to show how teaching and education in democracy-related subjects work.
The results show that the good democratic intentions of steering documents do not always work in practice.

"The South African curriculum has a democratic ideal, but teachers' qualifications vary - as does their understanding of how teaching should be carried out," says Getahun Abraham, the author of the thesis.

Changes take time. The majority of South African teachers completed their teacher training during the apartheid years, which featured a hierarchical view of society and an authoritarian view of education. This is in stark contrast to what the steering documents currently say about goal-oriented, pupil-centred and process-focused teaching and assessment.

The need for further training

"This involves a need for further training within the new fields of knowledge, and teachers do not feel they have had enough of such training," continues Abraham.

The subject of Life Orientation has been taught since 1998 in all South African comprehensive schools. In his thesis, Abraham has investigated how one of the four objectives of the subject - social development - deals with the themes of leadership quality and voting.

The empirical section of the thesis is based on classroom observations in South African schools and on teacher interviews. Steering documents, teacher instructions and teaching materials have also been analysed.

Democratic working environment

The study highlights the differences between steering documents and everyday life in the classroom. For example, teachers only very occasionally allowed their pupils to choose their own candidates before voting for a class leader. There were no discussions about different opinions during lessons, and pupils were not encouraged to divide themselves up into groups before voting. In the teaching and during the election process, much of the time was taken up by the teachers.

"If we are to make it easier for pupils to learn about Life Orientation, it is important that teachers do not place so much emphasis on their own leadership role," continues Abraham. "The school itself must be a more democratic working environment if children are to develop into democratic citizens."

Preventing conflict

"Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife," wrote the American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer John Dewey over a hundred years ago.

"Just like Dewey, I am convinced that education plays a major part in the work to encourage building democracy and in preventing conflict. Africa has many examples of countries that are notorious for not respecting basic human rights. I have investigated an African example which features a conscious effort to start working with issues relating to democracy in schools," says Abraham, who was born and grew up in Ethiopia.
The thesis has been successfully defended.

Link to thesis:

University of Gothenburg

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