What exactly pupils learn in school

Pupils PIC: PHATSIMO KAPENG
Pupils PIC: PHATSIMO KAPENG

The Department of Curriculum Development and Evaluation is charged with the task of drawing up curricula for subjects taught at school, writes Correspondent GRAHAME MCLEOD

TONOTA: Education Officers and teachers also have a role to play in this important task. But many curricula may contain too much content thus making it difficult for teachers to teach it in the time available.

Also, some topics may not apply to daily life or relevant to the workplace and economy in today’s modern world. Let’s first consider the primary curriculum. In a nutshell, it’s overloaded, there are too many subjects on the curriculum, and it’s too formal. I believe that in a primary school learning should be fun.

When I attended primary school, we spent much of the time learning arithmetic and the English language. In arithmetic, we did our sums in workbooks that were checked by the teacher. And we also developed skills in mental arithmetic – in the 1960s, there were no pocket calculators or cellphones! As for English, we practised reading, spelling, writing and speaking.


The thinking at the time was that these two subjects would lay a strong foundation and so would enable a pupil to study other subjects at secondary school with ease.

The rest of the time we spent doing action-packed activities – singing, painting, playing football, nature study and a little Social Studies. Primary school pupils are too young to be sitting behind a desk all day – they will become bored and their attention span is too short! In most primary schools, Setswana and English are the mediums of instruction.

However, in the northern parts of the country, neither of these languages may be the mother tongue of many pupils. And such pupils may only speak in their mother tongue at home – Sesubiya, Seyei, Seherero, Ikalanga… In colonial times, pupils in the Bokalaka area were taught in the medium of Kalanga – their mother tongue. But now they are taught in what seems to them a foreign language – Setswana. Maybe this is one reason for the poor PSLE results today? To solve this problem, perhaps pupils from minority ethnic groups could be taught in their mother tongue for the first four or five years in primary school whilst at the same time learning Setswana and English. Let’s now look at the junior secondary school curriculum.

Here the mathematics curriculum needs some serious revision. Many topics are irrelevant, or too abstract, to cater for the experiences and everyday needs of our pupils, especially when they leave school. For example, topics such as vectors, matrices, transformations… Now of what use is it for a pupil to know how to rotate a triangle through 90 degrees? Instead, they should be able to read a water meter and be aware of how water bills are calculated; this will help them to check on the amount that they owe.

Or at the petrol pumps to know how much to pay given the amount of fuel and the cost per litre. Also, they should be aware of foreign exchange rates when travelling outside the country.

For example, if they are visiting South Africa, they should be able to work out how much pula they will need to buy, say R500, if, for example, the current exchange rate is P1=R1.25 (I hope that the reader can work this out – it’s P400). More emphasis should also be placed on mental arithmetic. After all, we do not always carry our cellphones or pocket calculators around with us all of the time! I am always surprised that cashiers at the tills in shops have to use such modern technology to work out the change due to a customer! In many cases, I have the answer before the cashier touches the first button! For example, if an item costs P17.50, how much change is owing to a customer if they hand over a P20 note? Using my head, I will have the answer in less than two seconds! And I am not joking!

That’s because when I went to secondary school we had no calculators or phones to do the work for us (only slide rules which were cumbersome to use)! In Agriculture, more emphasis should be placed on hands-on practical work. Although pupils grow vegetables in their school gardens, these veggies are exotic to Botswana – beetroot, Swiss chard, carrot, onion… And such crops require regular watering. Why not encourage pupils to grow indigenous veggies such as thepe, marotse and delele?

These days there is now great potential in small stock. At present, government is trying to secure markets in the Middle East for our sheep and goats. And these animals are considered to be more tolerant of heat and drought than cattle.

And goats, being browsers rather than grazers, can help reduce the problem of overgrazing so prevalent in Botswana today. But very few schools raise small stock and hence schools should be encouraged to buy a few goats. Some concepts are too complex or abstract for junior secondary school pupils to understand; for example, soil pH, which is the acidity and alkalinity of the soil.

And soil pH is a topic that occurs in the Form 1 Agriculture syllabus. Now, I believe that pupils at this level better understand concepts by seeing. Now one cannot for sure state if the soil is acidic or alkaline just by looking at it; for example, one cannot say if a reddish-brown soil is acidic or alkaline.

The only sure way of determining the pH of the soil is by testing the soil in a soil laboratory. In contrast, the concept of soil texture – which refers to the size of soil particles – is easier to understand. Pupils can easily see if the soil has a coarse texture if the particles are large.

And they can also better grasp the concept of soil fertility – fertile soils are usually dark in colour. No problem! So, concepts like soil pH are better left out of the JCE Agriculture syllabus and deferred to senior secondary level. And the Science JCE syllabus no doubt contains topics that are just as complex or abstract as soil pH! Combined Science is an important core subject in junior schools and it can lay a good foundation for studying the sciences at UB and BIUST. But the curriculum needs to stir the curiosity of pupils to learn more about the world around them; hence more practical work needs to be done in the laboratory. Then they will know what happens to water when we boil it, or what happens to a plant if we place it in the lab away from the sun. But that’s not all; they should also be curious as to why such things happen!

However, in many schools, labs are too often in a very poor state. Business Studies is a welcome addition to the list of optional subjects in junior secondary schools. Unlike in the past when government provided most jobs in the formal sector of the economy, many school leavers will now be self-employed and will run their own businesses. Hence, this subject will provide them with some of the skills that are needed to do this – how to keep records, sell their produce and be a good entrepreneur… But many Business Studies labs still lack equipment such as calculators and computers. Other languages, besides Setswana and English, could be included in the school curriculum.

For example, local minority languages, such as Ikalanga, Seyei, Sembukushu, Sesubiya and Seherero, could be optional subjects, or as an extracurricular activity. At present, French is the only foreign language that is taught in secondary schools – it’s an optional subject and is only offered in some schools. French is a good choice since many countries, especially in West and North Africa, are French-speaking.

Some might also propose that Portuguese could be taught as a foreign language in our schools; after all, Mozambique and Angola are not too far away from Botswana! However, the lack of trained teachers of Portuguese together with the dominance of French over much of Africa might not make this feasible. Sexual education also needs to feature more in subject curricula.

Children need to learn more about their bodies, their reproductive parts, safe sex, how to avoid contracting sexual diseases such as HIV/AIDS, prevention of pregnancy… In so doing, there will be a reduction in unwanted teenage pregnancies and the consequences that are associated with them. And, hopefully, reduced HIV/AIDS infections.

Pupils also need to be made more aware of the many social ills that plague our nation these days. And some of these problems have increased markedly during the COVID-19 pandemic. So, pupils need to be told more about gender-based violence (GBV), rape, incest, so-called ‘passion killings’ and substance abuse, and also the consequences of such behaviour.

Moreover, they need to know how to avoid becoming victims of such anti-social behaviour and even how to prevent themselves from becoming perpetrators of such acts. We also hear much about climate change and global warming these days. Such topics need to be more incorporated into our subject curricula, especially Science, Agriculture and Social Studies.

(Next week, we will look at the senior secondary school curriculum.)

GRAHAME MCLEOD*

*Grahame McLeod is a retired educationist

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