By Prof Bhekimpilo Sibanda
A few months ago, I did warn through The Standard newspaper that Covid-19 may not go away as quickly as we hoped. I analysed major pandemics through history and surmised that at best this current pandemic might take about three and a half years to taper out into oblivion. At the time, many people were calling for the opening of schools, universities and industry. Very little was known about the pandemic. Those sectors which heeded those calls saw a spike of infections and quickly shut. In Zimbabwe, universities immediately closed after initial steps were taken to open for final year students. Right now, some universities are staggering forward and starting to hold virtual graduation ceremonies, students have passed and completed their courses! Universities in Japan led the way in fancy virtual graduation ceremonies, where a robot attended the ceremony with a live picture of the graduand. Some universities may take time to get there, but it is now a possibility, as the pandemic is spiking again. The real danger is that some affected people are taking it lightly or are asymptomic and, therefore, we may not know who is carrying the virus and who is not. Limited testing in most countries is also a constraining factor.
However, the real story here today is about how we will handle the life-changing scenarios brought about by Covid-19 (coronavirus). Do we need to open schools this year? Once you start asking these questions, however, one seems to be inviting a bucket of more questions. What is school? Do we need schools? What do we teach learners? How do we select learning content? Who is qualified to teach? And so on. If I try and answer these questions more directly, I may need volumes, so I will summarise my answer through a simple story, which has dozens of reviews on the internet written by Harold Benjamin (pseudonym was J Abner Peddiwell) in 1939. The Saber-Tooth Curriculum, the satirical book he wrote, is still as true today as it was then. Every teacher knows this story, but there is no harm in repeating it on their day. I will just pick on the highlights here. The book was published under a fictitious name and the foreword under his real name.
You see, a long time ago, when the stones were still soft (he wrote), there was a nation which lived in one of the best hills and valleys in the land. The people lived a carefree life and everything was plenty. This was before the ice age. The men spent their time sitting around and drinking. The women prepared plenty of food and spent most of their time casually. As for the children, it was pathetic, they spent their time playing all day. (more or less as some did or continue to do during the current Covid-19, this was during the Paleolithic times before the ice age which brought about a lot of changes on earth.
Living with and among the ancient people was a certain wise man called New-Fist. This man was a thinker. He was concerned about the future and the changes he foreswore in the distant future. He implored this community to create a school for the children. He observed that in order for the community to live and prosper, the children needed to know how to fish and other chores regarded by the community as important. It was very easy to catch fish then, as the water was very clear and one could see the large sluggish fish very clearly. You did not need any tool to catch the fish, just bare hands could do. In the valleys there were plenty of animals too which could be killed for meat. These bucks and kudus were also very fat and sluggish, they could not run fast. All the hunters needed was to have clubs, to kill them. From the caves in the hills, however, there was one real danger: The Saber-Tooth tiger. It was very dangerous. But it was also scared of fire, so villagers used fire to scare them away. New-Fist identified these chores as the basis for a core curriculum: Catching fish with bare hands, clubbing spring bucks and fire technics to chase tigers away. After much difficulty and sometimes labelled as a counter revolutionary, the community eventually adopted the idea of school and this new curriculum. Talented individuals in the various activities were selected as teachers. Teachers were selected on merit to teach the children all over the valleys. The people prospered, but only for a while. Things began to change. Snow started melting and through glaciation, water became murky and the fish became clever and could not be easily caught with bare hands.
Meanwhile, due to climate change, the animals began to feed further and further away in the hills. The species left behind could run very fast and were not easily clubbed. People began to starve until thinkers came up with new ideas. The school curriculum had stagnated for years. People had embraced school, but used the same old content introduced decades ago by New-Fist.
Instead of children just learning how to catch fish using bare hands they thought, and how to club animals and chase tigers with fire when they had arrived, they used technology. Reed nets to catch fish in the muddy waters, bows and arrows to shoot at fast-paced kudus and trapped tigers with covered pits and tree snares before they arrived at the cave entrance. That became part of the new school curriculum. And so the school was adapted to new conditions all the time.
Irrelevant curricula was discarded as and when it never served good purpose. But the curriculum must be simple so that everybody understands it. No fancy stuff to impress colleagues.
What does this mean? All stakeholders must be involved in curriculum development. While keeping their culture, teachers should be responsive to new developments and challenges. Often they may be regarded as radical, but they should not give up, let them simplify their issues so that they earn respect and their ideas are accepted by society. The conditions and diseases which killed off many animals and fish should be combated until a solution is found.
Covid-19 has forced us to live differently, we may be lucky that a vaccine is found as the case with influenza or Spanish flu in 1918, or we will move on to a new normal or we may have to change our culture to survive. The new school may be the video conference, Zoom, Skype, Face time, etc. Will Africa have the resources to leapfrog? One teacher now can teach hordes of students using mass online open communications (moocs). Schools can collaborate all over the world. Universities have started. One Harvard University mooc has more than 100 000 students. They use open source books and materials and learning is interactive. It is true that learning is not only memorising content, it is about critical thinking and practice as well, it is connectivistic.
Africa is facing a new challenge, but the difference now is that we have a lot more New-Fists, in the name of our teachers. Let us give them the resources and recognition they require to make reed nests, traps and fire for tigers and use our guns for development. As McDonald Patridge, one of the greatest teacher trainers in Zimbabwe, who founded the United College of Education, would say: “Stop teaching and let the children learn.” He was very much ahead of his time then, but it is true now more than ever that children need to learn more about information management than other content. But children will always learn, from peers, community, school and more importantly in the home. There are many more sources of content nowadays, but the challenge is to find the knowledge and how to use it. There is a lot of dangerous and fake stuff too.
To conclude, you may wonder why Benjamin wrote his book under a fictitious name. It is obvious that this story is of many tales, and he feared that those in politics could interpret it differently and harm him. For example, New-Fist could be perceived as the opposition; changing climate could be seen in real terms or as global political climate, and the tiger could be the pandemic, and so on. The choice is yours.
Have a thoughtful International Teachers Day, our teachers. Remember to remind the children what WHO is teaching us: Wear masks, wash hands regularly, use social distancing and generally avoid crowding where possible.
l Professor Bhekimpilo Sibanda (PhD) is a retired professor of Educational Technology, now a senior consultant at One World Communications Zimbabwe.