Education for the 21st Century

There is a huge outcry over the relevance of the education system in many SADC countries, particularly Botswana, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. This has gained credence because many of our high school and university graduates are ill-prepared for real life and work. Increasingly, the public sees our glorified institutions of higher learning as overrated centres that churn out misfits without appropriate skills.

The colonical education system was designed to create a cheap labour force
The colonical education system was designed to create a cheap labour force

The root cause of the problem is the inherited colonial education system, whose objective was to create a semi-skilled work force dependent on white entrepreneurship and ingenuity.

In virtually all the SADC countries, the education system ignores the ethos of an indigenous African education system intended to give learners skills and knowledge that makes them integral members of their society who can build their own houses, grow their own food, make their own tools and clothes, farm and use traditional medicine to cure their fellow human beings and animals.

Not surprisingly, down the line and under vastly changed circumstances in the digital era of the 21st century, the bubble of our colonial type of education has now burst. The demands of a competitive and more inter-connected world have exposed its weaknesses. It is, therefore, necessary to design a different type of education that is relevant, suitable and responsive to our changed circumstances.


Because the colonial edifice operated on a master and servant relationship, the education system was designed to create a cheap labour force for the white men’s kitchens, farms, plantations, mines, factories, retail shops, and lower rank public workers such as policemen, soldiers, clerks, pastors, reverends, nurses, and teachers.

Unfortunately the new black rulers who took over after independence perpetuated the colonial education system by making only cosmetic changes to education to make it appear as if they had ‘nationalised’ the school curriculum.

In order to correct the situation, Education with Production (EwP), which had long been espoused by missionaries as a way of creating self-sufficiency, was introduced in some countries in SADC. Of particular note is Patrick van Rensburg who, in the 1960s, introduced in Botswana the concept of vocational education at Swaneng, Shashe and Madiba High Schools by combining academic work with production.

At these independent schools, learners were taught practical skills such as building which they used to construct their own classrooms, hostels, teachers’ accommodation, etc. The concept of vocational education, which was later adopted by the Botswana government, was used to establish brigades at various centres in the country where school leavers could learn a trade.

Positive attitudes

A similar programme was adopted in Zambia after the education reforms of 1977. All primary and secondary schools were to implement an education with production curriculum, whose objectives were to (1) marry theory with practice, (2) arm all school leavers with life-long skills and (3) develop positive attitudes towards work.

In Zimbabwe, education with production was popularly known as Zimbabwe Foundation of Education with Production (ZIMFEP), which was developed by Fay Chung, who later became the Minister of Education from 1988-1993. Initially the programme was designed to assist war veterans and their families to combine education with agricultural production; but because of its relative success, it was extended to formal schools.

At a global level an outcomes-based education system, which has its roots in the United States, is preferred in many western countries. In South Africa, OBE is seen as an approach to learning that seeks to link education more closely to the real world, giving students skills to access, analyse and practically apply knowledge rather than simply parrot and regurgitate what they learn.

Teachers are encouraged to go beyond the textbook and to engage pupils in interrogating issues such as community relations, equality, poverty, governance, hunger, crime and other social issues which they encounter in their daily lives.


The philosophy of an outcomes-based education is derived from business and manufacturing organisations that focus on results as a way of measuring efficiency. The proponents of OBE suggest that in order to know where we are going, we need to know first the status of our current education and to determine where we want it to be. After that, we can then work out the best way of getting to where we want the education system to be.

While education with production and outcomes-based education may have their merits, such as an attempt to prepare learners for life and work, there are inherent weaknesses that render them ineffective. Research in the countries where EwP has been implemented shows that it is seen by both parents and learners as too elementary. It not only fails to equip learners with the skills in demand, but also fails to prepare them for entrepreneurial and self-employment skills.

As for OBE, although it is intended to foster problem-solving skills, to promote decision-making and critical thinking, its main weakness is that the curriculum, methodology and the intended outcomes are not clearly defined. In South Africa, for instance, where OBE has been used for the past decade, some of the outcomes have been noted to focus too much on feelings, values, attitudes and beliefs which are hard to measure.

The greatest criticism is that it does not have roots in Africa, which has peculiar problems of under-development through many years of colonial neglect.

Above all, an outcomes-based education does not appear to solve the skills shortage in our developing countries and neither does it prepare the students sufficiently for college and university education. Because of these fundamental weaknesses, South Africa has jettisoned OBE in favour of as yet undefined education system.

21st century

What is now clear is that the new millennium has ushered in a dramatic technological revolution that is rendering our current education system moribund. In SADC, and following the rest of the world, we are now living in an increasingly diverse and globalised world in which we are saturated with digital information.

Our children and young people are increasingly using electronic devices such as cellular phones, earphones, hand-held gaming devices and laptops which they carry with them wherever they go. And at home they watch television, use computers and play computer games.

This technology is revolutionising the manner in which learners interact socially, which has led some scholars to refer to the new breed of learners as “digital natives” while their teachers and parents, who may be less competent in using the social media, are euphemistically dubbed “digital immigrants”.

The advent of the new technology is redefining the boundaries between the past and present in terms of how we perceive “education”. The burden is now on us to reconsider our educational goals and mission so that we can focus on the real needs of our learners without depriving them of the values that are central to humanity. In this regard, education in the 21st century, among other things, needs to focus on the following dynamic skills:

• Critical thinking

• Problem solving

• Diversity and Collaboration

• Agility and Adaptability

• Initiative and Entrepreneurialism

• Effective Oral and Written Communication

• Multimedia and Information Accessing

• Curiosity and Imagination

• Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation

• Mathematical and Scientific literacy

The success or failure of our education systems is largely dependent on the political will and commitment of our individual governments to invest heavily in it and to work together as a community of nations. In this regard, it may even be better to have a common SADC secondary school and advanced level baccalaureate which will enable our young people to study in any higher institution of their choice in the region so that we can accelerate the pace of skills development.

Unless we think strategically, open up opportunities for our young people, manage our resources properly and extend the democratic space for our citizens to blossom, we may find ourselves locked up in the past. – Contact the author at: [email protected]

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