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Paper read at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting, Washington, 4 October 2002

Josef de Beer
Department of Biological Sciences, Vista University,
Private Bag X 641, Pretoria, 0001 South Africa
Fax (+27)(12)322-3243


With the ambitious Project 2061 the American Association for the Advancement of Science is striving for excellence in science education, the vision being all Americans to be literate in science, mathematics and technology. In a developing country such as South Africa, the task of making all South Africans literate in science, mathematics and technology, is a much more daunting task. However, many initiatives are launched, and there is great energy and momentum in the educational transformation that the country is currently experiencing. With the return of Halley’s Comet in 2061, all South Africans will hopefully also have a good understanding of science and how it affects us.

The New Partnerships for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) is a very ambitious development plan to address key issues in Africa, amongst others, education. South Africa in particular experienced rapid changes in education during the past 5 years. Traditional “chalk and talk” education was replaced by Outcomes-Based Education (OBE). Significant progress has been made, but many challenges still provide hurdles in this NEPAD road to a scientific literate population of 2061.


Science education has been declared a national priority in South Africa. We face a number of challenges, many of which are the inheritance of the country’s unfortunate apartheid policy of the past, and universities should address these issues in their teacher training programmes. South Africa has a GDP that is nearly five times that of all its partners in SADC (South African Developing Countries) put together yet, in relation to the size of its economy and population, it suffers serious under development of human resources to support the economy, especially where the need is for people with skills in Science, Engineering and Technology. This is almost exclusively because of the poor quality of Science teaching in schools which, in turn, is a result of the poor training of teachers.

Proportionately the number of scientists per population in South Africa reflects the dilemma. According to Qunta there are 353 African mathematicians, statisticians and related professionals out of a population 33 879 852 , compared with 1 044 professionals out of a white population of 4 521 664. The ratio of scientists per 1000 people is a further indication of the national crisis.  Qunta says that in the 1980’s South Africa had 3,3 scientists per 1 000 as compared with Brazil with 11,2, the US with 21,8 and Japan with 71,1 (Business Day, 2 March 2001).

2.1 Underqualified teachers

Figures provided by the University of the Western Cape, 1996, show that only 50% of maths teachers and 32% of science teachers are properly qualified to teach those subjects (City Press, 1 April 2001) – once again the inheritance of apartheid, and the so-called Bantu-education policy. Many other researchers, amongst others, Simon and Beard (1985) and Mafrika (1989) also indicated that underqualified teachers is a serious problem. This was further confirmed in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) (1997), in which South African students did not perform well at all, to say the least. It is noted that South Africa was ranked last. We’ll only experience a higher pass rate in grade 12, if better science teaching takes place in schools. In the twenty-first century the demand for mathematical, scientific and technological understanding and expertise is greater than ever before. In order to be competitive in the new millennium, we need well-trained and creative scientists. This dictates well qualified and motivated science teachers.

2.2 Lack of innovative teaching/ heuristic teaching strategies

Research has shown that Science teachers often avoid using heuristic strategies in the classroom and prefer a more ostensive approach (De Beer, 1993). Two of the reasons that teachers gave for this phenomenon in a 1993 survey, were that:

  1. they were not properly trained in presenting practical work to students, and their schools lack the necessary apparatus and equipment.
  2. Practical work in science education in many South African schools is best described by the following quotation from Hodson (1990:33):
  3. practical work, as conducted in many schools, is ill-conceived, confused and unproductive. It provides little of real educational value. For many children, what goes on in the laboratory contributes little to their learning about science. Nor does it engage them in doing science, in any meaningful sense.

Whereas the role of a heuristic, problem-centred approach to practical work in motivating students and in stimulating them to achieve affective and cognitive outcomes is well recognized, research shows that such an approach is seldom followed in South African schools. Instead, practical work (IF it is done at all!) is often characterized by routine ‘cookery-book’ procedures in which students merely carry out instructions from textbooks. The ‘scientific method’ constitutes a ‘hands-on’ rather than a ‘minds-on’ approach. Very often the practical work is in the form of a demonstration by the teacher, with the learners only being observers. This is not in line with the philosophy underpinning Outcomes-Based Education (OBE). The Science we teach should be FUNdamental Science (with the emphasis on FUN: we need to realize the affective outcomes, in order to cultivate life-long interest and learning in the Sciences). Practical science conducted by learners should also be relevant.

Unfortunately many teachers follow a ‘chalk-and-talk’ approach in their teaching of Science.

2.3 Inadequate facilities

Research has shown that 70% of South African schools have inadequate facilities, to present Science in a meaningful way (De Beer, 1993). This problem is going to become worse. A few years ago, it was estimated that 250 000 new learners enter the school system each year. This means that South Africa needs 300 new schools and 8 000 new teachers every year (Financial Mail, 14 August 1992). Currently a very large proportion of learners is in primary school and, within the next few years, these learners will start with their secondary schooling. This will mean that astronomic amounts of money will be needed to equip laboratories, to facilitate an Outcomes-Based Education approach of ‘active learning’, if the teaching of Science is seen as a priority. We already spend a large proportion of our national budget on education. It is thus clear that we should look for sensible, alternative solutions.

A related problem is that many teachers do not possess, or practise, innovative skills of using alternative equipment (e.g. using ‘Bottle Science’) – more about this in paragraph 3.3.

2.4 School science textbooks

Science textbooks in the past were very content-heavy, and were not user-friendly at all. Learners were not interacting with the text. The content was also experienced as irrelevant by the learners. Recently much superior OBE books were published. This will be further discussed in paragraph 3.4.

2.5 The image portrayed of science and scientists

In South Africa we need to encourage especially Black students and girls, to pursue careers in the natural sciences. According to Dr Maggi Linington, Dean of Postgraduate Studies and Research at Vista University, 95% of research output (articles in accredited journals) are done by white males. Also worrying is the fact that the number of research articles over the past 10 years stayed the same, whereas the average age of authors increased by ten years – a clear indication that it is the ‘older’ scientists still writing, whereas very few young researchers enter the research arena (personal interview). Science needs to me demystified, and we should also change the perception that mathematics and science are for the elite and the clever. Another related problem is that science is often viewed as a western phenomenon, and Africanization of the curriculum has become an important issue in South Africa. More about this in paragraph 3.5

2.6 Limited use of new technologies, e.g. computer-based learning

In South Africa, educators are facing the challenge of teaching science (in English) to mainly second language speakers. This assignment is made even more difficult owing to the fact that, very often, students are not particularly interested in the subject content. Furthermore, there is often a gap between the syllabus content and the world in which the child lives. We face the challenge of designing learning programmes that will enhance learning, and that will also stimulate an interest in the subject in question. Computer software can be very useful in this regard, not only because of the visual/graphical component, but also because of the constructivist nature of it. Computer-enhanced education has advantages that could be used to address some of the problems inherent in education in the new South Africa. As we move towards a more technological society, stakeholders in education need to look at how this technology could be best utilised in the South African (and Southern African) classroom. In general, South African schools lag far behind the business world in the use of computer technology. Possible solutions and innovations are discussed in paragraph 3.6.

2.7 Factors inhibiting meaningful learning in culturally diverse classrooms

Two other problems will be briefly mentioned: language and a lack of affective teaching.

2.7.1 Language and science learning

There are a number of factors that sometimes lead to the non-realisation of outcomes. One such factor is language. South Africa has eleven official languages, and English, the official language of instruction, is a second or third language to the majority of learners. Research indicates that language is one of the major obstacles in effective learning in the Science classroom (De Beer, 1993). Luthuli (1981:76) states that the mother tongue is the most appropriate communication medium for effective learning. It is an enormous challenge for a learner to discover the scientific and often abstract world, through a second or third language.  More about this in paragraph 3.7.1.

2.7.2 The affective domain in science teaching

Learning is not only a cognitive activity – it is also an emotional affair. Our feelings and attitudes go hand-in-hand with our intellect. The affective domain can be considered a prerequisite for achieving cognitive outcomes. It is therefore essential that the teacher motivates his/her learners. It is necessary to bring the magic back into the science classroom. However, studies by authors such as Shock (1973) shows that students become increasingly negative and disinterested in the subject, as they continue with their scholastic careers. One reason might be that the teacher does not stimulate learners’ interest in the work, and does not show them the ‘bigger picture’. The challenge in the culturally diverse classroom is how to incorporate the affective domain, and be sensitive towards the culturally diversity, and different sets of values and attitudes.


We shall now briefly look at some of the initiatives implemented to address the above challenges.

3.1 Teacher training

The National Department of Education is establishing partnerships with tertiary institutions to provide in-service training to underqualified teachers. Vista University is one such institution. During a visit by Vista University officials to the MEC for Education in the Limpopo Province some time ago, the MEC made an interesting comment. He said that, if the University simply wants to upgrade teacher qualifications through its in-service training programmes, he is not interested. If the purpose is to empower teachers to become better educators and facilitators of true learning, the Department of Education would be keen to give the University its support. To many people, continuing one’s studies automatically implies becoming a more skilled and enthusiastic teacher. But does a person in fact acquire these attributes during continued education? The question can then be asked: are universities succeeding in developing the desired cognitive, psychomotor and affective qualities in its pre-graduate students/teachers?

3.2 Teaching Science as inquiry: The maze, the amazing and the turquoise meme!

In both pre-service and in-service training, educators are trained in effectively applying OBE principles in the classroom. Teachers individually have to answer the question: Is my teaching a maze of unconnected concepts and visionless thought, or a gateway to innovative, holistic and visionary thinking, passion and action? Do I see the amazing bigger picture, or is it a case of the blind leading the blind? Teachers need to be shown how to facilitate minds-on, hands-on and especially hearts-on learning. Beck and Cowan’s Spiral Dynamics Model is often used, to illustrate that we are at risk (like the unsinkable Titanic!), because we are prisoners of our own paradigms. The so-called Turquoise Meme is characterised by a ‘thinking pattern’ that abandons traditional human barriers – race, nationalism, ideology, to build a sense of cooperation as Earth citizens with complex problems. It emphasises holistic thinking, and ‘seeing-everything-at-once’ before doing anything specific.

3.3 Teaching science on-a-shoestring

Somerset Educational, a private company in South Africa, has developed ,in association with a number of academics, inexpensive science kits that can be used in under-resourced schools. These science kits were tailor-made for physics, chemistry and biology in the different grades. Apart from this, Vista University introduced a module on improvisation in the science classroom, in which prospective teachers are taught to be resourceful, if they do not have resources. A Science teacher does not always need a big budget to present Science in an effective way. The teacher can design his/her own apparatus cheaply, by using common household materials and junk.

3.4 A new approach to writing science textbooks

In the Appendix examples will be provided of the new learning material that are being written for the OBE classroom. The emphasis is no longer on loads of information and recall of knowledge, but on essential competencies. An Africanisation of the curriculum is also evident.Also refer to paragraph 3.7.1

3.5 The marriage between ‘western’ science and indigenous knowledge systems

As mentioned in 3.4, there is growing realisation of the importance of Africanisation of the curriculum. The following example from the field of ethnobotany serves as an effective illustration.

Today we realize that indigenous traditions/knowledge and modern science are closer to each other than Westerners might assume. Sutherlandia frutescens’s (a South African shrub known as the ‘cancer bush’) potent medicinal qualities were known in early times by the Khoi, San and Zulu healers. A multi-disciplinary team recently developed a new drug from the cancer bush, and it is manufactured by a registered pharmaceutical company in KwaZulu Natal. It proves valuable in the treatment of HIV/AIDS patients, because it builds the immune system.  Today we know that the shrub contains an amino acid which fights depression, pinitol, which helps patients to pick up weight, and canavanine, which is successful in treating retroviruses. This clearly illustrates the marriage between traditional knowledge systems and modern science, which might be the new trademark of ethnobotany in future.

3.6 Using computer technology in the classroom

Several pilot projects are being done, and the Department of Education established partnerships with a number of NGO’s and companies, to make this technology available in schools. A PhD student of mine, Mrs Susanne Jacobs, is working with Florida State University, on a project in which we integrate a software programme in ecology in the science curriculum. The fundamental goal of this project was to develop and evaluate a multi-media package for the study of ecology and environmental education in Grades 7-9, and to evaluate the success of such programmes in formal education. The results were extremely encouraging. Not only did the learners responded very positively, but the teachers involved in the project also had accolades for how the programme assisted them to adopt more heuristic teaching strategies. One teacher, for instance, wrote about the EcoVentures programme: ‘With this computer programme, my role in the classroom became that of a facilitator, which is not normally the case… (meaning that she does a lot of  chalk and talk teaching);  normally I teach more formally, with much more spoon”feeding“. Another teacher said that  normally my teaching is more verbally, but with Eco Ventures the teaching becomes more practical.

3.7.1 Breaking down language barriers in science education

There is no quick-fix solution to the language problem, but there are a number of developments and initiatives that assist learners to better cope with studying science through the medium of English:

  1. School textbooks for the Senior Phase (OBE) are written in a much more learner-friendly way. Text is in general much more accessible, and it also more illustrated. Examples are given in the appendix.
  2. Code-switching might have a place in science education, where a teacher can briefly ‘code-switch’ from English to the mother tongue, or more practical in culturally diverse classrooms, to a vernacular or ‘street-language’. I had the opportunity to do research in this field with two linguists, Professor Christa van der Walt and Mrs Riah Mabule. In the Appendix one of our articles on code-switching is included.

3.7.2 Affective outcomes: 30 cm closer to a solution!

As is the case for environmental education programmes , science programmes should also allow what the brain knows (the cognitive domain) to descend the 30 centimetres or so to the heart (the affective domain). We call it the 30 cm factor in education! Affective outcomes should receive much more attention in the classroom. When working with kids, the elements of marvel and fantasy could be used with great success. Practical examples of such an ‘affective’ approach, will be given in the appendix.


The NEPAD road is long and winding. It is filled with potholes and thorns. But educators travel down this road with great anticipation and enthusiasm. The outcomes might only be visible in 2061, but along the road there are markers of hope, and many success stories.


CITY PRESS COMMENT 2001, No President, we don’t need Cuban teachers. City Press, 1 April 2001, page 8.

COCK, J & KOCH, E 1991. Going green – people, politics and the environment in South Africa. Cape Town: Oxford University Press.

DE BEER, JJJ 1993. ‘n Evaluerende ondersoek na die waarde van praktiese werk in Biologie-onderrig op senior sekond re skoolvlak. Ph.D. tesis, Vista Universiteit.

DE BEER, JJJ & DAWSON, GO 1997. Using Computer Technology in the Biology classroom. Spectrum, Winter 1997, pp. 4-6.

DE BEER, JJJ & MTOMBENI, JP 1999. Teaching Natural Sciences. Pretoria: Collegium Publishers.

DE BEER, JJJ; NYAMAPFENE, K; VAN ROOYEN, HG & STEENKAMP, C. 2001. Science around the clock. Natural Sciences Grade 9 Learner’s Guide. Pietermaritzburg: Reach Out Publications.

JACOBS, S 2002. The implementation and assessment of a multimedia learning package for the study of environmental education in South African schools, and the implications for teacher training. Pretoria: Vista University. Unpublished PhD thesis.

LININGTON, M. 2001. Personal interview.

QUNTA, C 2001. The crisis in SA science. Business Day, 2 March 2001, page 13.

VAN DER WALT, C; MABULE, DR & DE BEER, JJJ 2001. Letting the L1 in by the back door: Code switching and translation in Science, Mathematics and Biology classes. Journal for Language teaching, 35(2 & 3):123-134.