Life Orientation as a subject - what's the value for learners?

With school season in full gear now given the opening of coastal public schools this week, parents are often concerned about the value of the investment they make in their child's education through the selection of valuable subjects for their children.

Introduced in the late 1990's in a democractic South Africa, Life Orientation (LO) is a subject that made up the Outcomes-Based Education approach that then Education Minister, Kader Asmal, implemented. LO has since come under fierce criticism by parents, learners and education analysts alike for being a 'cop out' subject that is perceived to not have much value to a learner's overall training in the school environment.

So what is Life Orientation? Wits Professor of Life Orientation and Religious Studies, Dr Rene Ferguson:

Life Orientation has been defined in the national curriculum as a holistic study of the self, the self in society, an opportunity to develop the emotional side of young people, the citizenship aspects of life in South Africa, democracy, human rights - it is actually a whole conglomeration of many different things that contribute to life orientation, not forgetting the health side, lifestyle, healthy living and physical fitness.

Dr Ferguson highlights some of the challenges that LO faces within the education system:

I've have the privilege of visiting numerous schools when we go with our students on school experience twice a year. In the last year, I was actually able to sit in about 17 or 18 different schools and observe what was happening in the classroom. Sometimes, it's good news and sometimes, I just wanted to weep. I think the problem is, what is taught in schools depends on which textbooks teachers are using. There are numerous textbooks that the Department of Education has sanctioned for use in the classroom and of course, schools tend to buy the ones that are affordable or sometimes they don't have textbooks at all and then it's reliant on what the teacher extracts out of existing textbooks. I always think that the actual national curriculum itself has many valid and worthwhile topics in it, but actually what happens is that, once it's interpreted into textbooks, teachers are tending to rely on the textbooks and not becoming interpreters of the curriculum itself. But I don't want to generalise because there are some fantastic teachers out there doing a sterling job and they are teaching worthwhile and valuable topics that are influencing the lives of young people to take with them when they leave school. The problem is when teachers are JUST reliant on textbooks and I've coined a saying 'death by textbook' because there is no attempt to use other resources that will stimulate and inspire the kids in our classrooms to want to learn, to want to participate, to want to encourage thinking around controversial issues.

Redi Tlhabi Show caller Calvin from Kensington mentioned concerns around the future of LO as a subject:

Life Orientation methodology is being phased out at UJ (the University of Johannesburg) particularly. Last year, I did my PGCE (Post Graduate Certificate in Education) and my methodology was Life Orientation, even though I could teach other subjects. The problem however is, there is no leverage for Life Orientation - it's more like a dumping ground or a platform for us PGCE students. Most of us who registered last year - there was about 200 - and about 50% of the students were Psychology graduates and they had no choice but to do LO methodology and the thing is, it is being phased out for PGCE students and I wonder if this is the beginning of the end for LO?

Meanwhile, caller Patrick from the West Coast expresses a commonly-shared concern amongst parents:

Life Orientation - like many subjects introduced after democracy - was introduced with the purpose of tight societal aims and with the fact that one had to learn about history before 1996 and then try to correct whatever has been done. We do have problems with the teaching of Life Orientation at the school level, but my question is 'Life Orientation has a purpose to serve, but any school subject must have an impact on society and I'm asking - to what extent does a school subject impact on society? And does Life Orientation really have the impact that it was supposed to have?'

Listen to the conversation in full below:


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