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  • Linke Potgieter

Connecting the dots - rethinking the way we teach

“So…when will I ever use this?” – a question many educators receive, especially when teaching something more abstract like mathematics. And every single time I get this question, I am struck with how such a simple question can be so difficult to answer. And the reason is that behind this question the real question is actually “Why is this important to my life?”. We all mostly communicate from the clearest thing to the fuzziest thing, because it is easier. Answering the ‘Why’ question requires a reverse by communicating from the fuzziest thing to the clearest thing. And that is hard.

The standard classroom experience in South Africa entails a process of telling, explaining, and demonstrating. Very much focussed on answering the ‘What’ and the ‘How’. Good teachers will also involve students in the problem solving, asking them ‘What if’, helping them to take ownership of their learning and become more curious. But how many teachers inspire? Socrates said that education should be the kindling of a flame, not the filling of an empty vessel. Without the higher levels of teaching (involving and inspiring), teaching can become an empty exercise of training techniques. It doesn’t answer the ‘Why’ question we always get.

The fourth industrial revolution entails most notably the automation of cognitive labour. The work we do will change dramatically. The question is whether we still train for the very structured second and third industrial revolution in which the training of techniques was important, or whether we need to think differently about how we prepare ourselves for this new unstructured era where thinking on your feet, continuous learning and adaptation is important. In order to learn and adapt one must have agility and agency. This requires a shift from external validation rooted in a degree or job title to internal validation rooted in purpose, passion, and a heightened level of self-awareness about one’s ability and methods for learning [1]. The interesting part is that motivation and inspiration starts with understanding one’s purpose and passion, by answering the exact same question that many teachers tend to get, but try to avoid due to its underlying complexity – the ‘Why’.

As the future of work requires an internally validated identity coupled with agility and agency, it points to re-imagining education, especially school education where young adolescents become more self-aware and ask the ‘Why’ questions to understand where they fit into this changing world.

A number of initiatives exist that tries to rethink education. In Ohio, the PAST Foundation initiated and opened the PAST Innovation Lab in 2016. Founder Annalies Corbin states “We opened the lab, an education R&D prototyping facility, so that we could specifically test the boundaries of the work/school interface. By fully embedding teaching and learning in industry R&D, startup and launch we saw exponential growth in students grasp of what is possible. Thus far, we have found when no longer constrained by the limits of traditional high school, students in the PAST lab excelled – they found the connections between industries and application, and they are able to contribute to solving real-world challenges in real time as full active members of design teams – our kids are only constrained by the limits of their own knowledge, which grows daily.” [2] Things like what the PAST Innovation Lab suggest sounds impressive, and idealistic, but requires a lot of expertise and funding, and I can’t help but wonder whether it is feasible within a South African setting where we struggle to deliver text books to schools. Perhaps an easier way to address the growing challenge in the way we educate, is to turn towards science communication between researchers/academics and high school learners to help teachers answer the ‘Why’ questions.

Instead of just training techniques at school, invite guest lecturers to show learners why the work is important in the bigger context of the subject field, or how it is applied in other subject fields or real-life. For example, why is the linear function taught in Grade 9, where do we use it in our future work? A statistics lecturer might illustrate to you the importance of linear functions in linear regression, and perhaps illustrate how you can predict future profit for your company one day. An operations research lecturer might tell you that linear functions are immensely important in finding best solutions to difficult problems, and illustrate how you can, for example, find optimal production quantities for your company one day by linear programming techniques (which involves linear functions). Many people use linear functions every day, and inviting those people in the classroom, might show learners they are part of something bigger.

Many social impact initiatives at Stellenbosch University address the gap between university and society through science communication [3]. As an example, the MathOR Programme, initiated in 2019, is a social impact initiative that is an acceleration math programme for strong academic learners from financially disadvantaged schools. The programme provides supplementary mathematics training by means of extra classes to Grade 8 – 12 learners. In addition, operations research lecturers use the opportunity to communicate their science to learners in the form of guest lectures during extra classes (see attached image). This may not only potentially develop a deeper understanding of the conceptually challenging topics in their prescribed school syllabus and improve university performance in later years as a result, but opens up the opportunity to introduce the learners to the university and world of operations research as a career option. As a result their frame of reference increase, it helps them to connect the dots between the high school classroom and the real world, adding to their personal growth and development. The hope is to inspire and motivate learners because they understand some of the ‘Why’ questions they want to ask.

A science communication event at the Department of Logistics, Stellenbosch University, explaining what operations research and mathematics have in common

Perhaps, instead of building impressive and expensive labs in South Africa, we should start by encouraging growth in social impact initiatives such as the above, encouraging more science communication between tertiary and secondary education, or even encouraging more science communication between people working in companies and students. Perhaps we should start imagining a world in which the vast majority of learners wake up inspired. Perhaps we should start with ‘Why’.


[1] McGowan, H.E., 2019, What if the future of work starts with high school?, Available from

[2] PAST Foundation, 2016, Available from

[3] Stellenbosch University, Social impact, Available from

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