Conference Feedback 2007

Conference Feedback 2007
Chairman’s Report 2007

Report by the Chairperson 

Conference Theme
Interrogating the History Curriculum after ten years of OBE

The programme was a full one with 7 triple sessions as well as some plenary sessions so it was impossible for anyone to attend everything. After the registration and informal welcome we moved directly into the first set of parallel sessions. As I was to chair one of these, my choice was made for me and I went off to listen to Reshma Sookrajh and Brij Maharaj on Exploring community History voices: a contextual approach. These academics from the University of KZN were summarising the process and results of a research project on Cato Manor which had explored the impact of socio-political and economic forces on the community and how these impacted on the schooling of the children of that community. The use of researchers embedded deep inside the community allowed them to find insights which would not otherwise have been possible and threw more light on the fences that existed between schools and the community. It therefore became possible to start to break down some of these fences.
In the second session I went to hear Penny Hitchins (also of UKZN) on the issues of Differentiation in History – gifted learners, what can we do? She based a lot of her paper on studies she had done in psychology and the work of Vygotsky in particular. Vygotsky pays particular attention to language skills and she looked at ways in which we can help the gifted learner by extending their language skills and use so that they can perform better in the history classroom as well. An interesting paper but not as helpful as I had hoped it might be.
The second half of this session was a duo from Roedean School looking at Putting the OB of OBE into Observant and looking at the ability of learners at Grade 7 and Grade 12 levels to identify (observe) bias. This included looking at different approaches to teaching learners about how to identify bias. I am not sure to what extent I agree with the comments made and would certainly not expect the Grade 7 learner to be able to see the more subtle forms of bias that I demand of my Grade 12 learners but an interesting paper nevertheless.
At this stage we moved to our first plenary session for the official opening and the keynote address by Prof. Kader Asmal who was responsible for implementing much of the present education system when he was Minister of Education (1999 to 2004). Prof Asmal gave a very witty and entertaining speech and emphasised that history should be desirable and exciting for pupils, not the repetition of lists of facts and dates that he had to study at school. He reminded us that the “Values in Education” report emphasised the role of history as the repository of the values of society with its need for critical thinking, for thinking about the curriculum, for ensuring an awareness of human rights. He also pointed out that history is important in the construction of an identity both at individual and community levels. In short, he said that the struggles in history have been for freedom, for identity and for dignity. He moved on to the issue of OBE and how people in the first flush of enthusiasm for it and its 66 listed outcomes, people neglected the content of what was to be studied. This has now largely be remedied and the new textbooks do cover both content and skills and encourage the breakdown of barriers between subjects and between European and south African history because no history can take place in isolation. He liked the use of questions to link aspects of the curriculum and reminded us that there are no absolute answers especially in history. He emphasised the need for learners to study history and the humanities if they are not to be illiterate on issues and reminded us of our importance as history teachers commenting that there is no substitute for a good teacher.. His talk was followed by a short question time before we all adjourned for lunch.
After lunch were workshop sessions and I enjoyed first a workshop with Ansurie Pillay of Chalkface Productions on Using drama strategies to fire the historical imaginations in our learners. This was of particular interest because she looked not a the traditional use of little sketches and acting out on stage or in front of the class, but on shorter, snappier uses of dramatic ideas. She emphasised that it was not necessary to get the learners to come out and act! They could look at role plays and issues in small groups or pairs and develop empathetic skills and ideas of characterisation without the fear of “going on stage”. She emphasised strongly the need for preparation and research in the beginning and for debriefing at the end. The emphasis is not so much on the drama as on getting the learner to engage with the historical situation and in this way to do history and by involvement, learn.
After tea I attended a workshop on Creating a community of practice for History Educators as I am often frustrated at the problems of getting my community, i.e. my cluster, to work. This workshop by Murthi Maistry of UKZN Economics Department included many practical points and I certainly came out encouraged to continue with the work in the cluster group. Practical tips and points of the dynamics of such a group over time were certainly encouraging and will no doubt prove useful.
That ended Friday’s work session and we had a break before a cocktail party in the evening. The cocktail party was a most enjoyable affair with a chance to relax and chat to old and new acquaintances as well as having a chance to chat to Prof Asmal who as a good politician “worked the room”. I enjoyed my chat with him and would like to get a chance to know him better.
Saturday morning began at 0900 with, for me, a workshop by Dennis Francis  of UKZN on Teaching controversial issues in History. One of the points he made was that in essence all history is controversial to some extent and the need to distinguish between being neutral and being impartial. Learners tend to have a concern for ‘who is right?” rather than for an awareness of there being different sides to the story. Some very good insights and a very non-threatening, non-judgemental manner which could be good to copy made this a very worthwhile session.
After that I attended a session by Thembisa Waetjen  (UKZN) on Tradition, gender and nation as competing pasts where she examined the tensions between individual choice and traditional cultural values. This extends to how the present is often interpreted in terms of the past (and vice versa). The recent example of vigilante action against a Zulu woman for wearing trousers was used to illustrate and highlight much of what she was saying. The second part of the session was led by Samantha Reuning also of UKZN, on Teaching about women in History and the problems around this. Where women were regulated to a minor role in patriarchal societies, does one “find” female figures to push into the limelight? How the issue of gender and the role of women in history is addressed
needs to be considered, especially by those who write textbooks.
After tea I was again chairing a session so went – quite happily – to listen to Geraldine Kirchner a Subject Advisor with the Western Cape DoE, on the subject of Mentoring History Educators in the context of curriculum transformation. One of the main problems faced in her department was the language issue and here it was agreed that explanations for learners could be made in Xhosa so as to ensure that the learners knew what they were about. The medium of instruction is English but it is essential that learners do know what is to be done so some use of home language is often necessary. The other major problem was fear of change and the unfamiliar so that much of the mentoring had to be in the form of boosting confidence. The second part of the session was Edward Smuts of Stellenbosch University and Gengs Pillay of the KZN DoE asking Can all learners produce extended analytical answers? Both gentlemen are involved with the present Grade12 examination where extended writing is required. The term extended writing has never been defined in terms of syllabus or examination requirements and the analytical writing can take different forms which need to be assessed differently. They concluded that it is possible to teach all learners to achieve this sort of writing but that the skills must be taught and the different types of extended analytical writing must be assessed differently – e.g. a diary entry is not a report.
We then moved to a plenary session on textbooks and problems associated with these. Representatives from Shuter and Shooter, Oxford and Maskew Miller Longman were there to help answer queries and to explain problems. An interesting point made by the MML representative was than history textbooks are the most expensive to produce largely because of the costs of permission to reproduce sources. an interesting session where many teachers seemed to become aware for the first time of the assessment process required before state schools could use a textbook – and therefore before a publisher would do a print run.
This was followed by a short AGM of the society where the usual thanks and elections happened and then we were given a packed lunch and departed for home .A thoroughly worthwhile two days of stimulation and discussion even if one could only enjoy about a third of what was on offer. So what did I miss?  A session on heritage teaching and the availability of resources fro teaching heritage; some evaluation of the FET history curriculum; an analysis of Grade 10 assessment tasks and the introduction to a exam bank CD for Grade 12 History; IKS and the NCS; the NCS and a search for explanations in isiZulu; music as an educational tool for 20th century SA history; the use of a single source for source based work; challenges of the Grade 12 CASS portfolio; practical applications of the heritage outcome; the use of Microsoft Windows Moviemaker; games in teaching history; the incorporation of human rights into the teaching of history; problems and developments in history teaching in Botswana and Swaziland; the issue of declining numbers choosing to study history in the FET phase; the use of images as visual narratives for curriculum access; and the telling of forgotten stories – the Women’s Defence of the constitution League. Some of these I would have liked to hear, others I gathered in tea time conversations were disappointing. No doubt copies of the papers will all be available in due course on the society’s web site (www,, if not … well one cant have everything.
Jimmy Verner

Chairman, SASHT

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