Let’s learn our virus lesson and fix what we teach
More pandemics are coming, so we need new ways to teach about viruses, bacteria and infectious diseases
This week, the inevitable happened. Poor people locked up in their homes broke out and looted shops for food and other basic necessities. A narrator from one of the cramped housing estates records one of the lootings with a voice-over that sounded like that of an expert in street-level sociology – what can you expect, the people are hungry, they are cooped up, they are not allowed to work, you starve or you make a plan; yes it is criminal, but what would you do in this situation? He is right of course. In SA there is a razor-thin line between criminality and survival.
But what concerns me even more is the ignorance around the virus that also drives destructive human behaviour.
Given our low levels of education across poorer communities, the government did a really bad job of educating people about coronavirus. Knowledge matters. You can’t beat critical information into the heads of people if they do not understand virus functions and the course of a disease. It is especially difficult to change human behaviour on the basis of something you cannot see and whose symptoms are familiar to the many with tuberculosis or ailments that come with the seasonal flu.
Of the many things we need to do “post-corona” is to prepare the population for future epidemics and one intervention must be a thorough school education on viruses, bacteria and infectious diseases. So I spoke to teachers of the life sciences in the CAPS curriculum of government to determine what is being done on the subject. I also interviewed experts in infectious diseases to determine how they would redesign the school curriculum to better educate young people on the subject. We have a plan.
But let’s start with a situation analysis. Schools do touch lightly on the subject in the CAPS curriculum. For example, in Grade 8 (natural sciences) children learn about types of micro-organisms, both the useful and harmful ones, over a two-week period. One of the suggested activities is “writing about the cause, effects, symptoms and treatments of one of the diseases caused by micro-organisms”.
In Grade 11 there are three weeks (12 hours) dedicated to “biodiversity and classification of organisms”, where pupils learn about the structure and characteristics of viruses, bacteria, Protista and fungi; and about the effect and management of one disease from any of those four groups. There is also reference to immunity, antibiotics and medicines.
At the time of writing this column (April 15 2020, 8.24am) more than 2 million people were infected with coronavirus, more than 126,000 dead, and more than 1,39 million currently infected (of which 51,603 are in a critical condition). In SA around the same time there are about 2,300 recorded cases and 27 deaths. This is the bad news; the worse news is that the numbers of fatalities are going to increase, that Covid-19 is going to be with us in some form for a very long time, and that other pandemics will come in its wake.
Our team of epidemiologists, curriculum planners and different subject experts are in the process of designing the new curriculum insert.
With this stark reality in mind, the school curriculum has to be urgently revamped. The CAPS content is too slim, too superficial and too routine a treatment of micro-organisms that could literally wipe out large parts of the human race.
I am therefore preparing for the department of basic education a curriculum plan for a completely new way of teaching about viruses, bacteria and infectious diseases. Our team of epidemiologists, curriculum planners and different subject experts are in the process of designing the new curriculum insert. It will be interdisciplinary, bringing in applied mathematics (virus growth and exponential graphs), virology (how viruses grow and mutate), medicine (treatments and vaccines), geography (modern travel and the spread of diseases), and history (parallels and lessons to be learnt from the 1918 flu pandemic that killed millions).
We will propose 12 hours of teaching this interdisciplinary curriculum in each of the senior phase years (grades 10, 11 and 12), the thorough preparation of teachers for teaching this new programme, and a series of practical exercises and experiments that make the subject come to life for young people. In addition, we propose that this new initiative become a core curriculum subject that all senior pupils should take, not only those doing the life sciences.
Finally, we recommend that the subject of infectious diseases be taught from Grade 1 with the appropriate levels of education, e.g. personal hygiene and germs, in the foundation phase. Needless to say, a broader public education on the same subject for out-of-school youth and adult learning also needs to be taken up with urgency.
Government bureaucracies are typically slow to respond to innovation and especially when there is no immediate political benefit that accrues. But teaching pupils well about coronavirus and the global spread of infectious diseases is literally a matter of life and death.