Beyond Exemplars: Creating a Robust Learning Culture for Matric Pupils


In a recent article by News24, a pressing concern has emerged from the Department of Education, prompting a reflective pause on the pedagogical approaches in schools. The reliance on exemplar question papers by matric pupils, as spotlighted by Hema Hariram of Naptosa during the basic education sector lekgotla, unveils a deeper issue within our education system – a leaning towards rote learning over a comprehensive understanding. This practice, while seemingly benign in its intention to prepare students for the National Senior Certificate (NSC) exams, may inadvertently set our students on a precarious path that values memorisation over mastery, and regurgitation over critical thinking.

The critique of this method goes beyond the confines of examination halls; it touches on the very essence of what we aim to achieve through education. The argument against the scripted nature of the exemplars and their use as a crutch highlights a systemic reliance on short-term success metrics, overshadowing the foundational goal of education; to equip students with the knowledge, skills and critical thinking abilities necessary to thrive in a rapidly evolving society. 

This shift not only challenges the integrity of our learning processes but also raises concerns about the long-term impact on students’ ability to critically engage with and apply their knowledge beyond the exam room.

The Shortcomings of a Rote-Based Approach for Matric Pupils

Exemplar papers, while useful as a tool for familiarisation with exam formats and potential content, should not become the cornerstone of a student’s preparation strategy. The main issue with a heavy dependence on exemplars lies in its narrow focus – preparing students to pass exams rather than to understand and apply knowledge. This approach may yield immediate results in terms of pass rates, but it falls short of preparing students for the challenges beyond the classroom. In university and the professional world, success is not measured by one’s ability to recall information but by the ability to think critically, solve problems and adapt to new situations. 

Students who have navigated their matric year with a collection of anticipated questions and scripted answers often find themselves at a disadvantage in higher education. Universities expect a level of analytical thinking and problem-solving skills that cannot be nurtured through rote-memorisation. The gap that exists between the exam-focused preparation of high school and the concept-driven demands of tertiary education becomes a rift that many students struggle to bridge. 

Envisioning a New Path Forward

To address these concerns, it is imperative to foster an educational environment that prioritises understanding over memorisation. Educators and policymakers should collaborate to develop strategies that encourage students to engage deeply with their subjects, promoting a culture of exploration and curiosity. 

  • Encourage critical thinking: This means that the curriculum and assessments should encourage analytical thinking and real-world application of knowledge. Instead of focusing solely on whether students can predict and answer exam questions, emphasis should be placed on how they can use their understanding to solve complex problems. 
  • Supporting Teachers as Facilitators of Learning: Teachers play a pivotal role in transforming the educational experience from one of rote learning to one of meaningful engagement. By empowering teachers with the autonomy to create dynamic, interactive lessons, we can move away from scripted learning towards a more personalised and effective educational approach.
  • Building a Foundation for Lifelong Learning: Education should not just be about passing exams but about instilling a love for learning that extends beyond school. By integrating concepts such as project-based learning and collaborative assignments, students can develop the necessary skills for continuous growth and adaptation in their personal and professional lives. 

Education should be a dynamic, interactive process that engages students, fosters curiosity and promotes understanding. We need to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach and recognise the diverse needs and abilities of students. By doing this, we can create a more inclusive and effective educational system that prepares students to thrive in university, in their careers and as thoughtful members of society.

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