27 September 2022

South African schools on the path to interdisciplinary education

Author: Karolina Czopek,


South African participants in the HTT research project stressed the importance of holistic development of students which is most successfully implemented in their schools through the Life Skills subject. 

Learning life – learning what?

Beginning Knowledge, Personal and Social Well-being, Creative Arts and Physical Education – these four components constitute the Life Skills subject, also known as Life Orientation. According to the South African National Curriculum, the subject aims at “guiding and preparing learners for life and its possibilities, including equipping learners for meaningful and successful living in a rapidly changing and transforming society”. It is therefore a platform to integrate content knowledge (mostly social and natural sciences) with social skills, creativity, as well as physical, cognitive and emotional development.    

Different way of teaching

The teachers who took part in the HTT research project in three South African schools see this subject as the most comprehensive among the ones included in the curriculum in terms of both form and content. In their opinion, group work, discussions and role play-activities used in Life skills help students develop their ability to think critically, strengthen their communication skills and show them the value of teamwork. One of the respondents remarked that in Life Skills teachers “create an environment that is supportive for the children to be able to freely explore, make mistakes and learn from them”. Content-wise, the subject touches upon various aspects relevant to students both at present and  in their future lives: “for example, how to cope with grief or how to study, many topics are discussed in this subject”. The variety of topics makes the subject truly interdisciplinary, as they range from cultural and environmental issues to health and safety.

The respondents particularly highlighted that students learn there how to deal with challenges, as learners are first familiarised with the roots of problems they can encounter in life (e.g. bullying or abuse) and then equipped with strategies to avoid or overcome them. “South Africa is doing well in teaching the students self-development and the importance to grow and succeed” – concluded one of the teachers.

Unconventional approach makes a difference

The interviews showed that the subject is highly valued not only by teachers, but also students and their parents. Some students taking part in the study declared that Life Skills is their favourite subject, explaining that “it teaches me things about life, such as how to look after animals and the world” and “we can communicate with friends and learn more about ourselves”. Observation of Life Skills lessons showed that these classes met with the greatest enthusiasm of learners, as they were more engaging than other lessons. Students also appreciated the fact that Life Skills is a space where they have an opportunity to discuss the issue of bullying, which was uniformly identified by both students and teachers alike as the main problem in South African schools.

Importantly, parents also noticed that their children develop communication and creative thinking, which can be largely attributed to Life Skills, as other subjects do not put much emphasis on these.  

Room for improvement

Alongside the undisputable benefits of the approach promoted in Life Skills, the respondents noticed its drawbacks, e.g. the choice of topics or not sufficient focus on certain aspects, such as critical thinking.  It is therefore clear that a sole subject is not a cure-all if other parts of the curriculum retain  traditional attitudes to teaching and learning. Only a comprehensive approach pertaining to all school subjects can guarantee a wholly new, wholesome quality of the educational experience. This quality is what advocates of educational reform should be striving for.

The contribution of the HTT research project to the idea of the IDS is invaluable. Through glimpses into the reality of schools all over the world we gain understanding of what is needed to make school a better place – a place where education meets with reality outside the classroom, helping students on their path to becoming happy and fulfilled individuals in the future.