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News24.com | Early childhood education – barometer of a failing system?

2019-06-18 19:00

Until our education system shatters the misconceptions about Grade R that stubbornly prevail and effectively resource and deliver quality Grade R education, our school system will continue to hobble learners from the outset of formal schooling, write Cally Kuhne and Ayesha Fakie.

With elections done and dusted and a new Cabinet finally in
place some have noted that the ministries looking after education are as “idealess
as they are visibly tired that South African education is going nowhere”.
It’s not hard to see some truth in that when we consider that despite progress
the overall education landscape is defined by inequality of opportunity,
access, and quality.

Nowhere is this inequality more profound when you consider
that educational achievement is “locked in” from the earliest years
of schooling. It is entrenched and compounded from year to year as children
progress through our education system, failing them and society, resulting in
an ever-widening gulf between middle class and working class, between well- and
poorly resourced, between urban and rural, between, still, white and black.

Early Childhood Education (ECD) is, by definition, from
birth to eight to nine years (Grade 3). In South Africa however, ECD typically
refers to birth to four years and, further, often neglects the 5 to 6-year-old
Grade R focus. What this means is that children, especially poor black
children, are not effectively prepared for school entry and that this deficit
is never really made up, dragging educational achievement downwards for both
the child and system. The shape and nature of this lack of efficacy in
preparedness is brought into sharp relief around mathematics and literacy.
These are cornerstones of educational achievement throughout schooling and
indeed post-schooling –fundamental conceptual building blocks that shape
educational milestones in years to come even beyond school into FET and career.

We know from sensational headlines how poor mathematics and
literacy performance is in South Africa compared to other nations. What is less
known is that the purpose and importance of mathematics learning in the early
years is not properly understood or valued in our country. This is because of
misconceptions around how mathematics skills and ideas develop or how best to
approach the teaching of mathematics concepts and fundamentals.

Generally, there is very little understanding about what
constitutes early literacy and mathematics and the conceptual underpinning that
informs later learning in Grade one and beyond. There is also not enough South
African research into early mathematics learning and teaching resulting in us
continually adapting lessons from elsewhere for our context, to poor results.

What is also not well understood is what mathematics is
actually about. Many, including teachers, think mathematics at the Grade R
level is about learning identify and say numbers out loud, adding and
subtracting. But mathematics, even at a Grade R level – or especially at that
level – involves learning the language that makes use of symbols and notations
for describing numerical, geometric and graphical relationships. It is a human
activity that involves observing, representing and investigating patterns and
qualitative relationships in physical and social phenomena and between
mathematical objects themselves.

Young children possess considerable competence in numerical
operations, geometry and spatial relationships, measurement, algebraic
thinking, and data analysis. Most pre-schoolers count verbally, which serves as
an explicit sign to adults of the child’s burgeoning number skills. However,
research suggests that children have a basic understanding of one-to-one
correspondence even before they can enumerate a set of objects verbally.
Without counting, they can match up two sets of items or point to items in a
collection, labelling each with a number, even if it is not the correct number.

Evidence also suggests that they can make a matching
collection for one that is not visible but is mentally represented. For
example, a toddler who retrieves two dog treats for two pets in another room is
saying, in effect, “This [one] is for [the first dog], and this [one] is
for [the second dog].” Such intuitive understandings and everyday
applications of knowledge may help lay the groundwork for later understandings
of numerical equivalence and operations, such as addition and subtraction.

As important as cognitive concepts, mathematics and literacy
in Grade R requires that a child understands how their body moves in space and
learning how to manipulate objects in space. Young children learn about spatial
relationships and shapes while moving through their classroom and outdoor
spaces and by manipulating toys such as puzzles and two- and three-dimensional
shapes. It goes without saying that this is difficult to do with no puzzles or
games, where resources and absent, where the school outdoor spaces are not only
lacking but unsafe.

What is interesting is that even where there is quality in
teaching and learning in Grade R (when children are five turning six), research
tells us that the optimal learning years for mathematics and literacy are
between the ages of three and five. Formal teaching, which Grade R forms part
of, is thus compensatory from the outset resulting in a deficit-based approach.
This is compounded when accounting for factors such as home language versus
medium of instruction, level of parent education and their comfort in the
instructional languages, time available for working class parents to spend with
their children reading and writing, and similar interweaving variables forming
an ecosystem of learning in which the child’s mind, body and wellbeing is

Until our education system shatters the misconceptions about
Grade R teaching and learning that stubbornly prevail and effectively resource
and deliver quality Grade R education, our school system will continue to hobble
learners from the outset of formal schooling. Understanding the importance of
Grade R, what it is, how it should be taught, that it is part of foundation phase
teaching and not preschool, is fundamental to entrenching Grade R in South
Africa, ensuring a greater likelihood of learner and school success in later

– Cally Kuhne is the Early Childhood Development Stream Leader
at the Schools Development Unit, University of Cape Town and worked in this
field focusing on education of 5- to 9-year-olds for over 30 years. She is a
leading advocate for Grade R mathematics and literacy education in South
Africa. Ayesha Fakie is the head of the Schools Development Unit,
School of Education, UCT.

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