OP-ED Opinions 

News24.com | South African education is appalling but there are answers

2019-07-21 08:00

I have yet to meet a teacher who was not excited at the prospect of having their learners do well. We have the resources, so why not initiate an plan with teachers relieved of their duties for one year to improve their education, writes Anita Worrall.

President
Cyril Ramaphosa listed education as a priority in his recent policy
speech. But in my and many of my associates’ opinion there is much more to
be said and to be done in education than he indicated. 

Notwithstanding
one of the highest education budgets by population in the world there is
unanimity that South African education is in an appalling state, something
which puts the country at risk to competing to survive in the new millennium.
Yet, and this is the main point I wish to make, positive responses are
available.

That
a large number of grade threes and sixes cannot read today is simply not
acceptable. Obviously, one can’t blame the children neither, to be frank,
can we blame the teachers. But we can, the shapers of our education system for
not informing themselves of the latest trends in effective instruction – indeed
informing themselves of trends that are shaping education in many parts of the
world.

To
illustrate the point, teaching, reading and writing require that they be taught
in an explicit and systematic manner. Evidence is strong that the majority of
children learn to read better in a structured literacy approach. This is an
approach which accepts the basis of reading is language, and that each of the
essential components of language need to be explicitly and systematically
taught. So children need to be taught what is referred to as phonemic
awareness. Becoming aware of individual speech sounds (phonemes) that make up
words is critical to learning to read and spell.

The
basis for phonemic awareness is laid in the pre-grades, which is why all our
children should have Grade R experience. This is where they learn to play with
sounds, to rhyme, to count syllables and to separate sounds in simple words.
Preparation for this is often seen in the simple game of “I spy with my
little eye something beginning with C”.

This
is the 21st century of teaching and there are many centres in South
Africa where systematic and structured teaching of literacy is happening but it
is a flash in the pan. We need to follow Britain’s example where the
recently-established Education Endowment Fund (EEF) offers information to
teachers on many different aspects of education. Even classroom management is
provided in this way. The EEF has given a much-needed boost to British
education. We need to establish a similar body in South Africa because the fact
is that we have the trained people to get it off the ground and run it!

Obviously
related to teaching people to read, spell, and do maths is the need to teach
pupils strategies for learning. As Prof Manala, Vice Chancellor and Principal
of the University of Johannesburg, recently wrote in City Press: “South
Africa needs savvy activists in the 21st-century because 21st-century learning
requires innovation, open-mindedness, critical thinking, and knowledge of how
to collaborate with others.”

Therefore
teaching children thinking strategies is essential, in fact as essential as
teaching strategies to read, spell, write and do math. Here, again, we
encouragingly have laid a basis and made a start.

In
2012 several of us in the educational field got together and created a
non-governmental, non-profit organisation called Thinking Schools South Africa
(TSSA). It is modelled on a UK organisation launched by Exeter University. We
set as our goal transforming 200 schools to 21st century learning. We reckoned
that in this way we would have at least 150,000 “smarter” 21st century
learners by 2020, and we have achieved that! TSSA has grown to the point
where we have transformed more than 200 schools across wealth, rural/urban and
language divisions. And the world has taken note of this: as far as cognitive
education is concerned, South African is on the map. Next year in June South
Africa will host the biannual world event of The International Thinking
Conference (ICOT)), obviously a must-attend for those looking at expanding
21st-century thinking in our country.

I
have yet to meet a teacher who was not excited at the prospect of having his or
her learners do well. We have the resources, so why not initiate an inclusive
plan for education with teachers relieved of their duties for one year to
improve their education? There already are centres of excellence that could
accommodate them. The fact is we need to think out of the box. Our
colleges, training centres and education departments need to refresh their
thinking in terms of 21st century models.

The
main point I want to make is that there is no need to despair. We have the
knowledge to transform our education. As an illustration of what can be
achieved, Finland has progressed within a period of 50 years into a global,
cutting-age education system. Its education is based on training teachers to be
educational scientists, to have Master’s degrees in education and to be paid
and be respected as much as lawyers and doctors.

They
have moved away from subject teaching to teaching comprehensive learning
skills. The emphasis is more on developing the learner’s problem-solving and
thinking skills rather than simply transferring information. It may not be
realistic to view Finland as an inspiration. But there are many other countries
from whom we can learn.

– Dr Anita Worrall is a
well-known child psychologist who is also director of the Pro Ed House School
and Centre in Rondebosch, Cape Town, which she founded more than 20 years ago. She
is an internationally acknowledged authority on bilingualism and cognitive
development, and the founder and chairperson of the Thinking School
movement of South Africa and a regular contributor to international conferences.

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