Building a strong and inspired teaching force in South Africa

I have worked in the educational field for more than 20 years, mainly working with teachers, offering them professional development and training, and giving them classroom-based support. One of the main things I have learnt is that teaching is tough!

The longer I am involved in teaching, the more I realise that teaching is Art and Science combined, as it is such a complex and intricate profession.

Teachers are required to be ‘on top’ in regard to their area of speciality, and they must also be able to adapt to imparting this knowledge, at different depths and levels, to various age groups.  Simultaneously teachers need to take into consideration differentiation, classroom management and assessment tools, while always keeping in mind the home backgrounds and emotional states of the learners, and at the end of all this they must remain well-balanced and sane!  With all the talks on technological trends in education, the one role, I have no doubt will remain is that of the teacher. No sophisticated online, e-learning cloud can replace the physical and mental human being that’s called a teacher.

We therefore need to invest in our teachers, by treating them as professionals and prioritising their status to one of the top ranks on the professional scale.  No other entity has the most impact on the future of education in the country than the teacher. Mckinsey reports, James Stronge’s research and the findings by Harry Wong all conclude that the single greatest effect on student achievement is the effectiveness of the teacher. If students’ achievements eventually determine the number of critical thinkers, the level of Science Literacy, and the number of future innovators and entrepreneurs the country produces, then the link of teachers to the future economy of the country is non-negotiable.

In order to raise the professional standards of teachers, some major steps need to be taken in South Africa. There is a need to raise the quality of pre-service teacher training offered by universities, especially in the field of Math, Science and Technology (MST) Education, where the MST Task team, nominated by the DBE Minister, found that the Higher Education Institutes are failing to deliver new adequately qualified MST teachers.
NewTeacherOnce teachers are in the system, a proper induction programme has to be implemented to support them and to prevent them dropping out early in their career. In countries like Singapore, a new teacher is assigned a mentor for a minimum period of 2-3 years.
Continuous and appropriate professional development needs to be implemented throughout a teacher’s career.  “Unless we continue to grow and learn as teachers after we graduate, within 3 to 5 years we will revert to teaching in ways we remember being taught…” Dr Dennis Rose.
So far ad-hock training has been provided to teachers without any Professional Development Plan and reporting system being put in place to monitor growth, relevancy and implementation.

Another important element, which must not be neglected, in applying any educational interventions, is to involve the teacher in the conceptualisation of reforms, or interventions.
The shift begins with the teachers and it will happen if there is buy-in from them. So far educational reforms have been done top-down, without much consultation with teachers. There is a major need to look at a bottom-up approach and get teachers to become proactive from the commencement of a reform, and therefore to become responsible and accountable professionals.

Giving teacher’s prestigious professional ranking, will also require that they are attractively compensated financially.   Another consideration is linking teachers’ performance to pay.

Another challenge that needs to be overcome is the generally negative perception that people have of teachers. How can we change this? That remains a challenge!

Lee Iacocca, an American businessman had this to say about teachers:

“In a completely rational society, the best of us would be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something else”.

Engaging learners in STEM education

At Education Week (organised by Spintelligent), which was held at the Sandton Convention Centre, in June, this year, a STEM Panel was set up to elaborate on how to engage learners in STEM education. Members of the panel presented interesting projects, and described different approaches, that could be used to promote learners’ engagement in STEM education in South Africa.

The STEM subjects of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math are not very popular and are perceived as difficult, by most of our students and many of our teachers.  This poor perception and negative attitude towards these important subjects is part of a vicious cycle that is reflected in the poor performance of our students when they participate in National and International Benchmarking Tests, in both Math and Science.

Where does South Africa stand when it comes to creating a pool of STEM qualified professionals? Not in a good position at all!
In 2012, statistic of the Grade 12 Cohort showed that 66% of these learners were ‘lost’ somewhere along the way, during the planned 12 year period of their schooling. Only 27% of the cohort, who completed matric, qualified to study for a degree, at a university. In addition to this, if we took 1000 children who started Grade 1 in 2001, only SIX of them would choose to pursue a STEM Qualification at a tertiary level, and of these SIX, only THREE would complete the qualification. (SASOL Inzalo Foundation Report).

There are many factors contributing to this state of affairs. One of the crucial ones is the poor delivery of the STEM subjects, by our teaching force.

Members of the panel presented the following:

The Robotics Project, run by ORT SA CAPE, presented by Dr Lydia Able.  Robotic activities are offered to both boys and girls, from townships schools, in the Western Cape.  The use of Technology for learning and development is done through the use of Lego WeDo and Mindstorm NXT Robotics kits. The children use the kits to design and build robots which, besides developing critical thinking and auditory listening skills, encourage the development of fine motor skills and hand eye co-ordination. If one is to succeed in Mathematics and Science it is essential that one becomes a critical thinker, and this skill is the major skill developed when one participates in Robotics.

The Bloodhound Foundation, presented by Chirstopher Maxwell also shared their exciting project which is to be launched in 2014. The Foundation will bring the first Super Sonic Car in the world to Kimberly!!  When they work in schools, the Foundation aims to get learners to be enthusiastic and interested in science-based subjects.

The above presentation was followed by an interesting presentation, by Olatunde Osiyemi, from the University of Fort Hare, on Mathematical Literacy, and its potential impact on the state of STEM. This in turn, was followed by an inspiring presentation by Seliki Tlhabane, CEO of the Sangari Institute.  He shared his successful approach to the teaching of Mathematics.  Using his approach, he puts pupils into mixed ability groups and all members of the group take responsibility to ensure that all members of their group perform at an acceptable level.  When it comes to informal assessments, the group is allowed to peruse the question paper prior to writing it, to discuss the questions and what is required from them, in order to answer them correctly.  This really caused consternation and much discussion from members of the the audience, and it was eventually agreed that’ if we always did what we have always done, we will always get what we’ve always got. Therefore to improve our Maths and Science results we need to be open to using new and different approaches, especially those where the learners are achieving positive results.

South Africa can overcome its educational challenges with the persistent implementation of strategies, positive thinking and action, working in collaboration and partnership, and by working towards one goal – the child. We have to always keep in mind that investing in our children is investing in our future.  The most important contributing factor to this investment is first and foremost education, so we have to deliver high quality education, to ensure that our children will grow up to be responsible, contributing, independent citizens of South Africa.

Reflections from Education Week SA July 2011

Education Week, a conference held at the Sandton Convention Centre recently, convened some important stakeholders in education, raising concerns regards the state of education in South Africa and sharing possible solutions and case studies. The state of education in SA has been exposed over the media and in academic articles, so the issues that arose in both morning panels on the 7th and 8th of July, were not new discoveries to most delegates. Both Ministries for Basic Education and Higher Education are openly disclosing information and strategies to the problem. For example, statistic shown by Mabizela Nathledi, who represented the Minister of Higher Education, revealed the numbers behind what he called the “Ticking Time Bomb”. Numbers of unemployed, not in education and not severely disabled at the 18-24 age cohort. This staggering statistic shows 2.8M unemployed between the age of 18-24, out of which about 2M – TWO MILLION have less than Grade 12 qualification (0.5M Primary education and less, 0.5M less than Grade 10, 1M less than Grade 12). In South Africa where the rate of unemployment is min 28% this statistic is of huge concern (compared to Tunisia where unemployment rate is 5%). Mazibela noted that the SA economy requires a pool of artisans and technicians as well as academic, teaching staff and researchers. Another concern raised is that the quality of students seems to be going down. He also added that poor education in primary level is the concern of DHE as well since the need to strengthen the basics; Math, Science and Literacy are fundamentals when getting to higher education.

I  enjoyed Brian O’Connell’s talk that conveyed some hope by mentioning that we will succeed as we did before. The 2005 Curriculum was wrong, but it’s not the end of it, since early civilisation, we have tried to make sense of things but we’re not always right. The Aztec, ethic group in central Mexico who sacrificed humans is an example that civilisation don’t always get it right first time. Lets’ just hope that it won’t take too long for our country to get it right.

Using Gapminder – world map, scaled by different variables of education, Brian demonstrated the huge challenges SA faces. When scaled by number of patents, tertiary enrolment and books borrowed – you can hardly see Africa on the World map, but when it comes to TB, Malaria and HIV/AIDS, Africa seems to be the biggest continent in the world. Brian O’Connell presented benchmarking and TIMSS results that demonstrates the poor performance of our learners.

Brian’s outreach to SADTU regarding this challenge in education is an important call for the shift needed in education achievement. I strongly believe that in order to succeed in our efforts to elevate the state of education – it is the call of the communities to take proactive measures to eradicate poverty and hunger that impacts our learners achieve better.

Credit: Zapiro