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Children's Literature in Southern Africa

My formula for starting a revolution in education

Mark Barnes, a columnist for Business Day Live, explains, in three simple steps, how South Africa's education system can be improved. Social media, he says, is the answer.

There may not be a book in each of us, but I’m convinced there’s a teacher. Everyone knows something relatively well enough to be able to teach it — whether it be how to tie a fly-fishing knot, how to stir a baking mix or how to solve for X in a parabola equation. You don’t know what you don’t know, but I also think you don’t know what you do know.

We need teachers in South Africa. We all need to teach.

At university, all my studies were somehow centred on mathematics — one of the most feared and avoided subjects of learning and yet one of the few in which you can get 100%. You can’t get 100% for English, for instance. At its foundation, mathematics has only 10 axioms and, a bit like debits and credits in accountancy, once you’ve mastered an understanding of these rules, it’s easy peasy — trouble is, you need a good teacher. I found a remarkable textbook once: Calculus Made Easy, by Sylvanus Thompson, published about 1910 (get a life, I hear you say: bear with me). This title was far more inviting than my prescribed text — Calculus and Analytic Geometry — so I started reading.

Thompson had let the cat out of the bag. On one of the front pages of his book he introduces the book as "being a very simplest introduction to those beautiful methods of reckoning which are generally called by the terrifying names of the Differential Calculus and the Integral Calculus". He then went on, in the prologue, to say: "Considering how many fools can calculate, it is surprising that it should be thought either a difficult or a tedious task for any other fool to master the same tricks. Some calculus tricks are easy. Some are enormously difficult. The fools who write the text books of advanced mathematics — and they are mostly clever fools — seldom take the trouble to show you how easy the easy calculations are. On the contrary, they seem to desire to impress you with their tremendous cleverness by going about it in the most difficult way."

Thompson was a teacher of the very best kind. First, he had knowledge and understanding. Second he wanted to share it.

Needu, the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit, is independent, reporting directly to the minister of education.

Its 2012 report focused on the foundation phase (grades 1-3), being, as it surely is, the base for all future learning and the foundation for numeracy, literacy and communication. If a pupil doesn’t get it there, the rest of school can be a fragile, scary dance around guessed answers and embarrassing mistakes.

The study uncovered some stark shortcomings in the South African education system. It is difficult to summarise the already really good summary here — please go and look at it. The evaluation covered 134 primary schools, and focused on direct outcomes (as the best measure of the quality of teaching) in nine provinces, 86 districts and 26,000 school management teams to evaluate instructional leadership (curriculum delivery).

The exercise was thorough and can be regarded as conclusive.

Why do South African schools perform below expectations?

In essence there seem to be two groupings — because they won’t or because they can’t do better. "Won’t" can be fixed easier than "can’t". Won’t includes problems of discipline and attendance and the like among our teachers — these of course affect the outcome of education, but the real issues run much deeper into the can’t space.

We have some special problems of our own.

Can you imagine trying to understand biology or mathematics if it was being taught to you in another language? For most South Africans, the language at school is not the language they speak at home. As one teacher put it: "We speak a deurmekaar Setswana". It is all very well to have 11 official languages but it compounds the problem of having qualified teachers beyond remedy, so we have to choose. What do we choose: English, Afrikaans, Zulu and Xhosa? Still too many? English and Afrikaans? Not fair, politically incorrect? English it must be — like it or not, it is international.

In business we’ve accepted English — only a handful of people could tell you what an accumulative convertible redeemable preference share is in Afrikaans (yes, I can, I went to Belfast Hoërskool).

Our teachers didn’t all have the benefit of the best education when they were at school. So many teachers simply haven’t got the sound foundations in the subject necessary to teach it. You can’t teach what you don’t know. How on earth do we fix that quickly? It starts with a transparent and blame-free acceptance of the problem. A kind of amnesty — if you don’t know what you’re teaching, tell us, we’ll help you. There’s nothing worse than doing a job you’re not confident you’re capable of — it’s called teacher subject knowledge capacitation, I think.

Implementing the solution (on time) is a different matter entirely.

Three initial thoughts:

• Intense, curriculum-specific teacher education — at night. Find teachers to teach the teachers. If they won’t come, then make them — educational national service. Mobilise the whole population — make us all responsible. If you teach any recognised course, you get points, like Voyager miles, to be used to pay for things or reduce your tax.

• Use technology — give every teacher a free iPad filled with downloads of best lessons. You have to complete so many modules a week to keep it.

• Get the economics right — pay them more and more and more until you attract the best minds away from other professions (while I’m at it, don’t forget the police and health practitioners). Pay them to attract them, pay them to keep them as they advance — more money for specific maths and science and language modules than for general "life orientation skills". Outcomes-based bonuses — every pupil distinction at every level in education should result in some cash in someone’s bank account (and a refund to the student). We can’t spend too much of our tax on education.

But the real answer lies in social media. SMS "tonight’s solution" and "Mathematics" to 34007 to get your kid’s homework answers — SMSes are free, paid for by your government, working together for a better life! (Yes, the technology is already there to do this). It goes beyond SMSes and it goes beyond parents — today’s lessons could be uploaded on YouTube every night. We all spend too much time on our cellphones, particularly our kids — but that’s okay if we’re all either learning or teaching. What about Twitter, Facebook? … all paid for by our taxes.

We can do it in as many languages as you like! Hell, get Justin Bieber to sing today’s damn maths lesson if that’s what it takes.

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