Educators must move to the top of the class

Victoria John

A Unisa professor’s programme to improve teaching skills is reaping results in Limpopo, but better evaluation of such programmes is required.

Poor training of teachers in rural schools who are struggling to implement curriculum changes is one of the causes of dismal performance, according to a Unisa professor. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

Nine out of the 18 schools that got a zero matric pass rate in 2009 are in the Vhembe schools district of Limpopo. Poor training of teachers in rural schools who are struggling to implement curriculum changes is one of the causes of this dismal performance, according to a University of South Africa professor.

But a project in 2012 has taken off in the area and is one of the reasons those schools are now “passing with flying colours”.

Meanwhile, South Africa does not have a single in-service teacher training programme that has been implemented at anything more than about 50 schools and has been rigorously evaluated, a Stellenbosch researcher said.

“Teachers will say there are so many changes [to the curriculum] … and all these things are becoming problematic. They will say ‘we are not even trained, someone will come for thirty minutes and then go’. Things are done in a haphazard way,” professor in curriculum studies at Unisa Walter “Wally” Lumadi told the Mail & Guardian two weeks ago.

The M&G interviewed him after he did a presentation on the taxing exercise of curriculum implementation for rural teachers at the South African Education Research Association conference in Durban.

“I felt I needed to do something about it instead of resting on my laurels. Charity begins at home. I live in Gauteng now, [but] Limpopo is still my home.”

Lumadi grew up in a village called Tshipise Tsha Sagole, about 95km from Thohoyandou in the Vhembe district. He went to school there. “Back then it was even worse … we were sitting under trees,” he said.

Teachers learn from experienced teachers
Being a mere spectator in the unravelling of teachers and schools was not an option for him.

“What is the point of becoming a professor if you’re not willing to plough your skills back into the community?”

Lumadi launched the Increasing Learner Performance in Maths and Science initiative in the Vhembe District in 2012.

“District officials identified [maths and science] teachers from schools who are doing very well and we asked them if they would give lessons to pupils at the struggling schools,” Lumadi said.

Every Saturday and school holidays grade 12 pupils gather at community centres to be taught by these experienced teachers. Teachers at the struggling schools are also expected to attend the lessons.

“We say to teachers: ‘You must come and sit in here so you can know how to help the kids. You must also learn’ so that at least they can say, ‘I know more or less what good teaching looks like.’?”

Unisa colleagues roped in
Twelve schools, including the nine who got a zero matric pass rate in 2009, benefit from the project and Lumadi hopes it will expand to include grade 11 pupils soon.

Saturdays at the centres are so busy, Lumadi says, “you wouldn’t think it’s the weekend”.

“Principals are there and circuit managers are there. Everyone wants to be involved. People miss church because the kids want to come on Sundays,” he said.

It’s not just extra lessons on offer, either. Lumadi has roped in about 14 experienced Unisa colleagues to help.

“They are from different departments in the College of Education such as … curriculum and instructional studies, mathematics, science, psychology, inclusive [education], languages, management and early childhood. Colleagues from all departments have a major role to play.”

He said a colleague from the education management department is able to motivate principals on how they should lead exemplary lives at school.

“Someone from the language side of things can say ‘this is what you are supposed to do’ … we visit once a month. We make class visits, we watch teaching. [My colleagues] pick up different problems and we sit down with the whole school and address them.”

Proper evaluation required
Humbulani Matshaye is a maths teacher at Dengenya Secondary school in Dzingahe village outside Thohoyandou. He is one of the experienced teachers that give lessons to struggling pupils who are part of Lumadi’s project.

He said these pupils’ teachers are motivated and have the knowledge, “but maybe they don’t know how to teach it … Sometimes a new hand can help”.

He said they and other rural teachers in other provinces did not get enough training.

“We sometimes get training from the district … but I think we need more … we are not trained enough in the [new curriculum].”

Nic Spaull, an education researcher in the economics department at Stellenbosch University, said: “We don’t have a single in-service teacher training programme that has been implemented at anything more than 50 or so schools and been rigorously evaluated and shown to be effective.

“Not one. This is really one of the scandals and the tragedies of the post-apartheid period.”

He said these programmes are almost never evaluated “and when they are, the evaluations are so weak or poorly done that we have no idea if these programmes are actually working”.

Yet every year government and nongovernmental organisations continue to spend millions of rands on these programmes.

“The norm is to just assume that these interventions work. Yet most of the evidence we have suggests that they have very little, if any effect on teacher content knowledge or pedagogical skill,” he said.

“We need well-specified interventions that have been proven to work on a small scale (20-50 teachers), and then scale these up gradually and evaluate at each level. A model that works for 25 teachers may not work for 250 teachers. What works in an urban area may not work in a rural area.

“We cannot assume that just because something looks good on paper it is actually going to work in practice – that’s why we need rigorous evaluation.”

The basic education department did not respond to the M&G’s questions at the time of publishing.

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