/ 27 May 2011

Teacher rescue plan takes off

Teacher Rescue Plan Takes Off

The meeting place was at one of those airport hotels that have an aviation theme — one that had a small putt-putt course right at the reception so that guests could putt a ball while having coffee and waiting for their travel, or their talking, to begin.

Airline staff checked in and out and the place had a surreal feel to it. It was neither hotel nor conference hotel — it was a pit stop. Outside, the roar of jets landing and taking off reminded you that OR Tambo is a busy place and that early morning is peak time.

So the arrival of a group of people on May 11 from 17 universities in South Africa was on the surface not an unusual occurrence. They had business here. Except, the business was unique. Never had teacher educators for the foundation phase gathered from all over South Africa like this to plan a joint programme of research on the education of the future teachers who come to them to learn.

From the moment we had our coffee we had a sense of energy and urgency — that we were in a race against time. There was one clear focus in mind throughout a morning of focused talk: that the education of the young children of this country is at stake and we are responsible for the education of the teachers we offer to those children.

Unlike many other meetings of academics, this one was almost completely devoid of those ubiquitous phenomena of the academic world and its conferences – the theoretical views, the positions and the egos of the individual scholar. Absent too was the institutional competitiveness that is a hallmark of universities. We were one from the outset.

The thrill in the air was about the education of the teachers of the young. Without talking about it we all knew that this component of teacher education needs an immediate and powerful intervention. Policy and top-down directives are not achieving it for so many children in our country whose teachers are not adequately prepared.

Maybe this interinstitutional collaboration will do it. And, looking at the motley crew of strong-voiced and motivated participants from seven provinces, that airport meeting may just be the one that sets the education of foundation-phase teachers on a path that will have a powerful effect on the children. Seldom does one see a group of university specialists collaborate so rapidly and openly to set out a research agenda that will bring the facts (and the faults) of our teacher preparation system to the table.

We ended the meeting with the selection of a working group from seven provinces who will get the process going, with North-West University as its first home. They have a specific brief: to write the usual concept document that defines its work and a draft constitution for what may be named something like the association for childhood education research in South Africa.

At the Literacy Education Winter School at the University of Johannesburg in July, they will take time off for meetings with one of us — Whitfield Green — and Dr Diane Parker. Both are from the department of higher education and training and they initiated this venture in collaboration with the basic education department and with funding support from the European Union.

At the winter school, we will report on our progress in researching teacher education for the foundation phase during those working sessions. We will also report on what materials, such as videos and other tools, have been made and how we are revising our teacher education degree programmes. We will report on how our PhD and master’s students progress on their research about teacher education for young children. We will exchange other research on how young children learn and develop and what vulnerable children show in terms of learning when we investigate their progress on the ground.

In short, we will begin to give substance to the framework of systematic longitudinal research, trying to find some information on the inner workings of the schools, universities, teachers, teacher educators and the larger system, all of which are in some way not serving the children of the country well enough.

We expect to launch the association formally at the winter school and usher in a new, exciting era for childhood education. From this collaboration will come solid recommendations on programmes for the education of teachers of the young. Questions such as how they can become experts on the learning and developing child, instead of experts in one discipline, will be addressed.

The group will look into the most threatening, burning issues such as:

  • The interplay of language and the learning of concepts, including the factor of mother-tongue instruction;
  • The mystifyingly slow progress in mathematics and language learning in the majority of schools and what can be done to better prepare teachers to lead the young into learning numeracy and literacy;
  • Daily support for vulnerable children;
  • The suitability of teachers’ own language, literacy and mathematics development for becoming foundation-phase teachers; and
  • Attracting high-performing school leavers, especially African-language speakers, to become foundation-phase teachers.

But this group and the association it is forming will not limit their work to research and publication and the improvement of teacher education. It has more in its vision. Delegates decided unanimously that the aim is to become a stakeholder in teacher education and policy. In much the same way as the Southern African Association for Research in Mathematics, Science and Technology Education is now a strong voice in all things related to mathematics, science and technology education, the association will want to address both policy and how to turn it into practice.

But, more than anything, the association will want to raise the stakes and status in foundation-phase teacher education through strong advocacy. The vision is to see the smartest young people enter the programmes at our universities where they can learn to research the children in their classes while teaching them how to learn.

The aim is also to raise the social status of the foundation-phase teacher in the profession. In an earlier article in the Mail & Guardian, Sarah Gravett and Elbie Henning pointed to the strangling conundrum of trying to find the best candidates in a society that regards teachers of the young as the lowliest in the profession and with the fewest career options.

So, when next the members of this group meet at an airport hotel, it will again be for a pit-stop break in the race against time to get the early education of our children right.

Like many education systems across the globe, we also aspire to a time when the cream of our high-school students are attracted into childhood education teaching programmes of a high standard and where, after graduation, they are set free to operate effectively and efficiently in a national education system where there is space to explore and support the learning of young children creatively and entrepreneurially, with little need for external control and standardised testing. That time begins now.

Elbie Henning is professor of educational linguistics and lead researcher in the University of Johannesburg Institute for Childhood Education at the university’s Soweto campus. Dr Whitfield Green is director for initial teacher education in the department of higher education and training

The publication of the first issue of the South African Journal of Childhood Education will be celebrated during the July winter school at the University of Johannesburg as part of the programme of research on teacher education for the foundation phase. A team from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, led by Professor Catherine Snow, will present courses in literacy education at the winter school (www.uj.ac.za/lews).