Training the adult trainers

Almost 12-million adult South Africans need adult basic education. This means at least a quarter of our population cannot read a newspaper.

Our people are educationally deprived because their learning at school was halted at an early stage, if it ever ­happened.
Everyone recognises that national development is the key to South Africa playing its full role in the global economy. But the major backlog in basic education for adults means that many of our citizens cannot contribute to national productivity.

The number of social grants increases because more people slide into poverty and face a future in which jobs are scarce. This means we need to educate adults for greater self-sufficiency—to be self-employed and run their own small businesses, for instance. But adult basic education and training (Abet) as it stands has an awkward stumbling block that limits development efforts.

Right now, the inadequate and ill-researched training of adult educators has a dire impact on Abet, as adult enrolment falls and learners drop out of class. The skills base of educators in adult basic education is a desert of neglect—which in itself says much about the way we devalue undereducated South Africans.

Educators in adult classes often have no job training at all or have received some kind of “quick dip” into general adult basic education. The lucky ones have a university certificate or diploma in adult basic education that gives them an overview of the field but little hands-on training in teaching literacy, language and numeracy.

The universities that offer adult basic education qualifications provide education about adult basic education, but not training to teach literacy and numeracy. Literate people often think learning to read is simple, but most children spend at least three years in primary school grappling with the literacy challenge—remember your own early school years?

Equally, mastering reading and writing is also a challenge for the adult learners in Abet classes. Yet Abet educators in South Africa are ill-prepared to help learners cope with this challenge.

Who are the adult educators?
Some are young people with a grade 12, others are teachers from the formal education system with no training in teaching adult learners. Some have a general qualification in adult basic education from the universities, which does not give them any curricula or specific methodology for teaching in Abet programmes.

Some get literacy training from nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and with luck find a curriculum to use as they acquire some classroom methods—but this does not help their own career advancement because this training is not formally recognised by the state, which runs the public adult learning centres. The state does not see the need for hands-on job training of Abet educators.

Who is training educators?
Through the sector education and training authorities (Setas), the training to teach literacy and numeracy is done by service providers, but only some of them have any experience in adult basic education. The three surviving Abet-training NGOs are the Molteno Project, Operation Upgrade and Project Literacy, but they can train Abet educators only if there is both funding and the hope of employment for those educators in adult literacy.

The government’s Kha ri Gude mass literacy campaign uses a primitive “cascade” model to train literacy educators in five-day courses. In this model co-ordinators who may never have taught literacy train supervisors who may never have taught literacy to train literacy educators. Now further education and training (FET) colleges are looking to train Abet educators. But to train a literacy educator you should have taught adult literacy yourself for at least a year.

I know of one NGO that has received a request from an FET college for all its Abet educator training materials—but the trainers of adult educators need more than somebody else’s notes. The Abet certificates and diplomas offered by some universities offer theoretical frameworks to view adult basic education and an overview of the field.

This is useful knowledge but it does not amount to training how to teach adults in literacy, numeracy, an additional language, ancillary health or natural science or any of the elective subjects at the higher levels of Abet in the state centres. And the state is the largest employer of Abet educators.

What do trainees need?
At literacy level, the absolute essential is a literacy curriculum for the adult learners they teach. They need not only a set of outcomes but also a learning path they can follow with graded learning steps that their learners should achieve. Although there are state-defined “unit standards” for communication that are used for teaching adult literacy, there is no curriculum.

So inadequately trained adult educators are in the dark about what to do when they begin a class. Their best hope is that they can use learner workbooks that use such a curriculum path. And of course, because they do not have an actual curriculum or any training in using one, they cannot write their own exercises to help individual learners.

Social conditions
Adult basic education practitioners need to have an informed position on South African social conditions, so that they can weave social issues into their lessons. These include maintenance law, matrimonial and inheritance law, woman and child abuse, prevention and care regarding HIV/ Aids, human rights, working with local government, food security and small business development. These complementary fields of learning are vital to empower adult learners. It is the educators who carry the responsibility to give adult learners the broad, adult-world education they need.

Basic knowledge about social issues should be part of the training of the adult educators themselves, so they can be development leaders for their learners. Educators experiencing the right training acquire a high level of motivation to be the instruments of social change. In Operation Upgrade it takes us 58 days to train an Abet educator to teach literacy, numeracy and English, HIV/Aids, food security and small business.

The initial training lasts 20 days and subsequent courses follow. The basic adult literacy course contains the theoretical base essential to the work of an adult basic education educator, linking literacy work with development needs and initiatives. It moves quickly to the development of practical skills for teaching literacy.

Each participant has the opportunity to practise every method and technique mentioned during the course, from how to help learners to develop finger dexterity when holding a pencil for the first time to how to assist them to answer a written comprehension question on, for example, tuberculosis.

Guest trainers bring additional knowledge to the course—for instance, the Commission for Gender Equality on matrimonial law and various NGOs on HIV/Aids and reproductive rights.

The course content is heavy because by the end of it each educator should be able to:

  • Recruit and teach a class of adult literacy learners;

  • Use a curriculum, teaching methodology and materials that are appropriate for adult education to bring learners to sustainable first-language literacy (the bulk of the course) and awareness of social issues;

  • Move learners as swiftly as possible through the programme, using assessment and placement tests to place learners on a graded learning path so that prior learning is recognised, and continual assessment to monitor learner progress;

  • Enable interested learners to enrol for and pass Abet Level 1 and 2 examinations; and

  • Use local expertise and resources to enhance the literacy curriculum and to integrate it with local issues, so that learners can participate more fully in workplace or community development activities and engage in income-generating activities.



Pat Dean is the director of Operation Upgrade of South Africa, an NGO that works for adult literacy with social change. See www.operationupgrade.org.za

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