Excellence thrives in rural isolation

‘The power of thin slicing”, says Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, is a phrase psychologists use to refer to the ability of human beings to make sense of situations based on the thinnest slice of experience. I saw a thin slice of education while visiting the Thengwe and Mbilwi secondary schools in Limpopo recently.

A blue roof tucked into lush hills is the first thing you see when you approach the Thengwe Secondary School in Mutale. After a drive up a long dirt road, I was surprised to see a new school in the midst of rural poverty. In 2007, the education department built the school, which former minister Naledi Pandor inaugurated. But there was a condition — scale down enrolment from 1 500 to 1 200, in view of the number of classrooms in the new building. 

That logic was bewildering. Why ask a school with high academic success to reduce pupil enrolment instead of building a bigger school? 

Parents line up every year, desperate to get their children into this school, which they believe will secure their future. The principal, Nkhangweni Nemudzivhadi, has a difficult time turning them away. That’s why Thengwe now has 2 221 pupils. 

If the department had simply acknowledged the school’s size and potential for growth, everyone would have been a winner. But for now the principal has made himself, his educators and his pupils the winners. Last year, the school won the final round of the National Schools Moot Court Competition.

Not far away, at Mbilwi, principal Cedric Lidzhade has the same problem — hundreds of parents and grandparents are desperate to get their children into his school. 

A basic matric pass means nothing
And what do these parents know? They know that in 2012, the pass rate at Mbilwi was 99.3%. Out of 421 grade 12 pupils, 325 got bachelor’s passes, opening the doors to a university degree.  

Lidzhade knows what we all know — that a basic matric pass means nothing, because passing with an overall of 30% to 40% does not represent mastering the curriculum or skills and will not get young people a job in the formal or informal sector.

“It will not help our children and it won’t help our country,” he says. He is equally clear about the power of a bachelor’s pass: “Just imagine if we can pass one learner and that learner becomes a doctor in that family. Just imagine the salary that will run through that family.” 

With class sizes that pack pupils in like sardines, the average pass rates achieved at these schools are amazing. What makes Mbilwi and Thengwe so different?

One factor is evident in people such as Martin Tinoziva, a teacher at Mbilwi whose goal is to get rid of the notion that science is a difficult subject. He runs up and down the rows, poses tough questions, answers raised hands and forces pupils to prove themselves by putting chalk to slate. 

He tells them: “There is no wrong answer in science, just mistakes that need to be corrected.” 

The hidden curriculum
Tinoziva sees his pupils in a way that many other teachers don’t. “There is what we call the hidden curriculum and there is what we call the formal curriculum. 

“Now, the hidden curriculum is very important … in the sense that kids learn from even the appearance of their educator, their emotions and the behaviour of the educator, regardless of the formal learning in class. So, basically, that’s what controls how I deal with my learners.”

In another Mbilwi classroom, I feel as if I am in another world. The teacher is much older than others I have seen and the class is run more traditionally. I see eighth graders learning the past tense — “kick(ed)”, “carry(ied)”. This upsets me. Because my first language is English, I learned those skills early on, but I know that these pupils should have mastered tenses before they left primary school.  

The deputy principal, Banu Sankaran, says that many arrive with very poor English and the school must push extra hard to improve their skills. Afternoon support classes with a smaller student-teacher ratio help. 

It is undeniable that this is a failure on the part of the feeder schools, but more so a failure on the part of the system that is failing them. 

With 478 pupils, this year’s Mbilwi matric class is huge. They are organised by academic ability and performance into classes A to G, approximately 68 per class. The top pupils are in 12A and the bottom ones are in 12G.

Extraordinary work under trying conditions
The principal says that this is good for the progress of fast learners and that slow learners receive more personal attention. He does admit that some in the lowest class may think they are stupid. That said, another teacher says that this arrangement gives the pupils confidence because they are surrounded by others like themselves. Based on regular assessment, slow learners can move up. 

I understand this logic. I cannot imagine having to teach 70 kids in a class. But I also know the other argument. Many say that stronger pupils help the weaker ones and that this encourages both groups. When children are divided by skills, the groups become isolated and the weakness of the slower learners is perpetuated and they are not motivated.

At Thengwe, where classes also average 70 pupils, there is a different approach. They are given subject tests and profiled by performance. But these tests are only support mechanisms. In class, pupils are combined, regardless of level.

Nemudzivhadi believes that teachers who know the pupils’ levels can provide the education they need. Slower learners get step-by-step instruction and more attention. Teachers know that fast learners can cope, so they are given more work. When teachers see that some pupils have mastered a certain subject they can then shift the way they support them in lessons.

My thin slice of these schools tells me that many South African educators are doing extraordinary work under the most trying of conditions. Surely many can do better. But Sankaran, who is also a physical science teacher, sums up what special school leaders and teachers are doing: they just cope and succeed in difficult circumstances. But she is wrong when she adds: “Maybe, if we had fewer kids, we would work miracles.” I hope she will realise that she, and so many others, are already working miracles every day. 

Molly Blank is a documentary filmmaker. This is her third article about a video series, Schools That Work, she is currently researching on disadvantaged schools that achieve exceptional results. The series was conceived by University of the Free State rector Jonathan Jansen. For more information go to vimeo.com/schoolsthatwork or email [email protected]


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