With our abysmal literacy and numeracy rates, and with about a third to half of all children entering the system failing to reach matric, it is quite clear that the range of problems afflicting schools suggests there are no silver bullets to fix basic education.
But instead of doing the same thing over and over again with the same results, we should exercise our imagination, be patient and take a long view.
The place to start is with the most important element in the education equation, the teacher — but we must acknowledge that teacher training is in disarray.
Everything begins and ends with the quality and commitment of the teachers in the schools. In-service teacher education (Inset) and continuing professional development are essential for the effective functioning of any educational system.
In-service teachers need to be continually upgraded and motivated if they are to retain their focus and enthusiasm, for what must be one of the most rewarding but exhausting professions.
Above all, teachers need to believe they are getting something worthwhile out of Inset. Unless they come to it with a positive attitude and high expectations that their needs are going to be fulfilled, efforts to upgrade them are likely to be a waste of time and money.
But the current Inset model does not work because:
• It is coercive — participants are obliged to attend courses;
• It is deeply resented, especially when workshops occur over weekends or during holidays;
• It is centralised and disruptive because it takes teachers out of their places of work, and away from their familiar environments;
• Teachers are passive recipients of information, not active makers of meaning;
• There is no follow-up to see whether they are applying what they have learnt in the classroom; and
• It is extremely costly, with large transport, accommodation, catering and other expenses.
The new Programme for Educational Tablets in Schools (Pets) model, currently being developed in the Western Cape town of Barrydale, aims at addressing these deficiencies.
The model is a facilitated form of self-help distance education supported by information communications technology (ICT) — an interactive website (trainingteachers.org.za), tablets, e-readers, cellphones, a CoZa Cares e-learning kiosk and an interactive mobi site currently being developed by Rethink Education for their portal on MXIT. Although ICT is important, it is not the focus of the model, which is and will remain didactics, teachers' needs, capacity and performance.
It must be admitted that the Pets approach is counterintuitive: distance education, after all, does not have a happy reputation. It demands high levels of sustained motivation and commitment from participants who often feel unmotivated, ignored and isolated.
The Pets model tries to mitigate these factors by organising learners into facilitated study groups and learning communities with regular face-to-face workshops to break down feelings of isolation and flagging motivation. A vital element is the direct involvement of the teachers in the development of the programme or course they are going to follow.
Volunteerism is central to the model. Teachers who are committed to education are more likely than not to approach their professional development positively. They can be catalysts for change. It is they who are targeted and recruited — admittedly a small minority in any teaching and learning environment, but an essential component.
In the Barrydale pilot project, 23 volunteers from five schools — Barrydale High School, BF Oosthuisen Primary School, Weltevrede, Lemoenshoek and Vleiplaas farm schools and the Net-vir-Pret after-school care centre — were recruited on the understanding that they would have to participate in the project in their spare time. By the end of last year, 17 remained committed to the project — a retention rate of 70%.
The Barrydale project came about following a request from the Western Cape's director general of education, Penny Vinjevold, to test the application of and acceptance by the teachers of the Pets approach. She had one request and one proviso:
• The course content used to test the Pets methodology should focus on numeracy and literacy, specifically, the teaching of fractions in grades three to five and storytelling as a way to encourage reading; and
• There would be no funding from her department for development costs.
Our research into online open-source courses for teaching fractions quickly revealed how unsuitable all the options we discovered are. Most of them have been developed by specialists far removed from actual (especially rural) classroom realities and practices, and therefore tend to make unwarranted assumptions about the teachers' needs, capacity and experience.
We therefore decided to adapt an existing primary school maths course for teachers in the light of the realities we were contending with in Barrydale.
To make sure that the correct cognitive and language levels would be achieved in the numeracy component, the volunteers were invited to become co-researchers and co-developers of the course material with the Pets team. Learning is not effective unless learners take responsibility for their own learning and are active makers of their own meaning.
Our joint remit was to create a numeracy course on fractions aimed at improving teachers' content knowledge and classroom performance. Everything is translated into the de facto language of teaching and learning in this community: Afrikaans. In another setting it might be isiXhosa or isiZulu. The translation of the material is tackled in the same way the fractions material is developed — in workshops and tested in the classroom.
The course consists of seven separate but linked units, each one of which has a quiz, which must be passed with 80% before proceeding to the next unit.
The process of developing the course material and helping with the translation obviously had an influence on the volunteers' performance. The course they have helped to devise specifically focuses on their acknowledged areas of weakness and needs in the classroom. Consequently, they are able to apply what they are learning and to see immediately whether the time they are spending is having positive and practical results. This, after all, should be the object of the exercise, not mechanistic testing.
It is clear that those teachers who have stayed and participated throughout the whole process have worked really hard. We gave extra work to an already overextended workforce: it is really remarkable how they have carried on with enthusiasm and a positive attitude.
At the most basic level, teachers definitely have a better grasp of what the parts of a fraction are and how they fit together to make a fraction. In turn, hopefully learners will be getting a better understanding of the foundations of work with fractions.
More emphasis needs to be placed on language. The tests need to be reworded so that teachers have to explain what they are doing, why they are doing it and how they would explain the concepts in class. This is the most important conclusion — it's all about language.
Clearly this is work in progress. And that is the point about Inset and professional development: it must be continual.
Two members of the Net-vir-Pret staff, on their own initiative and independently, developed a fractions test that they gave to a random group of children at the centre. All scored more than 70%. From this and other anecdotal evidence, it would appear that the Pets approach is encouraging independent thinking and experimentation among the teachers. It is also improving the pupils' performance.
There is consensus among the Barrydale volunteers that they have enjoyed the process and feel they have been empowered to take control of their own professional development. In addition, they believe their understanding, not only of the course content but also of the wider issues of education, has improved and that they are better teachers for it. Positive attitudes promote positive behaviour. The Barrydale teachers are becoming catalysts for change in their community.
The Pets model is one that could meet the urgent need for a new model of Inset and professional development. It is cost-effective, professionally viable and educationally sound. Further, it is based on a proven self-help model that encourages learners to become active creators of meaning and take charge of their professional development.
It is not a silver bullet, nor is it a quick fix. We believe, and our initial research suggests, that it could make a meaningful contribution to the improvement of teaching in our schools, and substantially improve examination performance throughout the system.
Dr Michael Rice, chairman of the Programme for Educational Tablets in Schools (Pets) Foundation, was previously associate head of English at the then Johannesburg College of Education and special adviser to former education minister Kader Asmal. Mary Debrick was formerly head of maths at Rhodes High in Mowbray, Cape Town