Collaborative methods impart lasting knowledge

The pupils who attend the learning centre’s free aftercare programme held in Bjala Square are taught a different model of education to the traditional ones taught at government schools.

The pupils who attend the learning centre’s free aftercare programme held in Bjala Square are taught a different model of education to the traditional ones taught at government schools.

Making teachers stand in front of a classroom and give pupils the answers is an outdated and ineffective approach to education that a learning centre in Johannesburg’s city centre is trying to change.

“In the traditional model of education, teachers regurgitate content and pupils passively receive this … how well you remember the curriculum defines how well you do at school,” Melanie Smuts, founder of nonprofit Streetlight Schools in Jeppestown, told the Mail & Guardian. “This is ineffective because in the information era it’s absurd to solely rely on people to convey content.”

Pupils are tested on things “that don’t matter and in ways that don’t encourage most pupils to feel motivated to try harder and do better”, she said.

The system also introduces points of weakness: “A poorly qualified teacher can completely ruin a subject because they are solely, completely responsible for pupils knowing what’s going on and a bad curriculum can totally undermine a generation’s understanding of a subject because that’s the only lens they learn through.”

After graduating with an LLB from the University of Cape Town in 2009 and spending some time at a low-fee private school in India, Smuts started researching different education models with the help of global databases of schools such as the Centre for Education Innovations.

In 2013, Bjala Property, an affordable housing provider, agreed to partner with her and gave her space in the Bjala Square building in Jeppestown to launch the Streetlight School pilot project – the Leopard Tree Learning Centre. Smuts will use what she has learned from the centre to launch a prototype low-fee private primary school in January.

Rotational model
The school will use a rotational model, which “shifts conveying of content from only the teacher on to other modes”, Smuts said.

“We incorporate more peer-to-peer learning, technology to support individual practice time for mastery, and projects to help pupils question and understand why what they are learning matters.”

Pupils rotate through four sessions.
The first part is called collaboration.

“For example, if yesterday we did multiplication with pupils, then today we will give them the basic tenets of division but not explain it and they have to try understand how it works,” Smuts said.

The second part is experiential learning. “Pupils will get beans and they have to try to understand how we are going to group a bunch of beans together into six jars, for example.”

Instruction is the third session. “That is still a teacher checking for understanding and deepening knowledge, but their role shifts from someone who tells you what to do to a more conversational relationship.”

The fourth part is technology-enabled learning “where you build individualised learning. For example, you will watch Khan academy videos about maths and other subjects ... That allows us to check if pupils understood what they learned that day.”

The pupils who attend the learning centre’s free aftercare programme held in Bjala Square live in the building too, and attend government and other low-fee private schools in the area.

Since the beginning of last year, Smuts and her team of three tutors, as well as various local and international advisers, have met with families in the building to find out what their needs are for their children’s education.

Every day between 4pm and 6pm Smuts and the tutors have been able to judge the effectiveness of “best education practices”, such as components of the rotational model, in addressing the families’ needs.

The pupils had a lot to say about it. “I like it because I can learn and … I am even safe,” Noxolo Mntambo told the M&G.

Kimberly Moyo said she learns more at the learning centre than she does at her school. “I take things that I learn here and put it in my head so that I can teach other children at my school. I feel sorry for those children who don’t come to the learning centre because they don’t get much education [as we do at the centre].”

There is a casual and calm atmosphere at the centre. Pupils sit in groups to read or walk around the classroom chatting to each other.

A tutor, Dionne Mankazana, is guiding another group through some written exercises on the other side of the classroom. One pupil walks up to Smuts to show her a story she’s written in her exercise book. Another shows her something on her cellphone.

Pupil Silethemba Nkomo told the M&G that when she came to the centre last year she “didn’t know how to do long division and they taught me how to do that. I love learning here.”

Slindile Dzayi, another pupil, said the problem with government schools “is there are big classes … and big children are learning with small children in the same class”.

Next year’s prototype school will teach the government’s new CAPS curriculum and the cost for a pupil will be about R7 500 a year, Smuts said. Because of ongoing fundraising efforts, she said the fees would be lower than that but an exact amount had not yet been decided on.

Low-fee schools are growing
Low-fee private schools are a growing phenomenon in South Africa in the face of a public education system that is failing thousands of children every year.

The Centre for Development and Enterprise said in a 2013 report: “The Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa estimates that in 2013 there are more than 2?500 independent schools [and] the statutory quality assurance body, Umalusi, has recently estimated that there are some 3 500 independent schools that they have to quality-assure”.

But the movement has received flak from some local organisations, which say that privatisation of education leads to, among other problems, a deepening of “gender discrimination in education because already marginalised and vulnerable groups, including women and girls, are more disadvantaged by private provision and are the least able to pay for services”. 

The organisations say efforts need to be focused on holding the state to account and supporting it in providing high-quality education to the public.

But Smuts said there is a difference between a school that capitalises on government’s failures and Streetlight Schools, whose model she would “love to share with the government”.

She said there are huge problems with quality in many low-fee private schools but that some of them are started by people “who have commitment and vision and they do very well. So I don’t know if we can make broad strokes about the phenomenon as a whole being about purely enterprising individuals who contribute to inequalities in education.

“What the individual actors do within that space is an important question. Do we need better regulation and standards for those schools that are underperforming? Absolutely. Does it mean that everybody who is not a government school is increasing inequality and just trying to make a profit? That isn’t true.

“I think the education system needs to change but I can’t change it by working for government, so I have to do it independently and prove that it works and hope that government sees this,” Smuts said.

“But I’m not just doing this in the hope that government picks it up. I’m also doing it so that the kids who come to us can have a shot at a meaningful education.”

Tutor Mankazana said she has seen a “huge” improvement in the pupils at the learning centre. “I’ve seen a boy who couldn’t speak a word of English when he got here and now he rambles off in English.”

She said the education model used by the centre “sees children as individuals, as human beings, not so much as statistics at the end of the year”.

“We spend a lot of time working on things like values, character development and we also spend a lot of time getting to know who the children are, what the story is behind the story … Very often when we have some sort of academic issue, if you look back, you will see it stems from something else.”

Some of the pupils had been “held back”, she said, “by the things they learn at their schools like fearing learning and fearing failure”.

“I’ve seen kids start to believe in themselves here – start to speak up, ask questions …”

Victoria John

Victoria John

Victoria studied journalism, specialising in photojournalism, at Rhodes University from 2004 to 2007. After traveling around the US and a brief stint in the UK she did a year's internship at The Independent on Saturday in Durban. She then worked as a reporter for the South African Press Association for a year before joining the Mail & Guardian as an education reporter in August 2011. Read more from Victoria John

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