There is national concern about the reduced number of high school pupils taking science and maths, with even fewer youth engaging with these subjects at tertiary level. Added to this, the 2014 Annual National Assessments showed 10.8% as the average maths mark for grade nine learners.
“This trend doesn’t bode well for the country’s socioeconomic development,” says Zorina Dharsey, director of the Western Cape Primary Science Programme (PSP), based in Philippi.
Initially a grassroots intervention for primary school science support, today the PSP is a nongovernmental organisation that provides primary school teacher development.
Its work is underpinned by international research that shows competent teachers are the key to greater educational progress.
The PSP focuses on science and maths but includes languages, social sciences and environmental education. “Maths and science are incremental. It’s too late to start at grade 11 or 12. Understanding needs to be grounded in concrete experience before the conceptual phase,” says Dharsey.
The PSP methodology enables teachers to provide concrete practical experience to their pupils.
The PSP offers three core training programmes to build teachers’ knowledge and practical teaching: the Innovation Project (short, targeted courses); the Cluster Project (focused support over two years), and the Joint Mentorship Project (JMP). All teachers undergo PSP training voluntarily.
Critical need for teacher induction
JMP is a recent addition and a first in South Africa. It “fast-tracks” the professional development of first-time teachers through a two-year mentorship support programme.
National guidelines have identified induction programmes for first-time teachers as critical.
However, induction is usually left up to the schools, which don’t necessarily have the skills to develop these interventions.
“There is a serious need for more constructive support for first-time teachers. Young, inexperienced teachers often find themselves in under-resourced and poorly managed schools, in poverty-stricken communities where social problems abound,” says Dharsey. “Many struggle through the first years or leave the profession after only a short while.”
Additional challenges include high school teachers having to teach in the foundation phases, as well as new primary school teachers who lack sufficient maths or science training.
The JMP is a local, contextually relevant model of support for new teachers.
Through comprehensive training and classroom coaching, the aim is to improve practical teaching strategies, develop efficient classroom and administrative management strategies, and strengthen content knowledge.
The JMP collaboration between the University of the Western Cape and the Western Cape education department began in 2013.
The model involves different levels of intervention for first-time teacher support. Firstly, there is direct contact with the new teacher through intensive, expert teacher mentorship, including classroom visits, team teaching and reviews.
There is also engagement with the school management team and curriculum advisors around first-time teacher support. The “each one, teach one” programme then engages previously mentored first-time teachers on how to mentor.
“JMP is about bridging the gap between theoretical training and the practical requirements of the curriculum, teaching and classroom management,” says Dharsey. She further notes that JMP is a flexible model that can be adapted to different environments. This is essential for schools, particularly those in disadvantaged areas, as they need a different approach. Beyond the handbooks created by the PSP to show what has been learnt from the JMP model, the NGO also aims to provide essential information to pre-service teacher education. The PSP is also establishing a first-time teacher community of practice and intends to organise conferences for new teachers to showcase best practice methodologies.
“Ongoing research, monitoring and evaluation allows for further refinement of the JMP model,” says Dharsey. Added to this is finding information directly from the source.