​Smart teaching gives kids the tools to learn

September is Literacy Month and in South Africa, where nearly 30% of grade 4 learners — the critical grade where children move on from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” — are illiterate this should be a big deal.

Literacy is a powerful driver of economic development. Economists have suggested that improved literacy rates could increase South Africa’s gross domestic product by as much as 30%, but it is not enough to stop there.

The working world is changing so rapidly that children will need to keep learning long after school to keep up.

In a recent report, The Future of Jobs, the World Economic Forum states: “By one popular estimate, 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist.”

What is needed, in addition to literacy, are the soft skills or learning habits that will enable the continued learning needed to sustain our children’s future employability.

Could a set of smart tweaks to teaching practice nudge learners towards progressively taking control of their own learning?

Schools in the United Kingdom that have implemented what is known as the learning power approach have shown better exam results and more positive associations with learning.

By encouraging learners to be more inquisitive, adventurous, determined and collaborative, they improved their performance. And this was across the board, whether learners had high or low academic abilities and regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds.

In responding to a request from the teachers and parents to help strengthen children’s literacy at one of the township primary schools we support, the South African Education and Environment Project — a nonprofit that aims to help children in need to thrive through education — decided to put this approach to the test.

Incorporating small adjustments from the learning power approach, we built the four necessary traits — resilience, resourcefulness, reflectiveness and reciprocity — into the experience of a reading club.

The effect has been twofold: our grade 3 and 4 learners come back eagerly week after week, and the teachers and parents have been impressed by the attitude changes they have seen in the children.

But key to our experience is that the practice is something that can, and should be, easily done at home because, once they know how, children often don’t need the support of an adult to take charge of their own learning.

When they have found the enthusiasm, confidence and ability to learn for themselves, they are on their way: learning to read and reading to learn.

Susie Taylor-Alston is the primary school curriculum and research officer for the South African Education and Environment Project. For more information, visit saep.org or follow the project on Facebook.

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