​Innovate to get schooling ahead

By the numbers: The introduction of maths literacy shows that we don’t expect much of our children, the author says. (Hector Retamal, AFP)

By the numbers: The introduction of maths literacy shows that we don’t expect much of our children, the author says. (Hector Retamal, AFP)


In a year in which surprise has been the norm, from politics to the sports field, the poor performance of South African schoolchildren in the latest round of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss) was disappointingly predictable.

Despite some welcome progress, South Africa was in the bottom group of performers in maths at grade five and nine level, and in science at grade nine level, trailing the three other African countries that took part (Egypt, Morocco and Botswana) and poor countries such as Indonesia, Jordan and Thailand.

Fewer than 40% of South African learners reached the minimum standard in science and maths, compared with about half in Botswana and three-quarters in fellow middle-income country Malaysia.

Education researcher Nic Spaull has pointed out that South Africa consistently lags behind comparable and even poorer countries in international assessments. But the fact that this is nothing new does not make it any less alarming. Given that the future prosperity of individuals and nations will increasingly depend on levels of proficiency in mathematics and science, improving performance in these subjects is nothing short of a national emergency.

My experience in the United Kingdom, where I was a special adviser to the department of education, shows that improvement is possible. Learning from the world’s best schools and school systems, we simultaneously managed to achieve a large increase in the number of learners studying and passing maths and science subjects and raise the standards of the curriculum and exams.

This is, however, still a work in progress (England ranked eighth in science and 11th in maths in the 2015 Timss study) and followed a decade of wider school reform. In South Africa, orthodox policy prescriptions will not do enough fast enough. We need less “business as usual” and more “move fast and break things” — local innovations that take the principles of successful maths and science education elsewhere but use the power of technology and the talent of teachers to forge solutions that work in the South African context.

Timss 2015 is proof that the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. Nearly every South African teacher or education expert I speak to says on-the-job and university teacher training isn’t good enough and there are not enough talented people entering the profession.

Yet some of the best pedagogical thinking from all around the world is free on the internet. So, why not get a South African teacher with a proven track record to create an online initial teacher training course that best synthesises this material, with in-person exams at the end, then offer a paid in-classroom training period for any maths and science graduate or professional who passes it?

Why not also create a Khan Academy for teachers (offering free online courses), with the best and most current thinking on continuing professional development available to all, and test interventions and technologies that can deliver it effectively in the most in-need schools?

The teacher Lucy Crehan — who is about to publish a brilliant book about spending two years embedded in the world’s best school systems — found that a key determinant of East Asian success was “having high expectations of all children … rather than making concessions”.

A system where most learners take the etiolated maths literacy, not full mathematics, palpably does not have such expectations. Crehan is particularly critical of the view that a large chunk of pupils “can’t do maths”; they can in the countries she visited and 100% of Korean and Taiwanese students met the Timss minimum benchmark.

The South African government needs to make a school’s cohort pass rate in matric maths and science public, and use the data to pair failing schools with ones succeeding in similar contexts, then fund the latter to support the former.

Coding needs to become akin to a 12th national language, including beginning free tertiary education by funding any citizen who is unemployed and under 35 to train to be a developer (a better economic return than many university degrees). For many, this will necessarily include a second chance to learn basic mathematics.

We also need to become agnostic about methods of delivery, but religious about results. South Africa needs something akin to England’s Education Endowment Foundation to conduct research on new innovations and publish the results.

South Africa could lead the world with an education version of the United States’ remarkable Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency grand prize, the source of frontier-expanding innovations such as driverless cars. South Africa could offer a large innovation prize every year for the brightest ideas to improve learning in a cost-constrained context, and export these ideas globally.

We can put randomised control trials, not emotion or ideology, at the heart of the debate on low-cost private education and get a province to fund a trial of any proven provider who can deliver primary, secondary or tertiary education for the same cost as the government.

Fully or partly online higher education is obviously the long-term answer to reducing its cost, so reform the accreditation process to ensure low barriers to entry for new providers who can meet the requisite standards.

The final principle is rejecting the pessimism of those who say that in education, poverty is destiny — that the poorest countries and pupils will necessarily be the lowest achievers. Try telling that to Kazakhstan or Poland, which far outperformed richer nations in Timss. Try telling it to the teachers and leaders at the schools I visited in New York’s Bronx who send pupils to Ivy League universities, or the free schools and academies in some of the poorest parts of England where learners gain entry to Oxford and Cambridge.

Try telling it to the South African schools profiled by Professor Jonathan Jansen and Molly Blank, who know that in communities where knowledge is the only route out of poverty there is no option but to succeed, to the extent that one principal considered his school to have failed because its matric pass rate dropped to 94% (they had previously achieved 100% despite having no running water or electricity).

This is not to say South Africa must not remove contextual barriers, which could be helped by establishing internet connectivity in every school.

That’s why I’m partnering with the Cape Innovation and Technology Initiative (CiTi) to found Africa’s first EdTech cluster and accelerator in South Africa. We will be working with corporates, the government, foundations, schools, universities, parents and learners to support the teachers and entrepreneurs who, I believe, can make South Africa an innovation hub for rethinking education in the developing world.

In the past fortnight I’ve met several teams of young South Africans bursting with ideas to end historic disadvantage with futuristic technologies. Already, education technology company Siyavula is solving textbook shortages by open-sourcing maths and science content. Spark schools are delivering higher quality for less money partly by flipping the classroom using digital learning.

The Serious Games Institute is creating enjoyable lessons. GetSmarter is putting courses from the world’s best universities online. The peer-to-peer study groups of Together We Pass are carrying on a South African tradition of innovation that delivered distance learning through Unisa 25 years before Britain had its Open University.

So, if you are an education entrepreneur with an idea or a teacher considering a radical innovation, the Timss results are a reminder that business as usual has failed and that there is no time like the present to act. Let’s move fast, and learn things.

Jamie Martin is the cofounder of the CiTi EdTech cluster in Cape Town and a former special adviser to the UK department of education.

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