/ 26 January 2021

‘Each one, teach one’: Rethinking education in a pandemic

Gauteng Legislature Conducts Media Tour At Mayibuye Primary School In South Africa
Class sizes, academics, sports, cultural activities, facilities and matric results are important, but not as important to a child who feels welcome and nurtured and has friends. (Photo by Sharon Seretlo/Gallo Images via Getty Images)


On 28 December 2020, IOL online news reported that 32 teachers had died of Covid-19 in less than one week in South Africa. This is a staggering number, and it’s little wonder that the government has closed schools until 15 February 2021. While many parents are voicing strong concerns about their children’s education being affected adversely by yet another disrupted school year, we need to bear in mind that if we keep schools open, we are effectively asking teachers to risk their lives to teach our children. Two basic human rights are thus in conflict in the pandemic context: the right to life and the right to education.

While we cannot expect teachers to risk their lives, we also cannot halt education. Although we agree with Dr Nic Spaull that the social and psychological benefits of face-to-face schooling are paramount in developing a child cognitively, these benefits to the child need to be balanced with health risks. In an interview we participated in recently, a reporter asked what the government could do to assure parents that their children would not be adversely affected by further delays in the opening of the school year. 

We begin our answer to this question by posing our own: why must the government solve this educational crisis? Whatever one personally thinks of the government, this is an unparalleled situation we find ourselves in. In no time in modern history has a pandemic shut down the world as Covid-19 has; not even the Spanish flu of 1918 led to the widespread and ongoing lockdowns we are experiencing across the globe.

The government, one must assume, has numerous very weighty issues to concern itself with, primarily to attempt to save as many lives as possible. When hearing of the pushing back of the new school year, we were reminded of the 1980s, when many schools were closed indefinitely, and yet learning was not stopped. The movement of “People’s Education for People’s Power” accentuated the need for free universal education as a way towards liberation and the redress of inequality. The State of Emergency in the 1980s — much like the current State of Disaster because of  the pandemic — threatened to shut down and immobilise ordinary institutions such as schools and universities.

This did not stop learning, however. Activists mobilised across South Africa to teach those younger than themselves. In South Africa, we come from a proud history of activism. How then have we suddenly learnt to be helpless? We are calling for a return to the notion of “Each one, teach one”. Desmond Lesejane wrote in the Daily Maverick only eight months ago: “All South Africans should be mobilised to co-own the education system — it cannot continue to be the responsibility of officials in the school system, unions representing educators, and parents with learners in schools alone.” 

Practically we suggest that each person in a household capable of teaching a younger person, should do so. While many schools, especially private, well-resourced schools, will draw learners into online classrooms to meet the educational crisis, this is not a luxury all people can afford. Jonathan Jansen indicated in 2020 that up to 80% of children do not have access to single devices or connectivity, or even data. 

We propose that each school bring teachers back to school as soon as possible to enable them to get worksheets developed and printed, and textbooks ready for collection. Parents and caregivers can then be given specific times to collect these, ensuring that even the most disadvantaged child will have access to a hard copy to engage with. 

Meantime, youth unemployment is estimated at 55.75% (www.statista.com) in 2020; we can expect this to rise in 2021 as Covid leads to the economy shrinking even further. These youngsters are, in large part, educated and literate. They can be called upon to teach younger children, with the assistance of textbooks and teacher-designed worksheets. Use of the state broadcaster can be made to deliver content over television and radio. 

The notion of Each one, teach one is in no way novel. In fact, this notion of peer learning was of paramount importance during slavery, where slaves who could read and write would teach those who could not. The phrase became the motto for the Laubach Literacy Program, and this methodology has had an important impact on overcoming illiteracy around the world. In Canada, the Laubach Literacy Program has had a visible impact on literacy levels among adults who do not possess the literacy levels to function well in today’s world.

We are not suggesting that teachers can be replaced by these mechanisms; teachers are professionals who train for their craft. Given the crisis that has emerged from this pandemic, however, we suggest that if educated older children and adults teach younger ones, it may in some way alleviate the cognitive gap that emerges when young children are not taught. The government cannot do this for us; it is up to every citizen to assist in this time of crisis, so let us embody the philosophy of Each one, teach one.