Jacob Zuma's carrots

2010-02-17 00:00

IN his address to the nation, one of President Jacob Zuma’s many points was that “we want to improve the ability of our children to read, write and count in the foundation years”. He proposed targets: more time spent in class, detailed­ daily lesson plans for teachers, workbooks in all official languages, tests for all Grade 3, 6 and 9 pupils, and assessment of every school in the country.

One concern has been raised already, namely that the president provided no direction as to how this is all to come about, because these changes require substantial resources. Just think of the minimum 135 full-time posts needed just to visit every single school in one year (and surely schools cannot be assessed fairly without this). With suitably qualified staff, this amounts to a minimum of R30 million — and that is just to assess; we haven’t even started working on the problems yet.

But that is one concern. The other question begging some reflection is whether or not these initiatives are likely to achieve the desired outcome.

There is no doubt that time spent on a task is crucial to learning. But time spent in class is not the same as time spent learning. So it makes sense to provide lesson plans for teachers. Of course, the critical educator would argue, this does not go well with adjusting every class to the pupils’ needs, but then again the teachers still have the autonomy to choose a different lesson plan or to implement it on another day. But here is the crux of the matter: if these lesson plans are to facilitate more than surface learning, they require strong content knowledge from the teachers. Many do not have this, for a whole host of historical reasons. We see this in the studies that show teachers failing Grade 4 or Grade 6 numeracy tests. The many courses in outcomes-based education and learner-centred teaching have been of little use if they have not at the same time increased the teachers’ content knowledge. And the teachers know it. Maths and science teachers are asking the universities to assist in running workshops on content, content and more content.

We know that it is best for children to learn to read and write and work confidently with numbers (not “count”, Mr President) in their mother tongue. Many of my colleagues have worked hard on producing the requested textbooks, including affordable Zulu readers for foundation phase, although some people will argue that this is no use without going back to ethnic separation. How else does one deal with classrooms such as those my sons are in, where at least four different mother tongues are represented? But these are privileged city schools. The majority of South African schools are mostly monolingual. So I welcome this initiative and if the president needs any materials for mathematics, I would be happy to take leave for six months to write some.

However, the idea of tests for Grades 3, 6 and 9 spells trouble for learning. As the experiences from George W. Bush’s educational reforms in the United States have shown us, it just means more time spent on practising for the test and less time engaging deeply with content and laying the foundation for future concepts. I expect a flurry of teachers asking what the tests will look like.

And what are we going to do with the results? Punish the children? Or are the test results simply another element of assessing the schools? If so, this practice of assessing schools through testing pupils is the very same strategy that was employed in the Bush administration’s conservative educational movement, which failed in every possible respect.

To the best of our knowledge, the strongest factor in pupil performance comes from the pupils, in terms of their abilities, their physical and emotional wellbeing, etc. Two Grade 7 orphans living together, surviving on free school lunches, are not likely to learn much school knowledge. If we want to do something about pupil performance, we should first and foremost ensure that our children are well fed, have roofs over their heads and feel safe. Forget economic growth as a strategy. It has worked nowhere in the world (besides being a rather individualistic and non-African approach).

The second most important factor in pupil performance is teaching. Zuma knows that well, as is evident from his targets. So let us focus there. Let us spend the money on testing to make sure all our teachers are well prepared to teach. Let us make it an honoured profession again, so that students of calibre flock to become teachers. Let the children get on with learning. Yanking carrots up to see how well they are growing, does not make good carrots in the end.

• Iben Maj Christiansen is an associate professor in mathematics education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She writes in her personal capacity.

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