Across the globe teachers are communicating and gathering to work out what works in education for themselves. All of these educators have one goal in common, to ensure that their approach to teaching is evidence informed. ResearchED is one such grass roots, teacher led, movement. This September they landed on South African shores.
Gatekeepers, ideologues and snake-oil salespeople
That evidence should inform practice might seem like an obvious premise but the teaching profession has long been held captive by ‘gatekeepers, ideologues, snake-oil salespeople”, says researchED Founder and Director Tom Bennett. Nowhere is this more true than in South Africa where successive ideologies have left generations of children not only short changed but without even what they came to purchase in the first place. From the Bantu Education Act to the current scourge of corruption, inefficiency and incompetency, many in power have been all too willing to offer up the children of South Africa on altars of appeasement to unions or political ideology.
“South Africa has one of the world’s worst education systems,” according to the London-based Economist South Africa placed 75th out of 76, in a ranking table of education systems drawn up by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2015. Furthermore, in November 2017, a study into trends in international mathematics and science placed South Africa at, or near the bottom, of a variety of categories. Of 138 countries who participated South Africa comes 138. That’s an ‘F’ on any report card.
“Our pupils don’t have time to waste on the whimsy of adults. There are no second chances. For most kids, they will only have this one shot.”
Let’s be in no doubt, this is not solely about a lack of resources. South Africa’s school results were worse than poorer countries in other parts of Africa. In addition South Africa spends more per capita on education than any other on the continent and yet is at the bottom of attainment levels in almost every available measure. 78% pass rates at the Grade 12 exit level mask the issues. A second glance reveals that almost half the children who enroll in Grade 1 don’t even get to Grade 12, so a more accurate figure is closer to just 40%. It’s a sinking ship.
ResearchEd exists to free teachers and teaching from the shackles of commercial or vested interest in education by simply looking at what works in order to help pupils attain at a level that will enable them to function as citizens in society. “Our pupils don’t have time to waste on the whimsy of adults” says Tom Bennett, “There are no second chances. For most kids, they will only have this one shot.”
This is why some 200 educators were prepared to give up their hard won Saturday to gather in the nation’s capital and examine what practices are best suited to serve their children. The researchEd team brought out five world renowned educators and authors while local contributors made up the remainder of the 17 strong presenter team. A key theme of the day was the ‘Knowledge Curriculum’, a counter narrative to the 21st century skills paradigm that serves as a faulty directional compass for so many schools and educators.
The ‘broadsheet’ test
As keynote speaker Marin Robinson wryly observes, “We can be fairly sure the Egyptians didn’t think creativity and collaboration were exclusively 21st Century skills”, as they set about constructing the pyramids. It is not that skills are not necessary in the future, but rather that knowledge is an important part of being educated and also is a prerequisite to acquiring skills. We want the next generation to join the conversation around the best that has been thought and said in our world. A knowledge rich curriculum invites each pupil “into the arguments, debates, controversies and great questions and works of the time and all-time before so that they at least have a chance to have a view on the complex world in which they will live their life.”
Robinson uses the concept of the ‘broadsheet test’. Take any article in any serious newspaper and examine the number of references (historical, literary, scientific, geographical, artistic, religious or current) made to events or ideas that require the reader to have prior knowledge or understanding. We are not talking vocabulary here but rather a cabin bag of cultural capital than enables the carrier to understand, navigate and participate in the world around them. Sending out children without the basics is akin to throwing them overboard without a life jacket.
“Most of Ed Tech makes no impact in Africa”
Given that 78% of children in South Africa are not even literate after 4-5 years of schooling it is unlikely that many will even be able to read the newspaper let alone access the references contained within. So how can we even yet consider a 21st Century skills curriculum (whatever that is)? Many have proposed educational technology as the life boat to save schooling in South Africa, but according to Jamie Martin, founder of Injini, Africa’s first ed-tech incubator, “Most of Ed Tech makes no impact in Africa”. In its current format it is akin to applying a coat of glittering paint to a rotten hull.
A rising tide lifts all the ships
The floundering state of South African education means parents are voting with their feet. A growing fleet of private schools have been created from the ground up as parents and communities take hold of the rudder to ensure their children get the start they need in life. This trend is set to continue. The Business of Education in Africa report by Caerus Capital LLC, predicts that one in four children will be enrolled in private schools by 2021.
Whether private or government run, teachers, educators and policy makers in South Africa need to ensure that decisions around education are informed by evidence not ideology. ResearchED, with its commitment to giving voice to all in education and working out what works, does exactly that. It’s also ‘low hanging fruit’ says Tom Bennett. “Some of the approaches that cognitive psychology are offering us are examples of completely free ways to revolutionise teaching, in keeping with what we know about how the mind actually learns.” Simple to understand and much cheaper than offering iPads to every learner, techniques such as retrieval practice, spaced learning and cognitive load theory are accessible to all right now.
Government policy aside, individual teachers and schools across the globe and now in South Africa, are climbing on board this movement in order to deliver for their pupils. For South Africa in particular it may seem like isolated drops in the ocean but as teachers continue to combine to swell the ranks of this politest of revolutions, it offers both hope and a way forward.
After all a rising tide lifts all the ships.