Improving education in and out of school in South Africa (Part 2)

This post was written by Thomas Hatch and originally published on

My latest blog posts include a series of reflections on recent visits to a number of educational organizations in South Africa including IkamvaYouth, Wordworks, FunDza, Olico, the Kliptown Youth Program, and The Learning Trust.  The first post discusses both the considerable challenges and real possibilities for growth; this second post describes the efforts of several organizations to respond to the demand for basic learning materials and the challenges in building a capable teacher force; the final post considers some of the unique aspects and possibilities for work in South Africa moving forward. . These reflections build on earlier posts about visits to Singapore and Malaysia, and are all part of an ongoing study of improvement and innovation inside and outside schools in developed and developing education systems.

Improving education in and out of school in South Africa (Part 2)

A demand for basic materials

While the programs I learned about all take somewhat different approaches, as I talked to the leaders of programs like Wordworks, FunDza, and Olico, I noted a heavy emphasis on developing and sharing materials for literacy and maths. Wordworks, for example, has developed a series of materials and resources, many of which are offered for free.  Those materials can be used by anyone – including parents as well as teachers – to help young children learn to read and write. FunDza also seeks to support literacy development and a love of reading, but for those in high school and beyond.  Their work began in 2010 when Dorothy Dyer, a high school teacher sought to find and create books and other reading material that reflected the lives of her students, who primarily lived in one of Cape Town’s Black townships.  Dyer’s students were so enthusiastic about the initial drafts of a novel that she and a friend started to write for them that she and colleagues including Mignon Hardie started a small publishing company, Cover2Cover. Cover2Cover published works geared for young adults growing up in South Africa. Those works have included a series focused on a group of teenagers at a fictional township high school and another series set in a youth soccer club.  Many of their books also focus on social issues including xenophobia, homophobia, and teenage pregnancy.  In addition to Cover2Cover, which remains a for-profit publisher, they also established the FunDza Literacy Trust. FunDza provides these books and other reading materials in print and through a mobile app to schools, libraries, youth development groups, and other reading groups.  To meet the constant demand for texts that connect directly to the lives of youth South Africans, FunDza has also gone on to create a program to support the development of young writers and is currently piloting an online reading curriculum using their materials as well.

Olico grew out of Andrew Barrett’s initial work establishing a branch of IkamvaYouth outside of Johannesburg. After he left IkamvaYouth, he wanted to explore how to use technology to help ease the intense demand for the tutors that programs like IkamvaYouth and the Kliptown Youth Program rely on. Barrett’s work with Olico began by using the videos of Salman Khan and Khan Academy to help eighth grade students in an afterschool program in one South African township to learn math.  But from their work in that one Township, Barrett and colleagues like Lynn Bowie have now created a whole series of math videos and support materials that students from South Africa (and anyone else with an internet connection) can freely access online; partners like IkamvaYouth and the Kliptown Youth Program are now using those materials to enhance their own tutoring programs.

These three programs are just a sample, however, as the development and distribution of educational materials has taken off.  In 2002, for example, Siyavula, started with a group of students who developed free online texts in high school chemistry, maths, and physics. Syavula’s work has now expanded into a technology company that produces open source textbooks  at both the primary and high school level as well as tools and technologies to support personalized learning.  The government as well has gotten into the act, with provinces like Guateng producing scripted materials that primary school teachers can use to teach reading and maths.

All of these programs have developed in a system where there are still large swaths of schools, concentrated in the poorest townships and rural areas, where students and teachers have virtually no materials or a small set of books and resources they have to share.  Furthermore, the delivery of these materials – increasingly through online sources – can reach many more people and places at substantially lower costs than most training workshops and programs. In contrast, in the United States, textbooks and curriculum materials do not seem to get as much attention as many other reform strategies even though there is some evidence that they can make a difference in student outcomes (see “Big bang for just a few bucks” for example). A few programs that focus on content and materials development have found a niche (and Khan Academy and programs like Jump Math are good examples), but providers may feel that the market is already flooded with materials from major publishers and by those produced by states and districts themselves.

Limited teaching a capacity and a reliance on peer and volunteers

Even good materials, however, cannot teach themselves.  Effective use of materials depends on capable people and usually at least some training and targeted support.  In South Africa, the demand for training and support are evident from the low-level of preparation and limited content knowledge of some of South Africa’s teachers.  As Nic Spaull has pointed out, large percentages of teachers lack the content knowledge they need to pass the mathematics tests their students are expected to pass. In fact, in some of the poorest and most rural provinces communities, more than 70% of teachers can’t pass these tests.  To illustrate the depth of the problem, Spaull provides the example that on an international test, only 33% of South African Grade 6 maths teachers could correctly answer one of the items aimed at a sixth grade level. “This is only marginally above what teachers would get,” Spaull notes “if they just guessed the answer, since they would get it right 25 per cent of the time on a four-choice test item.”  Even the materials designed to support teachers show the inadequacies of current teacher preparation.  As stated in the introduction to a government sponsored booklet intended to help Intermediate Phase (middle school) teachers implement a literacy curriculum “as Intermediate Phase teachers, it is unlikely that you know how to teach learners to read, or how to remediate their reading.”

These findings have contributed to calls for substantial improvements in teacher preparation and professional development in South Africa, but those improvements are likely to take a generation at least and at a tremendously high cost.  In the meantime, O’Carroll of Wordworks, laments, “years go by and kids are lost.” As a consequence, Wordworks’ approach relies on both an extensive set of materials to teach reading as well as short workshops to equip volunteers, primarily parents, to use those materials effectively. While Wordworks uses approaches to teaching reading reflected in programs in the US like Reading Recovery, South African schools don’t not have the capacity to provide the intensive daily support required in Reading Recovery programs in other countries.  As O’Carroll explains “the very high level training of the tutors was not an option here. So it was going to have to be a program that could be delivered by parents or community workers rather than  a trained teacher and with minimal training and with minimal ongoing support.  It had to be done in a sustainable way by people who aren’t necessarily going to be paid, and who aren’t going to be getting ongoing coaching support.”

Finding capable volunteers and the “right” amount of training and support, however, is far from simple.  For example, even though Olico began by experimenting with the possibilities for students to use Khan’s self-paced videos on their own, Barrett, Bowie and their colleagues quickly realized that their students needed some support and their tutors also needed some relevant math expertise to provide appropriate guidance. For one thing, some aspects of the Khan videos – made originally by Salman Khan for his relatives in the US – were confusing to students in South Africa and needed to be explained. Even something as simple as the fact that in the US (and in the Khan videos) decimal points are represented by periods while in South Africa a comma is used could confuse the students.  Similarly, as Lynn Bowie explained, “if you write a 1000 in South Africa you write 1 space 000 (1 000), but in the US you write 1 comma 000 (1,000) now for us that would mean 1 point 000 not one thousand.”  Beyond these “translation problems”, however, Bowie pointed out that Olico’s students also struggled with the extent of metacognitive work the videos required in order to monitor and pace their own learning.  While the Khan videos at that time allowed students to go almost anywhere, Olico’s students didn’t have “a sense of when they weren’t learning.” Bowie added, “we’d find kids either spending endless amounts of time on inappropriate questions or alternatively finding the easiest sections and staying on that because it was giving them lots of lovely validation.”  In order to address these challenges, they have ended up creating their own videos that are geared specifically to students in South Africa and they have developed support materials for the students and the tutors that allow a balance between student self-direction and tutor-direction.

The challenges of finding skilled teachers are also among the factors that have encouraged many of these programs to embrace peer tutoring.  Peer tutoring can take many different forms, but it has been used in a number of approaches that have experienced considerable success at significant scale in countries like Mexico and Columbia.  In South Africa, the versions I saw generally involved small groups of students (roughly four or five) who work together on their schoolwork.  At the Kliptown Youth Program (KYP), for example, they group high school students according to whether they are in vocational or academic “stream”, then by school, and then by the subject they are working on.  Then the tutors let the students decide what to focus on, but encourage different students to take the lead.  For Thulani Madondo, Executive Director and one of the founders of KYP, adopting a peer learning approach has had a number of benefits including distinguishing their afterschool activities from “regular” school and enabling the program to meet students needs more effectively and efficiently.  “In the past,” Madondo explained, “we used to do it like ‘kids this is our lesson plan, and as we were doing that, we were chasing a lot of kids away because they had homework already and we were giving them new lessons and lessons that weren’t always aligned to what they were doing in school.”  The peer tutoring arrangements I learned about at IkamvaYouth and KYP were also strikingly similar to those I learned about in Malaysia.  All of these programs are also exploring ways to provide educational support while combatting the high cost, intensive time for training and preparation, and the challenges of staffing that come with approaches that rely on teachers.

But in the end even volunteers are a scarce resource, and finding enough, from Madondo’s perspective “is the big issue many non-profits face.”  As Olivier from IkamvaYouth points out, that means that the programs need to take into account the fact that they are likely to find it easier to get volunteers, if they are located near a university.  Furthermore, the programs have to find ways to defray the costs that volunteers often incur in transportation, mobile phone usage, and printing of materials and activities.  If they can’t offset these costs, Olivier worries, they may lose the help of many of those who have little if any source of income while they are in university but are committed to giving back to their communities.



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