Reading to some purpose…

birds

“In an influential 1937 essay called “The Nature of the Firm,” the economist Ronald Coase argued that a firm would grow as long as its internal transaction costs were less than the external costs it would otherwise incur. But in the Bay Area today, Ravikant suggested, the external transaction costs for many things have got so low that there are fewer such economies.

 “For example, in the old days, we’d get breakfast and lunch brought in every day so that the engineers can work and be productive,” he said. “I might have had my office manager do that—essentially, I’ve hired someone who’s spending time doing it. Now we have a zillion different little services who bring that in-house.” The more assured Ravikant got, the faster he spoke; he started rattling off the options available. On the transportation front, “we have our Lyft and our Sidecar and our UberX and our InstantCab and our Flywheel. Two years ago, I couldn’t find a cab in this city to save my life. Now I’ve sold most of my cars and I have five different car services at my beck and call.”

The same systems that make outsourcing of small tasks more efficient have driven down the cost of launching a company. Once, an entrepreneur would go to a venture capitalist for an initial five-million-dollar funding round—money that was necessary for hardware costs, software costs, marketing, distribution, customer service, sales, and so on. Now there are online alternatives. “In 2005, the whole thing exploded,” Ravikant told me. “Hardware? No, now you just put it on Amazon or Rackspace. Software? It’s all open-source. Distribution? It’s the App Store, it’s Facebook. Customer service? It’s Twitter—just respond to your best customers on Twitter and Get Satisfaction. Sales and marketing? It’s Google AdWords, AdSense. So the cost to build and launch a product went from five million”—his marker skidded across the whiteboard—“to one million”—more arrows—“to five hundred thousand”—he made a circle—“and it’s now to fifty thousand.” As a result, the number of companies skyrocketed, and so did the number of angels: suddenly, you didn’t need to be a venture-capital firm to afford early equity.”


The youth, the upward dreams, the emphasis on life style over other status markers, the disdain for industrial hierarchy, the social benefits of good deeds and warm thoughts—only proper nouns distinguish this description from a portrait of the startup culture in the Bay Area today. It is startling to realize that urban tech life is the closest heir to the spirit of the sixties, and its creative efflorescence, that the country has so far produced.

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Public-minded kids in San Francisco seem to have that expectation, which is partly why the startup market has had such growth, and why smart people from around the country keep flying in to try their hands at the game. The result is a rising metropolitan generation that is creative, thoughtful, culturally charismatic, swollen with youthful generosity and dreams—and fundamentally invested in the sovereignty of private enterprise.

  • Re-read Keynes’ old quote and was reminded about the power of ideas: “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist”

“SADTU selling principals’ posts in exchange for cows, sheep and goats” (CityPress article)

I don’t usually repost articles on education but if these allegations are true – and Prof John Volmink’s report should identify if they are – then we really need decisive action from Motshekga or Zuma or someone who actually has power. This is a deal-breaker. You cannot have SADTU running provinces and calling the shots while children suffer as a result.

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“Pretoria – Rogue members of teachers’ union Sadtu have “captured” a key provincial education department, which officials in Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga’s office say is now on the “verge of collapse”.

Investigators appointed by Motshekga to probe the jobs-for-cash racket run by union officials, which City Press exposed last year, have found that Sadtu members have “infiltrated that department and run a complex patronage system” in KwaZulu-Natal.

An investigation commissioned by Motshekga’s office and headed by Professor John Volmink has found that not only is education in KwaZulu-Natal being run by rogue union members, but Sadtu members have been found to have violated the system in the provincial education departments of Gauteng, North West, the Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga and Limpopo.

On Monday, Motshekga met KwaZulu-Natal education MEC Peggy Nkonyeni and senior officials in her department at OR Tambo International Airport to discuss the crisis.

A senior department official said the provincial department had “collapsed; there is no leadership”.

What investigators found

Other allegations Volmink’s team of 10 investigators uncovered around the country include:

. Evidence that a number of senior Sadtu members in the Eastern Cape have received cows, sheep and goats as payment for several principals’ positions throughout the province;

. That an applicant for a principal post at a Gauteng school approached his district director and showed him an SMS which proved Sadtu officials tried to extort R25 000 out of him in return for the job; and

. A Sadtu official in Limpopo’s Mopani district committed suicide after failing to secure two principal posts for teachers who had paid him R25 000 each. He killed himself after they demanded their money back.

In KwaZulu-Natal they found:

. Sadtu officials demanding that union members be appointed to 37 chief education specialist posts. Union officials insisted the department reduce the educational requirements for the posts from degrees to teaching diplomas;

. Sadtu officials have earmarked candidates to fill 15 senior managerial positions in the Ugu district in Port Shepstone;

. A Sadtu leader who is a junior teacher in the Ethekwini North region became the principal of a large school with two deputy principals in the Ilembe district after falsifying a letter of appointment;

. A senior Sadtu official in Ethekwini North illegally swapped positions with a principal of a large school in Ilembe. The “gentlemen’s deal” was struck because principals of large schools earn much more than those who run smaller schools; and

. Evidence that a school governing body member of a Pinetown school acted with Sadtu members to extort R30 000 from a teacher who had applied for the job of principal.

KZN on the verge of collapse

On Thursday, officials from the basic education department’s legal department were sent to Durban to meet senior provincial officials. Senior department sources with knowledge of the meeting said the lawyers “read the riot act to their provincial counterparts asking them to rein in Sadtu”.

Another official said: “They were very harsh on them, asking why they had not acted on Sadtu’s anarchy over the past two weeks.”

Over the past two weeks, pupils at 440 schools in the Ilembe region on the north coast and 485 schools in Ugu region on the south coast have received little teaching after regional union leaders ordered teachers to protest at district offices.

The teachers, who play loud music and disrupt work at the offices, aim to get rid of the directors.

The protest is set to intensify this week in the Ilembe region, where an unsigned notice from the office of the secretary of Sadtu’s Ethekwini North region – which was sent to members on Friday – states that all members should conduct sit-ins at district offices on Monday and shut down schools completely on Tuesday.

Three sources in the department told City Press that Ilembe district director Thembinkosi Vilakazi was visited by three Sadtu leaders from the Ethekwini North region in August last year. They demanded that she appoint them as chief education specialists in her three circuit offices in Stanger, Ndwedwe and KwaMaphumulo.

“They asked to talk to her and told her she was a comrade and should co-operate with them. They said they were prepared to support her and defend her from her enemies, but only if she gave them the positions. She told them things didn’t work like that and she couldn’t fix positions. She told them the fixing of positions was illegal and was corruption.”

He said the three told Vilakazi that if she did not agree to the deal, they would make her stay at the district miserable.

Vilakazi refused to comment.

Another senior KwaZulu-Natal official said that, while Sadtu had claimed Ugu district director Mfundo Sibiya was unfit to lead, what was at issue were the 15 senior positions advertised in the district.

“The department has endorsed interviewing panels given by Sadtu. Where have you ever seen that? Sadtu asked him to change certain people in the interviewing panels, but he refused,” said the official.

“One of the people they want, a Sadtu leader, is not even shortlisted.” Sibiya refused to comment.

Sadtu denies claims

Sadtu’s provincial secretary, Dolly Caluza, said the protests at Ilembe and Ugu had nothing to do with positions.

“There are issues our leaders are raising with the department and some of them date back to 2011. We are protesting about norms and standards and the allocation of teachers. Teachers are overworked and there is animosity because teachers are overworked,” she said.

Caluza accused Vilakazi of failing to attend meetings to resolve labour issues. She denied the protests were about positions.

Sadtu’s national secretary, Mugwena Maluleke, said anyone with evidence of corruption should approach Volmink’s team with evidence.

“One district director in KwaZulu-Natal made allegations – we asked him to submit evidence and he still hasn’t. If they don’t, it will appear that they want to run away from their responsibilities, and use Sadtu’s name to do that. People should be exposed if they are corrupt,” said Maluleke.

Directors fight back

Eight of KwaZulu-Natal’s 12 district directors met in Pietermaritzburg last week and agreed to approach Nkonyeni and Premier Senzo Mchunu to protect them from being intimidated by Sadtu members and the union’s grip on the department.

Sources close to the meeting told City Press that if Nkonyeni and Mchunu did not respond, the directors would appeal to Motshekga and President Jacob Zuma.

One director, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “Sadtu is running the department. We have resolved to take the fight to Sadtu. We want support from the premier and the MEC. We need support from the department of education; they must use their power to support us.

“Sadtu doesn’t give a f*** about our children’s education. Education is under siege; it is in the hands of syndicates. The ANC has to pronounce on this; we have reached the crossroads.”

Trouble brews over big jobs

Motshekga’s team’s visit comes as trouble brews over 37 chief education specialist posts.

Three senior officials close to the matter told City Press several provincial Sadtu leaders had publicly stated in meetings they had already allocated the positions to some of their members.

A senior official, who did not want to be named, said: “Sadtu wants the positions, saying they met with head of department Nkosinathi Sishi and persuaded him to advertise the positions.

“They said they would decide who was appointed. They have a list across the province.”

Three senior officials told City Press that when the positions were advertised in August last year, the prerequisite for candidates was a university degree.

But because most of Sadtu’s favoured candidates did not have degrees, the advertisement was withdrawn and the requirements were amended to a diploma.

The posts were re-advertised in March. Caluza denied the union had objected to district directors chairing interviewing panels of the 37 chief education specialist positions.

“We have not objected to directors chairing interviewing panels. We don’t decide who chairs panels, we only observe. Our role is to observe.”

KwaZulu-Natal education department spokesperson Muzi Mahlambi said the department was concerned about the disruption of classes at Ilembe and Ugu.

“We are engaging the leadership of Sadtu. We have already held three meetings with them. The engagements are so that the right of the child to learn can be protected. We have issued a circular that empowers principals to deal with teachers who are not at school.”

He said the province was confident that things would improve this week.”

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From here.

Reading to some purpose

nasa 2

Open Stellenbosch: “Tackling language and exclusion at Stellenbosch University”

(The article below was written by the Open Stellenbosch collective and published in the City Press this Sunday the 26th of April 2015, and is also available on Daily Maverick). I’ve written about this topic myself and feel quite strongly that not enough is being done to diversify the staff and student bodies at Stellenbosch and particularly in changing the culture at the University, hence posting the article here.

“Tackling language and exclusion at Stellenbosch University”

– Open Stellenbosch

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“Many in South Africa are aware of the RhodesMustFall movement at UCT, and the problems of institutional racism it has highlighted. These problems are deeply entrenched at Stellenbosch University, where Open Stellenbosch was created to challenge the hegemony of white Afrikaans culture and the exclusion of black students and staff. Open Stellenbosch is a movement of predominantly black students and staff at the University who refuse to accept the current pace of transformation.

In 2013, only 3.5% of all professors at the University were black, while 86% were white. In fact, there are more professors named ‘Johan’ than there are black professors at our institution. Is this really what transformation looks like 20 years after Apartheid?

The fact that we as black students on campus have to take matters into our own hands to change the oppressive institutional culture at Stellenbosch is an indictment of the University management. We do not believe that those in the SRC, the Senate or the Council understand the weight of normalised oppression that we experience at this overtly white University.

Although our institution claims that “continuous transformation is part of the core being of the University”, this could not be further from our everyday reality at Stellenbosch. We are tired of empty promises and goals that are perpetually postponed. We have been having these conversations for over a decade now, and it is clear that the management at Stellenbosch has been operating in bad faith. Many promises, little action. There was the “Strategic Framework” of 1999, the “Vision 2012” document of 2000, the “Transformation Strategy” of 2008, the “Overarching Strategic Plan” of 2009, the “Quality Development Plan”, the “Employment Equity Plan”, the “Diversity Framework”, and so it goes on. These have all failed because of a wholesale lack of political will to implement them – both then and now.

Although there are many things that need to change at Stellenbosch University, as a matter of urgency we are calling for the following:

  1. No student should be forced to learn or communicate in Afrikaans and all classes must be available in English.
  2. The institutional culture at Stellenbosch University needs to change radically and rapidly to reflect diverse cultures and not only White Afrikaans culture.
  3. The University publically needs to acknowledge and actively remember the central role that Stellenbosch and its faculty played in the conceptualisation, implementation and maintenance of Apartheid.

Every day students and staff who do not understand Afrikaans are excluded from learning and participating at Stellenbosch University. As black students we are frequently asked, “Why do you come here if you can’t speak Afrikaans?” This question highlights the pervasive and problematic sense of ownership that some have over this University. Stellenbosch – like all universities – is a public institution. This is not an Afrikaans university. It is a South African university which offers instruction in Afrikaans and (to a lesser extent) English.

We have personally experienced countless instances of this institutional racism, including being forced to ask our Afrikaans-speaking peers to interpret what “Huiskomitee” members are saying in residence meetings. When we are allocated rooms, we are intentionally paired with other black students. Initiation at our residences involves explicit racism, homophobia and intimidation. It’s telling that we actively discourage our black school-leaving friends from considering Stellenbosch as a place to study. This is in an attempt to spare them the pain and humiliation of being silently subjugated by a passively hostile culture of white Afrikanerdom.

These exclusionary practices are not limited to students only. Some academics are forced to sit through meetings conducted in Afrikaans where they do not understand anything and yet are required to be there. These norms help explain why black faculty find Stellenbosch to be a hostile environment that privileges white Afrikaans culture. This privileging is most obviously reflected in the racial composition of teaching staff at the University (see graphic).

Is this what transformation looks like (3) (April 2015)

The University and its management will no doubt issue new statements, new speeches, new plans. This week we will read the latest reincarnation of a “Transformation Plan” with the Rector promising that this time it will be different. We are not interested in superficial gestures of goodwill. We want to see an end to Afrikaans-only classes. We want our University to represent our cultures as well. We want to be taught by more black faculty. After years of empty promises and hollow commitments, we no longer trust what you say. Speak to us with your actions because your words will fall on deaf ears, as ours have for over a decade.”

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Open Stellenbosch can be found on Twitter @OpenStellies and on Facebook at “Open Stellenbosch

Q&A with Maurita Glynn-Weissenberg

MauritaThe aim of the Q&A series is to get an inside look into some of South Africa’s leading education academics, policy-makers and activists. This is the twenty-fifth interview in the series. Maurita Glynn-Weissenberg is the founder and director of the Shine Centre.

1) How did you get into education, can you summarise your journey to get to where you are?

I started off teaching my toys as a little girl as I only ever wanted to teach. I taught in the UK and SA in both private and state schooling of which the latter were in pretty edgy neighbourhoods in both countries. Struggling to read seemed to be something that followed children irrespective of where they grew up which led me to study remedial education at UCT in 1995.

In 1998 I started volunteering two mornings a week at Observatory Junior School. A school where most of the children travel long distances at their families expense to learn in English. However, more than half the class were not nearly reading at Grade 1 (?) level by Grade 4. What struck me was the commitment from families to educate their children and how keen the children were to do well. After two years of tutoring Grade 5 and 6 children I started looking for an early intervention which took me to visit a project in Tower Hamlets, East of London, UK. Here I saw corporates giving up a lunch hour once a week to read with children and the idea of Shine was born.

2)   What does your average week look like.

In the last year I have finally moved into a position of moving out of the day-to-day operations of the Shine Programmes and concentrating on developing the right systems and policies to reach our long term vision.

Last week I spent two mornings reviewing policies and researching a few more.

I had a meeting with one of our funders to look at making some changes to our peer-learning project, met with the Chairman of another literacy organisation to discuss collaboration and spent a morning reviewing our Social Franchise.

I also attended the Year Beyond Dinner at Chrysalis Academy where we welcomed 33 amazing youth who will be Shine Learning Partners in 8 schools who benefit from the Western Cape’s MOD programme. I ended the week attending a committee meeting of RASA (Reading Association of South Africa) as we are hosting this year’s RASA Conference along with the Pan African Reading Association.

However, after having quite a serious accident in 2009 I strongly believe in balance and I do manage to pick up my children from school and walk the dog along the green belt most days.

 3)   While I’m sure you’ve read many books and articles in your career, if you had to pick one or two that have been especially influential for you which one or two would they be and why?

Systemic change begins with people changing the way they think and do things. So that is what I am most interested in. Especially as Shine’s workforce is currently 700 volunteers, 23 Centre Managers, 23 school heads, 33 youth and a head office team of 13. Our focus group is thousands of young children and their caregivers.

The book and teachings that made the greatest impact on our work and my thinking is Nancy Cline’s Time to Think. Nancy Kline has identified 10 behaviours that form a system called a Thinking Environment, a model of human interaction that dramatically improves the way people think, and thus the way they work and live. We work this model into our programme and all our meetings. Meetings are useless if people don’t listen to one another, interrupt one another, talk too much or say nothing at all.

The second book that I learnt so much from was Playful Approaches to Serious Problems by David Epston, Jennifer Freeman and Dean Lobovits.

Our volunteers are offered training by Linda van Duuren who’s incredible work is based on David Epston’s Narrative Therapy. Our children come with huge challenges in their lives and it is important that as adults we are able to listen to and respect their unique language, problem-solving and resources. David Epston’s work gives us a framework to work from.

4)   Who do you think are the current two or three most influential/eminent thinkers in your field and why?

I have recently been lucky enough to be part of some incredible thinking.

In 2011 Shine was a finalist for the Wise Awards and ever since I have been sponsored to attend the Word Innovation Summit for Education. What I love about this Summit is that they want to hear from everybody in the field and actively sponsor thousands of people from all areas of education. There is as great a respect for the voice of a field worker in a refugee camp school as the chairman of Unesco for instance. There is so much to learn from the many people around me but I do have some favourites:

Firstly, Charles Leadbeater, who is a leading authority on innovation and creativity and co-wrote Learning from the Extremes. Published early in 2010 by Cisco, Learning from the Extremes examines how social entrepreneurs around the world are devising new approaches to learning in extreme social circumstances – favelas, slums, informal settlements – when there are few teachers, schools, text books. The radically innovative approaches they develop challenge conventional wisdom about schooling and provide new insights into how the developed world should reform its education systems.

My second favourite is Professor Anil Gupta who created the Honey Bee Network to ensure recognition, respect and reward for grassroots inventors and innovators at local, national and global levels. Searching the country with colleagues, he has found countless inventions developed out of necessity, which he has documented and often shared with the global community.

My wish for this year is for a larger group of South African educationalists and policy makers to attend the Wise Summit.

5)   What do you think is the most under-researched area in education in South Africa?

 Can’t say for sure but possibly Early Childhood Development.

6)   What is the best advice you’ve been given?

I think I have learnt the most from Kathryn Torres, our current chairperson, who has partnered me on the Shine journey since 2006. I always tended to allow my visions to paralyse me whereas she is someone that thrives on getting the job done. How lucky is this relationship?

Whenever I have an idea she gets me to haul out my diary and put the next step into action. So usually by the end of that conversation I have identified who I need to speak to, have made contact and the appointment is in the diary. That is simply how new centres were established in 2009, how our Social Franchise model came about and hopefully how our new project involving peer learning will evolve .

Kathryn’s advice: ‘One step at a time.’ It’s as simple as that!

7) You founded the Shine Centre in 2000 – can you give us some information about what Shine is all about, its aims and approach and maybe some of your plans for the future?

The Shine Model

We currently have 8 Shine Centres supporting 10 primary schools and 13 Shine Chapters (our Social Franchise Model) which supports 13 primary schools in 3 provinces.

The Shine Programme runs from a centre in schools each morning. It is managed by a Shine Centre Manager and between 40 to 80 trained volunteers run the programme (depending on the need). Grade Two or Three children are partnered with a volunteer for a year and together they work through a one hour structured literacy programme, twice a week.

Children who attend the Shine Centre have been assessed by Shine to be ‘at risk’ in terms of their literacy scores. This is determined at the end of their Grade One year when Shine assesses all Grade One children. Their progress is monitored twice a year which is shared with the class teacher together with any anecdotal information that the volunteer picks up.

The Literacy Programme consists of: Paired Reading, Shared Reading, Have a Go Writing and Word Games, using 36 five-minute games specially designed by Shine. Our programme complements the school curriculum and provides individual support to children who are struggling. All volunteers receive initial training on the methodology surrounding each of these areas, as well as continuous in-depth training on key and additional skills and learning areas.

On top of that we offer eye testing and glasses to the schools, parent workshops and soon we hope to introduce a peer-learning programme to the teachers.

Importantly, everything is tied together using our Shine Ethos which is based on the principles by Nancy Cline’s Time to Think, and we believe that this is what makes our programme both unique and successful. Children are encouraged to work at their own pace in a fun, warm and nurturing environment, where appreciation and praise are used to positively reinforce progress and good behaviour.

8) I’m sure you are in a different space now than you were in 2000 when you founded Shine, what advice would you give to yourself 14 years ago?

There are things I wish I had done differently but I do believe that it’s part of what I needed to experience and learn. In 1999 I lacked confidence to even think of knocking on doors to get funding. Thus I ended up designing a project that used volunteers and the infrastructure of the school that hosted it. The first Shine Centre established in 2000 ran on the smell of an oil rag but it was quickly noted that the literacy at this school rose steadily from 50% in 2002 to 82.7%% in 2008 (Western Cape Grade 3 testing).

But if I had to choose anything it is to have the courage of my convictions. I used to second-guess myself too much. And I wish I had been a little wilder in my youth. By 21 I was already married, had built a house and had two dogs that were serious hand-breaks! (I may have made up for that in my forties.)

9) What is the most rewarding and most frustrating thing about your job?

Walking into a Shine Chapter that has had our basic support and training and seeing the powerful interaction between the Learning Partners taking place. We won the Truth and Reconciliation Prize in 2008 based on the relationships that develop during a Shine session. It is nation building – without a doubt.

The most frustrating is seeing the huge potential of the children in our schools and the seemingly insurmountable challenges that confront them in our schooling system.

10) If you ended up sitting next to the Minister of Basic Education on a plane and she asked you what you think are the three biggest challenges facing the South African ECD sector, what would you say?

  1. The difficulty of finding and tracking every informal and formal crèche and nursery school in the country let alone the cost and challenges of training, resourcing and monitoring each facility.
  2. The challenge of training in a sector where caregivers have varying background in education.
  3. The fact that parents can often only pay a minimal cost which results in children spending their day in impoverished and over-crowded facilities with little or no individual care.

 11)   If you weren’t in education what do you think you would be doing?

I’d be in HR or maybe a feng-shui consultant. My team tease me because I love nothing more than rearranging the furniture in our offices and centres. I love making a space conducive to allowing people to really feel good.

12)   Technology in education going forward – are you a fan or a sceptic?

I love the idea of children being given the power to create their own learning using technology and Dr. Sugata Mitra who started the first Hole-in-the-Wall in a slum in New Delhi proposed the following hypothesis when he delivered an inspiring presentation at WISE in 2011: The acquisition of basic computing skills by any set of children can be achieved through incidental learning provided the learners are given access to a suitable computing facility, with entertaining and motivating content and some minimal (human) guidance.

However, being the mother of two boys who attend Waldorf Schools, I still believe that the most cost–effective and meaningful medium of teaching can be and should be dynamic, warm, positive human beings who are passionate about their subject and have mastery of it.

12) If you were given a R10 million research grant what would you use it for?

As we know children across the board in South Africa have poor literacy skills, which impacts on their opportunity or ability to learn and has devastating consequences for their chance to succeed in life. I would like to research innovative ways to improve literacy in South African schools through a national peer reading programme in which children read together for set times during the day. Paired and shared peer reading programmes have been introduced in both the UK and Canada and there is sufficient positive research emerging from these countries to support introducing a Book Buddies programme in schools throughout South Africa. I would love to be able to visit and observe the most successful peer reading programmes in the world and then research ways in which these could be modified to fit into the South African context. I would like to implement a Book Buddy programme nationally and complete a longitudinal study on the effects of the programme on the children. It is my dream to see children pairing up with their Book Buddy spontaneously and reading for pleasure at any time of the school day. If children learn to read for pleasure at school this translates into a life-long love of reading, which, in turn, impacts positively on generations to come as the children become parents and read to their children.

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*Full disclosure: my mom (Sally Spaull) is a Shine volunteer in Durban and regularly tells me how wonderful the program is :)

Some of the others on my “to-interview” list include Veronica McKay, Thabo Mabogoane, Yael Shalem, Linda Richter and Volker Wedekind. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.

Previous participants (with links to their Q&A’s) include, Johan MullerUrsula HoadleyStephen TaylorServaas van der BergElizabeth HenningBrahm FleischMary Metcalfe, Martin Gustafsson, Eric AtmoreDoron IsaacsJoy OliverHamsa VenkatLinda Biersteker, Jonathan ClarkeMichael MyburghPercy Moleke , Wayne Hugo, Lilli PretoriusPaula EnsorCarol MacdonaldJill Adler and Andrew EinhornCarole Bloch and Shelley O’Carroll.

[Guest blog-post] Takalani Sesame

[Below is a guest blog-post written by Lerato Nomvuyo Mzamane of Takalani Sesame. I usually don’t allow unsolicited guest blog posts but I really liked Takalani’s innovative way of engaging with children on serious issues in playful ways. I also watched Takalani as a kid :) I especially like their development of an HIV-positive muppet (Kami) to help inform children about HIV and destigmatise children and adults who are HIV-positive, and the translation of some of their programs into African languages. I’ll let Lerato tell you a little more about their current innovations… ]

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Research-Informed & Data-Driven Children’s Television Goes Online: The Takalani Sesame Approach

– Lerato Nomvuyo Mzamane

Inform, improve, measure … repeat. This research philosophy operates across all Sesame Workshop productions, including Takalani Sesame. Sesame productions reach 156 million children daily in more than 150 countries making it the world’s single largest informal educator. Since 2000, the Takalani Sesame education team has contributed to the pool of more than 1 000 studies worldwide that Sesame Workshop has conducted over its 40-year existence.

Takalani Sesame regularly undergoes formative assessments, finding out what young children are learning and what they like. We incorporate their feedback. Some changes defy adult preferences and challenge professional experiences, but that’s alright because we have a focus: the most important voice is the child’s.

Being a data-driven show, Takalani Sesame gathers significant amounts of information from its target markets. In addition to our core audience (3 to 7 year olds), groups that matter are their grown-ups (parents and teachers) and their older siblings (highly influential others).

Where is Takalani Sesame active?

While best known for being a television programme, Takalani Sesame is also broadcast on radio, and there are regular outreach events in the communities we serve. We aim to reach children in every way possible, including through the most up-to-date technological ways. Most recently, we expanded our digital footprint by launching a dedicated YouTube channel alongside our two websites, social media identities and instant-messaging efforts.

The Takalani Sesame YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/channel/UCSOzE3-7BQn7GtiftoiIRsg) is updated regularly and features episode segments in five languages – Sepedi, Afrikaans, isiZulu, Tshivenda and English. These are bite-size “edutainment” offerings that not only embrace multilingualism, but also help to further the educational mandates as outlined by our stakeholders and partners – the Department of Basic Education (DBE), Sanlam, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) and Sesame Workshop.

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How is our target market using digital?

To understand our digital visitors better, we spent time in rural and urban crèches and primary schools. There were expected confirmations: more capable cellphones are getting more affordable and our lowly paid teachers are buying them; as the line between feature phones and smart phones narrows, mobile capabilities are advancing faster than some users can keep up with; data remains too pricey for many, even the employed, so free instant-messaging services and lower-cost internet usage dominate; and, the digital divide is also about age and younger educators are more aware of what is possible than older educators.

Case Study: Road Safety in South Africa

When Takalani Sesame piloted a road-safety initiative, the project team undertook research at several levels:

  • A literature review of road safety locally and abroad;
  • Focus groups with parents, teachers and community members before material development;
  • Preliminary testing of drafts at a volunteer school using retired teachers as data collectors;
  • Assessments after teacher training to see what could happen when development is rolled out at scale; and,
  • A monitoring and evaluation component by an independent entity.

All that before we could introduce the initiative to South Africa.

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The transfer of knowledge applies across all our platforms. We’ve produced supplementary textbooks, educational materials, outreach programmes, literacy projects and many other initiatives tailored to the needs of the communities we serve.

Case Study: HIV/Aids Awareness Among Children

As part of our launch of the HIV-positive muppet Kamogelo (AKA Kami) in 2004, independent researchers confirmed that a child who has watched Takalani Sesame is four times more likely to have some knowledge of HIV/Aids than a child who hasn’t. Parents and educators who watched our television special “Talk to Me”, were twice as likely to talk to their children about HIV/Aids than those who had not watched it.

A national survey commissioned by the Nelson Mandela Foundation further showed that our young viewers demonstrate measurable gains in HIV/Aids knowledge and attitudes, including basic knowledge of the disease, blood safety, de-stigmatisation, and coping with illness.

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[Image credit: Sesame Workshop]

Supporting the DBE’s White Paper on e-Education

In addition to wide research and market studies, Takalani Sesame leans on its partners for a universe of data and policies. This is especially true of the partnership with the Department of Basic Education (DBE).

A case in point is our embrace of the DBE’s White Paper on e-Education. We have taken up the mandate for Takalani Sesame to live in digital spaces. In 2013 we introduced a fun website [www.takalanisesame.co.za], a Facebook page and a Twitter handle @LoveTakalani. In 2014, we unveiled a special parenting, teacher resource and information-based website for educators and parents [www.earlychildhood-takalanisesame.co.za] and this year we’ve added the YouTube channel to further extended our digital footprint.

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The big reveal during our most recent site-based digital-behaviour information gathering exercises was that a popular service was the e-publication of research and policy papers. We intentionally select practice-focused scholarship and this seems to be paying off.

Interestingly though, we found we spent most of our grassroots excursion time teaching teachers how to use their feature and smart phones. And once they figure out how to go online, wow…

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Lerato Nomvuyo Mzamane is the Senior Multimedia Executive at Ochre Media, co-producers of Takalani Sesame and producers of many other groundbreaking programmes. She is a mother, teacher and activist with 30 years of experience in over 20 countries.

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