Short interview…

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Recently I did a short interview on education in South Africa for the 2013 CSI Handbook (see here for the 2012 handbook). Although it may get edited, I suspect that it will be mostly what you see below. I’m interested to hear your answers to these questions – feel free to include them in the comments below…

  • What relationships have you discovered between access to education and quality of education in your research?
    • Access to education is a necessary but not sufficient condition for learning. Just because children are enrolled in school does not mean that they are learning, in fact, most of the evidence suggests that the majority of South African children are between one and two years behind the curriculum. So, although we have one of the highest rates of primary school enrolment in Sub-Saharan Africa (98%), hundreds of thousands of South African children are functionally illiterate. Rather than only looking at what proportion of grade 6 South African children are enrolled (98%), if we look at the proportion of South African 13 year olds that are literate, the figure is only 71% (in Tanzania it is 82% and in Kenya 87%).
  • You argue that there are two primary school education systems in South Africa and have pinpointed specific factors affecting wealthy and poor schools differently, based on analysis of SACMEQ data. What does this mean for how education interventions are implemented in different schools?
    • Almost all of the evidence we have suggests that we have two public schooling systems in South Africa, not one. The wealthiest 25% of schools are mostly functional and able to educate learners while the poorest 75% of schools are dysfunctional and unable to equip students with the numeracy and literacy skills they should be acquiring in primary school. Given that these two school systems are vastly different and that they face different problems, it’s only logical that interventions should be tailored to that particular school system. School interventions that work for poor schools that are atomized and badly run will, in all likelihood, be inappropriate and unnecessarily constraining for well-functioning schools.  
  • You’ve been vocal in asserting: “Teachers can’t teach what they don’t know”. How are teachers falling short, and why?
    • We know teacher content knowledge in South Africa is a major problem, particularly mathematics teacher content knowledge. Given that teacher content knowledge is central to teaching mathematics (and an integral part of the professional identity of the teacher), we really need to figure out how to improve both what teachers know, and how they teach. Simply getting the right answer isn’t the only concern: overly concrete mathematical methods may ‘work’ in grades one and two, but they prove problematic in higher grades.
  • Is there any empirical evidence to show that investing in teachers’ knowledge improves leaner outcomes? If not, what does improve learners’ results?
    • Internationally there is strong evidence that mathematical content knowledge for teaching does improve learner outcomes but locally there is less evidence. But that’s because very few South African studies of teacher content knowledge employ evaluation methods that are rigorous enough to draw causal conclusions, and most are very small localized studies which are not nationally representative. Perhaps the most convincing international research regarding improving learner outcomes is the importance of quality early childhood development – I think that is really where we need additional emphasis in South Africa. Assessing and raising the quality of Grade R (and pre-Grade-R) in South Africa.
  • Where are the gaps in education research in South Africa?
    • Three things we don’t really understand are 1) The impact of language switching between Grades three and four, 2) how to do in-service teacher training (almost all the existing programs don’t work), 3) what proportions of the low and unequal learning outcomes that we see at the end of Grade 3 are attributable to low quality preschool, home background and low quality Foundation Phase teaching.  

*Thanks @MarinaPape for the cool pic 🙂

2 responses to “Short interview…

  1. Excellent comments – enjoyed reading the blog 🙂
    Teachers can’t teach and why? One solution is to have a look at the BEd programme. Most teachers enrolled for a BEd degree tend to focus on HOW to teach a subject and not necessarily on the acquisition of advanced subject knowledge. Teachers who go the PGCE route focus on subject content and then spend a year learning HOW to teach what they know. Not foolproof but in my humble opinion, BEd programmes need to to teach subject content AND teaching methodologies. For example, at the UKZN T&L conference, a white Maths teacher with an MEd in Maths teaching told us that she would battle to pass the Gr12 maths paper because she had spent her entire 6 years learning HOW to teach but lacked the actual maths content expertise.
    Gaps in education research – there is so much research on educational attainment, quality and language of instruction and plenty research on language transition as well. I don’t think the year we ask students to transition is the root of the problem at all. It may exacerbate the literacy crisis though. Incidentally, and I am yet to find the proof, apparently Cuba shut its entire educational system for 3 years to retrain all educators due to the low literacy rates and low quality education given to students. Qualified literacy consultants were sent into the rural areas to teach ABE so as to ensure all learners had adequate linguistic stimulation before school.
    Once again, a great read and very insightful comments.
    PS) there are so many PhD scholars at Stellies interested in Emancipatory education, perhaps we should hold a monthly cross disciplinary tea/discussion as I feel we could all benefit from each others research areas – ie your expertise on SACMEQ etc!

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