The Emperor’s New Clothes – (reading and the 4th Industrial Revolution in SA)


(This article of mine was first published by the Daily Maverick on the 10th of September 2018).

In 1837 Hans Christian Andersen wrote a story about a vain emperor who appoints two weavers (who turn out to be con-men) to make him a fabulous new garment. As the story goes, the weavers promise to make it from “wonderful cloth” that “would be invisible to everyone who was unfit for the job he held, or who was very simple in character.” Slightly afraid that he would not be able to see the cloth himself, the Emperor sends his wisest men to first observe the weavers at work and report back to him what they find. One after the next, the wise men and courtiers go to the see the con-men diligently working at empty looms and sewing imaginary cloth with their needles, but the wise men proclaim their admiration out of fear that they will be exposed as stupid or incompetent, each praising the work more loudly than the next; “What a splendid design! What glorious colours! Magnificent! Charming! Excellent!” Eventually the Emperor himself goes to see the finished works and, although seeing no clothes at all, he hears the praise of everyone else and fears being called out. The story ends with the Emperor parading through the town in his new clothes, where in reality he is prancing in his underwear. While everyone pretends to see the beautiful clothes, and look on with approval and announce their admiration, a child shouts “But the Emperor has nothing at all on!” at which point the public realise the whole thing was a farce. The story ends thus: “The Emperor was upset, for he knew that the people were right. However, he thought the procession must go on now! The lords of the bedchamber took greater pains than ever, to appear holding up a train, although, in reality, there was no train to hold, and the Emperor walked on in his underwear.

So, what does this fairy-tale have to do with literacy in South Africa? It turns out quite a lot. Over the last two years, more and more otherwise sensible commentators have been starting to talk about terms like “The Fourth Industrial Revolution”, “Artificial Intelligence” and “21st Century Skills.” There are long presentations about the need for children to learn coding in primary schools and for more explicit teaching of the 4 C’s (collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, communication). We are repeatedly exposed to Alvin Toffler’s quote that “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those that cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” And that we are “preparing children for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented in order to solve problems that we don’t even know are problems yet” (Richard Riley). All of this is obviously true. The world of work in the future will be radically different to what it is today. The premium on non-cognitive skills is rising as more and more advanced computers do what we used to do, only faster, cheaper and more reliably. But it is also true that 78% of South African Grade 4’s cannot read for meaning in any language in 2016 (according to PIRLS 2016). These statistics are from a reliable internationally-set assessment that 50 countries participate in. Interestingly, in the UK (where they are introducing coding in primary schools) the percentage of children that cannot read is a mere 3%. In the U.S. it is 4%, in Chile 13%, in Iran it is 35% (note Iran has the same GDP per capita as South Africa). If we were having this conversation in the U.K I would have a different opinion.

In South Africa about 80% of children can’t read properly after four years of full time schooling and we are told that we must be devoting more time and resources to teaching them to collaborate? Or think critically? Or to code? “In the future, they will need to know how to work with artificial intelligence.” They. Can’t. Read. This sentence that you’re reading now – they can’t. This is our Emperor and these are our fantastical clothes. Children that do not learn to read for meaning after three years of schooling are never going to learn these other skills or be employed in the 21st century. Yes, children of the future will need more and different skills, but you cannot leap-frog literacy. Learning to work collaboratively is not more important than learning to read. Learning to code is not more important than learning to read. That’s because you can’t do any of these other things properly if you don’t learn to read first. Some might say we can do both, together, reinforcing each other, but this neglects the fact that there are real trade-offs. I have yet to see any practical plans for how time and resources given to these other areas aren’t time and resources taken away from teaching reading – a skill that clearly the majority of children are not getting.

In addition to the above, we should not be introducing a third African language in schools where most children have not learned to read properly in their home language. Notwithstanding the above, this is now the policy, the “Incremental Introduction of African Languages”. If this were restricted to the 20% of schools where most children do learn to read, that would be fine, but it isn’t. For various political reasons, even struggling no-fee schools are now told that they must teach three languages, when they currently cannot even teach one. “What a splendid idea! How inclusive! How multicultural!”

I was at a high-level government workshop recently where the topic of implementing Swahili in pilot schools was discussed in a serious way – presumably because of a pan-African workshop that was held where the idea came up and was thought to be a good one by the President or a Minister. Where are the children saying: “But the Emperor has nothing at all on!” and helping to break us out of the spell of magical thinking. These “good ideas” are harmful distractions. We need to call a spade a spade and get back to basics. We need to be hard-nosed and shut down the 42 other priorities and programmes and “good ideas” that litter our primary schools and distract us from the one goal we can’t afford not to achieve: ensuring that all children learn to read for meaning by age 10. If I had to bet the farm on one skill that children will definitely still need in the 21st century, it would be high levels of literacy. Other things, yes, but literacy first.

8 responses to “The Emperor’s New Clothes – (reading and the 4th Industrial Revolution in SA)

  1. Brilliantly put. A lot of what is currently taught by universities to the teachers in training is precisely these “good idea” add ons that are distractions from the real tasks.

  2. Maurita Weissenberg

    Thank you. You have hit the nail on the head. Why is there not a reading class that continues from Grade Three right through to Grade 12 for those children/teens who still can’t read?

  3. Absolutely critical – can’t see how any may argue against this. Perhaps the issue is how can technology provide us with the tools to scale up reading to address precisely this challenge. It would appear that we are still working in an educational ecosystem where the most incredible tech – with a strong evidence of success – is not scaled up because of ‘not invented here’ syndrome and because early learning and basic education are 2 different departments. This is a national emergency which requires whole system thinking and the rapid scaling up of the right tools irrespective of where they have come from.

  4. Absolutely critical – can’t see how any may argue against this. Perhaps the issue is how can technology provide us with the tools to scale up reading to address precisely this challenge. It would appear that we are still working in an educational ecosystem where the most incredible tech – with a strong evidence of success – is not scaled up because of ‘not invented here’ syndrome and because early learning and basic education are 2 different departments. This is a national emergency which requires whole system thinking and the rapid scaling up of the right tools irrespective of where they have come from.

  5. I couldn’t agree more!

  6. Christiaan Visser (PhD)

    Dear Nic
    I find it interesting that you used the Hans Christian Andersen story about The Emperor’s New Clothes to make the point about the reading literacy problem in South Africa.
    What I find fascinating about this story is the way it ends. The way the story was told the Emperor employed a procession (a road show) to show off his new clothes. And when he realised that he was swindled by the weavers – while he was in the procession, naked and cold – he decided the procession had to go on. “So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train (cloak) that wasn’t there at all.” No remorse, no admission of the absurdity of the situation, no call for retribution, no call for a commission of enquiry …the show had to go on.
    And then I was curious, what happened to the weavers? Were they paid for the work they did not do, were they reprimanded, were they suspended?
    So you used this story as a metaphor for the way literacy education is taught in South Africa (heaven forbid that teachers be trained to teach reading literacy). Who would be the Emperor in your metaphor, is it the Minister of Basic Education, or the President? And the noblemen, who continued to applaud the Emperor, are they the self-important officials from the Department of Basic education, continuing protecting their turf? And who was the little boy who called it the way he saw it? And who are the weavers (the swindlers)? Maybe you had in mind the ever wise, self-righteous academics from our faculties of education that believes it’s OK to continue to educate student teachers in theories unrelated to the realities of being a teacher in South Africa?
    The problem I have with this story is that it shows the ordinary people being blind to the realities facing them. The fact is they are not. People can see that we have a problem with education; no, not a problem, a crisis: the results from the PIRLS and TIMSS studies, the matric results every year, the continuing dropout and repetition rates, in schools, universities and FET colleges, the level of poverty and unemployment in the country, all serve as irrefutably evidence of a crisis in education – the Stats are not lying.. People can see there is a problem with education, what they can’t see is what is being done about it. Maybe all they see is that the emperor is walking on regardless.
    Another problem I have is: the morale of the story is not clarified; the story does not offer solutions, it does not tell us how the problem is going to be resolved.
    Everybody can see we have problems in education, including how to teach learners to read for meaning. The problem is not that teachers are not trying to do their jobs, the problem is that teachers do not know how to do their jobs; teachers do not know how to teach reading literacy. When the 2016 PIRLS results were announced a Senior Professor from one of the biggest Teacher Education Faculties in the country, during a radio interview, admitted that they (teacher educators) do not know how learners learn to read, and as a result they don’t know how to effectively teach student teachers to teach learners to read. That some learners actually learn to read seem quite a miracle, or maybe it is because they are taught to read at home.
    In terms of your metaphor, the clothes that the Emperor is not wearing does not refer to teachers that are not making an effort to teach reading-for-meaning at schools, it refers to teachers that do not know how to teach reading-for-meaning; they are not competent to teach reading-for-meaning (don’t be fooled by their excuse of not having access to books, that is just an excuse). Teachers are not taught how to use readers and textbooks to teach reading-for-meaning; not in initial teacher education, not through in-service teacher training (which is a disaster). There is no homogeneity in reading literacy education at the 26 universities providing teacher education, every institution is doing its own thing; all teacher educators seem to be doing their own thing. The preparedness of teacher educators to teach reading literacy to student teachers is probably the critically strategic question to ask. Add to this that reading literacy research is done haphazardly, ineffectively, uncontrolled, possibly by people who have no business doing research, with research outcomes unable to inform education policy and teaching practices. The idea of a National Literacy Development Institute, existing in virtually all countries serious about quality education, is considered disingenuous by many people I talk to about it.
    We blame the government for the problems in education. I have heard Minister Motshekga, say: I’m waiting for researchers to tell me how to solve the reading problem in schools; remember, that was at the infamous meeting where you had your altercation with Deputy Minister Enver Surty. So, what are the Teacher Education Institutions doing about it, research and teaching for the professions is the business of universities.
    In terms of the metaphor you used, I think the weavers in the story represent the Teacher Education Institutions, thus from the sector that you represent. According to the CHE that is where the problems in education need to be fixed.
    [I recently completed a PhD on the quality and use of textbooks in basic education. I can tell you, from the authority of my study, that the solution for our education crisis will not be found in the use (abuse) of technology in classrooms, but in the quality of books and effectiveness in teaching teachers and learners to use books.]
    Keep up the good work that you do
    Christiaan Visser

  7. Thanks again Nic for trying to steer us back towards some realities. Without a firm foundation in basic reading and writing skills, students will struggle throughout their education (and beyond). In addition, let’s remember that ultimately English is the formal language of teaching and learning, and the language in which all gate-keeping assessments take place. As long as this is the case, please let’s not take more time away from ensuring that student teachers, teachers themselves, and learners feel confident in using the language for these purposes.

  8. Sad, sad,sad. The state of reading for meaning and the ability to be competent in reading/deciphering text with sufficient fluency to read for meaning. It just can’t be that hard to solve.

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