Sunday, 30 August 2015

Education Crisis: An Alternative

Several universities around South Africa are in the throes of protests about lack of transformation – UCT, Stellenbosch, Rhodes, to name a few.

While these are important debates, the biggest single cause for concern about education in South Africa is the very slow progress in making university accessible at all. The university-qualifying matric exam has a hugely skewed results distribution. About 10% of schools are fee-paying, including government schools that charge a fee and private schools. These schools mostly achieve acceptable results, with anyone with academic potential studying there almost certain to get a university-entry pass. Of the remaining 90%, one in nine achieves acceptable results; the remaining 80% of schools have poor pass rates and produce few university-ready students.

Even learning a trade that requires significant intellectual skills, such as becoming an electrician, is problematic with poor school results.


It is the lack of access to tertiary education and training that is not only causing South Africa to become one of the most unequal societies on Earth, but also inhibits economic development. A few years back it was reported that there was a shortage of over 800,000 skilled people in the job market. Programs like rapid roll-out of renewable energy are likely to be hampered by this skills shortage.

Get this right, and we will no longer have to wonder how black economic empowerment breaks out of a narrow definition of a small group who enrich themselves while the majority stay poor.

While it is true that fee-free schools have massive resource constraints (class sizes around 50, compared with half that number of less at fee-paying schools; under-qualified teachers, no budget for maintenance, inadequate or non-existent libraries and labs, etc.), that is not the only problem. If one in nine of these schools can do well, the rest could too. The problem is political, not technical – the government is not willing to take realistic steps to solve the problem.

A starting point

So what can the rest of us do?

In the past there have been tutoring schemes run by outsiders such as universities, but these have limited value. The real deep issue is that school kids in dysfunctional schools are being told day in and day out not to have high expectations. Many of the townships where they live look like trash heaps. Teachers discourage initiative, and employment opportunities for those who exit school are very limited.

An important part of education theory is self efficacy, your belief in your own ability to complete a task. If everything in your life tells you that all you can expect is failure, that is a major dampener on self efficacy. Self efficacy is important because a major component of learning is pushing through hard problems and learning from mistakes. If you have no self-belief, you give up when things get hard, and take mistakes as failure.

Add to this that many families in poorer communities have no history of education, and the very concept of education is mystified.

Outside interventions are ineffective if they serve to heighten the sense of lack of self-worth and perpetuate the mystification of education. Education is something handed down by the “other”, rather than something to be internalized and built on.

How can we change this?

A new approach

One approach in education that has been very effective if done right is peer tutoring. Tutors from the same class as the student demystify education because they show the learners that someone from their own group can master the material. The tutors also gain a benefit because teaching others is a great way to learn.

I propose then that those who have the interest and motivation to run tutoring schemes change the approach. Instead of going to depressed communities to tutor, they should train members of the target classes in tutoring the week’s material then send them back to the community to run tutoring sessions in small groups. This approach has a number of benefits:
  • demystifying education – if tutoring is mastered by members of your own class, education is no longer something that can only occur if strangers are present handing it down
  • building leaders – the tutors self-efficacy is further enhanced by their tutoring role, which naturally puts them in a leadership role
  • scalability – community members with subject knowledge can train up tutors who then take their knowledge to the class, which means far fewer subject experts are needed
If this approach works, we will have many more university-ready students, which will lead us to another problem: how to fund them. Let’s worry about that one after we have fixed the problem of extremely unequal tertiary education-preparedness.

Some detail

Teaching to a large class
Should it work? Look at the first picture, the traditional education model, in a large class. The teacher is apart from the class, handing information down from a height. It would take a very brave teacher in this scenario to encourage critical thinking in the class. Add to this the problem that many teachers are not well qualified in their subject and that schools in many cases are poorly led, and the surprise is not that most fail but rather that most succeed.

Outsiders tutoring
Now, let us look at the traditional style of intervention, the tutoring scheme. We have learners in smaller groups, imparting subject knowledge in smaller groups. That is an improvement as some interaction is theoretically possible. However for a class with no experience of interacting with teachers, there is a cultural barrier that is hard to break, and the reliance on outsiders does not demystify education. Schemes like this usually work to the extent that while the intervention exists, results improve – but the improvement is often not sustained when the intervention ends.

Outsiders training tutors
My proposed scheme requires two pictures. The first picture illustrates tutor training. Now the groups are much smaller, and it is easier to provoke interaction. The tutors are learning to tutor, so they have to learn to engage with the material. Because they are in a much smaller group when they work with the subject specialists, barriers can be broken down. This culture change is essential for their later success, and a critical part of the success of peer tutoring is that fact that they can go back to their community as non-outsiders and break the barrier to interaction within their own peer group.

Peer tutoring – tutors from the class being tutored
The final picture illustrates the second half of my scheme – the tutors are back in their community, with enough of them to work in small groups. The interactiveness they have learnt in their tutor training should be possible to continue in this setting, since their classmates should not have any barrier to talking.

Will all this work?

What we have been doing so far has not worked. So it is worth trying. Education theory supports the idea; like any idea the test is in the results. It is doable and since all else has failed or produced limited results, it is worth trying something new.

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