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.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Call me prejudiced

Call me prejudiced: I hate bigots.

Stellenbosch University is the subject of a 35-minute video titled “Luister” disclosing racial problems around town and issues with coping with Afrikaans as a teaching language.

I don’t have enough context to know how big the problem really is, so let’s look at why black students should want to go to an Afrikaans university, given that English is a much more useful language in terms of tapping into international expertise. If you look at options available to students, 2 out of the 5 top-tier universities – University of Cape Town, University of the Witwatersrand, University of Pretoria, Rhodes University and Stellenbosch University – are Afrikaans-language universities. Allowing that Rhodes is pretty small and Pretoria is pretty large, that means about half the places in the country’s top universities are at historically Afrikaans institutions.

Black students of course could choose to go exclusively to the English-language universities, but do the Afrikaans universities want that? Officially not, of course, and their numbers depend on being open to all races because that’s the reality of the society we live in now. Even if they completely privatised, they would still be under pressure to deracialize.

So what are the difficulties?

Most students who have not grown up with Afrikaans do high school in English. This means that lessons in Afrikaans – even if only some of the materials handed out are in Afrikaans – can be a challenge. That can be addressed by a sympathetic environment, by making it socially conducive for black students to mix with native Afrikaans speakers, by encouraging students to help each other with translation in informal study groups and so on.

The problem really starts on the social side. If students are not made to feel welcome and not offered the opportunity for an immersive Afrikaans experience, that heightens the language difficulty.

How bad a problem is it really? As I say I don’t know any more than is in the video, which may leave out a lot of context. What I do know is that the discussion over at YouTube shows there are plenty of people out there with strongly pro-apartheid sentiments. One Johannes S for example spouts all the racist arguments about inherent intellectual inferiority the darker the skin, how segregation is natural and everything else is leftist social engineering, and so on.

Those posting racist comments fail to spot the obvious irony that their commentary validates the point of those demanding transformation.

That takes me to the real deep problem. It is not just about transforming the odd university. It is about transforming our society as a whole. Is the rainbow nation a myth? I think not – there is a lot of good will on all sides. But there is this unpleasant sore that won’t go away. And I do not think it is up to the government to heal it. There is just so much legislation can do, and politicians are not on the whole all that competent.

So let us listen to those from communities that differ from ourselves, understand where they are coming from and engage in a respectful way. Only by making the Johannes S style of discourse so socially unacceptable that it crawls back under the rock from which it emerged will we make the rainbow nation a reality. And that is just the start – we also need to address the practical problems that make South Africa such an unequal society.