Monday, April 28, 2014

Reflections from #TeacherTuesday

After 9 weeks of reading and writing about teachers from across the world as a part of the #TeacherTuesday blog project, I have had the chance to get a glimpse of some of the challenges and success stories when it comes to education. The idea of #TeacherTuesday was to profile the stories of teachers from Kenya, Honduras, Bangladesh, Australia, Afghanistan, Syria, Malawi, the Netherlands and South Africa while addressing some of the findings from the Education for All Global Monitoring report.

Each story was unique and each teacher gave me a sense that there are people  who are invested in making the education of children across the world as meaningful as possible given the environment they are within. Each story was also an opportunity for me to grapple with the questions I have about education, some remain unanswered.

Esnart from Malawi was the first teacher I wrote about. Her story made me realised that there are teachers who work within limitations but inspire a generation of teachers as Esnart was inspired by one of her teachers during her school years and thus she became a teacher. The irony is that her students have no desire of becoming teachers in spite of the obvious challenges in Malawi that are directly linked to the shortage of teachers. I find it ironic that now more than ever we need teachers  but there are dwindling numbers and a lack of interest in the profession.

Lessons from Honduras made me realise a little more that South Africa is not special in its challenges with language policy in schools. Inclusion and exclusion happens on many levels in our schools and without a clear plan to negotiate the language issue in our school, transformative education is simply an ideal. Teaching children in a language seems to be a no-brainer. But even countries like Australia get it wrong and children from Aboriginal communities lag behind in literacy and numeracy when compared to children in Australia who are taught in their mother tongue.

Education in Afghanistan, and any country recovering from a violent past, is in a precarious position. Especially if one is a born a girl. The gender disparity in education in developing countries makes me realise more and more that there’s a case for feminism: for as long as the education of a boy matters more in some countries, then men and women will never be equal in such contexts. And given how porous our borders are in a fast-changing world, the problem of gender inequality in Afghanistan can easily spill over and become my problem, even though I am all the way in South Africa. If young boys in Afghanistan (and across other nations where gender inequality persists) that is a problem that can create problems for future generations.
Displacement is one of the silent side-effects of war and conflict and often we take it for granted. Wars are reported on a grand scale of the number of deaths, the negotiations that take place in fancy and remote buildings. We seldom hear about the lives that are being disrupted. We know intuitively while reading or hearing about war that the lives of those who manage to survive will never be the same again. This is the case with educationin Syria where refugee camps have been set up to ensure that the education of children affected by war can continue, within great limitations imposed by a context such as a refugee camp.

Education has meant different things for each generation. When formal education began to take shape it was for the purpose of highlighting the different classes that exist in a given society and quality education was often reserved for the upper classes. Education has now become a means to an end that will end the class struggle that still exists. In Kenya, education is a means to improve the lives of those who live in abject poverty. Without an escape from poverty children in the slums of Kibera will be stuck in the poverty trap that comes with being poor and receiving a poor education.

It is interesting to note that there isn’t one single story to tell when we consider developing countries across the world. While most of the children in Africa don’t get a quality education unless they are in privileged pockets of the continent, countries such as India and Bangladesh are using technology in ways that enhance access to education especially for poor communities. Attempts such as floating schools cannot be replicated everywhere but the can definitely be used as inspiration for what is possible when education is made a priority despite the limitations that exist in poor areas.

But there are also countries who seem to be getting education right. Developed countries such as the Netherlands have different problems: professional development of teachers. Teaching is a competitive and highly sought after profession which means that teachers are regarded differently. The small gap between the rich and the poor makes education more meaningful as education has a different value in such a country because it is not simply a means to an end.

Reflections and lessons from across the world can help us gain perspective for solving our education challenges especially in South Africa. There is nothing new under the sun and in South Africa it would be in our best interest to keep our eyes open and consider what is happening in other countries, as the lessons are both here and abroad.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Week 9 #TeacherTuesday: The calling

There are very few professions that are referred to as “a calling”. The few I know: teaching, being a doctor (traditional healers included) and becoming a religious teacher. There are super-spiritual connotations with the idea of “a calling”. The first time I heard about the idea of “a calling”  was in the context of someone becoming a traditional healer. The idea is that one is called by the ancestors and they are bestowed with special gifts from the ancestors in order to help people through spiritual and physical healings. There is very little choice when one is “called” because “a calling” suggests fate, destiny.The idea that some professions could be “a calling” came much later, but the idea also has the same connotations of “specialness” because someone who has been called to be a teacher has special gifting that allows them to be a teacher, often in the most difficult circumstance.

Mme Shape Msiza is a teacher who thinks of her role as a teacher as “a calling”. She has been teaching for twenty years. She teaches English at Ponelopele Oracle Secondary School (POSS) in Ebony Park, Midrand. In 2012 she was the winner of Top Gauteng Teachers Awards in Ekurhuleni under the secondary education category. Since she’s been the Head of the English department (at POSS) she has achieved 100% in English amongst Grade 12 learners. In an interview with the BBC she describes her teaching style as one she comes out of her shoes as a teacher and becomes a parent which allows her to talk to the students about their social lives. Her love and passion for her students trumps her ambitions for financial gains as she reflects: “most cases teachers are not seen as a people who can be rich or who can be rich because the salary is not good. You never have money as a teacher! So we need to see it as a calling. You need to compromise.”

 She influences the lives of her students beyond the classroom as someone who is involved in a myriad of activities that have a holistic approach to a child’s education. She helps students with real life matters so they are ready for the real world when they leave school. One of the challenges she mentions is that it is not easy being a teacher. Children are not what they used to be because even when a teacher reprimands a students it does not mean the students will be respectful. Some students are involved with drugs, others drop out of school because of pregnancy and others are child orphans with no adult supervision in their life. In a school of just over a 1000 learners, 20 girls often drop out because of pregnancy.
 As part of expressing her commitment to her students (and her calling) Mme Msiza commits to her learners by giving them extra lessons as she is concerned about those who lag behind during class time. In spite of her efforts at being a teacher she expresses a concern that many students are reluctant to become teachers when they leave schools. Those who are successful at the end of matric come back to the school to share their experience in other career paths, but not teaching.

 Mme Msiza’s story is a complex one given the context of education in South Africa. More specifically, when we consider the image we have of teachers in most township schools; how many teachers who have 40 or 50 learners in their class (many of whom they never get to know and may never get to teach meaningfully) consider their experience as a special vocation, “a calling”? Mme Msiza is open about her low salary as she chooses to invest in the lives of others rather than pursue a lucrative career. Yet we know that many teachers from township schools are the ones found guilty of disrupting schools and striking in the name of better salaries.

 I am conflicted when I read about Mme Msiza’s work in her school. Personally, I haven’t experienced  teaching as “a calling”. I chose to be a teacher. I don’t know if it is my fate or part of my destiny. Does this make me a bad teacher? What is the difference between a teacher who sees their role as a teacher with “a calling” and one who does not sees their role as a teacher with a degree of specialness, “a calling”? I think this question alludes to a class dynamic at play in the teaching profession: teachers who teach under difficult circumstances such as township schools or rural areas need to feel special given the circumstances they find themselves within. One can only be “called” to become a teacher if they choose to teach under dire circumstances where their learners build resilience and are often let down by the education. What makes them continue being teachers? Is it the weight of the “calling” or a question of choices available to them? How about teachers in private schools: if one is in a privileged context with a different set of challenges and different choices available, do they share the same sentiments of specialness in the form of “a calling”?

 This blog post is part of the #Teacher Tuesday blog project, which seeks to discuss the issues emerging in the Unesco Education for All Global Monitoring Report. This is week 9 of the project (ten teachers over ten weeks).

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Week 8 #TeacherTuesday:Playing catch up in the classroom

The link between poverty and education is an old story. Education has always been used as a means to an end and as is the case in South Africa, the end is for education to be a tool to get people out of the poverty trap. To illustrate the poverty trap: if a child comes from a poor family (rural or peri-urban context) and the family has little or no experience of formal education, the child is likely to attend a school in the local school which is under resourced and serving a poor community. The child may not be able to escape the poverty trap because it is further entrenched by the education they receive and a vicious cycle is likely to continue where, if they have children their children will most likely have similar experiences if they remain in a poor community and school.

We often think that poorer countries are the only ones that face this problem however, countries like Australia have an interesting narrative. Recently I read about Russell, a teacher from Australia, who shared about the education of Aboriginal children. He is Gamilori (one of the Aboriginal groups in Australia) and teaches in a school where there are 6 Aboriginal teachers amongst 30 teachers. English is the dominant language in the school and indigenous languages are supposed to be introduced when the new curriculum is introduced. His teaching experience has meant that he has had to scaffold for Aboriginal children by speaking Aboriginal English as well as a dialect of English that Aboriginal children are more familiar with. It is very important to note that Aboriginal people in Australia are a cultural minority and the status in their country as the indigenous people of the country is still not fully recognised. This overlaps with the kind of education they receive. Because many Aboriginal parents had negative experiences while in school (mostly based on ethnic discrimination), therefore many are reluctant to intervene in the education of their children. Many Aboriginal children do not attend preschool and therefore enter formal school without the necessary preparation to start learning. Many have also not been exposed to reading or any kind of literacy before they enter school hence Russell describes them as “being three steps behind before they start [school]. They are playing catch up from day one”.

Australia (amongst many other countries) faces a challenge of the learning gap that persists between indigenous and non-indigenous students (Aboriginal and white students). The graph below indicates the gaps among grade 8 learners in Mathematics. Between 1994/5 and 2011 TIMMS assessments, the gap in achievement has been consistent where indigenous students score far below their peers. In South Africa, a similar pattern exists between the rich and the poor. This would be closely related to race and class where middle class (mostly white) students score higher than working class (mostly black and coloured) who score lower on literacy and numeracy.

In other countries such as England, Norway, United States, Italy, Hungary and New Zealand, when the achievement gap is compared amongst two grades (Grade 4 and 8), the achievement gap seems to widen as the learners progress though the grades. The 2011 TIMSS graph below compares the results by wealth and grade and there are distinct differences even if one is looking at the graph at face value.

Whenever the achievement gap is addressed, the question begs, now what? How can this situation be changed? In Russell’s context measures have been put in place to ensure that Aboriginal students are supported. There is also a large focus on the teachers who teach Aboriginal students (the teachers are often not Aboriginal themselves because few Aboriginal student make it into higher education to study further). Aboriginal communities are often in poor communities (but not always) and where there is a discrepancy of resources being made to schools where non-indigenous students are, the government has been challenged to change this so there is more equality among schools.

I use Australia as an example because in South Africa we think that our case is unique. We are not the only country grappling with an unequal education system. Countries that have managed to address these challenges such as some East Asian countries, Japan, Korea and Singapore have overcome the inequalities in the education system and the achievement gap between the rich and the poor is not as staggering. This mirrors the kind of society they have created where the gap between the rich and the poor has also been minimised. There seems to be a direct correlation between how a country’s wealth is distributed amongst citizens and the kind of education system they will have.

The disempowerment of the majority of people who receive a bad education, as is the case in South Africa, means that they often do not have the means to address this problem themselves. Even where NGOs have stepped in to raise the clarion call about the inequalities in our education system, there’s still little momentum amongst parents and teachers who are most affected. The disparate education systems do more harm than good and in South Africa we know this all too well. There seems to be a contentment with the situation, a shrugging of shoulders and acceptance that “it is what it is”. But this needn’t be the case. Our unequal education system is a bad idea for all of us not just the working class communities.

This blog post is part of the #Teacher Tuesday blog project, which seeks to discuss the issues emerging in the Unesco Education for All Global Monitoring Report. Stories about 10 teachers will be profiled over the next 10 weeks.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

#TeacherTuesday Week 7: Floating schools and how access to technology broadens access to education

Until I read about Mosammet Reba Khatun from Bangladesh, I had never heard about solar-powered floating schools. Mosammet teaches in a remote river basin where access to schools is very difficult, especially during the monsoon season. The boat is an interesting model for making education accessible in poor communities because the boat picks the learners up from home, sails off and returns learners home once their session is complete. Each boat is equipped with internet-linked computers and electronic resources. When a student performs well they are rewarded with a “scholarship” in the form of a SuryaHurricane solar lantern (a low-cost solar lantern made from recycled parts of the conventional and much-used kerosene lantern). Parents also receive on-board training on human rights, nutrition, health and hygiene, sustainable farming, and climate-change adaptations.
Reading about Mosammet’s experience has revolutionised my understanding of what technology can do in providing access to education. The default position for technology in the classroom is related to the concepts of blended learning and “flipping the classroom” where the new rage is to expect that primary-school children should bring iPads to school. There’s nothing wrong with this model but it’s for a privileged context. Technology in the classroom has also been focused on the resources that can be made available in the classroom such as smart boards (overhead projectors) and audio-visual equipment in order for videos to be incorporated into teaching. These are important functions of technology in the classroom but when we consider the challenges many teachers and students face when it comes to basic access to education, technology can do so much more.
In Mosammet’s context, technology is about creating access to education that would otherwise be unavailable in her poor community. Technology in education has also been seen as a threat because others believe that it will one day replace the teacher. If technology in education is about the use of gadgets and special apps, it’s limited in terms of what it can do. In poorer communities, radio and cellphones are central to creating access to learning. A personal experience with technology and education came in the form of a radio show “English in action” and story time with Gcina Mhlophe on the Xhosa radio station, Umhlobo wenene. “English in action” was a show for young children to learn English through weekly lessons and Gcina Mhlophe’s stories created access to African stories that weren’t available in library books.
Access to interactive radio programming in countries like Pakistan has had positive effects on the learning outcomes of grade one pupils in schools categorised as isolated. In such remote contexts, radio addresses barriers to learning raised by distance, poor access to resources, and an insufficient supply of quality teachers and of teacher supervision and support. The question of the teacher and technology is highlighted here: rather than replacing the teacher, technology can enhance learning in areas where teachers themselves need to improve their skills and knowledge. Technology in the classroom cannot be the be all and end all for solving the problem with access to learning. The Education for All Global Monitoring Report found little or no correlation between greater general ICT (information and communication technology) availability in European and American schools and increased pupil achievement. A recent experimental study of 1 123 grade six to grade 10 students in 15 schools in California found no effect on grades or test scores. It would be interesting to find out what role the teacher played in this context.
As a teacher, I’m still wrapping my head around the use of technology for better learning in my classroom. I’ve tried to use Facebook and twitter as alternative ways of interacting with my students and sharing links found on the internet. In the classroom we watch videos and if PowerPoint presentations are not incorporated into lessons, students are less inclined to pay attention. The younger generation has a different relationship with technology in the classroom; it’s a necessity rather than a luxury. They like interesting videos while learning about Shakespeare. My experience with technology in the classroom has shown me that there are more demands from teachers because learning can be more exciting when there are more resources available for teaching.
In countries where accessing ICT is a problem (mostly because of electricity), cellphones have been introduced to encourage students to access to information. Cellphones do not require the same level of infrastructure as computers; networks are more widely available and phones increasingly have internet access and video capabilities. But while they can increase learning opportunities, these new technologies need to tailor content and delivery to the varying needs of learners, especially weaker students. My favourite example of this in South Africa has been the work of the FunDza Literacy Trust, which uses MXit to encourage reading.
There’s no doubt that access to technology creates access to education. Given the findings of access to education in low-income countries, technology can do so much more for teachers and students. In Mosammet’s case, technology has transformed entire villages as the floating schools travel to students and provide education at their doorsteps.

This blog post is part of a blog project #Teacher Tuesday which seeks to discuss the issues emerging in the Unesco Education for All Monitoring Report. Stories about 10 teachers will be profiled over the next 10 weeks.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

#TeacherTuesday Week 6:What do good grades mean?

“I find it difficult to answer why the Netherlands is doing so well because what do grades mean? To which countries do you compare?”
These are the words of a young teacher, Cees, from the Netherlands. The question he poses is an important one for understanding the complexities in global education. Education is measured according to statistics. The statistic obsession begins in classrooms when we measure our students’ abilities according to numbers. But statistics are a necessary evil it seems. Without statistics in education, how do we get a sense of measuring outcomes and talking about how change needs to happen?
Cees teaches in a country that boasts one of the best education systems in the world. According to the Programme for International Student Assessment 2012 study the average performance in reading for 15-year-olds is 511 points, compared to an average of 496 points in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. In mathematics on average, 15-year-olds score 523 points, compared to an average of 494 points in OECD countries. In science literacy they score 522 points in the Netherlands compared to an average of 501 points in OECD countries. In North America and Western Europe, 96% of children reach grade 4 and achieve the minimum learning benchmark in reading. By contrast, only one-third of children in South and West Asia and two-fifths in sub-Saharan Africa reach grade 4 and achieve the basics. It seems obvious, students in wealthier countries perform better than students in poorer countries. But let’s consider the simple question, what are the teachers doing?
In reflection Cees highlights the importance that is placed on professional development in the Netherlands: “Everyone has to write a professional development plan and in that plan you have your growing points — your developing points — and we do this every year … we have a lot of training in how to deal with problem kids — pedagogical side — and those trainings are really moving because they tell a lot about your own personal difficulties. [Teachers] design choice in [the] lesson programmes for the disadvantaged students. So the more [we] focus on the pupil with learning activities, the more different choices they have. Lots of 360° reflections on yourself in Holland; thinking about what does this problem I have say about me. 5%-10% of our time is reserved for professional development every year — courses and training. 10% is a big amount!”
Cees also adds that when new teachers begin teaching they have supervision and mentors — two coaches — one for supervision on the psychological reflection and one for more general studies. Once the teachers have gained experience they don’t have a coach, but in every school a community of practice is created where five teachers with equal teaching experience, share techniques and teaching strategies. Teachers use this time to reflect about their practice (and these conversations are preceded with special training to lead such conversations). Good teaching is not simply about being in the classroom (that is the minimum requirement), but it’s about what happens before teaching as well as the reflection that happens in between. How do we measure the effect of this kind of practice? Is it possible to statistically represent the qualitative work that goes into teaching (in Cees’s case) and then compare with other countries as he poses? I’m sceptical about that. Professional development goes beyond the hours spent on thinking about one’s practice. It’s about the value you place on it in order to make the most of your teaching and improve it. Professional development is about resources, both tangible and intangible.
Cees describes his students as students who are “the masters of their own learning process”. They are taught how to cooperate, how to be self-supporting, and to make their own decisions about how to learn things. Cees does not teach at an “elite school”. By South African standards, the kind of professional development and student body described here can be found in schools where there are resources; where the teachers and students are largely middle class and resources available to create performance-driven schools. The average school in South Africa does not have this kind of culture of teaching and learning.
Quality education is not about the basics (can the children read and write) but rather about the whole experience of teaching and learning as well as the future consequences of the education one has received. Hence, children in countries that are performance-driven have better results than children from poorer countries. But the table below[1] highlights this complexity further. If one looks closely, countries like Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Trinidad and Tobago are unlikely candidates for school performance given their resources. This shows that there’s something happening in these countries where they are able to perform in spite of not having the resources.
Context, culture, history always disturbs calculations about what really matters in education. Teaching and learning is a human-intensive profession with factors that can be measured and others that cannot be measured. Teaching and learning is about both qualitative and quantitative elements that need attention in different ways. The question posed by Cees — “To which country do you compare?” — highlights the complexity of teaching and learning. It’s too easy to say it’s about being rich and poor. It’s more than that. When we focus on Cees’s story about teaching in the Netherlands is it fair to compare it to someone in a completely different context such as Margaret in Kibera or Esnart from Malawi?

[1] Education for All Global Monitoring Report c/o UNESCO,, 2013