Opinion | Minister of education must get basics right


On Tuesday this week I completed site visits to 25 of SA’s elite primary schools. My research team is interested in how high-in-demand schools manage their admissions policy as parents, wealthy and poor, white and black, compete for access to these prized institutions.
Our book will address this question about the elite schools: Who gets in and why?
Before that, I visited those other South African schools, the vast majority where I spend most of my time, resources and energies trying to “turn around” dysfunctional sites of teaching and learning.
It is truly heartbreaking to see such incredible privilege for the white and black middle class exists alongside treacherous education for the working class and the poor.
But you would not know about these two school systems when you listen to the minister of basic education talk about the coming technological revolution about to sweep across 27,000-plus schools.
Since the state of the nation address debate of 2018 the minister seems gripped by the allure of high-tech gadgets for our schools. Then she read off an eloquent statement inserted into her speech by experts that “disruptive digital technologies are changing the way we live and work” and that these trends demanded skills such as “creativity, agility, adaptability, creative and critical thinking”.
By the time she announced the 2018 National Senior Certificate (NSC) examination results earlier this month, our tech-inspired minister was in full flight. “Following years of piloting,” advanced the minister, “the sector is ready to phase in a national ICT programme which will see ‘no-fee’ schools, schools in rural areas and farms, as well as special schools, benefiting.”
I have no doubt that the annual collection of smiling sycophants at the Midrand venue applauded on cue.
Why is this announcement a load of rubbish? To begin with, our pupils in the foundation phase are struggling with some of the most basic competencies required of a good education – literacy and numeracy. Most of them cannot read at or even one standard below the grade-level requirement.
We have solid data on this reality.
Few of these learners have a textbook in every subject. And we do not have the teachers who can teach competently in the foundation phase; the evidence on this reality is abundant and irrefutable.
Disruptive technologies? The only disruptive force known to our poorer schools is the South African Democratic Teachers Union.
There is no evidence, again, that a technological gadget produces better learning outcomes than a conventional textbook in the hands of a competent teacher in a primary classroom. So why spend all this money on gadgets from i-Pads to laptops? It is, as sociologists of world cultures explain, the desire to appear modern, up-to-date, in line with global trends.
It is why poor countries have a national airline; they cannot afford such a luxury and it drives the government into deeper debt, but this is what the modern state looks like.
SA cannot be left behind, the minister argued, referencing the advanced economies of the world.
Fine, but when children still drown in pit latrines and primary school classrooms (I saw this recently) are filled with more than 100 pupils, then high-tech gadgets are not a priority.
Here is another reality about innovations of any kind – when you introduce new thinking (remember outcomes based education?) into such a highly unequal system, the only schools that benefit from new technologies are those elite schools where the essential infrastructure and the teaching capacity already exist.
A primary school I recently visited in Langa, Cape Town, had an impressive specialist classroom with cooling machines and storage facilities that charged every i-Pad overnight for instant use in classrooms the next morning. But when I walked into the classroom the only advantage I could see was that the i-Pads were loaded with conventional textbooks and nothing else.
It requires a highly skilled teacher who can unlock the potential of the gadget to make reading interactive and learning-to-read productive, otherwise you might as well put a printed textbook on every desk. This is where the ambition to appear modern and sophisticated runs up against the poverty of pedagogy in our poorer schools.
As one who spent my formative years as an aspirant academic in the heart of the Silicon Valley, I too would like to see our youth grapple with and indeed master the new sciences of artificial intelligence, robotics and machine learning.
But get the basics right first and work off the foundation of a well-functioning school system in the primary grades...

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