A thorough diagnosis of South Africa’s education system

| September 9, 2019 | 0 Comments

Title: The Education Triple Cocktail: System-wide Instructional Reform in South Africa
Author: Brahm Fleisch
Publishers: University of Cape Town Press and Juta and Company (Pty) Ltd
ISBN: 978-1775822462
Reviewed by Felicia Tobias

Professor Brahm Fleisch’s The Education Triple Cocktail: System-wide Instructional Reform in South Africa provides a thorough diagnosis of the very poor state of primary school literacy teaching and learning in the majority of South African schools.

This rigorously researched book then presents an innovative instructional change model that could improve primary school achievement and, in particular, the reading performance of South African children across the entire school system. The Education Triple Cocktail draws on data from evidencebased instructional programmes and from major assessments of learner performance to map both the current state of literacy teaching in South Africa and to identify possibilities for positive change. Without denying the importance of poverty and other contextual factors, in this book Fleisch puts the emphasis on the instructional practices that children are exposed to on a daily basis in South African classrooms. In Fleisch’s words, ‘This book begins and ends in the classroom’. This focus on the activities, tasks and assessments that occur in all South African primary schools makes The Education Triple Cocktail immediately relevant to South African teachers, school leaders and policymakers. Fleisch provides disturbing evidence that ‘between 60 percent [sic] and 70 percent of South African schoolchildren were getting to the end of primary school without being able to read, write and do mathematics at a proficiency level required by the official curriculum’. He demonstrates that these scores reflect educational inequalities that have not been eradicated in the last 25 years, despite numerous policy interventions. One might assume that Fleisch’s focus on schools facing many deprivations ensures that The Education Triple Cocktail would be of limited interest to teachers in better-resourced schools – but this is definitely not the case. Fleisch’s discussion of why policy interventions have failed in South Africa, and his antidote to this policy failure, will be of interest to anyone who would like to be part of innovative, powerful policy change that would result in children becoming fluent, enthusiastic readers. Fleisch argues that South Africa’s ‘fixation’ on matric examination results obscures the need for deeprooted instructional change that would shape the materials, methods, activities and assessments which early grade learners experience every day. Fleisch urges us to recognise that all instruction is about ‘interplay or interaction’. He believes that we should focus less on the social and economic limitations imposed on learners and more on the relationships between the content we teach, our knowledge and skills, our attitudes towards learners and the resources and activities of our classrooms. These interactions constitute the ‘instructional core’, and it is in this powerful and accessible space that the ‘triple education cocktail’ should be administered. The medical analogy is important. Fleisch explains that the universal roll-out of ‘triple cocktail’ drug therapy made effective treatment available to millions of AIDS patients in the Global South, despite their poverty. He argues convincingly that administering the ‘triple education cocktail’ could also be ‘an extraordinary story of success against what appeared to be overwhelming adversity’, bringing successful reading strategies to thousands of learners. The ‘cocktail’ homes in on practice at the ‘instructional core’ and its three therapeutic components: ‘prescriptive lesson plans, the provision of quality learning and learner materials and face-to face instructional coaching’. Fleisch notes that the concept of scripted plans is often met with great scepticism. But scepticism is not an argument and The Education Triple Cocktail provides convincing evidence that these plans can introduce teachers effectively to new methods of teaching and content knowledge. Fleisch also advocates that teachers be provided with high-quality workbooks for every learner, graded readers, independent reading books and other classroom materials. In his view, these materials are not merely ‘part’ of teaching but a crucial aspect of the interactions at the instructional core. The third aspect of the ‘cocktail’ – sustained instructional coaching – enables teachers to gain specific skills and deal with the anxiety of curriculum change. It also provides them with the intensive, sustained professional development that is so often lacking in South African schools. The key strength of The Education Triple Cocktail is that Fleisch is able to prove its value by drawing on research conducted in over a thousand primary schools in Gauteng by the Gauteng Primary Language and Mathematics Strategy (GPLMS). Fleisch is frank about the strengths and weaknesses of the ‘education triple cocktail’, but the statistical and qualitative data shows that this is a system-wide instructional change model that would go a long way to answering the needs of South African learners and teachers.

Felicia Tobias is head of English at St Mary’s School, Waverley, in Johannesburg.

Category: Spring 2019

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