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Building an alternative vision of what could be

| November 8, 2011 | 0 Comments

A challenge for teacher education.

By Lee Rusznyak

While some schools were celebrating excellent Matric results at the end of 2008, many in the Limpopo province once again produced – on the whole – disappointing Matric results. Nine schools achieved a 0% matric pass rate and 1 337 schools did not achieve even a 60% pass rate. The province’s overall pass rate dropped to 54% and even further to 48% in 2009. This pattern is indicative of what Fleish calls a bimodal distribution of achievement in South Africa’s primary schools: high-achieving functional schools on one hand, and a “pervasive under-achievement in the vast majority of South Africa’s primary school children”.1 One study found that only 5.9% of primary school children had achieved desirable levels of mastery in reading and numeracy in Limpopo.2 Studies have shown that by Grade 3, most learners have fallen so far behind in literacy and numeracy that catching up is almost impossible.

Several universities – including WITS – stepped in

Taking drastic action, the Limpopo Department of Education offered its Foundation Phase teachers an unprecedented opportunity to return to university and restart their teacher education. A group of about 500 candidates – mostly with established families and years of teaching experience, were selected from applicants and divided among several universities offering teacher education, including the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) School of Education. The intention of the intervention is to create leadership in Limpopo for Foundation Phase teachers. It is envisaged that this cohort will go back and assume leadership positions as expert teachers, District Officials, university tutors and Heads of Department. They started their four-year Bachelor of Education degree in 2009. By and large, these students have proved to be extremely conscientious and committed to their studies. They understand the currency of a university degree and have made personal sacrifices to make the most of their opportunity. But there have been aspects about teaching, teacher education and schools that have surprised them.

Teaching has a cognitive dimension

Many were astounded that their degree required them to conduct an academic study of three subjects. They had assumed that they would simply be required to revise the content included in the Foundation Phase curriculum and master more effective teaching methods. It took some time for them to understand that teaching has a cognitive dimension that requires their own intellectual development, a deep understanding of the content knowledge they teach and the thoughtful consideration of pedagogical options.

During their first Teaching Experience, some schools received the in-service teachers very warmly, only too happy to hand over the entire responsibility for their class without taking seriously the mentoring role expected by the university. When discussing their experiences at such schools, several mentioned how “the school was excellent because the staff were so welcoming and even shared their lunch with us” – a type of comment that shows how easily they confused a supportive social environment with a productive learning environment. On the other hand, other schools pushed many of them beyond what they had come to expect, demanding punctuality and thorough advance preparation of all lessons. Supervising teachers observed and gave constructive feedback on their teaching. While most embraced this as a valuable opportunity to learn, a few were surprised to receive such guidance, as they had conflated their licence to teach with assumed teaching competence.

They expressed surprise at how ‘clever’ the children they observed were – but attributed this to the fact that they were learning in English, as if a language of instruction determines the level of cognition during classroom interaction. They were surprised at how children are encouraged to be vocal and even ask questions during class time. At first, several thought that this was disrespectful to their teacher. Many now realise the importance of encouraging classroom dialogue within learning processes.

Developing effective teaching

Over time, these teachers are developing a conception of effective teaching within functional schools. They can now look beyond the communal sharing of lunch to analyse what makes a productive teaching and learning environment. Their practicum sessions provide invaluable opportunities for these in-service teachers and student teachers more generally, to spend time working alongside expert teachers who model lessons that are knowledge-rich and learning-centred, with intentional opportunities for the development of reading and writing skills. While acknowledging that the reasons for the crisis in education in South Africa are enormously complex, expert teachers in high-achieving schools contribute to teacher education by sharing their expertise and helping student teachers form an alternative vision of what could be within South African schools.


1. Fleish, B. (2008) Primary Education in Crisis. Cape Town: Juta.

2. Moloi, M. and Strauss, J. (2005) The SACQMEQ II Project in
South Africa: A Study of the Conditions of Schooling and the
Quality of Education. Harare: SACMEQ.

Category: Summer 2011

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