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Orange country: Multi-grade learning in the Sundays River Valley

| June 12, 2015 | 0 Comments

By Hilton Keeton

It is not uncommon to hear a neighbouring rooster announce the start of the day at Hermitage House, a preprimary and primary school located among the citrus orchards of the Sundays River Valley in the Eastern Cape.

The school, which began in 2013, was the brainchild of a number of local farmers and businesspeople who wanted quality education close to home. The parent body and several community members have been helpful and generous in providing for the physical needs of the school. Many are also involved in providing expertise in various fields ranging from financial management to coaching various sporting codes.

Keeping the wheels turning

Our community is passionate about ensuring the success of the school. To thrive, we need funds and are fortunate to have an active fundraising committee that seeks finances for new classrooms, the improvement of existing facilities and the purchasing of equipment. Hermitage House involves all its parents and pupils in various fundraising events, the most popular of which are mountain bike races (the Herald VW Cycle Tour, the PwC Great Zuurberg Trek and the Stonehouse Capital Zuurberg Challenge).1

Unity in Africa,2 which provides bursaries to underprivileged children to attend Hermitage House, provides another way for local businesses to support education in our area.

All together now

Teaching in a school with small class sizes (the teacher: pupil ratio being 1:10), means there is ample time to engage pupils in both individual and group discussions, to monitor each child’s progress, to address all concerns immediately and thoroughly, and to provide feedback to each pupil before, during and after assessment. Interaction is not based on the teaching of content and syllabus alone, but also on fostering the skills and attitudes required to be a positive participant in society.

Children can attend Hermitage House from the age of two years until the end of the seventh grade. We favour the multigrade pedagogical approach, finding that pupils in such environments do as well academically as pupils in single-grade classrooms, and better in terms of social and personal growth. In multi-grade classrooms pupils are always able to review content covered previously, and work ahead if they are competent with regard to current expectations. A multi-grade approach also lends itself to individual instruction and peer teaching as and when required. Younger pupils learn from older pupils, and older pupils learn patience and helping skills. Peer teaching also requires the older pupils to have a thorough knowledge and understanding of content. Pupils are also required to take more responsibility for their own learning.

We have also learned over time that thematic-based teaching and learning in the multi-grade classroom is used most effectively with older pupils, who are required to show a greater mastery of content and skill, whilst younger pupils require more elemental mastery. At Hermitage House, we find that generally our pupils have positive attitudes toward school, a higher selfesteem and more encouraging social relationships, due to their exposure to multi-grade classrooms.

Pupil participation

Pupils are encouraged to participate in all activities at school. As groups are small, every pupil has an opportunity to be heard every day. This creates opportunities for teachers to have oneon- one interactions with all pupils, and not only in the classroom environment. Pupils develop greater oral skills and grow in confidence at an increased rate. They generally feel comfortable voicing their opinions and easily ask questions. This is also true for all sporting activities. All pupils participate in all sport offered and receive basic coaching from the first grade. Pupils are exposed to athletics, tennis, netball, cricket, rugby, hockey, swimming and squash, as well as a variety of adventure sports including sand-boarding, canoeing, trail running and mountain biking. In a small school, the pupils gain confidence in their own ability and start trusting team effort early on.

Pupils are further exposed to enrichment activities including chess, class music, percussion, playing recorder and learning to read basic music, art and crafts, knitting, French knitting and computer training. The values and morals of the school rest firmly in our motto: ‘Believe, Strive, Achieve’.

There is a positive atmosphere with a climate of tolerance and a sense of belonging that might be more difficult to achieve in larger groups. Behaviour problems are the exception rather than the rule and are dealt with swiftly, as the goal is positive behaviour adjustment. Groups are cohesive and school attendance is high.

Prepared teachers Some challenges that teachers face teaching smaller groups include an increase in lesson preparation. As groups are small, pupils tend to finish activities quicker, and teachers have to prepare more lessons and enrichment and filler activities. Some activities such as role-plays and debates are not always as easy to implement in small classes.

Shy pupils who prefer to blend in and hide in a larger class might feel more uncomfortable to participate in a class where pupils are continuously in the spotlight. Pupils may also become bored working with the same partner continuously. However, the relaxed academic environment that the pupils experience often increases participation and self-confidence.

Teachers are required to assist in all activities and extracurricular activities in small schools. Although this places additional pressure on the time constraints that all teachers face, it is hugely beneficial in terms of getting to know the pupils and forming healthy relationships with all staff and pupils.

What makes children tick?

Besides Hermitage House’s setting among beautiful fields, trees, dams, wildlife sanctuaries,3 orchards and farms, enabling our pupils to enjoy a holistic education in a relaxed environment, the small school and small classes encourage learning. It’s much easier to find out how a child learns and what makes them tick academically and in every other way when you can get to know them. This is why we started teaching here in this way, and it unceasingly motivates us to return for another day of fun-filled learning.

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Category: Winter 2015

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