The Project for the Establishment of Primary and Pre-Primary Schools (PEPPS) is a widely respected and well established group of schools made up of three campuses located in Polokwane, Mahwelereng and Lebowakgomo, in Limpopo Province.
We serve approximately 1 600 pupils with class sizes generally between 25 and 30 students. Looking at our schools from a distance, one would certainly not expect us to be offering progressive and alternative education. Although we have some pupils who live in suburban Polokwane, many others live in so-called townships, or peri-urban or rural areas. Our facilities are not state-of the-art, yet we do the best we possibly can with what we have.
Approximately five years ago, we started asking ourselves if teaching knowledge from a textbook should be the gold-standard against which educational success ought to be measured. Integrating the latest educational research findings into mainstream teaching seems a distant fantasy for many rural schools in our country, yet this question continued to prompt us to review our curriculum and our pedagogical approach. We evaluated the relevance of what we were teaching and how we were teaching it, against the expectations of the modern working world.
Our intention was to provide excellence and innovation that did not cost a fortune and, if successful, could possibly provide a template that could be used more broadly across South Africa.
Creating tomorrow: Project-based learning
Without building maker-spaces (collaborative work spaces) or any other special facilities, we have developed a project-based learning programme (PBL) that spans Grade 1 to Grade 11. Our schools’ motto is ‘Creating Tomorrow’s Leaders’ and so, we have named our PBL initiative ‘Creating Tomorrow’.
Computers and tablets are provided on campus for the preparatory school pupils to work on so that they can research and create digitally. The college pupils are each expected to have their own devices to work on and we teach using Google Classroom extensively. This level of technological integration has been challenging to sustain, since none of our campuses have fibre connections available in the vicinity of the schools.
COVID-19 was both a blessing and a curse in our journey towards being PBL schools. The need for online teaching improved the computer literacy of our pupils, teachers and parents alike. The downside is that it has taken us longer to implement the programme exactly as we had envisioned, since pupils spent some time off-campus, then returned intermittently and then had to wear masks, inhibiting the development of learning relationships with teachers and peers. We look forward to seeing how our curriculum is enhanced once the masks are removed and we can work collaboratively with ease.
In all project lessons, we lower the pupil-teacher ratio by using interns and teacher assistants. This allows the adult facilitators to give more attention to each individual child. The teacher becomes the guide-on-the-side as they facilitate learning, rather than give instruction.
Being engaged in the educational experience, as opposed to being bored, improves learning. The pupils are more motivated, and the learning is deeper when the relevant material is discovered, rather than taught didactically. Our pupils are given choices between working individually or in groups. Students can choose projects as this encourages enthusiasm for the work. All project work is expected to be completed in class, so that we can ensure that it is the authentic work of the child.
Introducing the ‘Genius Hour’
PBL is implemented differently in the different phases with more autonomy and choice being offered as pupils get older. In Grades 1-3, we focus more on basic literacy and numeracy, and spend a relatively small amount of time on ‘Creating Tomorrow’. Students in the Foundation Phase use a carefully structured ‘Genius Hour’ approach to their projects. In Grades 7-9, pupils spend two-three hours per day working on their projects. Structured subject-based learning is hardly done at all and textbooks are not issued.
Once the grind of the Further Education and Training phase starts, the Grade 10-11 pupils produce two Genius Hour projects per year. Pupils have the freedom to choose topics that interest them and the variety of ideas that they produce is inspiring and wonderful to see. They choose topics from game design through to stock market evaluation, and from sewing a dance dress to writing a poetry anthology. This alternative educational foundation empowers them to tackle portfolio work effectively when they write the Independent Education Board examinations.
Obviously, not every child embraces the opportunity with the same level of enthusiasm, but it has been a delight to see the majority of the pupils become more engaged in learning; learn for the joy of knowing more; and creatively present their findings.
Other adjustments and the outcomes
While re-evaluating our cognitive curriculum, we have also given attention to how we teach social and emotional skills. Happy children fare better in all facets of life. All Grade 1-9 pupils study philosophy and axiology, which is the philosophical study of value how we determine value. In these arenas we address emotional regulation and social skills. Additionally, pupils start to understand how they think and how to be creative.
We have increased the number of breaks, reduced homework, and prioritised training our staff to implement discipline with dignity. Our College pupils have a spiritual hour once a week, where they are able to choose from a variety of ways to connect with their creator, ranging from meditation to sitting in nature, to studying scriptures.
In implementing these changes, we have noticed a calmer school with fewer discipline issues and, generally, a greater willingness to engage in learning. The projects automatically allow for differentiated classroom settings, with each pupil able to engage at their own level.
Cross-curricular learning and collaborative teaching have improved exponentially, and in turn, we see a more interesting and diverse array of learning materials being presented to the pupils. Furthermore, the stress of multiple examinations has been removed which reduces anxiety. An awareness of equity issues has been presented to teachers and it is expected that we cater to the needs of each individual child.
The changes we see are exciting
At PEPPS we redesigned what we teach and how we teach it. We have noticed no adverse effects in terms of traditional academic performance. Our first pupils, who started the ‘Creating Tomorrow’ curriculum in Grade 8, are currently in their final school year, and are faring no worse academically than previous cohorts. In truth, they seem to be coping better with portfolio work and independent thinking than in previous years.
As teachers, we have to move past how we were taught and embrace recent research on effective teaching and learning if we are going to create tomorrow’s leaders. PEPPS has completely transformed conventional teaching and moved from an archaic to a progressive curriculum implementation strategy. In doing so, we are adapting and developing every day. The initial outcomes that we are observing after the changes that we have made are exciting to see.
Our hope is that other less-resourced schools will also feel inspired to be courageous and to reform their teaching methodology towards developing critical and creative thinkers who can work independently and innovatively.