One textbook policy = bad idea. Here’s why, from Jansen, Attwell and Spaull

logo01Recently the Franschhoek Literary Festival hosted a session titled “We Won’t Get No Education”. Description from the programme:

Government’s controversial proposal to limit textbooks to one per subject has raised alarms across disciplines. Francis Wilson asks Arthur Attwell (Book Dash), Jonathan Jansen (How to Fix South African Schools) and Nic Spaull (post-doc Education fellow at the University of Stellenbosch), what the implications are.

It was a stimulating discussion, and all agreed that one textbook is a BAD idea. But what is for sure is that it will happen. Apparently, even though the government has asked for public input on the policy-in-making, it is a fait accompli and the decision was taken some time back at an ANC conference in Bloemfontein.

In the discussion, technology did not come across too well, since is it was seen as adding complexity to a broken education system that is already struggling with an analogue print-book system. However, tech was described as something that could be used to network people, bring together communities of teachers and facilitate virtual peer-to-peer learning amongst students. Also, to improve the efficiency of education institution administration.

I engaged Prof Jansen on the merits of technology and how, when people propose introducing tablets or ebooks it is the wrong starting point. Rather, we should ask: do you want interactive simulations to communicate complex ideas, especially when many teachers are under-qualified to teach those ideas? Do you want automatic assessment of learning that produces immediate analysis of learner understanding and alleviates the marking burden of teachers so that they can spend more time on task actually teaching? Do you want to enable teachers to connect virtually, to share teaching and learning resources, or simply provide moral support to each other? Do you want efficient, immediate and cost-effective communication between schools, teachers and parents? If you answer yes to any of these questions, then technology has an enabling role to play. He agreed wholeheartedly with that approach.

Below are some rough notes from the discussion. Much of it we already know, but some of the points are useful.

Nic Spaull

  • The big issue in education:Low AND unequal achievement across schools.
  • Every year 1.1m learners start their school education, only 500,000 finish.
  • Of those who matriculate, only 14% go to university. Fewer actually graduate.
  • Half of SA households have only 10 books in the house.
  • 60% of primary schools have no library.
  • In the North-West province: only 30% of learners have access to government bought textbooks. In the WC, that figure is 95%.

The Government needs to:

  • Focus on accountability AND capacity.
  • Focus on early grades.
  • Set early goals and measure, e.g. learners being able to read in their home language by the end of grade 3.
  • Get teachers to take a course on how to teach reading.
  • Follow a programme of identifying Master Teachers who can train other teachers.

He listed three categories of tech rollouts:

  • Hardware focused (1:1 / tablets).
  • Software focused (“the software will make the difference”).
  • “Warmware” focused (it’s about the people, they need to drive it, tech roll outs work when people adopt them).

He also proposed that since Government is going to impose a one-textbook policy, that they should insist the one chosen book is openly licensed so that others can create “paid for” add ons around it.

Arthur Attwell

  • The tablet project in Gauteng will cost 3x the NATIONAL textbook budget. He believes this is too much.
  • He proposes that publishers give permission to local printers closer to schools to print there.
  • One textbook policy = massive damage and loss to small publishers in SA. Will reduce publishing industry to 3-4 players in a few years.

Jonathan Jansen

  • Many schools cannot absorb the level of innovation that is tried to be introduced to them.
  • Following his book “How to Fix SA’s Schools”, he believes that we need to do the simple things well.
  • Good leadership, principals at school early and engaged.
  • A timetable that is stuck to.
  • Teachers trained and teaching on time.
  • Parents involved.
  • Etc.

He believes that the one textbook policy is utter nonsense, a harmful form of reductionism that offers short terms financial gains to the Government. Where it claims to level the playing field across the school sector it will in fact entrench existing divides as middle-class schools can afford to buy books NOT on the catalogue that are more appropriate for their teachers and learners.

He also believes that Government needs to exercise its power over unions when their behaviour is anti-education. And the one thing he admires about President Zuma is his ability to dismantle organisations (e.g. the ANC Youth League). With luck, he hopes that Zuma can dismantle harmful teacher unions.

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