RASA conference highlights

On Saturday 15th March the Reading Association of South Africa held a conference called “Literacy Works: Best practices in literacy teaching and a focus on mew media: their place in literacy teaching” at the University of Cape Town. It was an informative day, with everyone there clearly enthusiastic and committed to improving the literacy levels of South Africa’s youth.

Texting and literacy
Kevin Sherman, an ICT Education Specialist at the Schools Development Unit, University of Cape Town, spoke about using text messaging to teach literacy skills. It was a fun session where various groups had to translate conventional English passages to txtspk and back again. Afterwards we thought of all the learning activities that we’d employed in the exercise — a list of about 20 points. When weighing up this list against the negatives usually associated with texting, e.g that it might be bad for spelling and grammar, the positives very much won.

Primary school teacher, Fiona Beel, talking about how much her learners have enjoyed blogging (License: CC-BY-NC-SA)

Mobiles for literacy
I spoke about the m4Lit (mobiles for literacy) project, presenting an overview of the project findings. The presentation and research reports will be launched on Wednesday, 17 March. What was interesting is that nobody in the audience during Kevin’s talk or my talk was opposed to texting and using cellphones to get kids to read and write. Usually there is the voice of dissatisfaction in the audience, but not a single one on Saturday. One of the teachers did mention, however, that his school has a strict ban on cellphones, so learners would need to do their cellphone reading and writing after school.

Education reform
The day started with a presentation by Dr Ursula Hoadley, who was part of a task team organised by the Minister of Basic Education in 2009 to review the implementation of the Curriculum 2005 (1997), Review of C2005 (2000) and the National Curriculum Statement (2004). The committee traveled around the country, listened to teachers’ complaints and suggestions for change. What they found was massive confusion around the different policies, and therefore inconsistencies in the way these were implemented.

Over the last decade, in the classroom there has been a focus on group work, the construction of learner knowledge, and a marginalisation of textbooks. The policy focus has been on the “how of teaching,” with a neglect of the “what of teaching” — and this has resulted in problematic practices in the classroom. Teachers complained that they didn’t know what they actually had to teach!

Some of the committee’s recommendations include:

  • Streamline and clarify policies:
    • Single document per learning area/subject per phase, grade R to 12.
    • Design clear, succinct, unambiguous policy and guidelines in clear language, e.g. get rid of “learning areas” and “learning programmes”, and replace with “subjects”.
  • Reorganise subjects and time allocations in the Foundation Phase (FP) to give more prominence to languages and mathematics.
  • The abandoning of Learning Outcomes (LOs) and Assessment Standards (ASs) as curriculum organisers — from OBE. LOs and ASs have not shown to effectively mark learning progress for learners and also draw teachers into bureaucratic box-ticking.
  • Learning and Teaching Support Materials (LTSM):
    • That a national LTSM catalogue be produced. BUT there are also too many textbooks in the market — need to rationalise and ensure quality.
    • That the role of textbooks be reasserted.
    • A textbook for every learner for every subject in every grade.

A return to a focus on content and clear guidelines on what needs to be implemented and how — a “return to syllabus”.

The Minister of Basic Education wholeheartedly accepted the report. Now it needs to be implemented. The bureaucratic machine of government, and the tensions between the report’s recommendations and existing laws and policies is making implementation a slow and uncertain process. Much heated debate is raging at the moment, e.g. the argument for state control of publishing, e.g. one textbook for a particular subject per grade, as opposed to a choice of 16 different textbooks offered at the moment.

The audience noted that we should be aware of binary thinking towards policies, where the pendulum now swings away from “process” back to “content”. Ursula responded that the report was not a pendulum swing where practices that are appropriate in certain settings, e.g. groupwork, are thrown out wholesale. The report is an attempt to address the criticisms and failures of the last 15 years, to make it simpler and easier for teachers to teach.

Teaching critical thinking in History class

BooksNext year a new matric History syllabus will be taught in South African schools. For the first time ever, Grade 12 learners will learn about apartheid.

But what is equally significant is the departure in teaching approach from rote learning of historical facts to discussion and open debate.

According to a Sunday Times article, the revised content aims “to make history more inclusive, representing different points of view” and that it encourages learners “to make up their own minds about the past.” In the article, historian Professor Nigel Worden from UCT says: “I’m a huge fan of this curriculum. It’s not just the new content but also the way it encourages skills of inquiry.”

This is very encouraging! By asking questions and holding the facts up to group discussion, learners develop analytical skills such as inquiry and critical thinking. And presenting their arguments for or against, whether in written or oral form, develops communication skills.

Image by Georg via Flickr (CC)