Of muppets, literacy and ICTs

Yesterday I met with a team from Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organisation behind Sesame Street.

The Workshop develops innovative and engaging educational content delivered in a variety of ways  — including television, radio, books, magazines, interactive media, and community outreach. Taking advantage of all forms of media and using those that are best suited to delivering a particular curriculum, the Workshop effectively and efficiently reaches millions of children, parents, caregivers, and educators — locally, nationally and globally.

Sesame Workshop has been running for almost 40 years and is the world’s largest single educational provider.

In South Africa, Sesame Street is known as Takalani Sesame. The local production — aimed at ages 3-6 — develops literacy, numeracy and has a special focus on HIV/AIDS safety. Through it’s star character, Kami, the world’s first HIV-positive muppet, the show promotes HIV/AIDS tolerance and destigmatisation. Takalani Sesame has also run campaigns aimed at teenage youth and caregivers.

Takalani Sesame: Moshe, Zuzu, Elmo, Zikwe, Kami (Image: Sesame Workshop (c))
Takalani Sesame: Moshe, Zuzu, Elmo, Zikwe, Kami (Image: Sesame Workshop (c))

The TV and radio shows used to include snippets of all official South African languages. But according to Seeta Pai, Sesame Workshop’s director of international research, this was not an ideal approach: “Research showed that children would tune out a language that they didn’t understand, so it became counter-productive.”

Now each TV and radio show is fully recorded in 9 of the 11 official South African languages. The new “applied language approach” is better because, “educationally, it is sound to give children a cognitive and language foundation in their native tongue,” says Seeta.

So, what were we meeting about in New York? Sesame Workshop, and the relatively new Joan Ganz Cooney Center, have always sought to use media for educational purposes. In the 1960’s, the notion of using TV for education was radical. Today, that same radical approach is needed when we consider ICTs such as cellphones, video games and even modernised versions of the bioscope (as used by Sesame Street in Bangladeshi slums) for education.

Sesame workshop has already run literacy campaigns, aimed at parents, using cellphones (see Learning Letters with Elmo), created a pilot virtual world called Panwapa, has a YouTube channel and a series of podcasts.

But what about Africa? At the meeting we spoke about what possibilities the media and ICT landscape in South Africa, Nigeria and Tanzania, present for teaching literacy and numeracy. Sesame Workshop would like to conduct an on-the-ground feasibility study of ICT access, as well as survey existing educational interventions and content, to inform its future work in these countries.

Future projects could leverage the full gamut of media, including TV, radio, mobile, CD-ROM and even cheap plug-and-play TV games.

The Shuttleworth Foundation will certainly keep the conversation going as it is in line with our desire to focus more on Foundation Phase literacy and numeracy.

A literacy success story

A success story of improving the reading and writing skills of learners is the Zimasa Community School in Langa, Western Cape. Having spent the weekend in Langa for the CSR in Education conference, I realised just how under-resourced most of the schools there are. The attendant ills of poverty are evident in Langa: overcrowding, litter, crime and lack of infrastructure. These factors make it difficult for teachers to deliver a sound education. Similarly, learners struggle to find the space and quiet to do their homework. Imaging trying to study for a test while living in a hostel originally designed for 16 men and now housing 16 families?

Hostels in Langa (Image by mtlp, CC-by-nc-nd)
Hostels in Langa (Image by mtlp, CC-by-nc-nd)

Despite these difficulties, the principal and teachers of Zimasa Community School have managed improve the percentage of learners who achieved 50% or more in a literacy assessment from 8% (2005) to 40% (2008). That’s an increase of 32%! Or an increase of 400% on the baseline results.

Some of the contributing factors for the achievement include institutionalising reading and writing time in class, the school’s dedicated teachers, engaging parents around the learning needs of their children, and allowing learners to read, write and take the literacy test in their mother-tongue (mostly isiXhosa). (It’s not possible to tell if any of these is the dominant variable for the success.)

For the most part, education performance in SA (in fact, globally) is tied to socio-economic status. But it is success stories such as this that demonstrate that it is possible to significantly improve education performance despite difficulties.

Read more about this success story in The Teacher.

Western Cape Education Budget 2008/09

Western Cape Education Minister Cameron DugmoreWestern Cape Education Minister Cameron Dugmore presented the province’s Education Budget for 2008/09 today. Of interest is the following:

  • ECD: Funding for Early Childhood Development (ECD) including Grade R increases by 37.6% to R226.792 million in order to expand enrolment and improve quality. This includes R91,372 million to ensure universal enrolment of all 5-year-olds by 2010.
  • Literacy and numeracy: There will be ongoing intensive literacy and numeracy support in schools where results are below par, with 100 officials and 450 Learning Support Teachers deployed since 2007. There is continued deployment of 510 Teaching Assistants (TAs) in the Foundation Phase. There is a strong Family Literacy pilot where our TAs are working with 280 families. We will launch a major Family Literacy radio campaign next month to reach parents in poor communities.
  • Mother-tongue education: The Project schools, which wrote their Grade 6 WCED tests through the medium of isiXhosa have multiplied their literacy scores by between three-fold and five-fold, and shown signs of progress in almost all Numeracy topics too. Since this was the first year of inception of the plan, such progress is remarkably encouraging.

It is encouraging that ECD is being invested in. (See my post about the National Education Budget for why.) Usually these speeches mostly focus on what’s going right, as opposed to what’s going wrong, so it’s hard to tell whether a 37.6% increase in ECD funding is enough. Still, it can’t be a bad thing.

It’s also encouraging to see mother-tongue education being researched in the province.

Image of Cameron Dugmore from Capegateway.gov.za (All rights reserved)

Mother-tongue education (part 1)

(I am currently researching and developing a position on mother-tongue education in South Africa for the Shuttleworth Foundation. This is the first in a series of posts on this topic.)

School where isiXhosa-speaking learners attend The Western Cape Education Department’s (WCED) Language Transformation Plan will promote six years of mother-tongue-based bilingual education, where practicable. Currently only grades 1-3 receive mother-tongue bilingual education. A pilot project is underway with 16 schools in the province where certain subjects are being taught in isiXhosa. The WCED claims positive results thus far: isiXhosa learners are far more lively in class, their academic performance is improving, and learner and educator self-esteem is growing.

I met with Prof Zubeida Desai, Dean of Education at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), who has been directly involved in a similar project, called Loitasa. Her views are as follows:

  • There is no doubt that mother-tongue bilingual education is a good thing. It allows learners to develop cognitive skills because they can focus on the subject being taught without having to struggle with language issues.
  • In Norway, learners are taught in Norwegian, but learn English as a subject. Most Norwegian learners speak relatively good English. The same goes for Holland.The key is that English is taught in an engaging way and for communication purposes.
  • In SA, we have learners who are taught in English from grades 4-12 and yet many leave school as very poor English speakers.

Essentially, Zubeida believes that English is crucial for living and working in the world today. Mother-tongue education should not be about doing away with English. Rather, for learners, it should allow learning in a language that is familiar, while at the same time learning English as a subject in an effective and engaging manner.

Image by Crivins via Flickr (CC)