Tag Archives: teachers

Thinking About Thinking Through Multimedia: Undergraduate Learning with MicroWorlds (ED-MEDIA 2008)

ED-MEDIA 2008 paper: Thinking About Thinking Through Multimedia: Undergraduate Learning with MicroWorlds.

Abstract: Undergraduate education students engaged in a multimedia project using MicroWorlds displayed levels of engagement in the activity that was beyond that displayed in other assessment tasks. Students also displayed deep levels of understandings about their own learning and about their understandings of teaching and learning. This paper investigates three years of student engagement with MicroWorlds and reports that in each year students achieved high grades and reported high levels of self satisfaction. It became apparent that through this task students were thinking about their own thinking and making practical connections to theory.

ICT in children’s learning is a whole year subject in the 2nd year Bachelor of Education at the University of Melbourne. Most students were not “digital natives.” The author wanted to use MicroWorlds to develop the constructivist and constructionist pedagogical skills of pre-service teachers using ICTs.

The assignment: in 5 weeks construct a multimedia project (a story, a book, a game, etc. in MicroWorlds). Needed to have at least 4 pages and 4 major components of multimedia.

At first the students were thrown out by the vagueness of the assignment. “The idea that these students ‘had to work things out’ for themselves, was alien and threatening for some; they were not being ‘taught'”. Some students complained bitterly about the assignment for this reason.

But gradually as the students engaged with the assignment, they realised that they themelves had to complete learner-centred tasks that involved creation, exploration and self-discovery — constructivist and constructionist learning attributes — before they could one day expect to engender these qualities in their classrooms. They realised that these skills could not be taught, but only learned through practice.

This study highlights the need for effective and practical teacher training when constructivist and constructionist learning is desirable in schools.


Authors: Nicholas Reynolds, The University of Melbourne, Australia

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)

National Education Budget 2008/09

Education Minister Naledi PandorToday I attended the tabling of the National Education Budget 2008/09 in parliament. Below are my excerpts from Education Minister Naledi Pandor’s full speech:

  • A total of R123 billion has been allocated to the education sector (both national and provinces).
  • The recent report of the Committee on School Retention indicated that South Africa (SA) has achieved universal access to primary schooling and near universal access to schooling up to the age of fifteen.
  • A key intervention, in line with our theme of changing lives and communities, was the implementation of a second-chance programme for learners who failed matric in 2007. The overwhelming learner response to the programme revealed a hungry thirst for education among children we tend to cast off as failures at grade 12. Over 400,000 full-time and part-time candidates are writing exams as we speak – a number very close to our total pool for 2007.
  • The response to the Kha ri Gude Mass Literacy Campaign has been overwhelming enthusiasm. Gauteng already has 32,000 learning, North West 42,000, Eastern Cape 100,000, and Limpopo 47,000. These are the provinces with the largest numbers of illiterate people. Current enrolments suggest we have exceeded our target of 300,000 enrolled.
  • In addition to providing adults with the skills of reading, writing, and numeracy (up to ABET level 1), a successful campaign will also mean that South Africa will meet the commitment made at Dakar in 2002 to reduce illiteracy by at least 50%.
  • During 2008 a key focus will be on a recruitment campaign to attract young people into foundation phase teaching, particularly students keen and able to teach in the various African languages.
  • Data on un- and under-qualified teachers in the system will be collected. The outcome of this will be the production of a five-year plan for a focused systemic approach to teacher upgrading to be implemented from 2009.

The Education Deputy Minister, Enver Surty, explained that today’s global knowledge economy demands competence in using ICTs. Therefore all teachers and learners must be ICT literate.

During the parliamentary session, other MPs responded to the budget. Of interest were the following points:

  • The goal of the teacher upgrading program is to have no unqualified teachers by 2013.
  • A professional teacher development points system will be implemented from 2009. For the first time ever learner performance will be considered during teacher performance reviews. The message from a number of speakers was clear: teachers who are absent from school, or who turn up drunk, or who do no work must be brought to book! Teachers need to be at school, in class and teaching.
  • In addition to the call for teacher accountability there was overall support for the re-opening of teacher training colleges and for teacher salaries to be increased.
  • There was a general call for the School Feeding Scheme (aka the School Nutrition Program) to also include high schools. Currently only primary schools are supported.
  • Apparently SA is a low spender on early childhood development (ECD). This is problematic because there is a proven correlation between enrolment into ECD programs and primary school completion.

(As a final note, being in parliament is quite an experience. It’s a bit of a circus in there, organised chaos. Cellphones are constantly ringing, people come and go, half-baked heckling greets some speakers and one MP even tripped on the carpet as she was walking to the toilet.)

Image of Naledi Pandor from Education.gov.za (All rights reserved)

How to stem the Matthew Effect in education

How to stem the Matthew Effect in education is a piece I wrote about a presentation given by Dr Luis Crouch at the Integrated Education Programme (IEP) conference (in February).

The “Matthew Effect” (a term coined by Keith Stanovich, a psychologist who has done extensive research on reading) denotes processes whereby inequality is created or maintained. In literacy terms, learners at the end of grade one who can read well begin a pattern of outperforming those learners who cannot read well. With time, the gap widens. Learners who score poorly in literacy from the beginning will go on to fall behind in all other subject areas. The same applies to numeracy.

Dr Crouch shared his thoughts on how to stem this trend in education.

Notes from the Integrated Education Program (IEP) Conference

A little late, but below are my notes from the Integrated Education Program (IEP) Conference in Pretoria (6-7 February 2008).

Overall notes

The Integrated Education Program (2004-08) aimed to improve the quality of primary education by supporting programmes in teacher education, as well as school management and governance, in selected districts in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and the Northern Cape. The program was funded by USAID (approx. R155m) and implemented in partnership with the South African Department of Education. Overall goal: to improve learner performance in literacy and numeracy (in gr 3), and mathematics and science (in gr 6) in participating schools (the poorest of the poor in SA).

As a result of the program the average improvement in learner performance was 5%. This shows just how difficult it is to raise the average grade.

The director general in the Department of Education, Duncan Hindle, said that we need to:

  • Shift resources from the FET to GET phases, especially Foundation Phase.
  • Raise expectations amongst parents and society at large of the high levels of teaching that they should expect for their children, of what the service levels should be. He visited a school where at 11am on a Friday all of the teachers had left for the weekend. When he asked the parents if they were concerned about this, they didn’t realise that this was not normal practice.

General comments from speakers and the audience:

  • A culture of assessment has not taken root amongst teachers. Not enough regular assessments, e.g. testing, and recording of results.
  • Language of instruction (LOI): Despite the language policy, there is confusion in the some schools as to whether they should teach in the local language or in English. Some of the schools said that the LOI for gr 3 was isiXhosa, but when the learners were given survey instruments in isiXhosa they could barely understand the documents. The learners managed to answer the English instruments. There is a need to clarify the implementation of the LOI policy.
  • Teachers have to be held accountable for performance.
    At the same time, they must be given solid training and support materials.
  • It is crucial to develop literacy skills in the Foundation Phase for cognitive development. This requires reading and extended or complex writing, which is more than a paragraph, ideally a page of writing.

Statistical analysis in SA Education

Dr Luis Crouch. See How to stem the Matthew Effect in education. Additional notes below.

Suggestion for improving education in SA:

  • Make schools divulge their results. Universal external assessment might help.
  • Ensure that schools understand what their expected grade achievement is.
  • Popularise good teachers: those that arrive on time, that cover the curriculum, etc.
  • He gave an example of a school in the EC where the teachers vote democratically on what they’ll teach that week. Can’t run a school system like that.

Mid-90s, almost no public statistical analysis by Apartheid government. Since then, explosion of stats, but how much have we learned? Further, most academics, NGOs and education departments are slow to take up and act on the sound research findings that have been produced in post-94 SA, .

Learner drop-out is something to consider. But a much bigger problem is whether those in school are actually learning anything. The average child in SA learns less than 97% of European kids.

Effect of socioeconomic status (SES): Within the group of low parental wealth there is a big discrepency in reading scores. The poor get highly variable levels of education.

To run a good school, need:

  • Principal who is pedagogical leader and good manager.
  • Teachers that follow curriculum.
  • Learners that are disciplined.
  • Accountability.

IEP learner achievement results

Ms. Carla Pereira, JET Education Services

Gr 3: Literacy
Overall improvement in project schools over control groups (using very basic descriptive statistics), though not a huge improvement.

Gr 6: Science
Sometimes in project schools and control schools the grades actually dropped over the course of the studies.

Performance by skills
She confirmed that literacy intervention has an impact on mathematics and science skills that have narrative components. If a learner can’t read, he/she can’t understand maths and science concepts that require reading.

IEP impact study

Eric Schollar provided a qualitative review of the impact of the IEP and also lessons learned about the actual implementation of the program, which are relevant to any large-scale educational intervention.

(Gain refers to the difference between the control and project groups for the pre-, mid- and post-tests.) The percentages given below represent the gain made by the one group relative to the other, not the actual test results. The summary of the IEP impact is as follows (in terms of gain):

  • Literacy (gr 3): +4%
  • Numeracy (gr 3): +11.3%
  • Mathematics (gr 6): -0.1%
  • Natural Sciences (gr 6): +2.7%

Gain for gr 6 is not significant, but is very strongly concentrated at gr 3 level. Overall, the average gain (gr 3 & 6) is +4.5%. Schools in KZN made the most impressive gains.

Distribution of impact
Of the test groups (127 schools), the distribution of impact (i.e. greater than 4%) of the IEP was as follows:

  • Positive impact: 45.7%
  • No impact: 26.8%
  • Negative impact: 27.6%

So for a program such as IEP, which cost R155m, more than half of participating schools were either unchanged or left in a worse position by the program. It is hard to understand how this happens, but apparently this distribution is about average for large-scale educational interventions. The reason is that some schools are so dysfunctional that more resources provided (e.g. through the IEP) make no positive difference whatsoever. External organisations simply cannot impose managerial authority on those schools. Basically, only the school can save itself!

Analysis of the impact
Schools that made the highest mean gains did so as follows:

  • Literacy: +35%
  • Numeracy: +24%
  • Mathematics: +12%
  • Natural Sciences: +18%

In other words, in some schools the project group improved the literacy scores by 35% relative to the control group.
Schools with the lowest mean gains:

  • Literacy: -18%
  • Numeracy: -9%
  • Mathematics: -10%
  • Natural Sciences: -25%

Why was impact concentrated in KZN?
Only in KZN were all scores increased at post-test. Why? The following reasons were offered, all of which are relevant to any educational intervention:

  • In KZN the learner workbooks were supplied to all schools. Assessment resource banks (ARB) were provided in all participating provinces but in KZN they were accompanied by common assessments (supported by the DoE).
  • In KZN information from the external evaluation was regularly supplied and performance targets set for schools.
  • In KZN detailed monitoring instruments were used.

Overall insights
The overall insights and lessons learned for educational interventions are as follows:

  • Teachers are very strongly in favour of the classroom-level support they have enjoyed through the IEP. Many of them are still uncertain of the practical application of the planning and methodological principles of the OBE curriculum in classrooms. Independent service provider (ISP) field workers are popular partly because they can demonstrate these aspects in real situations. (This insight dispels the commonly held notion that teachers don’t want outsiders coming into their classrooms and helping them to do their jobs.)
  • Mr Schollar felt that one of the main causes of learner performance improvements is the provision of a syllabus supported by learner workbooks, together with common assessment tools.
  • Systemic, rather than localised, assessment is vital for the SA educational system. Mr Schollar believes that one of the most important steps taken by the DoE since 1994 is to begin to implement across-the-board assessments. In some instances, local assessments pass learners to the next grade while those same learners fail national assessments.
  • Because many teachers are “confused about OBE”, IEP training in this regard is one of the most highly valued elements of the program. Quality of outcome was mainly due to the materials supporting classroom teaching.
  • Teachers very strongly favour the provision of project materials that provide guidance to classroom planning, activity and assessment. Mr Firoz Patel, Deputy Director-General, DoE, who presented later, even proposed that the support materials provide minute-by-minute guidance on how to implement the NCS in the context of the OBE philosophy.

Closing remarks

Dr Nick Taylor, CEO, Jet Education Services

  • Teachers perceive OBE to be something completely different to their previous understanding of teaching. So they feel that they can’t teach OBE until they’ve been trained and developed to do so. But OBE is not something magical. They are still meant to be imparting knowledge. Need to move beyond dependency culture on training.
  • Secondly, need to follow text books It’s all in there, just follow the book.
  • Because of poor teachers, learners are being socialised into a mentality of low expectations, low grades and low performance. The learners don’t know that they should be pushing themselves harder, that they can achieve more.

Workshop: Blogging in the classroom

ICT4Champions is a Google group concerned with the use of web 2.0 in South African schools. Today Maggie Verster, founder of the group, lead a workshop on blogging in the classroom. It was attended by 10 educators, all from private schools, who were shown how to create and customise a class blog using Edublogs. I attended to meet Maggie and the others in the group and to pick their brains on the state of Web 2.0 in our schools. The bottom line: basic use of ICTs, let alone for connected, creative, collaborative web 2.0 activities, is limited and problematic in South African schools. According to the attendees of the workshop, reasons for this include:

  • Lack of physical infrastructure: PCs, printers, etc.
  • No or slow connectivity, due to the prohibitively high cost of bandwidth.
  • Lack of support from school principals and management.
  • Lack of ICT literacy of educators.
  • Educators’ fear that their learners know more than they do about technology (which they usually do).
  • Time pressure on educators to work through the curriculum, leaving no time to learn how to blog and get blogging with their learners. Educators simply don’t have enough time in the day.
  • Overworked educators who resist taking on “just another thing.”

The attendees asked for:

  • More workshops such as this one. They appreciate practical “starter” lessons from someone who’s done research and knows which software, technologies and sites to use.
  • Educator guides for referencing and citing content.

Compared to public schools, private schools usually have fairly good ICT facilities, supportive management and a willingness to send educators on training courses. Right now in private and public schools there are champion educators and principals who implement web 2.0 in their classrooms. Their learners blog, create digital stories and participate in social networks. The educators themselves are active members of communities of practice, such as the Maths Literacy one in South Africa. But these cases are very very very rare. There is much work to be done to change this!

Image by Maggie Verster

Engaging problem learners through digital storytelling

Engaging problem learners through digital storytelling is a short piece I wrote for Thought Leader on how digital storytelling is proven to engage learners in the classroom. This is particularly relevant for South Africa where educators are increasingly dealing with unruly and violent learners.

Discussion with Prof Daniel Schwartz

Today I met with Prof Daniel Schwartz of Stanford University’s School of Education to talk about ways to improve school maths and science skills using technology. The meeting was in preparation for my new role as Communications & Analytical Skills Development Fellow at the Shuttleworth Foundation (SF). Our discussion covered much ground across a number of topics. The key points were as follows:

When asked What tools exist that help to improve maths and science skills, which teach analytical skills that learners can apply to the whole of their lives?, Dan answered, “I don’t know.” That doesn’t mean there aren’t good approaches and software that fit this bill, but that on the whole, we’re not there yet. As he explained, the task is big and complicated and no one solution stands out as a clear winner. Much research and exploration still need to be done.

Teachers are stressed, overworked and underpaid. This isn’t just a South African phenomenon, but a global issue. Any tool to improve maths and science must make teachers’ jobs easier, not harder. Dan said that many worthy curricula, projects and teaching approaches are great at teaching a subject, but they rely on either really good teachers or very excited/animated/energetic teachers. Approaches such as exploratory inquiry are valuable for learners, but require a lot of work on the part of teachers. Is it realistic to expect that from all teachers across the board?

Role of a foundation
An important question for the SF is whether its goal is to raise the median score of all school learners in maths and science, or to facilitate the surfacing of bright kids who’ll become mathematicians and scientists? Each goal requires different approaches. For large-scale change, any solution must be aligned with the national or provincial curriculum. It also mustn’t rely on champion teachers. It must work for your average teacher in an average classroom setting.

Creating buzz
An important aspect of improving maths and science skills is to simply create interest in these subjects among learners. The SF already does this through its Hip2b² initiative. Some educational projects don’t “move the needle” for widespread change. They might only work in a particular context, such as one school, and with the help of a lot of outside support, but they raise awareness, create interest, show what’s possible. They become a beacon, attracting interest and generating energy for similar projects. Eventually enough momentum is generated.

Dan suggested that the use of video in education has much potential, and has hitherto not been fully explored. Educational videos are good for getting across the facts, but actually getting learners to create video – using, e.g. iMovie, Windows MovieMaker or KiNO – not only mitigates against the risk of passive consumption of information, but actively engages youth. I have seen this in digital storytelling workshops, how learners who would normally not be interested in school work are suddenly engaged by the process of digital media creation. This has been formally proven by the WestEd study of Streetside Stories. While video doesn’t teach reasoning, it can teach scientific inquiry. For this reason it is probably better suited to developing science than maths skills. “The key,” says Dan, “is to have a driving question for the creation of videos, e.g. Why does the moon rotate around the earth?” This anchors the learners, focussing their efforts. Unchecked, these efforts might only develop creativity (nothing wrong with that, but we need to keep coming back to maths and science skills). Lastly, developing video falls squarely within the realm of communications skills, which the SF wants to develop. Based on this and the work done in the last year on the Digital Hero Book Project, digital media production will be strongly considered in the Communications & Analytical Skills Development focus area.

Teachable agents
One of Dan’s research areas is software-based teachable agents (TA), based on the premise that one learns by teaching. Learners teach their TA and then assess its knowledge by asking it questions or by getting it to solve problems. “The TA uses artificial intelligence techniques to generate answers based on what it was taught. Depending on the TA’s answer, students can revise their agents’ knowledge (and their own). TAs do not replace real students. But, they do provide unique opportunities to optimize learning-by-teaching interactions.” (from the to-be-published Pedagogical Agents for Learning by Teaching: Teachable Agents.) More on this here soon.

Already, interesting software, approaches and off-the-shelf curricula, available as proprietary or open content, exist. But there is room to continue work in this space. It’s important to first define a target audience, its demographic and the intended educational goal – moving the needle or pushing the boundaries through focussed research – as part of developing a strategy for communications and analytical skills development in South Africa.