As the hottest year in history draws to a close, we are faced with a world both literally and figuratively on fire. Months of fires across Canada, Greece and Siberia. We began 2023 with the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and are ending it with a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. Almost forgotten is the ongoing civil war in Sudan.
Finding hope, finding solace in the face of this is increasingly difficult. One option is of course the ostrich approach. Stop reading the news and hunker down in our own little bubble. Another is to face it head-on. Acknowledge the horror. Admit the destruction.
Recently, I stumbled upon “The Great Humbling” a podcast that poses the question “What if our current crises are neither an obstacle to be overcome nor the end of the world, but a necessary humbling?” The podcast, which began in the first year of the pandemic, is a series of long conversations between Ed Gillespie and Dougald Hine.
Ed Gillespie is a self-confessed “recovering sustainability expert” while Dougald Hine is an author, editor and social entrepreneur. Part of the task of these conversations — elaborated further in Hine’s book “At Work in the Ruins: Finding Our Place in the Time of Science, Climate Change, Pandemics and All the Other Emergencies” — is to face the truth that things as we know it are in ruins.
And for Gillespie and Hine, while this perhaps does not mean the end of the world, it certainly means the end of the world as we know it. But as they are at pains to point out, once we acknowledge that things are in ruins, it is from those very ruins that we can rebuild. It is from the ruins that something new can emerge.
The concept of what remains in the ruins got me thinking about the South African education system.
In June this year we discovered that in 2021, according to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls), 81% of Grade 4 children in South Africa are unable to read for meaning. When the same test was administered in 2016, 78% of Grade 4 children in SA could not read for meaning. I have written about this, and have been ruminating about it for months.
At face value the results are appalling. Digging a little deeper they feel catastrophic.
Learning is progressive and builds on what comes before. Early deficits left unremedied have lifelong consequences. In theory, where there is a deficit, intensive remediation is possible and children not able to read for meaning at the end of Grade 4 can be helped to course correct.
But in the vast majority of South African schools, there is no remediation. There is no course correction. In fact, in most cases the further children go through school the worse the teaching will become.
For example, in many high schools in South Africa, there is not a single maths teacher, while first-year students studying education across three universities scored only 52% on a primary school maths test (rising to 54% at the end of their degree).
Higher education gaps
We also know that our throughput rates to university are appalling. According to Nic Spaull, of 100 learners that start school, approximately 50-60 will make it to matric, 40-50 will pass matric, 14 will qualify to go to university, and only six will get an undergraduate degree within six years.
The 14% who qualify to go to university is a remarkably similar number to the 19% of South African children who are able to read for meaning at the end of Grade 4.
It would not be hyperbolic to state that for most South African children the possibility of a meaningful education is, for all intents and purposes, over by the end of Grade 4.
Phoenix beneath the ashes?
These are the ruins of our education system. Let us call it what it is. The South African education system is in ruins. Centuries of colonisation and apartheid ensured this ruination. And I would contend that a singular lack of imagination and vision since 1994 has ensured we have remained mostly stagnant.
But what might lie in these ruins? What might we find to re-imagine something new? The first mistake, I would suggest, is a focus on reform.
In February 2022, former deputy president Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka launched the inaugural 2030 Reading Panel report. The aim of the panel is to ensure that by 2030 all children in South Africa will be able to read for meaning by age 10. One of the calls that the panel made was for “fundamental reforms”.
But given where we are educationally, reforming the system is a bit like providing cough syrup for severe Covid-19, or believing that a daily dose of insulin will cure diabetes. We are highly adept at “admiring the problem” and treating the symptoms. Hope, I am afraid, will not come from reform. We will only find it in total and complete system transformation.
What might this look like? Firstly, an acknowledgement of what we do have. South African schools provide essential childcare, serve a vital child protection role, and are instrumental in the feeding of millions of South African children.
Despite training limitations, we have thousands of South African teachers who are highly motivated and doing their level best in incredibly difficult circumstances.
And despite the gothic failings of so many in Cabinet and in our ruling party, provincial departments of education across the country (and nationally) are staffed by many brilliant and highly motivated people. Add to this is an infrastructure and distribution system unrivalled outside of the health system and you have a great deal to build from.
Secondly, we need to own up to the ruins of our education system. This may feel too much to bear. But facing it is imperative.
Thirdly, we need an early learning system — from preschools through primary school — that has as its primary goal socio-emotional learning. It is through play and engagement with peers that we learn to read the minds of peers; problem solve; to regulate our emotions; learn about the give and take of human connection; learn to attend; deal with the unexpected; resolve conflict; and learn the many different types of empathy and care for others.
Combined with this, we need to fully embrace artificial intelligence (AI) in our education system. Go all in. Everywhere. AI has already begun to re-shape education, and in the next few years is likely to entirely up-end what is taught and how it is taught.
Already we have South African innovations such as Trackosaurus that help teachers track the developmental progress of individual children in their class. Currently, with class sizes of over 50 in many places, any hope of individualised focus is a pipe dream. No teacher can cope with or personalise teaching for 50 children. We are deluding ourselves to imagine it is even remotely possible. Personalised AI tutors using tablets however, do exactly this by responding at the level of the child’s unique ability.
Finally, where are we in terms of helping our children reconnect to nature, to think about how climate breakdown will disrupt food systems? About growing food for self-sufficiency? About building a care economy?
Estonia declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and by 2018 its general education system was the best in Europe. How was this possible? Massive digital investment. Re-training of teachers. Cancelling homework. A focus on learning more in less time.
Of course, South Africa is not Estonia and Estonia’s solutions are not ours. But the lesson from Estonia? Vision, transformation, and revolutionary thinking outside of the box. But perhaps most importantly, an unashamed single-minded focus on — and investment in — children and their futures.
As long as we continue to focus much of our energy on Band-Aid solutions (reforms) such as getting outdated textbooks to teachers battling to cope, we will be having the same conversation in five and 10 years’ time.
I have often thought that perhaps what we need to do is to tear it all down and start again. But as I have tried to argue here, although things are in ruins, there are new ways of working and being to be found lying in the ruins, to be picked up, to create anew.
But the build has to be radical, it has to be visionary, and it will require boundless courage from leaders and us all. DM