Effective pedagogy can save our schools


By dr. Jury Joubert

According to research, teaching in South Africa does not look good. For example, the 2023 reading panel report paints a very dark picture of a country in the grip of a reading crisis, with no national plan on how to solve it. The report puts the percentage of Grade 4 pupils who cannot read for meaning in any language at 82%.

It is a fact that our education has deteriorated especially in the last 15 years (the time since Motshekga became minister). Several reports were published at that time in which she and the national department of education were warned about especially the poor teaching that was being served, but Minister Motshekga could not or did not want to listen. And now?

The word ‘pedagogy’ has its origins in the Greek language, and means ‘the art of teaching children’. The word ‘pedagogy’ is often confused with the word ‘curriculum’. Pedagogy is rather the connection between learning techniques and culture, and is determined based on an educator’s beliefs about how learning should take place.

Pedagogy trumps curriculum, because what matters is how things are taught, not what is taught. – Tjeerd Plomp

The experiences of poor children are not effectively understood in South Africa and they are not addressed in the government’s policy development. Most learners in poor schools are more than two years behind learners of the same age in urban schools. These learners are also 50% more likely to repeat a year, to be suspended or to leave school than learners who do not come from poor families. There is also a 25% chance that they will experience some kind of learning problem.

These learners also cannot participate comfortably at the level of CAPS because of these backlogs. A country like Colombia has eradicated these deficiencies in their Escuela Nueva schools on a large scale with the development and efficient use of specific learning guides and with this method has also involved the community in teaching.

“Marginalisation” is a term used by UNESCO to summarize acute and ongoing disadvantages in a definition. According to this definition, the majority of our schoolchildren are marginalized.

Increasing the quality of education certainly does not mean adapting or expanding our existing education system. More of the same is not enough! This means that a cultural change must take place. There must be a move away from the transfer of knowledge and information towards understanding and the creation of knowledge.

Let’s name a few problems that have been pointed out by research, and are not being solved by the state, or maybe they will ever be able to be solved by them.

  • The majority of learners leave school, after 12 years or earlier, without sufficient skills to participate effectively in our economy.
  • The majority of our teachers do not have the basic pedagogy and knowledge skills to inculcate the necessary skills in children.
  • There is poorly/inappropriately organized bureaucracy and support that supports teachers poorly or not at all.
  • South African learners do not have a culture of reading.
  • Universities are not training their graduates well enough to master the realities of the classroom. Bloch makes a very important point when he asserts that it is simply not good enough to acquire qualifications but not be able to teach well: “We’ve got a lot of bad teachers who have managed to get themselves university degrees. That’s part of the problem. Our results at primary level are very poor despite the fact that (teachers’) qualifications have improved massively since 1994.”

It also does not seem that the research conducted at our universities (faculties of education) improves the quality of critical fields of education, such as reading. It would appear that the educational research is actually divorced from everyday classroom practice. There is simply a lack of connection between the theory and school practices. There are also too many untested and removed ideas and too much reinvention of the wheel.

If we continue on the current trend, large numbers of school children will be seriously harmed by the pedagogy that is followed in the majority of our classrooms. Poor academic performances are the result of the well-known teaching methodology based on a set menu: low-level, boring – if not downright poor – teaching, with strings of meaningless assignments, such as ‘fill in’, ‘complete’, and so on. Learners are not taught to think critically.

On the other hand, there is sufficient empirical evidence that the traditionally teacher-centred system in our schools can be drastically improved by implementing a learner-centred model. Comprehensive research confirms that Escuela Nueva in Colombia and the RIVER project in India are two examples of such systems that have already been successfully implemented for years.

In India, the pedagogy of small schools (RIVER) is now being implemented on a large scale in thousands of schools, with astonishing success, as it is based on the principle that children must learn to think and do. These little schools therefore apply the philosophy of Sugata Mitra from the University of Newcastle, namely: “If children cannot learn the way we teach, then we must teach the way they learn.

Many weaknesses in teaching are now blamed on the Covid-19 pandemic, which of course is simply not true. Let’s accept that the pandemic had a big influence, says the Reading report. However, if an improvement trajectory is created according to the proposals in the reading panel report, and this is maintained from the current estimate of grade 4 reading outcomes, it will take 86 years to reach a point where 95% of children can read for meaning. It will be in the year 2108. Something drastic must be done, otherwise it will never be done: like teaching reading!

We know that teachers must be the primary driving force behind this change. They are in the best position to understand the problems learners face and to generate possible solutions. Research indicates that there is a difference of up to 15% in learner performance between teachers within the same school. It further shows that the “quality of teachers trumps virtually all other influences on student performance”. More than ever before, it is now important that teachers and parents give the right guidance to learners. As John Hattie said:

The quality of an education system/school cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.

We should be solving real problems and asking questions that matter, instead of simply memorizing and repeating facts. Adults’ achievements are much more closely linked to their creativity than to their IQ, and we should celebrate diverse knowledge and interests instead of trying to standardize knowledge and skills.

If we continue on the current trend, large numbers of school children will be seriously harmed by the pedagogy that is followed in the majority of our classrooms. Poor academic performances are the result of the well-known teaching methodology based on a set menu. Learners are not taught to think critically. Hambermas rightly calls this methodology the “pedagogy of poverty“.

Effective teaching is the most important factor during learners’ school years. The good news is that the problems can be solved if we listen to the following three experts:

  1. According to Hattie, at least 50% of what learners do in the classroom can be attributed to the teacher’s involvement.
  2. Hannushek’s research indicates that quality involvement of teachers can completely reverse the bad influence of poverty on learners’ achievements.
  3. According to Eric Jensen, effective teaching can make all negative influences disappear within a period of five years.

Effective teachers mean more than any curriculum, administration, what learners eat or how much they sleep. We must accept:

  1. The purpose of education is to enrich learners’ lives.
  2. Education is about teaching learners, not subjects.

Schools’ pedagogy must change from pedagogy that is only driven by a teaching culture to one where a learning culture exists.

  • Dr. Jurie Joubert is an education expert.