Phil Southey, a PhD student in the Physics Department at UCT, spent a couple of months with us earlier this year, adding tremendous value to our team and to the teachers and students he worked with. Here he reflects on his time…
“How do we fix education in South Africa?” It is a question with which all education researchers in South Africa are concerned. However, the question may be misleading. It sounds similar to: “How do we fix the refrigerator?” The majority of things we fix on a daily basis often call for a single solution, which, once discovered, heals the entire system. It is no secret that solving the education problem in South Africa is an incredibly complex task that calls for various adaptable solutions to be applied over many years. So let’s change the metaphor:
“How do we plant a forest of inquiring, skilled young minds?” The answer must be of the form: one acorn at a time. I prefer this metaphor, because when considering South African education as a vast ‘mono-problem’, it is perfectly reasonable to see it as intractable. However, by concentrating on individual tasks, it transforms into an achievable endeavour where progress can be measured.
The work that the Axium Education Team is doing in the rural Transkei is the closest I have come (in my limited experience) to experiencing a ‘solution’ to the problem of education in South Africa. And this is simply because they are planting an acorn, and it seems to be growing.
I was impressed by two features of the Axium Education Project. The first is the humility of the Project. It has been well documented that problems which are embedded within a cultural context cannot be solved by imposing an external solution. e.g. You can’t plant a forest of oak trees in the Karoo. Axium facilitates ‘Teacher Meetings’ at which local teachers address various areas of difficulty within their subject. It is a collaborative effort, with problems and their solutions being identified and constructed by the group as a whole. Axium serves not only as a source of good advice, but also as a recipient of ideas. Craig and Michelle thus promote self efficacy among the teachers, and learn a great deal about different and relevant solutions to problems in that particular context.
The second feature is Axium’s push at sustainability. (Once an oak tree is fully grown, it can produce acorns of its own.) This is being achieved through the formation of Teacher Networks as well as Student Study Groups. Their Ekhukhuleni program selects the top five students from the six or seven surrounding schools, and provides these students with additional materials and instruction in Maths, Science, English and Careers. These students are then tasked with forming study groups at their various schools, thus giving Axium further reach.
Axium Education is not a complicated setup: It is essentially a committed and enthusiastic group of people who enjoy helping others reach their potential. With South Africa’s own version of ‘Teach First’ in the pipeline, we can hopefully look forward to many graduates participating in similar projects. I am grateful for the time I spent engaging with what for me was an unknown cultural aspect of South Africa, as well as being able to share my experience with such an inspired group of individuals. Discussion questions became importantly relevant: “Do I teach less material for more understanding, or stick with the syllabus and hope they keep up?”, “How do I engage with the fact that my students’ basic concepts are ultimately grounded in a different language?”, “How do I construct a lesson in which the students engage with ‘meaning-making’ rather than rote learning?”.
When people ask me about my experience of teaching for two months in the rural Transkei, my immediate, heartfelt response is: “There is so much potential”. We hear too many stories about under qualified, disinterested teachers, without being reminded that there are many dedicated and capable teachers in need of resources. The difficulties students face are manifold: overcrowded classrooms, late arrival or absence of text books, long walks to and from school, various household chores to attend to after school, a potentially uninspiring learning environment etc. In spite of all these difficulties, I met young men and women with intelligence, motivation and potential to rival top achieving students in private or model-C type schools. While such a finding is inspiring, it is simultaneously saddening to think how many similar students exist in the country who currently do not have the means to reach their potential.
When the Mandela-Rhodes scholarships were established, Nelson Mandela was insistent that race should not be a criterion in the awarding of the scholarships. Someone asked him: “But what if all the scholarship candidates are white?” Mandela answered: “Then you would not have looked hard enough.”
The potential is there. We just need to plant more Axiums.