Originally published in the Mail & Guardian, September 16 2016
Susie Aston-Taylor, SAEP Primary School Curriculum and Research Officer

primary school 4

September is Literacy Month and in our country this should be a big deal. Nearly 30% of Grade 4s in South Africa are illiterate and this is the critical grade where children need to move past the ‘learning to read’ phase and on to the ‘reading to learn’ phase. Not only is reading and writing fundamental to all learning; success in the modern world depends on it. It is not surprising then that UNESCO considers literacy a basic human right. But what does this mean for the future of South Africa’s children?

Literacy is a powerful driver of economic development. Economists have suggested that improved literacy rates could increase South Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP) by as much as 30%, and yet it is not enough to stop there. The world of work is changing so rapidly that children will need to keep on learning long after school to keep up. In its recent report, The Future of Jobs, the World Economic Forum states: “By one popular estimate, 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist.”

What is needed, in addition to literacy, are the soft skills or learning habits that will enable the continued learning needed to sustain our children’s future employability – a big ask for our already overburdened teachers and struggling school system.

Could a set of smart tweaks to teaching practice nudge learners towards progressively taking more control of their own learning? Schools in the UK implementing the ‘Learning Power Approach’ (originally Guy Claxton’s ‘Building Learning Power’) have shown increased exam results and more positive associations with learning. By encouraging learners to be more inquisitive, adventurous, determined and collaborative in their learning, they improved their performance. And this was across the board, whether learners had high or low academic abilities or came from high or low socioeconomic backgrounds.

The success of these teaching adjustments has also been proven in Chile where a study found that students with a growth mindset encouraged by these adjustments were three times more likely to score in the top 20% of students nationally, while students without this attitude were four times more likely to score in the bottom 20%. They are also endorsed by Carol Dweck, professor of Psychology at Standford University, who commented that these small changes translate into powerful and practical ways of organising schools in the 21st century – ones that will not just turn out high achievers, but great all-round learners and leaders.

In responding to a request from the teachers and parents to help strengthen children’s literacy at one of the Western Cape township primary schools we support, SAEP (the South African Education and Environment Project) – a nonprofit aimed at helping children in need to thrive through education – decided to put this approach to the test. We implemented an after-school programme called ‘The Learning Gym’ in our primary school programme using methods from the Learning Power Approach.

These photos were taken on the Momenta Project South Africa Workshop 2016 in Capetown, South Africa copyright Susan L. Gendron/Momenta Workshops.

Children from the SAEP Learning Gym at Siyazakha Primary school in Philippi with their coaches.

Incorporating small adjustments we built the four necessary traits – resilience, resourcefulness, reflectiveness and reciprocity – into the experience of a reading club. The effect has been, surprisingly, twofold: our Grade 3 and 4 learners come back eagerly week after week and the teachers and parents have been impressed by the changes in attitude they have seen in their children. Tutors are equally excited about this way of ‘teaching’ reading, which they say enhances their own reading skills.

But, key to our experience is that while the idea of selling another new teaching technique to already weary teachers is a daunting task, the practice is something that can, and should be, easily done at home because once they know how, children often don’t need the support of an adult to take charge of their own learning. When they have found the enthusiasm, confidence and ability to learn for themselves, they are on their way: learning to read and reading to learn.

Finding the balance between teaching hard skills, developing soft skills, and managing the challenges of an overburdened education system isn’t easy, but it is necessary if we wish to do right by future generations. Programmes like SAEP’s Learning Gym provide a step into the future of education which will be teacher-directed, but more learner-focused.

Susie Taylor-Alston is the Primary School Curriculum and Research Officer for the South African Education and Environment Project (SAEP). SAEP supports and motivates children and young people in need to thrive through education, life skills and psycho-social support. The SAEP Siyakhathala Primary programme provides literacy and academic support to primary school learners so that they can continue their education with confidence. SAEP relies on donor funding to run its programme. To make a donation, click through here, or follow them on Facebook and Twitter.