by Mark Barnes

The teacher within

It's your responsibility to teach your fellow man

You can’t teach what you don’t know
The teacher within

Everyone knows something relatively well enough to be able to teach it – whether it be how to tie a fly-fishing knot, how to stir a baking mix or how to solve x in a parabola equation. However, a teacher of the very best kind is one who has knowledge and understanding and is willing to share it.

At university, all my studies were somehow centred on mathematics – one of the most feared and avoided subjects of learning, and yet one of the few in which you can get 100%. You can’t get 100% for English, for instance. At its foundation, mathematics has only 10 axioms and, a bit like debits and credits in accountancy, once you’ve mastered an understanding of these rules, it’s easy peasy. Trouble is, you need a good teacher.

I found a remarkable textbook once: Calculus Made Easy by Sylvanus Thompson, published in about 1910 (get a life, I hear you say: bear with me). This title was far more inviting than my prescribed text – Calculus and Analytic Geometry – so I started reading.

Thompson had let the cat out of the bag. On one of the front pages of his book, he introduces the book as "being a very simple introduction to those beautiful methods of reckoning which are generally called by the terrifying names of the Differential Calculus and the Integral Calculus".

He then went on, in the prologue, to write: "Considering how many fools can calculate, it is surprising that it should be thought either a difficult or a tedious task for any other fool to master the same tricks. Some calculus tricks are easy. Some are enormously difficult. The fools who write the textbooks of advanced mathematics – and they are mostly clever fools – seldom take the trouble to show you how easy the easy calculations are. On the contrary, they seem to desire to impress you with their tremendous cleverness by going about it in the most difficult way."

Thompson was a teacher of the very best kind. First, he had knowledge and understanding. Second, he wanted to share it.

Needu, the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit, is independent, reporting directly to the minister of education. Its 2012 report focused on the foundation phase (grades 1-3) being, as it surely is, the base for all future learning and the foundation for numeracy, literacy and communication. If a pupil doesn’t get it there, the rest of school can be a fragile, scary dance around guessed answers and embarrassing mistakes.

The study uncovered some stark shortcomings in the South African education system. The evaluation covered 134 primary schools, and focused on direct outcomes (as the best measure of the quality of teaching) in nine provinces, 86 districts and 26 000 school management teams to evaluate instructional leadership (curriculum delivery).

The exercise was thorough and can be regarded as conclusive.

Why do South African schools perform below expectations?

In essence, there seem to be two groupings: because they won’t or because they can’t do better. Won’t can be fixed easier than can’t. Won’t includes problems of discipline and attendance and the like among our teachers; these, of course, affect the outcome of education, but the real issues run much deeper into the can’t space.

Can you imagine trying to understand biology or mathematics if it were being taught to you in another language? For most South Africans, the language at school is not the language they speak at home. As one teacher put it: "We speak a deurmekaar Setswana." It is all very well to have 11 official languages, but it compounds the problem of having qualified teachers beyond remedy, so we have to choose.

What do we choose: English, Afrikaans, Zulu and Xhosa? Still too many? English and Afrikaans? Not fair, politically incorrect? English it must be – like it or not, it is international.

In business we’ve accepted English; only a handful of people could tell you what an accumulative convertible redeemable preference share is in Afrikaans (yes, I can – I went to Belfast Hoërskool).

Our teachers didn’t all have the benefit of the best education when they were at school. So many teachers simply haven’t the sound foundations in the subject necessary to teach it. You can’t teach what you don’t know.

How on earth do we fix that quickly? It starts with a transparent and blame-free acceptance of the problem. A kind of amnesty: if you don’t know what you’re teaching, tell us, we’ll help you. There’s nothing worse than doing a job you’re not confident you’re capable of. It’s called teacher subject knowledge capacitation, I think.

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This edition

Issue 58