The Africa meets Africa Project: Helene Smuts

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The Africa meets Africa Project: Helene Smuts

South Africa
Project Stage:
$1,000 - $10,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

The Bantu education system, imposed by the apartheid government, had disastrous consequences for the quality of rural education in South Africa. Low educational performance, especially in the subjects of mathematics and science, has persisted long after the end of the apartheid system due to inadequate and insufficiently relevant training for rural teachers and appropriate materials for their students. Helene has introduced a visual and culturally relevant learning methodology that integrates rural knowledge systems into the formal school curriculum through teacher training strategies so that teachers and students are empowered to pursue excellence in these subjects.

About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Since the dawn of the democratic years in South Africa in 1994, education has been widely acknowledged as the main solution to problems of youth unemployment and regional economic development disparities. For the youth in the rural disadvantaged areas of South Africa, access to good quality education could indeed be the ticket to breaking out of the vicious cycle of poverty and unemployment. Yet, barriers stemming from the colonial and apartheid legacy remain today. The Bantu education system, primarily designed to produce a skilled and domestic labor force for the white community, only offered rural students subjects that were regarded as less important or less intellectual and were denied the opportunity to learn mathematics and other “hard” sciences, which were exclusively for white students. These subjects were only introduced after 1994 when the post-apartheid government attempted to equalize the education system for all learners in the nation, regardless of their social or racial background. In order to do so, the country imported a pedagogical system from New Zealand called Outcomes Based Education (OBE). This system encouraged the adaptation of learning content to the social context of learners so that these students could embrace the so-called ‘foreign subjects’ within their own learning environments. In recognition of the diverse cultural and social context of learners in South Africa, this system allowed teachers to develop their own learning materials and adapt to their learners’ needs. The aim was to ensure that each learner had access to learning methods and resources that would allow students to see the relevance of each subject. However, the switch to OBE did not necessarily resolve the problems of the Bantu system. Teachers who were taught and trained under the Bantu system were still disempowered and at times, even untrained. The new OBE system did not provide these teachers, especially in rural areas lacking in basic resources, with the tools and training needed to maximize their newfound freedom under OBE, and students suffered as a result. Insufficient teacher training and the lack of teaching and learning materials led to the ineffective implementation of the OBE system. The new system overestimated the teachers’ abilities to develop their own effective learning materials. Instead of helping to overcome the negative legacy of Bantu Education, OBE led to an ineffective overhaul of the still fragile education system in South Africa. Thus the government’s attempt to address the disparities caused by the Bantu education system through the OBE system has proved ineffective and low levels of educational performance still haunt the rural areas of South Africa today. Although the education system was liberalized in early 1990s, subjects like mathematics and science are still a challenge to most learners, especially in rural parts of South Africa. They still struggle to grasp concepts which are perceived as foreign and excessively abstract. As a result, the performance of rural learners in these subjects is poor and this limits their ability to gain access meaningful higher education opportunities and better jobs. Official statistics from the Ministry of Education indicate that rural students perform about 50 percent less well in mathematics and science matriculation exams when compared to urban students (a 20 percent pass rate for rural students versus a 46 percent pass rate for urban students). It is also reported that an average of only one-fifth of rural students manage to pass, at minimum thresholds levels, their mathematics examinations. Many have advocated that a solution to this problem is to provide rural based teachers with more teaching materials and resources. However, it is even more important to consider the content and how teachers use such resources but this is commonly overlooked, issue. Even the best classroom resources in the world depend on teachers’ own interest and pedagogical knowledge to be used effectively. It is essential to empower teachers so that they feel confident in their own abilities to explain and share knowledge. Therefore, equitable education delivery is a complex chain that is affected by the provincial education department, the chronically under-staffed district offices, as well as how schools use the materials and resources that they have. Teachers in schools are seldom confident and require support. It is not uncommon that teachers with a Grade 10 mathematics qualification may end up teaching Grade 12 mathematics in rural areas due to a serious shortage of qualified teachers. Needless to say, these teachers need to relate to the learning materials they use in order to effectively transfer knowledge to the students. Problems with Geometry, for instance, are often related to the fact that teachers themselves struggle to understand the concepts and, thus, cannot adequately convey the information. As a result, they do not feel confident about teaching it to their students. Instead of developing teacher training programs, the South African government actually reduced teacher training centers in the country from 120 to only 50 in the last five years, transferring them to universities that are far away from the rural settings. In addition, even the few teacher-training programs in place are based on abstract academic knowledge rather than practice.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

Poor quality education is one of the main challenges in South African society today. The education system is still suffering the consequences of apartheid-era Bantu education, which forced non-whites into low-quality, labor-oriented schools. With the end of apartheid, a new system aimed at equalizing education for all was put in place. However, that initiative lacked the teacher and implementation support that is especially for rural schools in which teachers and students fail to relate to the subjects that are taught. In response to this, Helene has developed a learning methodology that cuts across disciplines and integrates culturally and contextually based learning in science and mathematics in grades 9, 10 and 11 in rural schools. By using familiar patterns that are drawn from the rich South African cultural heritage and its knowledge systems, she provides rural teachers and students with an accessible, and powerful, visual language of learning that makes information accessible and releases teachers and students’ potential for excellence in these disciplines. Helene is working to make academic information accessible, relevant and exciting to teachers and students in rural areas. Mathematics and science are still perceived as foreign and irrelevant subjects in rural communities today, and many teachers and students fear these subjects, despite the evidence of rich cultural knowledge in these disciplines that exists around them. Complex mathematical patterns are woven, beaded or painted on objects of everyday use, including baskets, jewelry and houses. Patterns in the skies above have been known and used by rural people for centuries. Traditional craftsmen and many people in rural areas intuitively understand these patterns without necessarily having studied them in a classroom. Helene is working to provide a platform for interaction between this rich cultural/informal knowledge and academic/formal knowledge in mathematics and science in order to make these subjects more accessible and exciting. She bridges these knowledge systems to empower both teachers and students with confidence in their ability to grasp and convey these concepts and to encourage further learning. She releases their potential for excellence both as teachers and students by demonstrating that the information is both familiar and interesting. In this way, subjects such as mathematics, geometry, astronomy and physics become more familiar to them through a visual language of learning that is drawn from knowledge inherent to their cultural heritage. This system has succeeded in removing the fear of mathematics and science for both the teachers (who are not as adequately trained in these subjects) and the learners themselves. Consequentially, this work is creating the conditions for rural youth to pursue excellence in these subjects and, thus, pursue a wider range of higher-learning opportunities. In five years, Helene’s organization (Africa meets Africa, or AmA) has trained 900 teachers from 30 schools in 18 rural districts of South Africa to use these tools in their classrooms. This has benefitted more than 50,000 students. Currently Helene is working in partnership with the Department of Science and Technology to expand to 15 more schools in KwaZulu Natal and another 40 in Mpumalanga. She is also spreading the scope of her work by partnering with the Smithsonian Institution to prepare training materials in new subjects that integrate archaeology, astronomy and ancient and contemporary art, In the long run, she intends to establish teacher training centers based on her approach and create a Pan-African approach to AmA that can also incorporate knowledge resources from the diaspora.