Teachers are clueless

06 May 2013 - 02:13 By KATHARINE CHILD

South African pupils are not taught to think, solve problems or read independently in the first three years of school because most of their teachers do not know how to teach these skills.

The first national evaluation of how pupils in Grades 1, 2 and 3 are taught reveals that teaching is so poor, and the children's ability to read so weak, that the children are likely to struggle for the rest of their school years.

Researchers in the national education evaluation development unit of the Department of Basic Education visited 133 urban schools last year and assessed their Grade 1 to Grade 3 classes.

The study has been praised as marking a shift from the focus on matric results to strengthening the foundations of schooling.

It reveals a grim picture of the quality of teaching in the important lower grades.

The researchers found that many teachers did not know how to inculcate problem-solving and analysis skills.

They taught little more than "simple recalling" of information because they did not understand the importance of pupils being able to evaluate and interpret information as part of their cognitive development.

In fact, teachers themselves did not evaluate, analyse or solve problems when reading and therefore could not teach children to do so.

Their shortcomings resulted in even the best-performing Grade 2 pupils having below-average reading ability - fewer than half the activities in workbooks were completed and pupils' reading comprehension was "extremely poor".

Though teachers at a third of the schools monitored were using all the sick leave available to them, or were spending days at union meetings, funerals or training courses, teachers at two-thirds of the schools were in class at least 90% of the time, the researchers found.

Their report referred to a 2008 study in which teachers' reading ability was tested.

"They scored on average 75.1% for questions requiring the simple retrieval of information explicitly stated in the test." But the teachers scored only 36.6% for interpretation and 39.7% for evaluation.

One of the researchers wrote: "Many teachers are not up to the level required."

Teachers did not appreciate the importance of reading, according to the report.

The researchers concluded that the "billions" spent on teacher training and development in the past 10 years had failed to produce results in the classroom.

The study found:

  • Most schools were short of reading material, with about five different books for pupils per grade, despite the requirement that they read a book a week;
  • The shortage of books showed that teachers and principals did not understand the importance of literacy or the curriculum;
  • 72% of the top three readers in each Grade 2 class at 225 schools scored below average;
  • Teachers resisted using textbooks to teach maths in the first three grades;
  • In another study quoted in the report, 46% of teachers were unable to work out the answer to 10 × 2 + (6 - 4) ÷ 2;
  • Most teachers had no idea how to use the results of their class's annual national assessment tests to pinpoint and address weaknesses in teaching, despite having guides on how to do so; and
  • In 1990, only 53% of teachers had a teaching qualification. Now, more than 90% are qualified but teaching had not improved.

The head of the development unit that conducted the research, Nick Taylor, called the teachers' poor subject knowledge "arguably the fundamental problem in the school system".

Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga released the report last week and admitted that "as a department, we are particularly concerned about the poor levels of reading among our pupils, especially those in the first few years of schooling".

Researchers had found that at the handful of schools that had libraries, books were often not made available to pupils. In one generally well-run school, a set of quality reading books had never been opened.

The study found that principals were monitoring teachers' performance and paperwork.

But, despite the adherence to procedures, analysis showed that administration and paperwork "became ends in themselves" instead of supporting good classroom practice.

The dean of the faculty of education at the University of Johannesburg, Professor Sarah Gravett, said that paperwork had become a burden on teachers and did not contribute to good teaching.

She said, that though "the first three years of schooling are the most important in a child's life, and the most complicated to teach, teachers are unskilled.

"There should be emphasis on ensuring excellent foundation-phase teaching," she said.

The study was set up to find out: "Why are schools not doing what we expect of them? Is it because they won't or because they can't?"

The answer? - They can't.