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What is the real purpose of education?
In a country with so many idle minds and hands, it’s not surprising that employability is seen as the purpose of education.
But to a child in a rural town surrounded by unemployed adults, the concept of a ‘job’ is often foreign and unrealistic, serving as poor motivation to attend school. A new frame is needed, one that focuses on the real purpose of education: to develop a capacity and love for learning.
“If you are digitally able and connected and your English is good enough to do research and you come across something you don't understand, you can figure it out. It's about not being afraid to try something new. It’s about showing young people they can learn anything, do anything, be anyone.”
That was Kate Groch, the founder and CEO of the Good Work Foundation (GWF), during an episode of Investec’s Future Impact podcast series that tells the inspiring stories of the people and organisations building solutions to South Africa's most pressing sustainability challenges.
With only 52% of our children completing matric – the percentage will be lower in rural communities – compared to a global average of 80%, a fresh approach to education is sorely needed.
If you are digitally able and connected, and your English is good enough to do research - when you come across something you don't understand, you can figure it out. It's about not being afraid to try something new.
Why is it so hard to learn?
A common realisation across the Future Impact podcast series is that complex social and environmental problems, like a defunct education system, cannot be solved using a top-down approach; they must first be understood at grassroots level.
Why does our rural youth struggle to learn? It is indeed complex:
Apartheid’s Bantu education system told non-whites they had inferior learning capabilities. That insidious message continues to percolate through rural generations, undermining the self-belief needed to learn.
Infrastructure & safety
85% of South African schools are underfunded, lacking basic infrastructure and security, creating a hostile learning environment that keeps students away or preoccupies their minds.
Learning materials in rural schools are often outdated, only available is physical form (if at all), written for native English speakers and not aligned to the employment opportunities of rural economies.
There is little work done to help students explore, identify and develop their unique interests. A one-size-fits-all approach is common, resulting in children losing interest in learning.
Students have scant examples of people in their community who have leveraged education to change their lives for the better. The ability to learn is not valued highly so schools are not protected/prioritised.
Every year, our government spends about 6% of GDP (the largest tick item in the 2022 budget) trying to pull us off the bottom of the global education rankings. Their initiatives are ineffective because they fail to appreciate the complexity of the problem.
The notable successes of the GWF, recognised internationally at Wharton School’s Reimagine Education Awards, are testament to their hold on the nuanced challenges rural SA students face when trying to learn.
“One of the biggest problems is that young people lose the excitement of learning. Having drones and tablets and computers and robots in the classroom makes learning fun. But it also makes them think, ‘Oh, I can do this!’ which is an empowering realisation,” continued Groch.
In addition to injecting fun, the GWF puts the following ideas/philosophies at the centre of their approach to education:
- Use digital learning tools to show students how much information they have access to, allowing them to explore and develop their interests.
- Teach skills relevant to rural economies so students can stay in and grow their local communities rather than moving to cities in search of work.
- Continuously adapt the curriculum to future-proof students for the jobs that will be most common in the decades ahead.
With the above in mind, it’s no surprise that the intersection between conservation and technology has become a focal point for the GWF. The NPO operates in communities adjacent to South Africa’s largest wildlife sanctuary, the Kruger National Park. There are numerous job opportunities in the so-called “Economy of Wildlife,” on learners’ doorsteps, provided they have skills that will equip them for ‘modern conservation'.
Start 'em young
“We are fortunate that we are not bound by the CAPS curriculum, but the learning here definitely supports a general foundation of knowledge in primary school,” said Cath Holm, the Open Learning Academy programme manager at GWF.
Holm and her team, work with grades three to seven – complementing not replacing their existing school curricula – teaching subjects like robotics, coding, conservation, creative arts and active citizenship.
Importantly, GWF students are also performing better in their traditional school subjects; there is math in robotics and coding, natural science in conservation and social science in active citizenship.
Smaller classes, usually eight students to one facilitator, allows for more two-way engagement that helps tease out and develop the interests of each child, deepening their curiosity and rapport with learning.
“The intention behind our primary school program is to promote independent thinking, creativity and innovation in our learners so they can respond to the different problems in South Africa and access future employment opportunities,” said Holm.
Never too late to learn
The GWF also runs Bridging Year, IT and Travel & Tourism Academies, all context-aware learning programmes geared to help adults in rural areas get their feet in the ‘office’ door.
Joyce Mayile, an apprentice field guide, and Sibusiso Mnisi, the Conservation Academic Coordinator at GWF, are products of said academies.
“I didn't know that we needed to conserve. Whenever we see a snake, we will shout at others to kill it. Now I know it’s best to just leave it. I’m transferring that knowledge to other people. The GWF changed my perspective about conservation, and that has changed my life,” said Mayile.
Mnisi echoed her views: “I’ve learned a lot through the GWF. It taught me how to interact with people from all over the world. It taught me how to conduct myself in a work environment. And I’m always learning and passing that knowledge on to others. Now I believe I can work anywhere.”
Keep the lights on
The GWF is creating pockets of learning excellence where a higher percentage of the rural population are passing matric, gaining entrance to university, or finding jobs. Those outcomes are critical – they show others it can be done.
Organisations like the GWF must endure if we want to reduce our unsustainable inequality, the menacing tinder that sits beneath us. Even more so because we have out-of-the-ordinary people, like Kate Groch and her team, willing to fight the good fight:
“As an educator, witnessing a young person struggling with and then mastering a robot or a drone throws a light switch. And that keeps you going. I get to see young people starting their careers, becoming successful and sharing what they learn. I’m inspired every day.”
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