My last day in South Africa I had lunch with faculty from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban. I had an enlightening conversation with Vusi Msiza a lecturer and current PhD student. The conversation was focused on what I prefer to call the South African miracle- the fact that South Africa was able to emerge from Apartheid with a bloody civil war. Vusi helped me see how close South Africa came to a civil war and how the combination of luck and leadership prevented a downward spiral. We then turned to the recursive relationship between poverty and educational attainment. I made my argument that for South Africa to succeed in its lofty educational goals it needs a different approach. What I saw around the country was mostly a striving to reach 20th century panaceas. At the same time we both recognized the impact of economics on potential outcomes for kids as can be seen in the figure below.On the flight back I continued thinking about this as a design problem and came up with a few interesting ideas that emerged from my observations of education in South Africa.
1. Elementary schools should be bilingual immersion program that include a local non-English language (say isiZulu) and English. Right now some school are monolingual in k-3 and then switch to English. The research literature really supports bilingual immersion programs and they can offer many cognitive benefits. They also offer identity benefits as home language can be supported longer. Finally it prevents hard transition when language of instruction switches to English.
2. An effort like will need an emphasis on teacher training for teaching in bilingual environments- a job for leading university. Another need would be to create enough curriculum in all 11 languages so a vision like that could come to pass.
3. Use out of school time to encourage entrepreneurship and technology use. The current school system is not equipped to provide these development tools quickly and it may be easier to do outside the traditional systems with their established matric goals.
4. Realize that change in education has to come with community development and job opportunities. Without those any effort will die because those participating will lose hope and may eventually become a radical element.
There is much more that needs doing but these are my ten cents and my frustration. I dislike not being able to do anything about it!