OPINION: Time to shake up the way we teach with a truly learner-centred approach

Sven Glietenberg is an Assistant Lecturer in the Department of Childhood Education at the University of Johannesburg.

By Sven Glietenberg, Assistant Lecturer at the University of Johannesburg

By now, South Africa’s literacy crisis is common knowledge. The 2016 PIRLS test results found that eight out of ten Grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning in any language. The drastic implications of this national failure are most acutely felt at the Intermediate phase of our schooling system. The demands facing Grade 4, 5 and 6 learners, who must suddenly contend with large amounts of information — all in English — without the requisite foundational skills to do so, are often too challenging to cope with. Educators, torn between trying to help learners catch up and adhere to the prescriptions of the CAPS curriculum, have a near impossible task at hand. The pandemic has simply compounded the crisis, making an already challenging situation even tougher to deal with.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We need to shift to a truly learner-centred approach that seeks to understand, and then prioritize, the needs of learners, while also ensuring teachers are supported in their tasks. In practical terms, this means that teachers must seek to understand the level their learners are at so that learners’ needs can be addressed.

My experience working as an English teacher at a high school in Soweto has taught me the value of adjusting my teaching methodology to suit the needs of my learners. At the time, a few of my academically strong Grade 9 learners asked for my help in starting a debate club. I agreed, and we proceeded to meet two afternoons a week to practice.

After a month, the learners gradually began to grasp the rudimentary skills of debating. They even started to say “ladies and gentlemen”, which they may have picked up during a friendly debate with another school.  

During one of the sessions, I pointed to a clock on the wall, as I usually did, to show how much time was left to practice, when one of the most gifted debaters in the club raised her hand to speak. What she said had a profound impact on me: “You know sir, I don’t really know how to read the time on that clock. I know how to read the digital clock, the one with numbers only, but that one with the two arms — andikwazi ukuyifunda, shem.”

Barely managing to hide my surprise, I asked the rest of the class whether they could read the clock that I had pointed to numerous times while giving instructions for classwork activities. Less than half of them raised their hands.

Prior to that moment, it had not occurred to me that the learners in my class might not know how to read the time on an analogue clock. This experience captured the essence of what was for me, in my first years of teaching in township schools, a fundamental shift in my view of the world. It was a shift precipitated by the somewhat uncomfortable experience of realising my own ignorance.

And so, I progressively set myself the task of not only teaching my learners, but to learn from them too. The more I learnt, the more I tried to adapt everything we were doing in my English lessons to align with their academic needs, abilities, talents, passions and their everyday lived experiences. The more sensitive I became to where they were at, the more I was able to devote energy to figuring out different ways to meet them at their level and to move to the next.

This is a crucial part of the journey of becoming a learner-centred teacher. Even now, as I have moved to higher education and find myself teaching our country’s future teachers, I make it a priority to connect with my students and find out where they are at.

Just as in all other spheres, the pandemic has sharpened the blades of inequality that divide us into pockets of privilege and hardship. Some of my students stay at university housing with uninterrupted WiFi, while some stay in back rooms that adjoin noisy taverns or share rooms with siblings in crowded family houses. Others come from low-resource communities where prolonged power cuts are the norm. Cognisant of their circumstances and needs, I adjusted my approach to teaching — even in small ways — such as allowing a student to submit an assignment on WhatsApp instead of via email. I do these things with the hope that my students will one day adopt a learner-centred approach when they become teachers.

As a nation, we need to listen to our learners and teachers so that we can meet them at the level they are at. Interwoven with a learner-centred approach is a human-centred approach that seeks to genuinely understand and respond to the needs, abilities and contextual realities of both learners and teachers. In this way, we will be able to move education in this country to the next level.