Natural Sciences training: Closing the feedback loops (Part 4)

This is my forth post about the Natural Sciences training that we ran last year for subject advisors across the country. You can read more about the project goals and design (part 1), the programme and resources created (part 2) and how we assessed and exposed key misconceptions in the different knowledge areas (part 3).

At Siyavula, we believe in constantly asking for feedback from a group both during and after a workshop. What often comes to my mind when reflecting on feedback are examples from biology where one can get positive feedback loops and negative feedback loops. Both are necessary for a healthy individual or ecosystem. The same is true for any process where you want to constantly be tweaking, making adjustments, finding a balance between different needs and expectations and using the feedback to respond and evolve. Closing these feedback loops is crucial in developing a successful, sustainable, long-term process.

Open communication is also vital to building and maintaining a community of practice. By keeping the lines of communication directly open with your participants, and following up with correspondence, I believe you also help to build relationships which will last beyond the physical interaction at a workshop. This will have a long term benefit in creating a community that is willing to share and learn from each other. Following is a summary of some of the feedback that we received, via email and in the post-workshop survey, and some reflections on the success of the various sessions throughout the workshops. Personally, I also find it a consolidating process to write all of this down, which is why i have written these blog posts, as it allows me to reflect on my own experiences as well.

All advisors.General reflections and the training approach

We received a lot of very positive feedback about the training in general. Not only this, but participants also felt comfortable enough to provide critical feedback in a constructive way for us to take into account for future training. I think this is testimony to the relationships that we built up over a short time period.

Participants often commented during the workshops that they felt we were very approachable and that they could ask questions without feeling intimidated. This is crucial in any effective learning environment. Some of the other highlights, repeatedly mentioned was that the training was very hands on and practical and participants felt like the gained a lot from the interactions with knowledgeable people and with each other to share best practices and ideas. This is especially important in establishing communication and relationships among the different provinces in South Africa.

“Megan, it’s been such an insightful experience the whole entire week under the tutelage of a team of highly skilled professionals. Your ability to put together such a great team with expert knowledge in diverse aspects of professional teacher development is highly commendable. Allow me to say that true to your name, you just opened (Vula) a window of opportunity or shall I say you provided us with a password to crack the incompetency code that is currently plaguing our classrooms. Thanks for the importation of valuable skills in addressing the needs of our teachers, your approach to providing solutions was unique and innovative. Thank you to the entire team.”

“I exceptionally loved Nicola Lauring for her excellent knowledge imparting skills. Rene for her vibrance, Megan for her calm and easy approach personality. In short, all the presenters were superb! The opportunity to interact with colleagues from other provinces was also very helpful.”

“It was a very refreshing session. It made one realize that we often become very comfortable in one’ s work. Doing the same things over and over with very little success. One came to realize that with changing times practices have to change for the standard of education to improve. Knowing Science is one thing but conveying it in a meaningful way is essential.”

“It was very good and exciting to meet with other educators at this level. It was a very refreshing experience, having to think about ones own practices and strategies and being challenged on whether they are still effective and relevant. The usage of ict in the classroom is definitely the way forward.”

“Must say that your team did a spectacular job in addressing the issues we had. You’ve been professional and made us feel that no question or concern was of minor importance. Thanks for a fantastic experience.”

Mentoring, supporting and interacting with others

A large part of being an effective subject advisor, over and above content knowledge of the subject, is fulfilling the advisor role as a mentor and support. This is often very difficult as subject advisors often have not had formal training in the social and psychological skills of human interactions and they also have many schools and teachers with different needs to cater for. We therefore decided to make group dynamics and understanding human interactions an inherent part of the training, both in how we conducted the training and also specifically focusing on developing these skills.

At first, we experienced resistance to allocating time specifically to these skills at the start of the workshops. But, after we had gone through some of the theory, discussions and exercises, most participants found it very useful and eye opening. We also feel that developing this understanding and appreciation is crucial to the success of a workshop and its continued impact afterwards.

Helene Smit ran most of these sessions with a focus on understanding the depth processes that take place in any group or human interaction. This involves being aware of your own, and others “edges” as we referred to them and how when someone comes up against an edge or is forced to cross one, we experience the symptoms as a defense mechanism, for example becoming aggressive, staring blankly, giving double signals, nervous tension or anxiety. We had some very open discussions about the different edges that they as subject advisors have, about the workshop, about their jobs, role and the new curriculum also the edges that teachers and learners experience in an education setting.

Helene then went through the only way to deal with edges so that the symptoms and defense mechanisms are relieved and a person’s true feelings and thoughts can surface. This is through containment, both hard containment (for example, giving clear directions, expectations and instructions, explaining rules, policies and procedures) and soft containment (for example, establishing relationships, giving support and reassurance, listening, being empathetic and compassionate). Different people also require different containment in different situations.

The participants were very engaged during these sessions, taking notes, asking questions about how they apply these theories to their own practice and reflecting on themselves. There was also ample time to put these theories into practice throughout the workshops, and it often became a joke when someone said “Oh now I have to cross an edge!” for example when they were asked to stand up and give an explanation.

“I understand that i must take note of different edge levels as well as mine to be able to reach an understanding.”

“I need to try to understand the practical challenges teachers face everyday…and show that I can actually relate to them.”

“I will try to understand the teachers first as this will help me to have a proper approach. I need to encourage and build a close relationship with the teachers.”

“When dealing with teachers I will always be mindful of the fact that teachers need support and motivation in their work. The way I deal with them will be dictated by this fact.”

A second topic we spoke about at the workshops was “rank”, to do with power and privilege, and how one has different rank in different situations. This rank must be appreciated, but not abused. One can have rank in a number of different sectors:

  • Economic
  • Organisational
  • Education
  • Physical
  • Social
  • Expertise
  • Psychological

We performed a very powerful activity with the participants that got everyone to engage with their rank and realise their advantages and disadvantages. The activity requires a big open space for everyone to stand on and starts off by getting women to stand on one side and men on the other.  We then ask a series of questions with two answers and depending on which answer you associate most with, you have to stand on that side of the space. At any point, some one can abstain and stand in the middle. What happens is that through the exercise, everyone ends up crossing the space several times, sometimes in the bigger group, sometimes in the smaller group, sometimes in the group with rank (not necessarily the biggest group) and sometimes not.

Conducting the “rank” exercise with advisors in Mpumalanga

Conducting the “rank” exercise with advisors in Mpumalanga.

It was a truly enlightening and strengthening activity to do at the workshops and we all learned a lot about ourselves and those around us. I found it particularly interesting when we dealt with questions around political discrimination, career choice (or whether there was no choice) and language (for example how you sometimes have rank for being a first-language English speaker, but in another context you don’t have rank when English is your only language in a multi-lingual, diverse country such as South Africa). Bringing up issues such as these, although sensitive, I feel helps the group to bond and be more compassionate and understanding towards each other.

“Realised need to try to be patient and understand where other people are coming from in terms of their knowledge and background. Be willing to share information and give advice where possible. Be a leader that people will not fear to seek assistance.”

“The workshop helped us to understand even ourselves as we support teachers so that we don’t create unnecessary tension.”

Open education and OER

3spheresOne of Siyavula’s founding principles at the core of what we do, is open education – making education accessible by breaking down the barriers. All of the content that Siyavula produces is available under an open license. When Siyavula partnered with the Sasol Inzalo Foundation and the Department of Basic Education, we agreed up front that these materials would also be available under a Creative Commons open license to ensure they had the maximum potential for impact in South Africa.

The benefits of an open license are that one can, legally and without the need to ask for permission or pay royalties:

  • reuse the content (by downloading, copying, printing the whole piece or just a piece
  • remix the content (create modifications and adaptations to suit your own needs)
  • revise the content (create your own revision)
  • redistribute the content (share it with your colleagues or students in any format)


This is fundamentally different to a traditional, closed license, used by most publishing houses use, which imposes restrictions on teachers and learners. Although the Gr 4-9 workbooks for Maths, Science and Technology are all openly licensed, not many teachers, hardly any in fact, in South Africa know this or understand what it means. It is our duty to promote the idea of open education, especially in a country such as South Africa, and explain what this means to the individual in a classroom.

I therefore decided to take some time at the start of the workshop to go through these ideas and concepts. I am fully aware that one often has to hear it several times before grasping what it means and how you can take advantage of open educational resources (OER). However, planting the seed at these training workshops will hopefully grow and the message will spread. The subject advisors were very intrigued, and often surprised, by the idea of open education and OER, and we had several questions about what this means to them and their teachers. These kinds of conversations are vital to grow the open education movement in South Africa.

“Not only is it time consuming not having to re-think the wheel over and over. Open education also provides good quality of material that one can use and or even improve on. With the material available time can now be used to do the preparation for demonstrations, experiments and hands on activities. Time is not wasted on the ‘what’ to do and one can now focus ‘how’ best to convey knowledge/ content.”

“I will look at open education. I am always willing to learn and seek better ways to make my teaching more enjoyable and interesting with new resources.”

“With the common complaint of no resources, I will definitely seek alternate ways of enhancing classroom practise with open education.”

Concept mapping and conceptual progression

Subject advisors and teachers had received training in CAPS prior to these workshops, specifically looking at the requirements of the curriculum. However, I feel that many individuals are often overwhelmed by the curriculum statement and making sense of the progression of concepts to plan the year and also individual lessons.

When starting to produce the Gr 4-9 workbooks, I created a concept map for each of the four knowledge strands, based on the progression of concepts from Gr 4 through to Gr 9. These maps were crucial in the design and authoring of the content to make sure there was a logical sequence built from the foundation. I decided to run a session on “unpacking” the CAPS curriculum using the concept maps and a series of activities to interact with them. The aim was to end up with a “bigger picture” view of the curriculum and see how all knowledge is integrated. This is crucial for a teacher to know what came before and where learners are going in order to create the most meaningful learning.

Working with the concept maps during a series of activities.

Working with the concept maps during a series of activities.

This was a very fun and interactive way to introduce the content at the start of the workshops and the participants responded really well to the session. We have had many requests for the concept maps as subject advisors would like to replicate some of these activities we did with their own teachers.

“It shows links within the phase and between the different strands in a particular grade. It helps the teacher in planning as he/she would be aware of the knowledge learners may already have as well as what they are still to learn which is related to the current topic.”“It was really helpful. I actually can be applied in a number of ways even for studying purposes.”

“I would use and motivate the usage of concept maps. This would enable one to see not only the progression of concepts but also assist in depth and breadth at which the concepts should be taught. The interlinking between the different subjects is then also understood. Knowledge and understanding and interlinking of concepts strengthened.”“It brought meaningful understanding, collaboration and broader perspective and meaningful approach.”

“This activity made me realize that concept mapping is useful as a pre- and post-teaching tool that allows teachers to “see” learners thinking and identify gaps in knowledge and possible misconceptions.”

Unpacking threshold concepts

The sessions focusing on each of the knowledge strands were led by a different content expert. Our focus was to make these sessions as diverse and practical as possible, within the constraints of the venue and the time. We also aimed to integrate technology at different points in the sessions, as is done in the workbooks, to illustrate how this can be achieved in a classroom. This included videos, simulations, animations and various, interesting websites.

I think one of the highlights at the workshops for many of the advisors was the session on Planet Earth and Beyond. As mentioned, this is often regarded as the most difficult strand as many of the astronomical concepts are foreign and abstract to learners, teachers and advisors. This strand is also often neglected within many schools and training programmes. We therefore decided to pay particular attention to this strand. Nicola Lauring from the South African Astronomical Observatory was an excellent lead for these sessions. We used very simple, but clever, demonstrations with cheap materials to clearly illustrate a concept. When advisors performed these activities themselves, it was wonderful to see how they suddenly grasped a topic, such as why we experience the seasons or phases of the Moon. They were particularly excited to know that these activities are all taken from the workbooks, as were all content related activities, so that they can repeat them. It is important that they do so again to reinforce the learning as fully understanding a concept takes time and perseverance.

The advisors also enjoyed the variation in the content sessions, depending on the presenter or facilitator as this also demonstrated different teaching practices and strategies.

Demonstrating why we experience the phases of the Moon and the seasons using simple activities.

Demonstrating why we experience the phases of the Moon and the seasons using simple activities.


As in any new process, there are many challenges, but there are also many opportunities to reflect and learn. Some of the obvious challenges were the very short time period that we had to prepare for the training and then logistical arrangements on short notice as well as venue constraints, specifically for science-related practical work. There were also more subtle challenges that only became clear in hindsight, for example dealing with varying expectations from different stakeholders and participants. Going forward, I have many ideas for how we can try and overcome or avoid some of these challenges as well as how we can modify the programme design in light of the feedback we received. To move forward, we need to close the loop.

In summary, I can say that we at Siyavula consider the training workshops to be a success, especially given the constraints and challenges that everyone was working under, from the DBE, to the SaIF, to us at Siyavula as well as the subject advisors. I do not think it is as easy as conducting a “pre and post test” (as discussed in the previous blog post) in order to measure the impact of a training workshop such as this. Firstly, deep learning and understanding takes time and perseverance. Secondly, many of the successes of this workshop cannot be quantitatively measured, but are of equal importance. I think one of the major outcomes of these workshops was the building of relationships and of a country-wide community of professional development. Subject advisors really enjoyed the opportunity to interact with their colleagues, not only from their own province, but from other provinces, as well as interacting with us. This systems wide approach was beneficial to get overview of South African Basic Education and to connect the provinces. We thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to build connections with individuals over the weeks and feel that through these continued relationships of sharing, supporting, learning and growing together, we will be able to slowly make a difference.

I personally, also welcomed the chance to understand the challenges the subject advisors face every day and the intricacies of our education system within South Africa. the subject advisors responded well to the training and many commented that even though we have exposed their weaknesses (especially during the pre-test), we were approachable and did not make them feel inferior, but comfortable and at ease to ask questions. Most of the advisors were dedicated and wanted to be there to learn. At the end of the training, they said they were inspired to work on their personal development and understanding as they cannot become complacent as leaders in their subjects. I believe this is a message of hope for the future of STEM education in South Africa.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s