A visit to Vusisizwe

Today I had the opportunity to go on a excursion to Vusisizwe Secondary School in Worcester, a town about 120 km from Cape Town. The school is one sponsored by Vodacom and as such, they have access to our adaptive, online tool for learning Maths and Science. At Siyavula, we have an in-house team responsible for the “Vodacom project” in terms of managing, training and supporting the schools and teachers who have been sponsored access to Intelligent Practice.

Vusisizwe Secondary School
Vusisizwe Secondary School in Worcester.

A little while back, I started working with the Vodacom team more closely, particularly within my (newish) role of Instructional Design. I believe that we constantly need to be balancing our efforts and research to consider a holistic view of the learning process, from cognitive process, to meta-cognition, to developmental processes, and to motivation. I am really interested in what motivates learners to learn and how we (whether teachers, parents, schools, universities or education technologists) can play a role in increasing motivation. Trying to distil what motivates a person to pursue their goal is highly complex and entangled. However, there is a recognised framework that we can work with. In very simple summary, if an individual:

  • sees the value;
  • has high self-efficacy;
  • and perceives their environment to be supportive;

then they will be motivated to pursue their goal.

In my research, I came across a questionnaire developed by Paul Pintrich in 1990 called the Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire (MSLQ). Here is a link to a good overview of the MSLQ in Prezi format. the questionnaire has mostly been used in higher education to assess, firstly, what motivates students, and secondly, what their cognitive strategies for learning are. I adapted the questions for use within our context for learners and we worked with creating more simple statements.

When we started to discuss a survey for Vodacom learners to assess their use and access to technology (which has so far been a barrier to the success of the project), I thought we could also include the items from my adapted version of the MSLQ on motivation. This would be a great opportunity to start to gain deeper insight into learners in general and see how such a survey could work and feed into our processes (for now on paper, but one day online).

Nandi, our School Liaison for the Vodacom Project had a visit lined up to Vusisizwe this week, where we would first hand out the survey. I thought it would also be an ideal opportunity for me to see and experience some more of the schools, teachers and learners that we interact with as a company, which will help me in my work and understanding on all levels. The idea was for me to also talk to each class about some aspects of learning, specifically why we need to do regular revision.

We had a detailed plan for what we would do during each lesson and I knew my part to play, but when I arrived, I was still a little apprehensive as this would be my first time interacting and speaking to learners. In the past, whether at authoring workshops, training workshops, conferences or evening events, my target audience has thus far consisted of adults and mostly teachers. So, this was new territory for me!

And, as is par for the course, no matter how much you plan, improvisation is key. The teachers wanted to minimise disruptions during the day (very understandable) and so instead of having 6 smaller classes, we would now have everyone together in the hall. I was amazed at how quickly they rallied the troops from different classes, and suddenly we were in the hall with almost 200 learners!


Nandi handing out the certificate to the top learner.
Huge applause and whistling all round when the top learner from Vusisizwe was announced, and more so when we were told he was in the top 10 in the country for the Vodacom school’s leader board.
Nandi helping learners on their phones.
Helping learners with the log in process on their mobile phones.

Nandi was incredible at getting them all to settle down – she is calm and approachable and could really get a response out of the learners. She also switched between English and isiXhosa when going through the nitty-gritty details of using our online resources and tools which I think helped to keep them engaged and break down any barriers they might have been feeling.

My main aim was to talk about why we need to do regular revision, beyond the motivation of “because my teacher said so”. I recently spoke at our inaugural Physics Teachers Conference and Workshop on how we learn in much more detail. It solidified some of my assumptions that most people never reflect on how they learn and if what they are doing is right for them. I had lots of requests from teachers at the conference for my slides as they wanted to show some aspects to their learners. What some of them decided to pick out and focus on with their learners also helped inform me what I could cover with the Vusisizwe learners in a short time period.

The first piece was to show how learning happens at different rates over time. Important for learners to realise, is the fact that during the early stages of learning (see the learning curve below), you have to spend a time practising and you won’t necessarily see an improvement in mastery/performance. But, this is normal! Struggling in the beginning is part of learning as you grapple with concepts and your understanding develops. And then, the last phase of the graph is also crucial to point out – when it flattens. at this stage, learners often feel they have mastered something and so move on. They do not continue practising so that concepts move into their long term memory over time.

The learning curve.

And in comes the “forgetting curve”. This graph is well known and describes the work first done by Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885 where he hypothesized the exponential nature of forgetting, and after doing several studies, proposed how we can overcome or greatly decrease the effects of the forgetting curve through regular, spaced revision. This graph always seems to elicit quite a response, firstly with teachers as they recognise the effects in their learners and that this is a well studied phenomenon. I almost feel like this acknowledgement comes as a relief to some teachers. And secondly the Vusisizwe learners seemed to find this graph quite amusing for some reason! It might have been that I made a click sound into the microphone each time I pointed out a peak due to revision and they then all started clicking themselves.

The forgetting curve

The session was not as interactive as I was hoping it would be with a smaller class, but I think by the end they seemed inspired  and all answered with a resounding “YES!” when we asked them if they would now do regular revision and practice. Although I now feel more confident presenting to adults, talking to learners is a whole new ball game! And a new skill for me to develop, through practice of course.

Collage of pictures of me presenting.

Saying good bye to the principal, I noticed the whiteboard detailing the day’s notable events and I snapped a photo as we were on it in, along with the “Violence study” with whom we had to jostle time to use the hall earlier. Driving back in the car however, this whiteboard was one of the images from the morning that kept on popping into my mind. Thinking about it further, I realised it was the subtle fact that both of these events were on the same day – one group studying the negative, very real effects of violence on learners and their education, and the other group looking at the potential and positive effects of using educational technology for mobile learning.

The whiteboard at the front reception. The unintended juxtaposition of these two visits from independent organizations to the same school on the same day, poignantly highlighted the myriad of challenges these learners have to overcome, and the context within which we want them to succeed, despite those challenges. Secondly, it made me think, once again, of our increasingly complex education system and how there are so many groups, companies, NGOs, universities, charities, each with a mission to impact our country. We each choose an angle or perspective or issue or context to focus on and do our best. Perhaps we need more of us individual entities to come together so that within a context or for a particular challenge, we are addressing it from different angles and perspectives for a holistic solution.

We can continue to strive to make a difference in our chosen mission, whether it is Maths and Science education, access to resources, teacher professional development, violence at schools, girl’s education, decreasing drop out rates, early childhood development, literacy levels, learner nutrition and health, sanitation and safe school buildings, or internet infrastructure at schools. But, ultimately, there is no one group or study that is going to have a large-scale impact on our education system. This is where our government needs to come to the party – with strategic, well researched, informed plans and decisions, which draws on the collective impact and insight of those individual people and individual groups.

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