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"It’s that some kids DO want to learn, but can’t."

Wed, 09 Jan 2013 19:23:00

Guest post by Andrew Einhorn, founder and CEO of the not-for-profit Numeric.org in South Africa

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A little over 15 months ago, we started an experiment.  We wanted to know if Khan Academy was viable in township (slum) areas in South Africa and if so, what type of impact it might have on numeracy.   Numeracy in South Africa is astonishingly weak, with just 2% of Grade 9s scoring over 50% on the annual national assessments in 2012. 

And so we set out to see if Khan Academy might be used as a catalyst for change.  But before I expound on the results of this experiment, I ought perhaps give a little more background on the environments we’re working in.

Townships in South Africa are not unlike the favelas of Brazil or the slums bordering Delhi and Calcutta in India.  They are urban areas that were, until the end of Apartheid in 1994, reserved for non-whites, but have now become residential hubs for the urbanizing masses.  They are typically built on the periphery of cities and tend to be characterized by high population density, poverty and unemployment.  Picture a ramshackle of makeshift houses constructed out of corrugated iron, wood scraps and cardboard, jigsawed together into a gigantic maze 5 miles wide and 10 miles across.  At the risk of generalising grossly, that’s more or less the picture I want you to have in mind as you read this article.

Now, townships in South Africa get a bad rap.  They are viewed as ‘dangerous’ places and it is considered unwise to visit them unless you know someone there, or visit them as part of a ‘township tour’.  Yet while crime rates in these areas are often high, the reputation does not do justice to the vibrant and persevering people who inhabit them.  In particular, townships are YOUNG!  On any given day, around two o’clock in the afternoon, the streets flood with uniformed, backpack-toting children on their way home from school.  And despite having barely two pennies to rub together, they are meticulously dressed – shiny black shoes, starched white collars - and have aspirations to match.   Most of the children in South Africa live in some form of township, which means that children growing up in these environments constitute the better part of the future of our country.

And yet it is supremely difficult to convince our best teachers to go and work in these areas.  They are offered good jobs in well-resourced schools most often located in the wealthy suburbs of the cities.  Principals at these schools compete fiercely for their skills.  And this is as it should be.  But it also entrenches the educational bias whereby a child’s access to quality education is directly proportional to the wealth of their family (see chart below).  

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* University exemption rate refers to the percentage of learners who attain the academic marks in their final year of school that are necessary to gain access to South African universities.

So Numeric’s experiment was to see whether we could use Khan Academy, in conjunction with a slightly less skilled (and often unqualified) math coach, to create the high impact and stimulating learning environments enjoyed by kids living in wealthier suburbs.

The opportunity provided by Khan Academy premised on the following:  Videos do not argue about where they are played; they are unaffected by crime and environment. Appropriately licensed, they do not cost anything.  They do not grow weary, skip class, or grow jaded.  Instead, they convey their message enthusiastically, faithfully, clearly - time and time again.  A child may watch just as many videos as he/she has appetite for, and need never feel limited by the dragging on of a boring class or an inept teacher.  For many children in South Africa, a Khan Academy video will be their first exposure to what we might term ‘world class instruction’.  When complemented by the exercises on the Knowledge Map, Khan Academy becomes a powerful tool for turning the tide on numeracy in South Africa.

So what were the results of the experiment?  Well, it’s probably too early to draw any major conclusions, but we do have a few figures we’d like to share.  We currently run 7 Khan Academy classes across 3 different hubs in the Eastern and Western Cape provinces of South Africa.  The first pilot group of 20 Grade 9s has just completed its first twelve months of Khan Academy and their numbers are as follows:

* Total Khan Academy hours delivered:  2220

* Total Problems Solved:  27,988

* Total Problems per learner:  1399

* Total Khan Modules Complete:  1232

* Average Modules per learner:  62

Bearing in mind this is an afterschool programme, these are 27,988 math problems that would not otherwise have been attempted.  The 62 modules completed by the average learner constitute 62 gaps that those learners have filled.   But it’s more about just the numbers; it’s about creating excitement and enthusiasm around learning.  This is hard to convey in words, but perhaps a picture will suffice.

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As we always say to our coaches, the tragedy in South Africa is not so much that kids don’t want to learn.  It’s that some kids DO want to learn, but can’t.  Khan Academy provides us one way to give these kids a world-class education without having to magically replenish our nation’s supply of teachers.  And who knows, perhaps one day these kids will become the inspirational and talented teachers we have waited for for so long!

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Andrew Einhorn is the founder and current CEO of Numeric.org. His TEDx talk on Numeric.org and Khan Academy is available here.