As we celebrate Youth Month, the question on many lips is: how do we unlock the potential of South Africa’s youth? According to Good Work Foundation (GWF), a non-profit organisation operating mainly in rural Mpumalanga, we need to rekindle the sense of childhood wonder that conventional education tends to extinguish – by tapping into the “three Cs” of curiosity, creativity and confidence.
GWF, which turns 10 this year, has an impressive track record in helping children and adults from under-resourced communities around the Kruger National Park (and in Philippolis in the Free State) to rediscover a love of learning through, for example, gamification, music and art.
Its Open Learning Academy focuses on building English, mathematics and digital literacy skills, as well as life skills, reaching about 11 000 rural learners a month. The classes (held both on-site at schools and at GWF’s digital learning campuses) do not replace conventional classroom learning, but rather complement it in collaboration with the schools.
“The intention is to provide access to learning through the use of digital tools, and to ignite a passion for learning,” explains Open Learning Academy programme manager Cath Holm.
“These children have no access to technology in their schools, but when they come to one of our digital learning campuses, they have the opportunity to discover different digital apps, tools and games that help them to learn. The high cost of data is a huge barrier to learning in these rural communities.”
The academy sets out to nurture the “whole child” within the context of 21st-century learning, bearing in mind the Fourth Industrial Revolution-slanted workplace of the future but also the need for creative thinkers.
The focus has been on Grade 4s to date, but GWF is expanding its reach to Grade 3 learners as well, to help them navigate the tricky transition from the foundation phase to the intermediate phase of schooling. Grades 5 to 7 also get the benefit of experiential “immersion” training, visiting game reserves to learn about anti-rhino poaching efforts and wildlife conservation.
The beauty of the flexible, interactive open learning approach is the amount of open-source educational tools available that anyone can access for free, from coding and English apps to Lego-building manuals and data-free educational sites, says Holm. These online resources are best used in a blended environment that fuses physical and digital learning, she adds.
Many children who have enrolled in the Open Learning Academy have seen an improvement in their academic performance, but the focus is really on qualitative results: inspiring children to think and enabling them to discover what they are passionate about, says Holm.
“You can see their increased engagement in the classroom. Instead of rote learning, our facilitators encourage collaboration, discussion, innovation and critical and creative thinking.”
Adds GWF CEO Kate Groch, “For me, it’s about unlocking the curiosity and excitement of learning by giving the agency of learning back to the child. Humans are, by nature, wired to learn, and open learning gives these children the opportunity to turn on that curiosity again, stoke the fire and never put the lid on it again.
“Innovation often comes from not having something. If you grow up without access to water, you’ll be motivated to do something about it. These kids, if given proper access and tools, will grow up to solve their communities’ problems. We need to tap into these brains!”
She adds, “If you look at a protractor, if an angle is changed by one degree, it alters the trajectory completely. It’s like that with children – small changes early on can completely alter their course in life. We try to do that through wonder-filled learning. It’s amazing seeing the kids standing taller, excited to learn.”