An investigation of the pedagogic and contextual factors that contribute to learner achievement levels in South Africa : a study of selected public schools in the Western Cape
Du Plooy, Lucinda Lucille
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Poor performance by South African students especially in literacy and numeracy are at a level of national crisis. Theory, as well as international and national systemic tests, show that the reasons for this is both multiple and extremely complex. In this study I investigated the problems relating to learner achievement levels in South African education. The main question arising from this problem, which I addressed, is: What are the possible factors that contribute to learner achievement levels in South Africa? My conceptual focus is on pedagogic practices and the socialization of identity, and how these relate to learner achievement levels, working from the premise that children from different social classes experience schooling differently. My focus is on the classroom, phase and school contexts, whilst locating these in the wider national, continental and global contexts. The disciplinary approach used in this study is in the domain of sociology of education, drawing specifically on the work of leading sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Basil Bernstein. Bourdieu’s notions of ‘habitus’, ‘field’ and ‘cultural capital’ helped in understanding structure and agency, and the interiority and exteriority of social relations, whereas Bernstein’s ‘code theory’ and his work on curriculum, pedagogic practices and pedagogic discourse was used to describe how formal knowledge is realized and transmitted, and its effects on different social groupings. Methodologically, this study is located within a qualitative interpretivist research paradigm. Research was conducted in three purposively selected public primary schools in the Western Cape using a qualitative multiple case study research design. The bounded cases were Grades 1, 4 and 7 learners in relation to their teachers and principals. The rationale for selecting these particular cases stems from the fact that research in these particular areas of schooling is lacking. The significance of the study lies in the fact that previous research on learner achievement used teacher behaviour as a predictor for achievement, whereas this study focused primarily on learner behaviour and the learners’ views on their own achievement. The study employed in-depth data collection procedures including questionnaires, semi-structured interviews, classroom observations and various document related sources. The contextual analysis reveals that there is clearly a need to understand the nature of the learner, what they bringing into school and how they make sense of schooling. Furthermore, it shows that the ways in which learners exercise their agency is reinforcing underachievement. It further reveals that teachers are under pressure to get learners to adhere to the middle-class ethos of schooling and as a result are pushed into the regulative discourse compromising the instructional discourse within pedagogy. Pedagogically, the analysis reveals that teachers are under pressure in terms of curriculum coverage having to work within restricted time-frames, and having to meet the requirements of the ANAs that they do not see the possibility to relax framing in terms of pacing. As a result they are leaving their learners behind. Furthermore, the unnecessary strong framing at the level of pacing, not making the evaluation criteria explicit, and the heavy reliance on systemic testing, as in the case of the ANAs, is creating homogenised and standardised learner identities, which translate into differential learner experiences and ultimately differential learner achievement levels.