24 May 2018

Learning can be defined as acquiring knowledge through study, through being taught, and via experience. In classrooms all over South Africa attention is generally focused on teaching, while learners are expected to do the study part at home. Where is the learning through experience?

This is too often only a concept, as many learners are faced with their immediate environment only, as well as their parents, peers and their teacher. There is no time or opportunity for experience of the right kind. Learners don’t get the opportunity to experience the world as a grand, multifaceted, connected whole. Their schooling is one rote rotation after the other – unfortunately this means that there is no time or opportunity for curiosity – therefore learners are not being taught how to be critical, open-minded thinkers.  

All too often we only associate critical thinkers with the outliers who unavoidably represent them: Elon Musk and the billions of dollars he has made as a result of his curious mind; Albert Einstein and his fantastic world-changing theories developed by his curious mind; Malala Yousafzai who nearly got killed because she wanted to feed her curious mind.


The thing is, we need as many curious minds as we can develop if we are going to help keep the modern world on track. Our society needs individuals who can help solve problems associated with terrorism, corruption, global warming and the amount of waste we produce, as well as poverty, lack of infrastructure and disease. Learners need to get the opportunity to learn through experience, and so help to make a positive, collective change in the world.

An amazing 9-year-old

Richard Turere is one such child. As a 9-year-old living on the fringes of a nature reserve in Kenya he was responsible for looking after his father’s cattle at night: a task made daunting and near impossible by the fact that lions have an appetite for fenced-in cows. For the lions, catching cows was much easier than hunting the wayward zebras they had followed into the fields around the homestead.

Cow guarding responsibility was a problem for Richard as lions could as easily eat a 9-year-old and he would rather be sleeping. In order to solve this problem he started trying different things in an attempt to scare away the lions. His first plan was to build fires around the kraal but he soon saw that the firelight made the cows more prominent in the night and easier to catch. Building a scarecrow was his next attempt but the lions weren’t fooled by the motionless guardian. He then realised that the lions didn’t come close on the evenings he was actively patrolling the perimeter. It was his torchlight that kept the lions away. A moving torchlight represents any number of large humans standing around the kraal ready to kill a stalking lion. And his tribe had killed many lions.

So Richard invented and built what would become known as Lion Lights. He did this by connecting a car battery to a homemade transistor and car indicator lights placed around the kraal. With the flip of a switch he had created the illusion of movement around the kraal without him having to do the legwork.

The lion attacks ceased and soon he was asked to install his lights at other homesteads, and he subsequently got a bursary to one of the best schools in Kenya. He became the youngest patent holder in Kenya and has sold his Lion Lights across the continent. An updated version of his Lion Lights is now being prototyped in South America to ward off pumas and in India to deter tigers.

A resounding success that was created by a curious mind, and has significantly improved the prospects for rural farmers across a whole continent. The lions also benefited as they are no longer hunted for revenge. A problem solver changed the world for the better.

Stimulating curious minds in our schools

Most children don’t have the advantage of being stimulated by lions, and we face the question of how to develop a curious mind in a classroom environment where curriculum content has to take precedent. Teachers have to reach their curriculum goals, and so the prospect of integrating an additional pedagogy into the classroom can be daunting. Critical thinking, however, is laid out in the CAPS document as a key skill to teach, and so the two goals have to be brought together. The solution is to put the correct teaching resources into the classroom and to prompt teachers to just let children be children – young minds who are stimulated by the world around them.

Most schools are stocked with the textbooks they require for teaching and learning, as the CAPS curriculum has been in place for a few years. At this stage schools need additional resources which will help teachers develop their children to their full potential.

Some exciting options

Map Studio, for example, has developed a set of playing cards where each card contains information on a different African country (52 cards in a pack; 52 countries in Africa – a perfect fit).  Teachers can simply give their children a time period once a week in which to play cards and they will inevitably learn key facts about the countries, and once one starts wondering how much bigger Namibia is than Mauritius you have the awakening of a curious mind.

Similarly, a good inflatable globe which can quickly be passed around the classroom will clearly show learners how the world fits together. It’s like a big round puzzle which is influenced by scientific and geographical rules around rotations and axis incline. The fastest way to understand why the seasons change is for your teacher to point out that if you were the sun you would influence the countries closest to you differently to the ones furthest from you. Axis, seasons and countries learned – mind developed beyond rote repetition. 

When you cannot learn through actual experience, the experience needs to be laid out for you, and that is where word problems become so important for maths comprehension. Maths is much more accessible to children when teachers put problems into context instead of just saying “you need to know this if you want to be an engineer or accountant one day”. How uninspiring if you don’t want to be either of those things.

Motivation is key for developing curious minds, and as children are naturally inclined to take interest in one thing over another a teacher can use this to their advantage. Having a reading scheme in the class which has a wide variety of fiction and non-fiction readers is not only an effective way to teach reading (curriculum goal) but will also inspire curiosity around what is being read (growth mindset goal).

Some children like reading about things while others like reading stories. Catering for both is a winning strategy. One can buy a reading series which brings interests together and develops curiosity further. For example, the Flying Start reading series utilises paired reading where a fiction book is paired with a non-fiction book. The teachers can then introduce the story book to some children and the book about the stuff to others. The children will be engaged and once done they will realise the stuff they have read about and the story their friend read are interlinked and will gladly swap books to read some more. Where does the salamander in my book come from? How does the salamander in your book save the princess? Friend, may I read your book next? Collaboration and curiosity achieved. 

Engaging young minds can change the world and so developing school teaching resource programs can help change the world. So when you have the opportunity to invest in education do not overlook the simple, yet profoundly important, solution of buying readers, atlases and problem solving boxes. The future problem solvers and creatives and activists depend on your support.    

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