Grounded in reality

08 December 2007

Dr Jonathan Clark

Drive 30 km down Lansdowne Road, and you'll see a wide spectrum of South African schools. At the far end is Khayelitsha, until recently Dr Jonathan Clark's world.

A UCT alumnus, Clark has been appointed director of the School Development Unit, following the early retirement of Dr Lydia Abel.

Clark believes that his 20 years of working in and around Khayelitsha as a science teacher and school manager has prepared him well for his new challenge.

Immediately prior to moving to UCT, Clark spent five years as head of the Khayelitsha-based Centre of Science and Technology (COSAT), attached to the False Bay FET College.

COSAT caters for learners from Grades 10 to 12 with potential in maths and science. It has achieved remarkable success in the face of considerable adversity, including a 100% pass rate for the past six years. Many of COSAT's learners have obtained university-level passes in maths and science higher grade, and no small number have made their way to UCT.

In addition to his work at the "chalk face", Clark's academic background includes a DEd that looked at the problems of teachers working in overcrowded and underresourced schools where the new curriculum places the "most intense demands" on them.

"I believe we are adrift on a sea of curriculum change in this country, and our interventions in support of teachers in the field have clearly not been systematic enough," he says.

"My time in Khayelitsha has taught me just how difficult it is to work in schools with high levels of dysfunctionality, in particular if you are a young, inexperienced teacher."

His DEd led to the publication of a book entitled Changing Teaching, Changing Times which he co-authored with his supervisor Professor Cedric Linder at Uppsala University, Sweden. It describes the battles faced by a science teacher working in isolation in a township classroom without the benefit of a head of department or colleagues to guide her, as is common in better-resourced schools.

Without a clear understanding of what these teachers face, through what he calls "narratives of practice", Clark believes that meaningful change is unlikely. Furthermore, the focus must be a shift to organisational capacity-building and the exploration of new directions in teacher development. "We must build communities of practice: real and virtual; intra- and inter-school; cross-context professional learning communities– We need to ensure that teachers' problems are our agenda. And where schools show signs of improvement, I believe you have to provide a 'raft' of carefully thought-through interventions to help them."

Clark also believes in harnessing technologies like instant messaging and Facebook to allow teachers to "offload, share and communicate", and says that 21st century schools need to embrace e-learning to combat what he describes as "the ever-widening apart-IT-heid divide".

When it comes to working with learners, he cautions against approaches that focus on "band-aiding" subjects like maths and science without looking at the broader issues.

"One of the most fundamental needs is social skills. We need to provide more coherent pre-bridging programmes to help students prepare for university so that they have the prospect of success.

"In my experience, learners may have good results coming out of school but find the expectations and the burden of coping with the university environment overwhelming. Far too many drop out. For a student from an impoverished background, that is a disaster."

He maintains that the SDU is wellequipped to tackle these challenges.

"The SDU has a critical mass of talented, motivated people who are passionate about their work and the possibilities it holds for making a real difference out in the field," he says. "It's a gem, and I'm raring to go!"

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