Xoliswa and the science project: a system rigged for failure

Our papier maché project  this year where learners made paint and glue from household items.

Our papier maché project, July 2014. Children learnt to make paint and glue from household items. Nobody was graded, nobody failed. Everyone learned something.

“This was the embodiment of so much of the unfairness, thoughtlessness and pointlessness of the education system as it stands.”

Xoliswa, an 11-year old girl, excitedly asked me to support her with a homework science project. The worksheet was given on a Monday, and was due on the Friday. Xoliswa had to build a solar system from scratch, using papier maché, newspaper, paint, wire, polystyrene and balloons – some of which are expensive, and can only be bought from a craft’s store.

Xoliswa’s mother does not speak any English, and she had never heard of papier maché or polystyrene. She arrived with a small packet of water balloons and asked if I could help with some of the other items.

The total cost of the items came to roughly R100. By the time that I had received the project, bought the items and commenced on Wednesday, there was insufficient time to have the paper maché dry properly, and it took 9 friends’ assistance to complete the project in time. I had also not purchased enough polystyrene and the planets had to be mounted on individual blocks, rather than together.

But, by Thursday evening, we had painted, glued and mounted a solar system which Xoliswa could take to school on Friday. She was one of only four in her class who had taken in any kind of project, and was incredibly proud to show her teacher and friends.

But little Xoliswa’s excitement and pride were broken when her teacher gave her a fail of 10 out of 30, because her project did not use enough polystyrene to create a solar system ‘effect’.

I can only describe this entire event as a great injustice. From setting an assignment a child could not complete on her own in a language her parent doesn’t understand, to creating a task that is too expensive for any family in this income bracket to ever complete, to a hopelessly unrealistic timeline, to the fact that – despite beating all these odds – a teacher could still fail a remarkable attempt at completing such an assignment.

This event is the embodiment of so much of the unfairness, thoughtlessness and pointlessness of the education system as it stands. A teacher, either maliciously or incompetently so out of touch that he is willing to place all his students under the duress of setting an impossible task from which they will learn nothing except, perhaps, that they cannot be good at doing their science homework. A grim reminder that the majority of South African parents are a product of an even worse time in education, that they cannot help their children in a failing system even if they want to.

Then there is the expense: how can we allow a school to set a project where the choice is between having a child complete her homework or financially crippling her family that month? Why is this allowed to happen? And then, when – in the unlikely event that this girl is placed in the position to have someone with the financial resources and mastery of English to attempt this project along with a large group of people to assist her – she still fails because of a teacher who cannot recognise effort over his narrow view of ‘correctness’.

What hope is there that Xoliswa will ever love science? What hope is there that she will look at the solar system as something of wonder? Has this one moment been enough to lose another gifted child, to ensure there is one more learner who has earned the right to give up on the education system?

Source: Melanie Smuts, Founder. November, 2013

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