Trustee Emily Young visited Misty Meadow School in August 2019. She was delighted with the progress of the school in fostering self-directed learning. We are committed to deepening the support the Zoe Trust provides. In this post, Head Teacher Cassie Janisch explains the principles of the school, and especially its community learning approach. She argues that the school provides a model for affordable education throughout South Africa and beyond.
A learning ecosystem
Our education system in South Africa is under-funded, under-resourced and severely stretched. Learning outcomes are poor with so many children failing their matriculation exams, and even those who pass their final exams are often poorly equipped for life beyond school. However, will spending more money on building more schools and hiring more teachers really improve learning outcomes? There’s no guarantee.
What if there was a way to improve learning outcomes for the children of South Africa without having to invest in
expensive new school infrastructure and teachers? What if there was a way to enable all children’s learning – from richest to poorest– by tapping into the learning resources already available in their communities? What if, rather than building expensive , centrally-managed schools, hiring and training a lot more teachers, as well as administering standardised national assessments that do little to effectively equip children to thrive as productive adults after school, our government could focus instead on supporting and enabling communities to educate their children with resources already available in each community?
This is an outcomes-based solution. There are many different ways to achieve the outcome of a thriving human,well-prepared for life beyond school. The way most educators have been trying to do this is neither efficient nor effective. What if we focused instead on strategies that are cost effective and efficient to achieve the result of young adults well-prepared for life beyond school ?This idea is a learning ecosystem. I borrowed the word ecosystem from nature – natural organisms survive as a result of living in a flexible, responsive web of inter-relationships between an inter-dependent group of different natural organisms. This is called an ecosystem. Humans are natural organisms, too. We survive because we live in a web of inter relationships between people and a physical environment that we call our community. The most effective way to support humans to learn what they need to know in order to thrive in their ecosystems would be to use the resources that already exist within that ecosystem in a highly flexible and responsive manner, rather than to paste an artificial, hierarchical, centrally-managed and costly education system on top of the naturally existing human ecosystem and hoping for (and often not achieving) a good result.
Misty Meadows: a community school
I currently operate a learning ecosystem on our farm in the KZN Midlands. With a budget of R70,000 per month (less than £4,000 per month), we educate 60 children ranging in age from 2-15. This is a mixed race, mixed gender, multi-age learning environment. Any child from our community is welcome to attend our school; we find sponsors for those who are unable to afford our modest fees. The key to our success is this: we access the physical and human resources in our community effectively before resorting to bringing in costly or complex external learning resources into our system.
Through using our beautiful natural environment, as well as inviting the people in our community to share their expertise freely with us in whatever way they are willing or able to, we achieve, at extremely low costs, excellent learning outcomes for our children. People who visit our school comment on how few high tech or expensive learning resources we actually have: we don’t even have electricity in most classrooms, and we rely heavily on donated second-hand learning resources. One parent noted, “There are fewer toys in the whole school than we have at home.” This is no disadvantage when I watch how creative ourchildren are with old tyres, discarded planks, as well as nature’s bounty of flowers, leaves, stones, water and mud. Virtue out of necessity? It works!
We value the enriching learning potential that exists in our community. We encourage our community to share their skills and resources no matter what they are. These range from obtaining free second-hand building materials, to teaching music, running an entrepreneurship club with the kids, running an art and craft table at school each week, showing the children how to make things out of wood, teaching gardening or biomimicry, one-on-one reading sessions, helping the children build a jungle gym, sponsoring a child from a disadvantaged background to attend our school, donating a building for the school’s use, building classrooms, or donating old furniture. The list never ends.
“I didn’t like my old school as I had to stand up like soldiers and wear lots of uniform and be clean. Here when we learn to measure, we are actually using tools to measure rather than looking at a piece of paper and not understanding it.” (Sade, 9)
“Misty Meadows is better than my old school as I feel happier here because they don’t smack children. At my old school, I got smacked for not doing my homework right and it made me sad.” (Mxolisi, 13,)
“I think self-directed school is much better than where I used to go as they learn to direct their own learning and get a much better education. I’m still not sure what to do with my life because I was taught to wait until someone told me what to do.” (school parent)
Because each child needs something different from their learning ecosystem, we aren’t building a traditional school with a fixed curriculum that focuses on exam results. Children need to customize their learning experience. Therefore, instead of focusing on what the school will teach children, we focus on how the school can facilitate the children’s learning. We have created a simple set of operating principles (e.g. treat others how you would like to be treated, school starts at 8am and ends at 12pm), and as long as the children follow these basic principles, they have the freedom to create their own unique learning journey. Natural ecosystems operate like this; they follow simple operating rules over and over again, and infinite diversity emerges.
“In Misty Meadows, it is not compulsory to do anything, and you don’t get a detention so I like doing the work. I have already learned many things here like how to do a word sum and about the Bermuda Triangle. I really like woodwork which there isn’t at other schools. There is a computer lab which I have never experienced. It is fun because there is yoga and music. My old school was too much work and I never could finish it, so I didn’t even bother trying.” (James, 10)
A low cost education solution for South Africa and beyond
Our school is neither an elite nor highly sophisticated solution. Yet our children are learning and thriving beyond all expectation and I believe their performance is comparable to children in South Africa’s most elite schools.
Our model provides a low cost solution that works in a wide variety of circumstances. Any location can become a school and anybody can become a teacher. The intention must be to create and sustain an ecosystem which evolves as a learning community with whatever resources are available. All children know how to learn; it is the complexity of the ecosystem that they live in that allows them to thrive. A learning ecosystem can evolve using many different resources. Teachers with post-graduate degrees aren’t necessary to teach children how to garden, or fix a car, or knit a jersey, or build a house, or cook a meal, or learn a language, or use a computer, or access learning online – all skills that can provide employment for children after school. We need to access local people who know how to do these things, local people willing to share those skills.
I’d love our government to stop focusing on creating high-cost standardized learning environments, AKA schools for all, but rather to focus on supporting and enabling learning ecosystems that use communities’ existing relationships and human, physical, material and technological resources that can effectively achieve the result of educating the children in that community. Poorer communities have better access to these sorts of resources than richer communities because they’re used to relying, supporting and socialising with each other on a daily basis. An effective education system needs to focus on enabling learning in many ways rather than simply providing teachers and classrooms.
Increasing numbers of parents are opting out of formal education and choosing learning experiences which are best suited to their children. Home schooling networks are springing up world-wide, but these tend still to be organised by and for well-off families. Imagine a system that is so flexible, efficient and effective that it can customise a low cost education for every child in every community.
“People go to school to get more knowledge and I get that at Misty Meadows. For example, I have learnt how many people use plastic in one year and I learnt how to make a dress and a skirt. At Misty Meadows, I get more freedom to be myself and at my old school I just had to sit and listen to the teacher. Before I went to Misty Meadows, I was a no-body and as soon as I walked into Misty Meadows I was a somebody. ” (Nthabi, 11)
For more information on Misty Meadows School, please visit the Zoe Trust website [http://www.wordpress-455395-2711966.cloudwaysapps.com/project/misty-meadows-school/], which features a case study about the school or the school’s own website [https://www.mistymeadowsschool.co.za/].