Bridging the gap of a professional learning community as a support system in South Africa for multigrade teachers and principals: working together for collective learning and its implementation
Teacher education for multigrade education in South Africa is poor, since multigrade teachers and principals involved in multigrade education have not received formal training in this form of education, and therefore lack support. Owing to this lacuna in multigrade pedagogy, and teachers' limited knowledge of such pedagogy, multigrade teachers and principals struggle to interpret subject matter and settle for different ways to present and make it accessible to learners. This has a severe impact on the potential of multigrade schools to play an important role as educational units in underserved rural areas. Research shows that pre-service and in-service training does not enable multigrade teachers and principals to develop a knowledge base within the complexities of the actual classroom situation. Such a knowledge base would enable them to solve the endemic problems of multigrade education, thereby enhancing their task as multigrade teachers and principals. Training can have an impact on trainee teachers, but the successful transfer of this newly acquired knowledge to learners in the classroom is questionable. Owing to the extent of the problem experienced at each level of multigrade education in the educational system in South Africa, chances are slight that support to multigrade teachers and principals will emanate from officials and curriculum advisers. It is clear that the problem of supporting multigrade teachers and principals is substantial and daunting, and that a solution to the problem will lead to significant advances in learning, or at least a significant reduction in malfunction in the multigrade educational system. Therefore, bridging the gap between newly-acquired teacher competence and teachers' performance in the classroom is a major concern for the future. This research aims to understand the dilemmas and address the shortcomings as teachers implement new practices within classrooms. There needs to be a transitional process through which multigrade teachers and principals move as they gradually learn, come to understand, and become skilled and competent in novel ways of education. This research introduces a Professional Learning Community (PLC) as a model of support and guidance to multigrade teachers and principals, bridging the gap between knowledge acquired at a workshop, and concomitant support and guidance, in order to understand and address the dilemmas that emerge as they implement new practices within multigrade classrooms. This research employs a design research approach to determine design guidelines and principles to facilitate the process of supporting and guiding multigrade teachers and principals, working together as a network cluster for collective learning and its implementation. The research process in design research encompasses educational design processes and is therefore cyclical in character: analysis, design, evaluation and revision activities are iterated until a satisfying balance between ideals ('the intended') and realisation has been achieved. To develop solutions for this research, a prototyping approach was employed towards a final deliverable. The Prototyping Phase in this research comprised three cycles, and focused during the evolutionary prototyping process on elaborating on the components of the possible support system to multigrade teachers and principals. It was envisaged that this would concretise the situation, and obviate problems before implementation in the day-to-day user setting. Formative evaluation was applied in order to uncover shortcomings during the development process, in order to generate suggestions for improvement. The results of the evaluation of each preceding prototype were used in the development of the next prototype. Design research is an effective method of developing various prototypes in collaboration with multigrade teachers and principals to ensure contextual appropriateness of what works at a given time, as well as solutions to the specific problems of multigrade teachers and principals in South Africa. Keywords: Design research, Educational design processes, Educational design research, Multigrade, Multigrade pedagogy, Network cluster, Professional Learning Community, Support system.