by MAHMOOD SANGLAY
PROFESSOR Shafika Isaacs earned her Ph.D in education at University of Johannesburg (UJ) in 2019. In addition, she was awarded meritorious recognition of her work as Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation by the South African Education Research Association (Saera).
Her thesis is entitled ‘Towards the recognition of a Soweto boy’s play capabilities in the formal education system’.
For three decades, since her teens, Isaacs has been absorbing the spirit of struggle of other youth in local public meetings. In later years she was inspired by movements like the Arab Spring and the #FeesMustFall campaign.
Ultimately, Isaacs is driven by a commitment to education for social justice. Her research explores the boy child’s world of play and his world of formal learning. She focuses on how these two worlds interact as systems of learning and their impact on the underperforming township boy child.
In doing so, Isaacs exposes the ‘institutionalised inequality’ of how the child’s playworld is systemically misrecognised as a learner with learning disabilities. She calls for the appropriate recognition of children’s play capabilities and for research and policy that embraces the role of play and digital tools in learning.
The thesis is a major contribution to the body of knowledge on the lives of children as learning subjects, especially the boy learner in townships.
Isaacs spent 17 months with little Kabelo and other children, studying his play world that ‘lies beneath his underperforming test scores’. Kabelo exemplifies the underperforming township boy in South African schools.
Isaacs argues that this is the reality against a backdrop of systemic denialism and an intergenerational disconnect.
She quotes one of her doctoral thesis supervisors, Professor Elizabeth Henning, who said, ‘We don’t know our children,’ which echoes the voices of children and youth who struggle daily with systemic social and political injustices.
Isaacs explains that her focus on the boy child is in addition to the girl child, and not as opposed to the girl child. She quotes evidence of a pattern of boy under-performance over and above the 2016 Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study (Pirls) research.
This study shows that fewer boys than girls succeed in matric or complete an undergraduate degree. She also shows that there is a range of intersectional issues to boy underperformance, including class, race, language, culture and gender-based violence.
Isaacs also provides vital context to her diverse experience in community education programmes, in theory and in practice, locally and internationally. For two decades, she dedicated her work to fair access to information and digital technology by learners.
Throughout her life as a professional educator, she advocated a social justice and transformation agenda due to the huge chasm between theory and practice in education.
In particular, she was profoundly troubled by the inherent disconnect between education in academia and the socio-political constructs that determine the dismal state of public schooling in South Africa.
Isaacs laments the poor outcomes of many digital learning projects. And she is candid in admitting that she is responsible for some of these ineffectual initiatives.
However, she remained inspired by some promising work by her second supervisor, Professor Nicky Roberts, in 2016. The latter employed narrative with families in teaching mathematics with a view to mitigate the effects of unemployment, poverty and violence in Vrygrond, a Western Cape settlement.
Digital learning initiatives, says Isaacs, must embrace the marginalised children of society. Hence the ethnographic study with children like Kabelo.
Another important study that influenced Isaacs’s research is Pirls. The results of this report were disturbing: 78 per cent of Grade 4 children cannot read for meaning in any language; boys were performing worse than girls, and 42 per cent of Grade 4 children reported that they were bullied weekly.
These findings underscore the nature of the crisis in public schooling. And they prompted Isaacs to ask key questions that eventually motivated her thesis: ‘Where were the digital learning evangelists in this learning crisis conversation? How could the results of one test influence an ocean of opinion about the deficits characterising South Africa’s children? Which narratives were missing from these conversations? Which narratives need to be surfaced?’
Isaacs offers an interesting rationale for her choice of a qualitative research design. Her thesis also challenges the dominant notions of knowledge production, namely, that empirical and objective research are ideal methodologies.
And to ensure that her qualitative methodology maintains the rigours of academic standards she routinely uses a range of data gathering techniques, including corroborating records of interviews with various sources and consistently checking her own privileges as a researcher from outside Soweto.
The thesis of Isaacs is vibrant with hope for greater efforts in real transformation in education. This spirit of hope also resounds in the work of another researcher of children’s education, Dr Leah Schoenberg Muccio, whose inspiring verse she quotes above her prologue.
This article was first published in the November 2020 print edition of Muslim Views.