With his hand thrust inside the 3D printed prosthetic, Gerald Speelman is trying to work out how a Robohand functions. The grade 7 student from Tsakane township near Brakpan is, like his classmates, enthralled by the curious design for an artificial hand – and he’s being challenged by one of his teachers to not just admire the prosthetic limb, but to understand the mechanics of it too.

If he has any questions, the Centurion-based inventor of the world-famous 3D printed limb, Richard van As, is nearby. But Speelman is being coaxed to try and figure it out for himself.

“When I bend my arm, the strings tighten,” he says, “that’s what makes the fingers close.”

I’m standing with Speelman underneath a marquee in the dusty township school, surrounded by 3D printers, remote control cars and gliders, quadcopters and a never-ending supply of breadboards, components and arduino boards. Behind me, a group of kids are gathered around a small projector screen which is streaming live video from a quadcopter hovering overhead. It’s Software Freedom Day, but it’s the hardware on show that’s proving most intriguing for the young minds.

For older minds, however, it’s the school itself that’s quite remarkable. This is the African School for Excellence (ASE), an 18 month old academy with a mission: to produce world class schools for South African townships that are both affordable and scalable to the country as a whole. Right now, Tsakane is the only school the organisation operates, and the entire school is based in a handful of portable classrooms at the end of a dusty drive. But ground is being broken for a permanent home for the institution later this week because so far, it’s a huge success.

In less than two years, say the founders, children who entered ASE with low grades typical of extremely low income areas are competing with the very best in the country – and not just one or two. Almost the entire cohort is achieving incredible results for the area. In the 2013 Cambridge Curriculum Checkpoint tests, only one pupil out of the 80 grade 9 students who sat the test got less than the 50% that is considered a pass. Internationally, only 85% of students score passes. The average score in grade 9 for South African students is just 13%.

In writing, the results are even more dramatic: at the start of this academic year, only two students scored higher than 50%. By September, not a single child scored less than 50%, and a whopping 47% scored higher than 75%.

Results at regular testing points throughout the year for grade 9 students at ASE. Click to enlarge.
Results at regular testing points throughout the year for grade 9 students at ASE. Click to enlarge.

“These kids here, they’re superquick to learn and get very excited,” says Jay Kloppenberg, “you put the right environment in place and give them a chance and the sky is the limit, they can do amazing things.”

Kloppenberg and his co-founder, Nonhlanhla Masina, have set themselves a lofty goal: nothing less than the reinvention of low-cost education using cutting edge technology to bring all the learning in the world to a place like Tsakane. Many of Kloppenberg’s pupils – or scholars, as he prefers to call them – are from incredibly poor backgrounds and entered the school with low marks typical for the area. None were selected based on academic achievements or potential.

Want to find out more about the African School for Excellence? Listen to this special episode of the htxt.africast.

“On their testing now the kids are scoring better than kids in the top 10% economically in the country,” beams Kloppenberg, “Despite coming from the bottom two quintiles economically.”

The philosophy at ASE is to foster curiosity among learners and encourage self-directed learning using internet tools. From the start, Kloppenberg has had a lot of backing from similarly curious minds at Centurion makerspace House4Hack, and members Toby Kurien and Schalk Heunis have helped establish locally cached and offline versions of Khan Academy lessons, as well as develop tools for pupils to mark each other’s work based on the peer review systems deployed by Coursera.com and other Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) providers. Maths questions, for example, are easy for a computer to mark, but how do you grade a written assignment without a teacher?

“English writing is not easily marked by computers – so the ideas was to have kids peer mark each other,” explains Heunis, “The software that we developed is called PeerMarker. The way it works is that essays are compared two at a time – so the learner will be presented with two essays and have to say which is better using a slider.”

Inspiration for PeerMarker comes from an intriguing place.

“There is an algorithm that was developed for American College football to rank the teams based on limited play-offs,” says Heunis. There are so many teams in the college leagues, that can’t play each other before the finals. So software is used to determine who should play who at the end of the championships. “The same algorithm was applied here to come up with a final ranking of essays, because not everyone is compared against each other. This only gives a ranking, not a final mark – the teacher then has to assign a mark for the best and worst and the ranking is used to produce marks for everyone – the teacher can still review and override.”

In the classroom today, however, PeerMarker is taking a back seat. Instead, Kurien is explaining the basics of programming in Python and Java to a classroom full of 10-12 year olds, while yet another House4Hacker is building simple circuits using Arduino boards and components.

morganMeet the African School for Excellence where, as part of today’s demonstrations of electronics at work and play, Richard van As and his colleague Quinton Harley are donating a 3D printer to the school in the shape of the award-winning RepRap Morgan. The two recently joined forces to mass produce Morgans and Robobeast printers from House4Hack’s workshops.

The purpose of all the technology is to expose the children/scholars to what’s possible and what’s being made and achieved locally. But the really clever stuff is in the underlying structure of the school. Masina explains how teachers are able to meet higher standards using less than other township secondaries.

For a start, there’s a very high teacher-to-pupil ratio throughout the school, with just one qualified teacher per 75 pupils. Actual class sizes, however, are smaller than average with around 25 pupils in one room at a time.

Each subject, she says, has three different classroom set-ups.

“For maths, the first is called Team Maths,” she explains, “Now this is where kids get exposed to different types of problems that are slightly above their cognitive level and they have to work in teams. The instruction there is ‘you are going to get it wrong, but you have to try and engage with it and work it out’.”

Nonhlana Masina, co-founder of the African School for Excellence.
Nonhlana Masina, co-founder of the African School for Excellence.

“And about half the time, they actually do work it out for themselves and get it. That’s where they’re learning key problem solving skills and analytical skills.”

The next class is a traditionally taught one with a teacher in front who takes what pupils have learned so far and fills in the gaps. Because students have already been exposed to the subject, however, they are able to begin with questions and, under the guidance of the teacher, gain a firm understanding of a subject.

The final part of the set-up is “independent maths”, and this is where the technology comes in. The principle of using tablets and the internet for “self-directed learning” is catching on overseas, and applied fully here. It’s like homework on steroids, with the whole class running through on-screen exams and marking each other’s work.

“You’re never sure that you know what you know until you’ve been tested,” says Masina, “So here we use technology to give them more frequent testing with shorter feedback loops. The kids can do the exams from Khan Academy and work at their own pace. And if they get stuck they can reach out to their peers or the academic advisor in the room.

“So by design we’re leveraging the skilled teacher with a few non-skilled teachers.”

Kloppenberg is quick to point out that the classroom assistants are also training to be teachers and are gaining invaluable experience from the project too.

“We have regular feedback sessions on their work too, so that they get better fast,” he explains, “You’re not going to scale great education without great teachers.”

Kids posing with RoboLeg, another low cost prosthetic from Richard van As.
Kids posing with RoboLeg, another low-cost prosthetic from Richard van As.

The same principles are applied to all subjects at the school, and children are also encouraged to bring in examples of the books they’re reading outside of school. One thing that strikes me is the similarities between ASE’s philosophy and the much older Montessori method of teaching, which has been encouraging self-directed learning since the early twentieth century. Thanks to technology, however, Kloppenberg is confident that the model is affordable for South Africa. In that way, the vision is strikingly similar to another South African educational pioneer, Siyavula.

“It’s very unique,” says Masina, “But it’s not that radical. It’s well researched and the ideas have been around for a long time.”

“It’s about how you carry yourself and think of yourself,” says Kloppenberg, “We want to encourage a mindshift in our scholars. It’s about how you carry yourself.”

A drone takes off from the ASE marquee.
A drone takes off from the ASE marquee.

Kloppenberg is confident that ASE can be repeated economically. Right now, he says, it costs R600-700 a month per child, which is about half of what current government schools cost. As ASE is not currently funded through the Department of Basic Education, however, that price is still too high for township parents to meet. As a result, scholarship funds have been canvassed from international philanthropists to help pay for individual children. He’s hoping that the school will qualify for a government subsidy next year. Combining that with an R200 contribution from parents would cover costs easily.

The pair is confident that they’ll meet that goal, and that the model they’re developing will be scalable to larger schools soon too.

“We represent the fire and the spark that exists in our township areas,” says Masina, who grew up nearby herself, “And we’ve been able to capture that spark and explore it and live in it.”

Want to find out more about the African School for Excellence? Listen to this special episode of the htxt.africast here. In the meantime, check out the gallery below.