Graduate School

Lessons from the Developing World: Students' Observations in a South African Township

Posted by Nick Gray on September 21, 2011

Emily Soong and Laura Zellerbach '11 with children in a South African crèche.Last summer, Laura Zellerbach '11 (Infant and Family Development Program) and Early Childhood & Childhood General candidate Emily Soong journeyed to Mangaung Township in the Free State Province of South Africa, to pilot a new assessment tool designed to measure quality in group care settings for children under three — a rating scale they helped design in conjunction with Bankstreet faculty and other students.

Rather than evaluating success against American standards, this tool allows practitioners and researchers to firmly place their observations in the cultural context of the developing world, where a lack of Western resources creates a wholly different set of challenges.

What was the focus of this project in South Africa, and how did you get involved?

Emily Soong: When I started at Bank Street in Spring 2011, I had already planned a trip to South Africa to volunteer at an orphanage for children living with HIV. Michele Morales, my advisor at the time, told me to reach out to (faculty member and former interim dean of the Graduate School) Virginia Casper, given her long-term involvement in educational work there. I had a wonderful talk with Virginia. When I told her about my planned trip and my interest in international education, she and her project partner, faculty member Faith Lamb-Parker, invited me to join the ongoing pilot work.

What followed was months of development of the rating scale, including an INNOVA grant (a “seed grant” awarded by Bank Street’s president) that supported our local travel and accommodations.

Laura Zellerbach: I had been hired by a nonprofit in the Limpopo province of South Africa for a six-month effort beginning in August. When Virginia, (my IMP mentor) told me that there was the potential to work on her project in South Africa in July, I happily extended my trip and flew to Mangaung to work with Emily observing in the early childhood care centers there, called créches.

Emily: In essence, it was the community of Bank Street mentors that led me to this life-changing experience. I am deeply grateful for the ability, as a graduate student, to share my thoughts and passions openly with faculty members here.

Why is it important to develop a rating scale for childcare environments that takes into account differences across cultures?

Emily: Research shows that quality childcare has significant positive implications for child development. A "rating scale" attempts to define and measure levels of quality through a series of criteria — for example, the physical environment, materials and toys, programming, and teacher-child interaction. This scale does so while accurately reflecting areas of strength and determining opportunities for growth, all within a culturally meaningful context.

Many of the environmental scales that already exist are not appropriate to the South African township classroom. They make basic assumptions about lighting, storage, books, and other materials, and are based on values that primarily exist in the western hemisphere. For example, they don't account for creative use of recycled materials, or inventive ways of caring for large numbers of children.

As part of their Developing Families Project, Virginia and Faith had observed a number of exemplary efforts by South African childcare providers facing a dearth of materials and resources. So, in 2009, they began work with Bank Street graduate students to create a new scale that would aim to capture local values, practices and settings.

Laura: Bank Street places value on children's interests and inquiry with regard to their learning process. We are taught that if children are engaged and want to learn, they will get a lot more out of school. Sometimes following a child's lead means thinking outside the box and making innovative use of the resources available to you. This can be hard to measure, but is incredibly important. So the assessment tool we are creating can also be used as a teaching tool — encouraging practitioners with little background in group care for under-threes to use materials available to them to create interactive experiences for the children in their care.

We were also lucky to be able to collaborate with two Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health graduate students, who were in Mangaung for 10 weeks as part of the Developing Families Project.* We worked together, which reinforced for us Bank Street's view of the importance of the "whole" child—that health and cognitive development, for example, go together.

What resonates most with you from your experience in South Africa?

Laura: When I first entered the "baby rooms" within the créches, I was struck by the similarities to what we see in America. The children had the same needs and wants as those I had worked with in the US, and expressed them in similar ways. As I visited more centers, however, I realized that the expectations placed upon these children were drastically different than what I was used to. There were often 30 to 40 children under three in one room, supervised by one or two women.

In contrast to the preschool rooms, where one found toys, books, and games, in many créches the babies were left without toys or activities when they were not sleeping or eating. Their basic care was provided for, but interaction and exploration were less apparent.

Emily: I now recognize more than ever the universalities that exist among all teachers who share a common passion for working with children. Despite having minimal resources, many teachers worked tirelessly to provide children with as much thoughtful interaction as they could give — especially through the use of song and movement. I was deeply moved by these teachers' eagerness to learn more about what their counterparts in other countries are doing in their classrooms.

But the attention paid to teacher training in this age group in South Africa is negligible compared to that provided for teachers in the three-to-five age group. If this scale is meaningfully deployed in the Global South, teachers will hopefully be empowered with greater guidance to think more deeply about their settings, programming and interaction with very young children and their families.

Read Emily and Laura’s personal account from the field on Bank Street’s Alumni Blog.

Bank Street College of Education and Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health collaborate on the Developing Families Project with local partner Mangaung University Community Partnership Programme.