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Transforming rural education through a Creative Learning Curriculum

Thanda uses creative learning to build five Game-changing Skills among children – Creativity, Self-esteem, Critical Thinking, Perspective and Empathy. Using themes such as storybooks or superheroes, children & youth learn to make lateral connections across subject areas and link global issues to their own communities.


Information on this page is provided by the innovator and has not been evaluated by HundrED.

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Target group
October 2019
"Kids are free, confident, and behaving very well. They now love to come to school, to do their school work."

About the innovation

What is Thanda?

It’s no secret: South Africa’s education system is failing. A recent report by the IEA found that 78% of Grade 4 children in South Africa cannot read for meaning in any language and a 2015 TIMSS study found that Grade 5 pupils reported the highest occurrence of bullying out of 49 countries surveyed. The problem, as we see it, is that there is entirely too much focus on rote memorization and meaningless academic milestones, with little to no focus on practical application or values and skills that will build better future citizens. This pervasive issue affects nearly every young person in South Africa – especially those in rural areas where schools are understaffed and under resourced.  

Thanda began offering homework help after school for children in a rural community located about an hour south of Durban. However, we quickly realized that this approach simply did not have the capacity to effect long-term change. Our experience highlighted the urgent need for programming that would enable children to connect classroom learning to real-world applications. The ability to think critically or creatively, to have global perspective, to have the confidence to learn from mistakes – these skills are so rarely a priority in educational settings, yet they are essential for breaking ongoing cycles of poverty.  

In response, our Education Team dedicated themselves to testing different models, activities, and lessons using low resources (and recycled materials, where possible) in order to identify effective strategies that truly resonate with children. The result: our Creative Learning Curriculum, which aims to build academic skills (literacy, numeracy, and empirical thinking) as well as Game-changing Skills (Creativity, Empathy, Self-esteem, Critical thinking, and Perspective). The curriculum embraces fun, fosters personal growth, and facilitates emotional healing by using superheroes like Ironman, artists like Ai Weiwei, and musicians like Bob Marley as overarching curriculum themes. Unlike traditional rural educational settings where children are often taught not to ask questions, our Creative Learning Curriculum encourages the opposite – children are urged to explore tangents, test their boundaries, learn from their mistakes, and develop an insatiable curiosity for life and learning.  

Our Creative Learning Curriculum is applied in our own After-school Programmes, which are led by local youth and impact over 700 children in Grades R-10 daily and is also being piloted with several non-profit organisations throughout South Africa. It is our ultimate goal that these young learners will pave a better way forward for their communities and, on a larger scale, the world.  


The world we live in and how we perceive it
Our world is changing. Technology connects continents, people, cultures and ideas like never before. Within seconds, we hear about triumphs or tragedies nations apart. This is the world we live in. This is the world our children live in. And “With great power comes great responsibility.” Our responsibility is to try our best to understand our world and the people in it. That understanding develops our perspective. So… how can we, as educators, introduce the concept of perspective in the classroom and why is it important? Through perspective, we give children the ability to compare their situation to others, understand interdependence amongst people, and place themselves as global citizens.The Universe & UsA facilitator training session we always come back to explores the photograph, Pale Blue Dot, by Scientist Carl Sagan. It is a photograph of planet Earth taken by the Voyager 1 space probe from a record distance of about six billion kilometers away from Earth. In the photograph, Earth’s apparent size is less than a pixel – the planet appears as a tiny dot against the vastness of space. Our Education Director, Tyler Howard, explains the idea Carl Sagan had about taking the photo in the first place, that seeing the Earth’s size relative to the vastness of space gives perspective to our place at the centre of the universe. In Sagan’s own words “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena”.For some, the recognition that we are on such a small stage may be humbling, but on the flip side, we are also the only life we know of in this huge universe – thus we are unique and special. We discuss how it makes us feel, and how and what it is communicating. Ultimately, the picture may evoke different feelings and thoughts for everyone – there is no wrong or right way to feel or think about it. The point is however, that our facilitators are required to think and it challenges all of our perspectives. Furthermore, looking outward at space allows us to view ourselves as the global species that we are.Another recent example of exploring space and time occurred just last week in class when we read the story Life on Mars, a book that immediately evokes questions of false perceptions and how our attitude can affect those. See our video detailing Life on Mars activities here.Who We Are & Who We Think We AreFrom a young age, most of us are taught into a particular, rigid way of thinking. School history textbooks tend to focus on a nationalistic-centered curriculum (for example, anyone reading this in Europe or America, how much time did your education focus on African history and did you ever hear of the richest known man in history, Mansa Musa?). As children, we are also encouraged to believe that our perspectives are superior. At Thanda, we show our participants that people are just like sand or snowflakes, each have their own design and uniqueness. Therefore, no two perspectives will be exactly alike. Our Creative Learning Curriculum teaches perspective through books, movies, history, artifacts, current events and art. The movie Brave helps us learn about Scottish history and participants make their own Scottish crest. We read and watch Thor to learn about Viking culture and compare it to Zulu culture – discussing everything from the weather and geography to food and clothing. It can be both empowering and discomforting to make these connections to our own cultures.How can something so subjective be taught? A photographic series, A Study of Perspective, produced by artist and social activist Ai Wei Wei shows his left arm extended forward with the middle finger raised to landscapes and backdrops from around the world. The series demands that viewers challenge their own unquestioning acceptance and adherence toward governments, tradition, or any institution. His images show a very poetic use of irony. To be able to see the need for a series like this in our world, you must already have an open perspective and be able to think independently.Seeing a Better WorldIn a more simplistic way the story above, They All See a Cat, teaches children that everything has its own eyes. In other words, we (including all living things) all see the world slightly differently and our vision is shaped by many factors: what we need to survive, our past experiences, our education, our emotions, etc. Thus, when conflict arises, we should practise using different perspectives to come up with the most productive solution for everyone. Through group projects and teamwork, we encourage children to consider what experiences might cause their peers to think or react in a certain manner, as we believe that truly understanding the varied experiences and beliefs of other people make it more difficult to feel hatred or act hurtfully toward others.Teaching children perspective is important for resiliency because you understand how much perceptions vary from person to person. Practising adopting different viewpoints can assist in critical thinking, develop better self-esteem and lead to an all-around more creative being. It is easy to be concerned with ourselves, our needs and the happenings in our community, but a personal and intentional connection to the world broadens our perspective and provides us with ideas to create positive change that impacts others. Ultimately, the goal of teaching perspective is to eliminate an “us” versus “them” mentality and sensitise children to differing perspectives. Thus, the world becomes smaller and you become part of a community much bigger than your own. No matter our age, we all share a destiny and can all contribute to a better world.
Du iz tak?
"Du iz tak? Ma nazoot. Me ebadow unk plonk. Du kimma plonk?"Above are some of the opening lines of Carson Ellis’ book, Du Iz Tak, which was recently introduced into Thanda’s Creative Learning Curriculum as a Facilitator Training exercise. Like a lot of other books in our library, from I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen to Ada Twist Scientist by Andre Beaty and David Roberts, Du Iz Tak is a story where the characters ask a lot of questions—a skill we try to teach every day at Thanda. But, unlike all of the other books in our library, Du Iz Tak isn’t in English, or isiZulu, or any other language spoken in our community. Du Iz Tak is written in a new language all its own. That’s what makes it a perfect introduction to our next essential skill—critical thinking.At Thanda we define Critical Thinking as: “Children are able to independently analyse, synthesise, and evaluate information.” Du Iz Tak, which follows a community of bugs through the life cycle of a flower, requires a great deal of critical thinking, because the very act of reading it involves decoding the book’s unique language. The book asks the reader to piece together information of many different types—visual clues, understanding of cause and effect, inferences drawn from knowledge of other languages, etc.— to develop a full understanding of the story’s plot and message.The main goal of reading Du Iz Tak is not simply to learn the made-up language itself, nor is it to explore the natural cycle of life (although it does both of these things beautifully). The point is to develop and practice the skills necessary to foster a curiosity that drives you towards the unknown, rather than away from it. These skills can then be translated into the real world, say when a new neighbour doesn’t speak the same language, or a sign on the road is missing a few letters, or a certain crop doesn’t grow in one spot of your garden. Critical thinking is a key tool in the arsenal of life skills that allows you to take in all of the information that is presented to you, look at it from different angles, piece it together, and come to the best conclusion you can.Another activity that speaks to Thanda’s commitment to developing critical thinking skills is chess. Every learner in our After-school Programmes is exposed to chess, and there are currently 118 children on Thanda’s competitive chess team. Playing chess at any level involves critical thinking—players must read the whole board, understand how each piece moves, and develop a strategy. And while these skills are developed on an 8-by-8 square grid, it has never been limited to that. Chess’ origins lie in ancient Eastern cultures, where nobility and military leaders used the game to strategize tactical movements for the various divisions of their soldiers. Accordingly, the point of learning how chess pieces work is not simply to move them individually, but to see how they can work as a group, and to weigh different possibilities in order to strategize the best possible outcome. At Thanda, those same chess skills, once used to overcome other civilizations, are used to overcome personal fears, insecurities, and self-doubt. Children develop respect for themselves and one another, form an understanding of how people can work together towards a common goal, and learn to apply past experiences to future challenges.One voice that has recently echoed around the Thanda education office is that of David Foster Wallace. Though he was a complicated and troubled character himself, Wallace had a great deal of insight on the act of thinking critically. In a speech Wallace gave in 2005, later adapted into the book This is Water, Wallace said“Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”We see this choice as a crucial component of our approach to critical thinking. Education shouldn’t just give you knowledge, it should empower you to take that knowledge and use it, synthesise it, in order to better yourself and your world.In a recent interview, one of our Grades 2&3 Facilitators, Halala, mimicked these sentiments when reflecting on the textbook and rote memorisation culture in most schools. “I think just looking at the fact that we had textbooks at school and you knew what the textbook said you needed to know… we never really got to ask why, how, when and all of those things. We were always just told this is how it is going to be.” She explained that textbooks tell you the first man to walk on the moon was Neil Armstrong, but no one tells you what to do with that information, why it’s important, or how it’s relevant. On the other hand, reading books and doing activities about space in her classroom, Halala says, leads her and her students to really think about the moon, what its presence in our night sky means for us, and ask questions about it. Shifting the focus from knowing things to thinking about things allows learners to look up at the night sky with wonder and curiosity, embracing the unknown and the questions it brings. Then, when they circle back to their textbooks and people like Neil Armstrong, they do so with a sense of excitement. These facts are then not simply an end, but a means to a beginning – the starting point for another avenue of exploration.Just as reading Du Iz Tak isn’t just about learning how to speak a made-up bug language, and learning chess isn’t just about how to move some pieces around a black-and-white grid on a table, learning in our After-school Programmes isn’t just about retaining facts presented in our lesson plans. Our Creative Learning Curriculum empowers participants to find ways to use those facts, along with the other facts they encounter in the world, and to turn them over and combine them in new and different ways. Children will then come to new conclusions—even if those conclusions are just another set of questions.
Learning to be creative through play
When you visit Thanda, you’ll see what we mean when we say that learning is fun. Our bright and colourful buildings are a reflection of the creativity and energy that permeates our curriculum and staff. We believe that the learning process is more fluid and natural when it is fun and memorable. Although we focus on educational topics, we purposefully create an environment that differentiates itself from traditional ‘sit and learn’ classroom settings and mechanical learning because our aim is to give children opportunities to develop new skills. In this environment, creativity flourishes. "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up." ~ Pablo PicassoCreativity develops problem-solving and critical thinking skills. By making mistakes, children learn from and improve upon their errors, which increases grit and resilience. Art is integrated into all aspects of our curriculum and is often coupled with science projects. For example, children in our Grade 4&5 groups recently made aliens out of recycled materials and explained how they eat, breathe, sleep, etc. Our activities expose children to the absolute bizarreness of the physical universe around us, most of which is still not understood, and emphasis is placed on the notion that new discoveries entail creative thinking and big ideas.Theme-based learning and hands-on activitiesOur theme-based learning methodology allows children to delve into subjects they are fascinated by – making it easier for them to retain information, understand its relevance in the real world, and develop a genuine love of learning. Themes we explore include everything from The Gruffalo to outer space and from The Colour Monster to Thor. For example, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein is a major theme for our Grade 2&3 groups. After reading The Giving Tree, children create hands-on art projects centred around the theme – making 3D trees out of cardboard and leaf crowns. They also learn about photosynthesis and how trees grow by planting a bean seed and letting it grow through a maze towards the light. Children learn about tree rings and how the number of rings in a tree trunk reflect the age of that tree. Finally, they do therapeutic activities by drawing their own life as tree rings. These types of projects and hands-on activities enable children to physically engage with learning material, experience lessons for themselves rather than being ‘taught’, and develop a deeper understanding of the processes around them.Arts TrainingThe second aspect of our After-school Programme, which is closely linked to the theoretical theme-based training sessions, is our Arts Training. Our Art and Education Mentor, Kristine Fowles is responsible for this weekly training session with facilitators which focuses on art and hands-on activities. Doing art is an important process through which our facilitators tend to discover that irony and grey areas exist in life – not everything is black and white, and everything is open for interpretation. Given the emphasis we place on our staff’s personal and emotional development, art as a form of therapy is key to our model. Musa, our high school After-school facilitator commented that as a result of doing art projects, children’s “self-esteem and willingness to take risks increased significantly.” And another one of our After-school Facilitators, Halala, expressed that, by doing art, she learnt she could express her feelings and then, by reflecting on her art, she became more conscious of her emotional state which she was unaware of before she started to paint.In 2017, advertising was a major theme in our Arts training. We examined various adverts and discussed what they might be trying to communicate on both a conscious and subconscious level. We explored the concept of target markets and considered how different groups of people may be affected by different messaging through the media. Using collage, our facilitators created their own advertisements and wrote copy for different audiences. Through this theme, many of our facilitators came to the realisation that things are not always as they seem!Importantly, the purpose of our facilitators undergoing arts training is not simply that they come out with an understanding of how to teach art activities but rather that they experience art for themselves – going through the process, creating something unique with their own hands, experiencing art’s effects on their emotions, and allowing themselves to tap into their intrinsic creativity.Creativity in early developmentWe each begin life as a creative child – our minds are free to be molded like play dough. From a young age, we are either encouraged or discouraged from being curious and confident. Although arts-based activities play a critical role in the development of essential life skills, most school systems don’t prioritise art, design, music, or dance – inhibiting children’s ability to think critically, express themselves freely, and develop self-esteem.When you look back on your own education, what stands out? Is it the memorization of multiplication tables or when you danced the preamble in a school play? When people experience unrestrained learning – the freedom to play and create – there is no telling what outcome we will see.

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