Education Innovation: Schools as sites for social change

Posted on May 21, 2015

The University of Pretoria’s Institute for Food, Nutrition and Well-being (IFNuW) is involved in a multitude of inter- and trans-disciplinary research projects aimed at addressing food security in South Africa. The Institute’s activities are organised into five research areas or themes, namely feeding the world in a resource-constrained environment; ensuring safer food through effective control and regulation; promoting health, nutrition and well-being; changing consumption behaviour for improved health; and strategic planning and policy reform to manage food security risks.

One of these themes, ‘changing consumption behaviour for improved health’, focusses on improving the health and well-being of communities through changes in behaviour and increased awareness of good nutrition. As part of this theme, a project was launched that focusses on schools as sites for social change and the training of teachers to impart health-related messages. A major aspect of the project so far, has been the development of the Win-LIFE (Wellness in Lifestyle, Intake, Fitness and Environment) intervention, which is a health promoting intervention targeted at Grade 4 to 6 learners, and an Overall Wellness Indicator kit.

The Win-LIFE intervention aims to enrich the current South African school curriculum and to assist schools in becoming inclusive centres of care and support. It focusses on nutrition and environmental education, and includes classroom-based activities for learners and home-based assignments for learners and their parents or guardians. Following the development of the Win-LIFE intervention, it was incorporated as part of the Life Skills (nutrition education) and Natural Sciences curricula for Grades 4 to 6 in three participating schools – Kgoro Primary, Mshuluzane-Mayisela Primary and Vezulwazi Primary.

An important aspect of the project to date, has involved training teachers to implement interventions that are aimed at children and focus on nutrition and health-related matters. The Overall Wellness Indicator kits that were provided to the schools will enable teachers who have completed the training programme to conduct health and fitness assessments on both learners and their colleagues. The toolkit will allow them to monitor the effectiveness of the intervention themselves. Each toolkit consists of wellness information and health- and skill-related fitness tools, such as a floor scale for weight measurement, a body mass index (BMI) measuring tape, a height meter, a calliper to measure body fat percentage, a stopwatch, cones to be used as markers during fitness tests, a blood pressure monitor, a cricket ball and tennis balls, as well as an assessment manual developed by the team.

Schools were also assisted with cultivating vegetable gardens that, apart from directly contributing to better nutrition, provide an additional learning experience for the children. Tending to plants teaches children responsibility and teamwork while providing an opportunity to bring science, mathematics and biology to life through hands-on learning. As an added goal, the team hopes that the project will be extended positively into the surrounding community, mainly through work done in the schools by learners, teachers and parents, but also by direct engagement with other members of the community.

In addition to the social responsibility dimension of the project, researchers are conducting primary research and creating knowledge at the psychosocial and cognitive interfaces among food, nutrition and well-being that relates to the food and nutrition behaviours of communities and individuals, thus combining the outputs of the team of researchers and postgraduate students. This aspect of the project will result in capacity building and the transfer of experience to young researchers.

An interfaculty research team, involving researchers from various departments and faculties at the University of Pretoria, has been established for the project. The primary investigators for the project are Prof Ronel Ferreira, from the Department of Educational Psychology; Prof Peet du Toit, from the Department of  Physiology and the Neuroscience Group; Prof William Fraser from the Department of Curriculum Studies; and Ms Gerda Gericke, from the Department of Human Nutrition.

For the follow-up phases of the initial project, the research team is collaborating with researchers from Fordham University (who implemented the project at schools in the Bronx, New York City), the University of Missouri and the University of the Western Cape. A proposal is currently being developed in collaboration with Prof John Creswell and his team from the University of Nebraska (Lincoln) and the International Association of Mixed Methods Research.

- Author Ansa Heyl
Published by Thabo Masenamela

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