Brent Hutcheson

Ashoka Fellow
South Africa
Fellow since 2015
This description of Brent Hutcheson's work was prepared when Brent Hutcheson was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015.


Brent is enhancing the early education of children in South Africa by using a whole-child hands-on learning model to stimulate and develop their perceptual, motor and creativity skills through experiential learning, manipulation of concrete objects, active involvement, play and imagination.

The New Idea

Brent has created a model based on based on the understanding that creative play helps stimulate young people’s minds, laying a foundation to enable them to embrace future learning. Through play and manipulation of concrete objects, children develop an understanding of themselves and the world around them and are able to develop problem-solving and analytical skills which they can apply in any learning situation throughout their lives. Based on this concept, Brent developed a model called “Back to Basics with 6 bricks”, which aims to enhance learning and development of the individual as a whole through construction rather than instruction. The model trains teachers so that they can expose children to a set of 6 bricks that permanently remain in their learning vicinity (like on their desks) to facilitate structured short daily activities that assist the learners with the development of pre-literacy, pre-numeracy, perceptual and working memory skills in the crucial development ages of 3-9 years. Through his non-profit organization Care for Education (CFE), Brent is providing this education tool to teachers and children in disadvantaged communities and public schools which would otherwise not be able to access the effective and often expensive learning tools that their counterparts in more privileged schools do.

Although the Back to Basics model is most effective within the specified age of 3-9 years, Brent has added two programs to his model to reach out to learners who are past this age and were not properly stimulated through hands on learning. The first one is Back to Basics Remedials, targeting learners aged 10-13 years who have never been exposed to experiential learning in an attempt to reconstruct and fill the learning gaps that were missed during the crucial development stage so that all in not lost. Secondly, Back to Basics is complemented by another program within the model called ‘Township Robotics’ which targets grade 8 and 9 children (14 and 15 years respectively) to stimulate an interest in, and remove the phobia of Mathematics and Science, especially for girls. Township Robotics capitalizes on the learning foundation set by ‘Back to Basics’ and provides continual stimulation of constructive learning through more challenging robotics projects. Another initial challenge for the model was that formal schooling in South Africa starts at the age of 6 (Grade R) and Brent realized that working with primary schools only leaves out a crucial age group from 3-5 years. To address this, Brent has extended the Back to Basics program to reach out to township crèches and non-formal care centers run by elderly women (granny garage crèches) to stimulate the learning process as early as possible.

Founded only 2 years ago, CFE is working in 25 less privileged primary schools in communities within and around Atteridgeville in Pretoria reaching out to over 21,000 children a year from 6-9 years with the Back to Basics and the remedial programs. There are already 5 centers in the Gauteng province for the Township Robotics program reaching out to almost 200 learners a week. Further, Brent is engaging 15 granny garage crèches with the township crèche program working with over 400 learners a year from 3-5 years. In-house results from the schools that Brent is working with indicate increased academic performance for learners under the program and teachers’ periodic reports show that most learners are actively engaged during lessons and are more receptive to learning than before. CFE is in the process of aggregating Annual National Assessment (ANA) results for all the primary schools engaged to prove the effects of the program on academic performance in different subjects.

Brent has developed a multi-faceted strategy to enable him take the model to other provinces in South Africa (before moving to neighboring countries in the region) based on establishing strategic partnerships with CSOs, academic and research institutions. He is thereby currently expanding his model to KwaZulu-Natal, starting with grade R learners. Brent is also developing partnerships with major universities, such as the University of Cape Town and Cambridge University, to formulate evidence based research to prove the model and measure its impact. Finally, Brent is also advocating for effective ECD education through experiential learning in partnership with UNICEF. This also includes engaging in talks, presentations and keynote speeches on national and international platforms, including dialogue with policy makers. For instance, CFE is engaged in discussions with the Gauteng Provincial Legislature (Education Portfolio Committee) and they have shown interest to roll out the Back to Basics program as part of the foundation phase curriculum in all government primary schools in the Province. Through the teacher exchange programs facilitated by CFE, Back to basics has also found itself organically spreading to other countries like Denmark, Turkey, Mexico, and Ukraine, mostly because of its simplicity and ease of replication. Brent aims to leverage on this spread outside the region to establish a basis of scaling out to other countries within Africa.

The Problem

A large number of children in South Africa, mostly from disadvantaged townships and rural communities attend government schools that are less privileged and inadequately resourced. About 75% of primary schools in South Africa are found in townships and rural areas and are classified as less privileged and under-resourced. These schools are fully dependent on government funding and usually have no proper infrastructure, education facilities, learning tools and well qualified and experienced teachers (University of Stellenbosch research, 2013). The schools do not have adequate resources for extra educational tools and learning materials except those provided by the government. As such, learners have not been exposed to the right concrete tactile tools to stimulate all round learning ability to enhance the foundation for their lifelong education. Such children end up developing weak perceptual skills and are not in a position to learn at the same rate as their counterparts whose learning ability was properly stimulated. Indeed, research indicates that active participation in learning (through creative play) enhances the child’s language development, fine and gross motor development, perceptual development, cognitive development and social and emotional development.

Apart from being under resourced, most teachers in less privileged schools lack adequate Early Childhood Development (ECD) training to understand how different parts of a child’s brain can be stimulated through exposure to various specific learning tools and how experiential learning is important to enhance learning especially in the crucial ages of between 3-9 years. A report by University of Pretoria’s department of education indicates that most teachers in the foundation phase (Grade R-3) use teaching tools that stimulate visual, listening and memory learning only and are not familiar with experiential learning tools (Grade 3 systematic evaluation, 2007 leaflet). This is more aggravated by the general perception that lower grades in the foundation phase are easier to teach that upper grades. As a result, most schools allocate less qualified (and less experienced) teachers to lower grades sparing those with more experience for the supposedly crucial upper grades, undermining the important learning development process in early stages.

Another problem relates to the political pressure exerted by the South African government’s education department on teachers and schools to improve learners’ academic results. For a long time, the South African government has been criticized for the poor level of education in both primary and high schools as evidenced by poor academic performance both at national and international levels. Recently, South Africa was rated 140 out of 144 countries in the world in general Mathematics and Science proficiency of learners (World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Information Technology report, 2013) As a result, teachers are often under pressure to produce more academically or content related results and seldom think about other activities to stimulate the child in totality, apart from those in a particular curriculum. In addition, because of inadequate teachers in schools, there is no time for exploratory learning but only curriculum based concrete teaching that is seen to directly relate to immediate performance. The government curriculum is rigid, traditional and focused on hard academic results ignoring the crucial stimulation of round learning especially in the foundation phase. As a result, government efforts in boosting performance are directed towards high school learners while the crucial problem lies in the foundation phase.

Lastly, there are no proper and formal structures guiding ECD education before formal schooling (grade R) which makes it a challenge to reach out and capture children as early as 3 years and expose them to structured education stimulation. Nurseries, crèches and day cares taking care of children below 6 years are not part of South Africa’s formal schooling and do not follow a formalized pattern of education. In most townships and rural communities, you find a lot of informal unregistered child care centers and crèches catering for this age group, using make-shift spaces (mostly in garages hence the name ‘granny garages’) with no knowledge (or resources) to enhance the education foundation of the children by exposing them to the right stimulus.

The Strategy

The core of Care for Education (CFE) is the Back to Basics with 6 bricks, a program which is designed to reach out to learners in the township and rural communities attending less privileged government schools with no access to additional learning tools to stimulate experiential learning. The program started as a 5-year pilot phase with funding from UBS Optimus to reach out to learners from Grade R-3 with the 6 bricks model in 25 schools from the township of Atteridgeville in Pretoria. The program started with engaging school governing bodies of the targeted schools in the area to help them understand the objective of the program and how both teachers and learners would benefit from using creative play as an additional teaching medium. Grade R-3 teachers are then trained and educated on the dynamics of experiential learning for them to understand and be motivated as individuals to use the 6 bricks in their classes.

Brent realized that the success of the whole program lies in getting the buy-in from the teachers and ensuring that the program is not seen as adding unnecessary workload (to their already full schedules) but rather, complimenting their teaching tools in line with the child’s developmental age. Teachers are trained on how to incorporate the 6 bricks in their everyday teaching and lessons without actually deviating from their lesson plans and curriculum. After the training, each class is provided with a full range of the tools under the program: 6 bricks for each student, teacher guides, and support packs, learners’ supplementary books and materials and relevant activity packs. The bricks are supplied with funding from LEGO Foundation and are made permanently accessible to each learner in the classroom to be used as part of on-going creative play incorporated with the syllabus and lesson plan. The teachers also receive training on how to assess the performance of each learner to identify learning gaps and then be able to adjust and/or modify the activities for each individual learner according to their learning abilities. The daily activities are teacher guided but open-ended with plenty of opportunities for the children to control and direct their own learning, foster critical thinking skills, and spatial relationships. Although the program targets learners from grade R-3, Brent has developed some tools (workbooks, guidelines and activity packs) as remedial packs for learners from grade 4-7 who missed out on the initial exposure to experiential learning in their early developmental ages. Although not structured and not incorporated as part of their daily learning stimulation, the learners still get to experience learning through creative play in an attempt to reconstruct their learning foundation as they move forward to high school education.

However, Brent was not completely satisfied with the program as it only captured children from 6 years old (grade R) leaving out those from 3-6 years who are also within the crucial age of development where the foundation of future learning is created. It was a challenge to reach out to this age since formal education in South Africa starts from grade R with the lower ages mostly in crèches and day cares most of which are informal and not registered (especially those in townships who cannot afford to fulfill all requirements for registration). CFE, therefore, designed another program to reach out to these child care facilities known as granny garages. Along with the program, CFE conducts periodical workshops for teachers in these facilities to exchange ideas and discuss issues and challenges they face in using the 6 bricks. CFE also runs small competitions around the 6 bricks for the teachers to motivate them, rewarding the winners with furniture for their facility to help them acquire the necessary equipment to enable them to register and operate formally.

Brent further realized that there was another group of learners who although outside the learning development window, may benefit from hands-on learning at an advanced level especially applying the experiential learning in Mathematics and Science subjects. He then developed the Township Robotics program for ages 14-15 years (Grade 8 and 9). This is run as an extramural after-school program to maximize individual potential in creativity through spatial learning. The program also boosts interest in Mathematics and Science subjects and enhances education performance. Through exposure to engineering and robotic creativity, learners develop invaluable skills such as problem solving, logical reasoning and critical thinking. The program started in 2012 with one school in Atteridgeville acting as a hub/center for four schools in the area reaching out to 40 learners. The program engages students from Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) as volunteers to facilitate activities and mentors the participants. Currently, there are 5 hubs catering for about 200 learners every week under the facilitation of about 30 volunteers from TUT. CFE organizes in-house competitions for Township Robotics and also encourages learners to join external robotics competitions to motivate them.

Brent has developed a multi-faceted strategy to enable him to take the model to other provinces in South Africa (before moving to neighboring countries in the region) based on establishing strategic partnerships with CSOs, academic and research institutions. He is currently working with The Tree foundation to roll out the Back to Basics program in Kwa-Zulu Natal, starting with grade R learners in a few pilot schools before reaching out to the whole province. Brent is also developing partnerships with J-Pal (a research institution working with the University of Cape Town), Cambridge University and the University of KwaZulu-Natal to formulate evidence-based research in order to prove the model and measure impact which can be used for further spread. Brent is also using various strategies and partnerships to advocate for effective ECD education through experiential learning, such as working with UNICEF to leverage on the organization’s expertise in the field. Further, Brent engages in talks, presentations and keynote speeches on national and international platforms to advocate for a transition in ECD education. Recently he was invited to Brussels in Belgium as a speaker on ECD education at an international conference for development in Africa.

CFE has secured another 5-year funding support from LEGO Foundation and UBS Optimus Foundation to continue with the program and reach out to other less privileged government schools and communities with the whole program pack. Brent wants to grow the Township Robotics program and reach out to as many as 200 learners a day in various hubs by engaging students from the University of Pretoria as facilitators under their obligatory 40 hours of community service. On the other hand, Brent is working on rolling out to other provinces with the model starting with KwaZulu-Natal where a project is in the pipeline to work with the Tree Foundation and start the 6 bricks for grade R students with a follow-up project of evaluation to measure its effectiveness. CFE is also in conversations with the Gauteng government and they have formally shown interest in adopting the program in all schools in the province, starting with grade R. Also, through teacher exchange programs organized by CFE, Denmark teachers who came to South Africa recognized the simplicity of 6 bricks as a learning tool and have replicated the model in their schools back home. Similarly, the model has found its way to other countries like Ukraine, Mexico, and Turkey albeit more organically and driven by contacts from those countries and not as the priority of Brent’s spread strategy which is nationally in South Africa and then in neighboring African countries. However, Brent sees this as an opportunity in selling the model to other countries within the region through the international exposure which shows credibility.

The Person

Brent grew up in Cape Town in a town called Fishoek. He had a passion for education and found himself wanting to learn and study even more after high school at a time when all his friends wanted was to leave school. He realized that if he became a teacher, he wouldn’t have to stop studying after all and this is what drove him to the teaching profession. Brent started his teaching career at a crucial time in education when people were starting to buy personal computers for home use. He took the initiative to investigate on the possible usage of computers in schools and convinced the school governing body to invest in a computer center, a big challenge when people had not yet realized the importance of IT in education. In the early 1990s, Rivonia Primary School had its first computer center (and later 2) managed by Brent, having been recognized as one of the first government primary school computer teachers in the country. He negotiated with the school’s management to use the computer centers for private jobs after school, offering computer lessons to other schools, organizations and corporates, taking advantage of the demand at that time. Rivonia Primary School computer center soon became a demonstration unit for computer centers in South African primary.

It was through working with kids in these centers that Brent saw the impact technology had on children. He was amazed at how young kids were capable of controlling and manipulating robots on the computers with basic logic as long as they were following instructions. However, he discovered that this was of little value as most of them had problems designing, building and assembling robots on their own without following instructions. He later on discovered that it had to do with lack of the 6 simple machines being: gears, levers, pulleys, wheels and axles, screws and the inclined plane. They were growing up in a world where people were more likely to work with two dimensional models on a screen, and very seldom exposed to play with or manipulate objects to find mechanical solutions to problems. In his search for tools to assist his pupils, Brent stumbled upon LEGO machines and mechanisms sets. He was amazed at how working with these tools quickly changed the understanding and problem solving abilities of the learners. At this point he knew he had to share this information and make it available for other children as well and he could not do it within the structures of his employment as a teacher.

He therefore made a bold decision to leave teaching and partnered with his teacher friend Phillip and started a business – developing content and classes for children, linking the modern age of computers and robotics to the hands-on use of LEGO construction kits, hence the name Hands on Technologies. In 2003, they became distributors of “LEGO Education” products mostly to privileged schools and parents who could afford them. Although the business was doing very well, Brent was always thinking of the population of learners in less privileged schools who could not access this very important learning tool that was not supposed to be a luxury but a need. With assistance from LEGO Foundation, a separate organization from LEGO Education (or LEGO the main toy company), Brent started outreach programs to government schools and churches in township communities though charity boxes donated by the foundation. Although it felt good to do this, Brent realized that it meant very little in terms of actual impact on the learners. What was required was a full program with relevant support systems not just a once-off donation of the products. That’s when he submitted a proposal to UBS Optimus Foundation to engage communities and schools in Atteridgeville township, in Pretoria, using the Back to basics with 6 bricks model that he had developed as a tool for enhancing education foundation in early stages.

Through this project, Brent was moved and made a decision to focus his attention in developing programs geared for less privileged communities where the greatest challenge and gap was as compared to the privileged schools. He started a separate not-for-profit organization called Care for Education (CFE) for this purpose and this is where he concentrates his efforts full time, leaving Hands on Technologies under Phillip’s care.