Marisa van de Merwe

Ashoka Fellow
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South Africa
Fellow since 2015
This description of Marisa van de Merwe's work was prepared when Marisa van de Merwe was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015.


Marisa van de Merwe is addressing education deficit in the early childhood development phase while supporting sustainable job-creation in the communities. She addresses these educational problems by introducing an evidence-based minimum intervention program that is founded upon the principles of Chess-thinking and life-skills development. Marisa’s focus is on using play to prepare young minds for a fast-changing world where children have to be empowered for an unknown world and future work place, with new opportunities and knowledge to be explored.

The New Idea

Marisa’s model, MiniChess, is not a program aimed at teaching children how to play chess as a profession, but rather a means of enhancing learning development for children between the ages from 5 to 9 years. The program targets learners from all communities, including less privileged and under-resourced schools in township and rural communities, who are victims of the dysfunctional Early Childhood Development (ECD) education system that fails to prepare them for both successful and advanced learning in older classes and life in the 21st century.
Marisa developed the program based on the concepts of chess-thinking skills. She broke these concepts down into structured learner activities, lesson plans and teacher guides to come up with a curriculum that enhances holistic learning development for learners aged 5-9 years in the first 4 grades of the foundation phase of education (grade R to 3). The program is divided into 4 progressive levels with specific age related activities to expose the child to concrete learning through story-telling, role playing, games, individual and group activities and other stimulating exercises.
Moving from concrete to abstract, the program transposes the chess related concepts into education outcomes such as mathematics, numeracy, language skills, life skills, etc. aligned with the learners’ age and grade. For example, a 1st grade lesson could start with a story of chess with relevant story-telling and role playing activities that are specifically tailored to enhance learners’ confidence, presentation skills and language formulation; a 3rd grade lesson activity could introduce mathematics, algebraic and geometric concepts by assigning values to different chess pieces and patterns on the chess board to enhance problem solving and other program activities linked to life skills such as thinking skills, motivation, respect, and emotional intelligence.
The idea is to use all learning styles (visual, auditory, verbal, physical/kinetic, logical, social, and solitary) to ensure personalized learning for all children. The program does not substitute the normal school curriculum but rather compliments it by exposing the learners to an alternative learning tool (1 to 2 hours per week) that successfully corrects all the ECD fallout areas.
Another crucial arm of the model is teacher development. All teachers in the program undergo 3 levels of training (16 total training hours per level) with certification at each level as qualified MiniChess coaches. The certificates are accredited by the Chess Association of South Africa (CHESSA), Skills Education Training Authority (SETA), South Africa professional council for Educators (SACE) and currently Marisa is in the process of obtaining certification from the Constructive Training Authority of South Africa. Once qualified at level 3, the teachers themselves qualify to become trainers as a way of expanding human capacity under the program.
MiniChess works with multiple-stakeholders to form a funding framework that enables delivery of the program in under-resourced communities. Marisa has developed partnerships with strategic funding organizations such as The Kasparov Chess Foundation Africa, TsogoSun ‘Moves for Life’ Children of the Dawn, The Giving Circle Africa and others. These relationships enable her to reach out to as many communities with the program as possible. However, to develop a self-sustaining scale out strategy, Marisa has created an enterprise development structure for dedicated community members (through community MiniChess franchises) targeting learners from well-resourced government, independent and private schools where there is a growing demand for MiniChess classes to prepare young minds for 21st Century challenges. The franchise is sold to community members who are interested and willing to run the program as their own small business to create employment and help sustain quality operations of MiniChess the parent company.
MiniChess is currently working with 300 schools in all 9 provinces of South Africa, reaching out to more than 57,000 learners a week. The franchise model has 34 franchisees in South Africa alone, with planned roll-out to other 16 African countries within the next 2 years in both sponsored and franchised roll-out models. Outside South Africa, MiniChess has already scaled out to Lesotho, Rwanda, Uganda and Madagascar with plans to roll-out to 10 more countries in the region through the Kasparov Chess Foundation Africa.
MiniChess is piloting the program in Australia, New Zealand, USA, Portugal Mexico and Canada as part of scaling out to other countries outside Africa. Furthermore, the current minister of basic education as well as provincial education departments in South Africa has expressed interest to explore possibilities of working with MiniChess to incorporate the program into the education curriculum of the foundation phase in South Africa.

The Problem

According to the 2011 report from the South African government department of Basic Education, 90% of children in South Africa are not school-ready by the time they start formal schooling at the age of 6. The report found that these children lacked the basic learning concepts and developmental skills that would enable them to cope with education. This problem is complex but includes a dysfunctional Early Childhood Development (ECD) education structure which fails to give children the proper foundation that enables them to embrace future learning.
Nurseries and day care centers taking care of children below the age of 6, are not currently part of South Africa’s formal schooling system and do not follow a formalized pattern of education. For middle and upper class communities, this is not a big problem as they are able to afford better ECD education for their children, such as the Montessori curriculum from expensive ECD centers. However, this is beyond comprehension for most parents situated in lower income groups, disadvantaged townships and rural communities. These parents can barely afford to take their children to informal, unregistered child care centers that make use of make-shift spaces, mostly garages and back rooms. These centers are usually managed by care takers without proper ECD education training, knowledge or resources to expose the children to the correct stimuli, which will enhance the children’s education foundation.

A 2013 survey by the South African Qualification Association (SAQA) portrays a steady decline of academic performance in the first four years of formal schooling. The survey also showed that learners fail to cope with each successive level of education, thereby leaving them demotivated and frustrated with school, eventually leading them to drop out as learning gets tougher. The report further indicates a prevailing 50% high school drop-out rate from grade 9 to 11.

About 75% of government 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 have poor infrastructure, insufficient education facilities, sub-standard learning tools, and mostly underqualified inexperienced teachers. Children attending such schools often end up developing weak perceptual skills and are not in a position to learn at the same successful rate as their more developed counterparts.

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 in the crucial ages between 5-9 years. This is further aggravated by the general perception that younger grades in the foundation phase are easier to teach than older grades. As a result, most schools allocate less qualified (and less experienced) teachers to younger grades, sparing those with more experience for the supposedly crucial upper grades, thereby undermining the important learning development process in early stages which forms the foundation for future learning.

Furthermore, teachers are often under political pressure to produce quantitative academic and content related results, and seldom think about other activities to stimulate the child in totality. In addition, because of inadequate teachers in schools, there is no time for exploratory learning but only curriculum based teaching directly related to immediate performance. The government curriculum is rigid, traditional and focused on hard academic results ignoring the crucial stimulation of all-round learning especially in the foundation phase.

The South African government, citizen sector and other stakeholders in education have placed much emphasis on boosting the academic performance of high school learners, by utilizing after school extra lessons, remedial classes, study groups and other interventions, as a way of solving the overwhelming problem facing the education system in the country. However, little attention is given to ECD education in the foundation phase where the problem starts. The fact is unless significant changes are made in the foundation phase (grade R-3) there will always be problems at higher education levels with low academic performance, high dropout rates as learners fail to cope.

The Strategy

Marisa’s model is an ECD education program developed from chess principles with a structured lesson plan that guides both teachers and learners, including activities to help children fall in love with learning and prepare them for lifelong education. The program does not substitute the formal academic curriculum but rather compliments it to enhance learning development for all children.
MiniChess is a double pronged model implemented through a funded strategy on one hand and a franchise strategy on the other to reach out to as many learners as possible. The funded strategy is used to engage learners from under resourced schools in disadvantaged communities where the big problem of ECD education deficit lies. The funded strategy is also used to engage schools that are not in a position to pay for the program. As a starting point under this strategy, MiniChess conducts basic research, in cooperation with funders to identify ECD centers and public primary schools in rural and township communities that display huge problems in ECD education.
MiniChess works through funding partners to recruit the schools into the program by engaging the school governing body and management to ensure that everyone understands the objectives of the program and is committed to implementation. The next step is teacher training, where all teachers for the target age groups (5-9 years) to be involved in the program are then taken through 3 progressive levels of training. This training occurs intermittently with a total of 16 intensive training hours per level to become certified MiniChess instructors with globally and nationally recognized certification. For a period of 1 to 2 hours a week, the teachers break away from the normal curriculum and engage the learners in MiniChess activities following structured teacher guides, learner activity books lesson plans and game-play.

The concept is to enhance learning development through chess based activities without focusing on teaching the children to play chess as a professional sport. The idea is not to teach the child mere facts, but to use exciting activities to stimulate and unlock learning potential for the child to be able to apply the concepts to other problem solving situations. For example, the chess board is divided into different shapes and colors in order to transpose geometrical shapes and use them to teach learners basic concepts of mathematical fractions through activities such as role play, games and teamwork.
Each of the 4 progressive levels within the program has education outcomes related to the specific learners’ age. For example grade R (5-6 years) lessons are designed to enhance outcomes such as fine motor skills, pre-reading, shape recognition and confidence while in the 3rd grade (9 years) the outcomes are related to analytical skills for mathematical fractions, solving bar graphs, language comprehension and composition. Life values such as empathy, respect, confidence, discipline, emotional intelligence and team work are enhanced through gameplay and other activities that encourage honest and immediate feedback to all learners. Through this model, MiniChess is reaching out to more than 57,000 learners a week through 300 schools and about 1,500 trained coaches in all 9 provinces of South Africa (including 4 schools for learners with special educational needs).
Marisa has further created a franchise model for MiniChess to scale out the program to paying students in well-resourced government, independent and private schools to create an income generation stream for the parent organization and also employment opportunities in the communities. The advantage is that an individual does not necessarily have to be a pre-qualified teacher or chess knowledgeable in order to be trained as a MiniChess coach and become a franchisee. Through this model, willing community members (after assessment) are taken through training and after qualifying as coaches, they are given the franchise, business support and a zone to operate in as business owners, under the supervision of zone and regional MiniChess managers. They now approach schools in the zone to run the program for paying students as extra-curricular or in-school classes and MiniChess gets a net of 12% of the income for administrative costs as a way of sustaining its operations. Currently the program has 34 franchises running in different zones in the country with negotiations at an advanced stage to take the franchise model to other African countries starting with Kenya, Lesotho, Tanzania, Rwanda, Madagascar and Nigeria with roll-out starting in October 2015.
Marisa is using both the funded and franchise strategies to spread the model internationally both within and outside Africa. In order to prove the effectiveness of the model in every new country, just like they did in South Africa, MiniChess (which is an evidence based model) engages its partners and other stakeholders (academic institutions, community based organizations, funders, etc.) to conduct a baseline survey to help them understand the different dynamics of ECD problems in different geographies e.g. learners’ level of competence in areas such as perceptual, spatial, numeracy, memory, coordination and gestalt development. The survey also provides baseline data for periodic monitoring and evaluation during program implementation. To aid the international spread, MiniChess has been translated into 7 demand driven languages (English, Afrikaans, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian and Kyrgyz) with current efforts to translate it into local South Africa languages such as isiZulu and isiXhosa.

Marisa’s vision is to have MiniChess as a holding company with two subsidiaries; MiniChess Franchise and MiniChess mobile game (including the MiniChess online application developed through a joint venture with Kasparov International Management). Further, an additional entity will be registered as MiniChess foundation to raise donor funding for the funded model.

The Person

Marisa, the oldest of four children, grew up in the city of Pretoria. Her father was an actuary by profession and as a hobby, both he and Marisa’s mother, played chess at a strong non-professional level. Marisa’s mother played so well that she became a South African Women Chess champion. Contrary to her parents, Marisa developed a deep passion for chess as an integrated education tool while playing chess only casually.
After graduating from the University of Pretoria with a Bachelor of Sciences degree, she began working as a scientist. She also started ‘Amatis’, a designing boutique business operated from her garage in her house which designed, made and sold clothing to boutiques. She subsequently quit her job and sold her boutique business to concentrate on raising her own family with two children.
Once her children started school, she started chess classes in her garage for kids in her neighborhood. Marisa did not realize that the program would grow significantly in a period of 20 years. Her program has produced 28 junior national chess champions in South Africa and the first female SA Women grandmaster. Through her interaction with her chess students, she began to understand that different kids have different ways of learning effectively. In reaction to this discovery she designed her chess lessons to accommodate each child’s unique learning needs, thus forming the foundation of the effective interactive teaching tool - MiniChess.
The resulting success of the kids both as chess players and also in their academic performance led her to believe that she might have stumbled on a solution to the early childhood development education crisis in South Africa. She started researching and experimenting with different pedagogies, incorporating all learning styles and linking them to the brain development potential of the children. This led her to come up with the initial MiniChess idea: using chess concepts to develop a learning program that incorporates all learning areas for holistic early childhood development.
In 2007, after almost 20 years of experimentation, Marisa developed the first learner workbooks and teacher guides for the whole curriculum and started pioneering the program with 2 schools in Pretoria. Eight years later, the program has become a big success with demand driven spread into other African countries and now moving out of Africa to other regions.