“Some Children Are More Equal Than Others” [moving documentary on SA Educ]

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Today Stefan Gottfried released his short documentary on education in South Africa, aptly named “Some Children Are More Equal Than Others.” I came into contact with Stefan last year when he was working with the Legal Resources Centre. It happened to be at the same time I was visiting mud-schools in the Eastern Cape late last year (blog post here). The documentary was produced on a shoestring budget but clearly conveys the tragedy and anguish of hundreds of thousands of parents in South Africa. The motif that runs through much of the documentary is that the low quality of education offered to the majority of South Africa’s children becomes a poverty trap and prevents any form of social mobility. It reminded me of something I wrote 2 years ago:

“While the low-level equilibrium that South Africa finds itself in has its roots in the apartheid regime of institutionalised inequality, this fact does not absolve the current administration from its responsibility to provide a quality education to every South African child. After 19 years of democratic rule most black children continue to receive an education which condemns them to the underclass of South African society, where poverty and unemployment are the norm, not the exception. This substandard education does not develop their capabilities or expand their economic opportunities, but instead denies them dignified employment and undermines their own sense of self- worth. In short, poor school performance in South Africa reinforces social inequality and leads to a situation where children inherit the social station of their parents, irrespective of their motivation or ability. Until such a time as the Department of Basic Education and the ruling administration are willing to seriously address the underlying issues in South African education, at whatever political or economic cost, the existing patterns of underperformance and inequality will remain unabated” (from here).

Although I see the tragic education stats on a daily basis, it really hits home when you see the pain and anguish of black parents who see and understand that education is the route out of poverty for their kids and are trying their hardest to get their children into “good” schools but failing at every turn. Watch the documentary and ask yourself “What can I do to change this tragic, dangerous and deeply unfair situation?”

Links I liked…


  • A book on education in Gauteng 1994-2014 has now been published. I wrote a chapter on standardised assessments. Spaull, N. (2014) Educational outcomes in Gauteng 1995-2011: An overview of provincial performance in standardised assessments, in F Maringe & M Prew (eds), Twenty Years of Education Transformation in Gauteng 1994 to 2014: An Independent Review, African Minds, Somerset West., pp 289-312
  • Free PDF books on race, sexuality, gender and class (really useful resource!)
  • Lifelines for poor children” – Nobel Laureate James Heckman writes an accessible (2013) NYT article on early childhood development. “What’s missing in the current debate over economic inequality is enough serious discussion about investing in effective early childhood development from birth to age 5.”
  • In light of the recent moves by Gauteng Department of Basic Education to introduce “paperless classrooms” we would all do well to read this chapter “Computers in schools: Why governments should do their homework.” But we will go around the mountain one more time and check for ourselves. Because how do you know if it’s a dead-end until you’ve tried it? Well, maybe because everyone else tried to do exactly what we are proposing to do and it didn’t work? If you’re not teaching teachers how to use the tech, budgeting for maintenance and most importantly evaluating the project (to figure out if it’s actually working) then it’s pretty much doomed to fail. As they say in the chapter above “The evidence so far is quite persuasive that programs that overlook teacher training and the development of software may yield low returns” (p169).  I’m all for using tech in meaningful ways but this isn’t that, this is basically “Let them eat iPads.” (also see this NYT article, “Can you have too much tech?“)
  • How Pakistan fails its children” – scathing NYT article (2014) on the state of education in Pakistan and the lack of political will for true reform.
  • The Pursuit of Beauty” – A lovely New Yorker article about a little known Chinese mathematician in the US who solved a pure-math mystery and is now famous. (Thanks Lilli for the link). It’s uplifting to hear that we humans are still making progress and pushing the boundaries of knowledge further and further every year.
  • The HSRC are looking for a Doctoral Research Trainee in Education and Skills Development (deadline for applications 6 Feb 2015). For more details see the advert here.
  • A good friend of mine Shelanna Sturgess has recently started blogging. She’s an art teacher at Durban Girls High School and has a bunch of cool stuff on art and teaching with technology, check out her site here.
  • If you want to know what perverse incentives are then read this Cullen (2003) article “The impact of fiscal incentives on disability rates” – when you give schools extra money for children with disability suddenly the number of children classfied as disabled increases…”My central estimates imply that fiscal incentives can explain nearly 40% of the recent growth in student disability rates in Texas”

Q&A with Andrew Einhorn (Numeric)

andrew einhorn

The aim of the Q&A series is to get an inside look into some of South Africa’s leading education academics, policy-makers and activists. This is the twenty-second interview in the series. Andrew Einhorn is the founder of Numeric, a South African NGO using Khan Academy to teach mathematics. 

1) Why did you decide to go into education and how did you get where you are?

I’ve missed a few big opportunities in my life. I was at Harvard when Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook. I can remember one evening considering going round to his dorm to talk about getting involved. Facebook was tiny then; it only had a few thousand members. Still, I thought it was a nice idea and wondered if I could help out. But I was busy with classes and never got around to getting in touch with him. I guess that ship has sailed.

I came back to South Africa in 2007 and got a job with a financial firm. But I had seen the Netflix model in America and wondered if it could be established here. A friend and I looked into it – it just seemed like a no-brainer. But ultimately I was still a little risk averse and couldn’t summon the chutzpah to up and leave my investment analyst position. Another opportunity missed!

A few years later I received an email from a funder querying whether Khan Academy might be used in the South African context. I watched Sal’s TED Talk and saw in it another big opportunity. This time I wasn’t too keen to let it slide. So I started to look for ways to connect this powerful online learning tool with children in townships with a view to strengthening South African maths education. Four years later, my thinking around how to use Khan Academy has changed somewhat, but I’ve never looked back and feel as motivated today (if not more) as the day I started.

2) What does your average week look like?

The truth is my days are rather unglamorous. A lot of my time is spent attending to small details – logistics and people. I have less contact time with kids than I would like, but I am satisfied that my work allows a much larger number of pre-service teachers to get valuable class time with our students. They do a great job. Better than me. My job is to make sure that everything runs smoothly and that our team of programme managers and coaches are well supported. Numeric is fortunate to have a set of supportive and clued-up funders, which means I spend relatively less time canvassing funders and more time on operations, which is a big plus.

3) While I’m sure you’ve read many books and articles in your career, if you had to pick two or three that have been especially influential for you which two or three would they be and why?

In terms of maintaining balance and a sense of perspective, Bertrand Russell’s “The Conquest of Happiness” is undoubtedly amongst the most influential books I have read. Sam Walton’s “Made in America” is an excellent read, especially if you have an entrepreneurial leaning and are considering doing something that involves scaling. 

4) Who do you think are the current two or three most influential/eminent thinkers in your field and why?

I’m not too well placed to answer this one, I’m afraid, I am woefully under-read!

5) What do you think is the most under-researched area in South African education?

I’m also not an expert here, but it does surprise me that there isn’t a bigger lobby to up the ante in the teacher-training space.

6) What is the best advice you’ve been given?

One of the most valuable insights I have come across in recent years is a quote from Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

And in a recent tweet from Ricky Gervais: “It’s better to create something that others criticise than to create nothing and criticise others. Go create! Have fun :)”

7) If you ended up sitting next to the Minister of Education on a plane and she asked you what you think are the three biggest challenges facing South African education today, what would you say?

Teacher training

Teacher training

Teacher training

8) If you weren’t in education what do you think you would be doing?

Setting up bubble tea stalls at farmers’ markets, or otherwise looking for ways to bring Italian cheese-making expertise to South Africa.

9) You founded the organization Numeric in 2011 – can you give us some background information on the organization and discuss its aims, plans and approach?

With the average score on the Grade 9 Annual National Assessment sitting at 10.8% (2014), it has become clear that South African maths education is broken well before children reach Grade 9. This has informed Numeric’s decision to focus on Grades 6 – 8. We currently run after-school maths programmes in 35 partner schools in the Western Cape and Gauteng. We recruit pre-service teachers (mostly bachelor of education students), train them intensively, and then pair them with groups of 22 learners at our partner schools. They then meet with their kids twice a week throughout the school year, and take the children through an intensive maths programme that starts with times tables and builds up through fractions, negative numbers and order of operations.

Numeric is highly quantitative in its approach. All Grade 7s and 8s at our partner schools write a baseline test in January and an endline test in November. We use these tests to measure the improvement in the scores of learners on the Numeric programme over the course of one year, net of the improvement of learners who are not on the programme. We call this measure the “delta”. The tests are created, administered and graded by an independent assessment committee, and to keep things honest, no Numeric staff member or coach has access to the tests before or after the testing. The two key metrics that drive Numeric are the delta and the cost per learner per month (CLM). Our goal is to maximize the delta and to minimse the CLM.

While the main focus of our programmes is to improve the learners’ maths, we are aware that, in the process. our coaches – future maths teachers – improve enormously both in terms of content and confidence. With the average public school teacher teaching over 5,000 kids during their career, any improvement we can bring about pre-service has positive and far-reaching consequences.

10) Three years after founding Numeric I imagine you are in a different space now than you were then, what are the lessons that you have learnt and what advice would you give to yourself 3 years ago?

When I started out, it was my naive hope that technology could be used to educate children in the absence of a (competent) teacher. I would set up computer labs, put in some bandwidth, show the kids Khan Academy, and voila, they would educate themselves!

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

While we continue to be big fans of technology (Khan Academy in particular), we are increasingly convinced that the key to generating results lies in the quality of our coaches/teachers. While at the tertiary level, platforms like Coursera, Udacity and edX have allowed people to learn things fairly independently, we believe that at the primary and secondary school level, particularly in the classroom environment, the human presence is indispensable. The role of our coaches is threefold: To motivate learners, to support them when they are struggling, and (perhaps most importantly) to praise them when they are doing well.

Due to infrastructure limitations in certain areas where we work, nearly half of our programmes run in the absence of Khan Academy. Our observation? The biggest delta is generated by the best coaches, technology or no technology.

11) What is the most frustrating and most rewarding thing about your job? 

One of the most rewarding parts of my job is working with the leadership and management of our partner schools. There is a lot of negative media around South Africa’s teachers and schools, but the picture I see is quite different. We work with some real superstars both in Johannesburg and Cape Town – principals, teachers, administrators etc. I’d like to take the media to meet them sometime!

I am occasionally frustrated by poor policy decisions, but tend not to lose too much sleep over them as they are outside of my control. And there are good people (like you guys) lobbying to get these issues rectified.

12) What would you say are the three major difficulties faced by civil-society organizations in South Africa?

It concerns me how much time and effort the founders and leaders of many civil-society organisations have to put into funding. Most organisations have fragmented funding bases with tens or even hundreds of contributors. This goes together with a donor mentality that wants to have fingers in as many pies as possible (I will give R10 000 to 10 organisations rather than R100 000 to one). The result is a large amount of administrative and communication work which usually falls to the organisation leadership. This comes at the expense of them innovating, improving and driving change. I understand that organisations mitigate risk by having a diversified funding base, but a lot of time and energy is spent dressing up social initiatives so that they can be sold to funders, rather than focusing on the problems themselves.

13) What would you most like to see change in the South African education system?

I’d like to see sensible legislation passed that makes space for charter schools. These are schools which receive public funding but operate independently of the established public school system. There are many people chomping at the bit to open and run good public schools with the government’s assistance. I think providing space for them to do so would bring a lot of talent into South African education and I suspect the government would ultimately get kudos for the improved educational outcomes.

I would also like to see sensible legislation passed that allows for independent teacher-training institutions to be opened. At present, the universities carry the entire burden of teacher training. I think there are lots of talented people outside of universities who would relish the opportunity to open and run small, high-impact teacher training institutes. The effect of such institutes, in my view, would be substantial.

Finally, I’d like to see a PR campaign that brings more talented matriculants into bachelor of education (or teacher training) programmes. As the famous American engineer Lee Iacocca once said: “In any rational society, the best of us would be teachers and the rest would make do with something else.” I have sat in too many interviews with prospective pre-service teachers where they explain to me that the bachelor of education was their second choice or their fall-back option. This mentality needs to change. There are few professions that compare in importance with that of teaching and it’s time we communicate this to young South Africans and bring our best into the teaching profession.


Some of the others on my “to-interview” list include Veronica McKay, Thabo Mabogoane, Maurita-Glynn Weissenberg, Shelley O’Carroll, Carole Bloch, Yael Shalem, Linda Richter and Volker Wedekind. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.

Previous participants (with links to their Q&A’s) include, Johan MullerUrsula HoadleyStephen TaylorServaas van der BergElizabeth HenningBrahm FleischMary Metcalfe, Martin Gustafsson, Eric AtmoreDoron IsaacsJoy OliverHamsa VenkatLinda Biersteker, Jonathan ClarkeMichael MyburghPercy Moleke , Wayne Hugo, Lilli PretoriusPaula EnsorCarol Macdonald and Jill Adler.

Curro private school assigns kids to classes based on race. WTF?!


It would seem that as far as education is concerned 2015 is not off to a good start. First we had the MEC for education in KZN explaining that her “visions of an ideal education system” include 18th century pseudo-science, namely streaming 6 year old children based on the size and shape of their skulls (phrenology) and the style of their handwriting (graphology). She has subsequently apologized to “everyone who felt offended” but did not retract the statement. Now this week Eyewitness News reports that a private school in Pretoria – Curro Roodeplaat – is assigning children to classes based on race?! They report that a group of 30 parents have signed a petition demanding an explanation from the school and the company. The explanation given by the company (Curro is one of the few for-profit private school chains in the country) was equally dumb-founding.  Curro Holdings’ regional manager Andre Pollard explained their rationale as follows:

“It’s not because we would like to segregate the whites, it’s just because of friends. Children are able to make friends with children of their culture.”

This sounds like a social/friendship-based version of ‘separate development.’ Fifty-two years ago the Bantu Education Act was made into law, segregating children based on the colour of their skin. Still today we are dealing with the aftermath of that one piece of legislation. By conflating education and subjugation it transformed our schools from sites of learning to sites of activism and resistance. It destroyed the culture of teaching and learning and created a lingering fear of education as an instrument of political subjugation.

With a history such as ours how can a school possibly argue that separating children based on race or ‘culture’ is necessary?! The sheer nerve that their regional manager can justify this racial segregation saying that children find it easier to make friends with children of their own culture is astounding and shameful. This is not the first time I have heard about racial discrimination in Pretoria’s Curro schools, but it is the first time I have seen it reported in the media. Currently there are 43 Curro schools across the country raising revenue of over R400 million in 2014. The company recently invested R1,5 billion in expanding their facilities with an aim of reaching 80 schools by 2020.  Only 4% of South African students attend Independent (i.e. non-public) schools but the vast majority of those are not-for-profit schools with about 0,4% attending for-profit schools like Curro.

While we might be tempted to brush this off as an isolated instance at a single Curro school, we need to ask why this behaviour is seen as acceptable by their regional manager? Curro needs to unequivocally condemn these practices and ensure that they are not practiced at any of their other schools. Looking at the speeches and policies at the time of our transition one can clearly see that education was (and is) seen as one of the most promising channels of integration, nation-building and transformation. The actions of this school show utter contempt for the democratic project in South Africa. There are many amazing Independent schools in this country who offer high quality education in a socially inclusive and culturally sensitive way. It would seem that Curro Roodeplaat is not one of them.

The ideal school system to get one’s head around [my Sunday Times article]


[This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on the 25th of January 2015, it is also available online on Daily Maverick]
Earlier this month the MEC for Basic Education in KwaZulu-Natal, Ms Nelisiwe Peggy Nkonyeni, announced the provincial results of the 2014 matric class. Reading through her speech, it was difficult to know whether to laugh, cry or scream, and in the end one could but shake one’s head in disbelief.

After re-reading the speech, and checking online that this wasn’t in fact a hoax, one could only settle on anger and outrage. Reading through the concluding remarks of Nkonyeni’s speech, it is not hard to see why.

“As I conclude, I revisit the thoughts that guide my innermost conscience in the execution of my responsibilities. Visions of an ideal education system dominate my thinking. In the realm of my thought world, I wish […] That our system could have graphologists who would analyse the uniqueness of each child’s handwriting and channel them accordingly […] That philosophy could be a subject offered at a basic education level so that the system could produce critical thinkers; that chess lessons could be offered to all mathematics learners in order to improve their mathematical schools; and that our system could train and produce phrenologists who would study the shape of a child’s head at Grade R so that we channel the children accordingly”

(MEC Nkonyeni, 7 Jan 2015).

I’m sorry, but you really cannot make this kind of stuff up. Essentially, we can summarise the above and say that the four things that “dominate” the thinking of the KZN MEC for Basic Education are graphology, philosophy, phrenology and chess. Given that there is some international research showing that chess and philosophy can have a positive impact on educational achievement, I will put those two aside for now and discuss the other two issues. This is not to say that I see chess and philosophy as solutions to our education crisis (I don’t), but only that the other two – phrenology and graphology – are so outlandishly ridiculous and unscientific that I do not want to lend them credibility by association.

To be clear, phrenology aims to make judgements about a person’s character and mental capacity based on the structure of their skull, while graphology aims to make similar judgements by analysing the physical characteristics and patterns of their handwriting. Both of these fields are generally considered pseudo-science, since they have no scientific evidence base whatsoever, and have been debunked for over 100 years already.

The fact that MEC Nkonyeni uses these fringe theories to “guide her innermost conscience” and is on record stating that they dominate her “vision of an ideal education system” is deeply problematic. We are talking about the most basic possible level of scientific literacy. To quote one definition of scientific literacy, it refers to “distinguishing scientific facts and theories from pseudoscientific beliefs such as those found in astrology, alchemy, medical quackery and the occult”. If we are willing to stream our children in Grade R based on phrenology and graphology, why not horoscopes and palm readings?

One might be tempted to brush off these statements as harmless rhetoric from a left-field thinker and that these beliefs couldn’t possibly make their way into public policy. However, it would be wise to recall what happened in the province under her leadership as MEC for Health a decade ago. Based on her medical beliefs, she refused to give the go-ahead for the use of ARVs in the treatment of HIV-positive individuals, claiming that they were toxic and had bad side effects. Instead, she encouraged HIV-positive people to take uBhejane, an untested herbal concoction. As we all know, anti-retroviral therapy is now the standard of care for those who are HIV positive. The fact that this life-saving treatment was denied to hundreds of thousands of people for many years because of the MEC’s pseudo-scientific beliefs is one of the enduring scars on our country’s medical history. Seen in this light these statements about phrenology and graphology don’t seem so harmless anymore.

These are not just the careless statements of an unimportant politician. Ms Nkonyeni is the MEC for Basic Education in our most populous province. She is directly responsible for the education of every child in KwaZulu-Natal, i.e. 2,901,697 children in 6,151 schools (23% of all South African students, to be specific). She also oversees the largest single provincial budget in the country (R39,4 billion). And she wants to stream your children when they are six years old based on the size and shape of their skulls?! You cannot make this stuff up.

As an educational researcher in South Africa, I am deeply concerned that these are the principles that are guiding the educational leadership of KwaZulu-Natal. We have more than enough problems dealing with the education crisis in our country as it is. Careless statements about pseudo-scientific beliefs undermine the legitimacy of the education department in KZN and cast doubt on the strategic direction of education in the province. MEC Nkonyeni needs to clarify her views on graphology and phrenology and issue a public statement assuring parents that they will not influence education policy in the province in any way, shape or form. “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Q&A with Jill Adler


The aim of the Q&A series is to get an inside look into some of South Africa’s leading education academics, policy-makers and activists. This is the twenty first interview in the series. Jill Adler is a professor in the education faculty at Wits and Chair of Mathematics Education. 

1)   Why did you decide to go into education?

I always loved mathematics, and was inspired by particular teachers in both primary and secondary schools, and so I went to University to study mathematics. I gave “extra mathematics lessons” while I was doing my degree and enjoyed this (as well as earning quite well from it) and so went on from a B Sc to do my professional teaching diploma. Psychology was my second major – this also wasn’t in my original plan – I had thought I would do Applied Maths, but I enjoyed Psychology in first year and so continued, and then enjoyed work on child development, learning and so on. So I moved into teaching – rather than set out to teach, or work in education. When I began my working career as a secondary mathematics teacher, I had no intention of becoming an academic and researcher in education. My first post was in a so-called ‘coloured’ school in Cape Town, a school with a strong political identity tied to the Unity Movement. This strengthened my concerns with and interest in educational inequality. My work turned in that direction, and in 1977 I went to work at the SACHED trust. I wrote mathematics materials for Weekend World Newspaper (which was banned in 1977) and then Sunday Post, and found in the early 1980s that the materials were being used by adults working in various sectors including the mines. This stimulated research that led to my Masters degree which focused on “Adults learning mathematics through the newspaper”. I tracked down and interviewed a group of these aduts and learned a great deal about what it meant for many to return to study – and do this through a written mass medium; of course I also learned about how mathematics can be communicated in that medium. And as they say, the rest is history. After completing my Masters, and my children were a little older, I decided to re-enter formal teaching and the university sector, and was fortunate to get a lecturing position first in primary mathematics at what was then JCE and then in the Department of Education, at Wits.

2)   What does your average week look like?

It’s busy! I don’t have an ‘average’ week – my work spreads across all components of research, teaching both post graduate courses and professional development, lots of post graduate supervision, reviewing journal papers, writing references, assisting others with papers they are working on, and running a large project (managing staff, finances, reporting) and so on. This is my current work and a function of the position of Chair of Mathematics Education, and director of a large research and development project – my work spread is not the same as it was five years ago before I took on this chair. Broadly my time is shared between supporting the professional development work we do in schools, and doing and supporting the research that is linked to this work, with a large proportion of time supporting full time doctoral students in the project. I teach less than I did before. I travel internationally a fair amount, to conferences and for other international work I do. Also, until July 2014, I held a joint part time Professorship at Kings College London, and so spent time there each year … I am now a visiting professor, and only continue with some doctoral supervision. I will still spend some time there, but not as much and with less commitment and work demands.

3)   While I’m sure you’ve read many books and articles in your career, if you had to pick one or two that have been especially influential for you which one or two would they be and why?

Interesting as I think about this, Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation had an immense effect on me. I happened to read this while I was working on my PhD, and it provided a different gaze on what it meant to learn and live in a language that was not your mother tongue, or as she called it, the language of her heart and emotions. I have since read much of her work, the most powerful of which was After Such Knowledge: Meditations on the Holocaust. The latter, a philosophical and social commentary rather than an academic text, has contributed significantly to my understanding of the social world, as well as some of my own location in history.

Most influential at the start of my academic career was Lev Vygotsky’s work: Mind in Society and Thought and Language. As a mathematics education researcher I am always working between educational theory and literature in mathematics education. With my early work on teaching mathematics in multilingual classrooms, David Pimm’s book Speaking Mathematically was pivotal in turning my attention to mathematical language more generally. More recently, with my interest in mathematical knowledge in and for teaching and particularly what is produced as mathematics in teacher education practice, influential resources are Basil Bernstein’s Pedagogy, Symbolic Control and Identity, and Anna Sfard’s Thinking as Communicating and then the extensive work done by Deborah Ball in the past decade. I could go on, as I enjoy reading, and spend time relaxing with whodunnits …

4)   Who do you think are the current two or three most influential/eminent thinkers in your field and why?

Three people come to mind: Anna Sfard and Luis Radford are both influential and eminent thinkers in mathematics education today. Each has and continue to develop a theory of mathematics learning, Anna through a quite radical discursive turn, and Luis also with semiotics, with a stronger cultural activity orientation. Both have produced rigorous and conceptually complex frames with which to engage (describe and explain) mathematics teaching and learning. And then Steve Lerman, long time collaborator and friend, for his breadth of knowledge and wisdom in our field and his continuing work related to the social turn as he named it many years ago.

5)   What do you think is the most under-researched area in South African education?

I think our whole field of educational research in South Africa is relatively young. There is so much we need to know more about, and from the empirical base of our schools, classrooms and learners. I think the transition years from primary into secondary mathematics what teachers need to know and do to teach across subjects at that level are very poorly understood. This is critical in mathematics where the move to greater abstraction and working with symbolic forms emerges. It is also a critical point where we need to know more about what it means to learn and teach mathematics in a dominant minority but extremely powerful language (English).

6)   What is the best academic advice you’ve been given?

To be a learner … a good researcher has to be willing to be a learner … to be in a position of ‘not knowing’, and then learning through and from research.

 7) You have been involved in mathematics teacher education at WITS for a long time – in your experience what are the two or three areas that students struggle with most when they become teachers and start teaching in schools?

Just coping with the demands of a full time teaching job in the first year is difficult enough for anyone. Teaching is very hard work. Those entering first year on the job are lucky if they come into a school where there is a depth and range of experience and so can support you in the first year. Just keeping up with the work to be done is challenge enough. For mathematics teachers going into many of our secondary schools, a real struggle is dealing with the backlog in learner knowledge – this compounds the difficulties of teaching “all your learners” and moving on at a pace demanded by the curriculum.

8) There is widespread agreement in the mathematics education literature in South Africa that a large proportion of mathematics teachers do not have the content knowledge and pedagogical skill to teach mathematics effectively. What do you think are the most promising models or interventions that deserve further investigation or evaluation?

Given our history, and the way in which apartheid education ravaged both sense of self, and of knowledge and learning, I think the models that require support NOW, are those that provide practicing teachers sufficient TIME to (re)learn mathematics, more specifically what the field calls ‘mathematics for teaching’. The model we have developed in the Wits Maths Connect Project is promising – it is grounded in a conception of mathematics for teaching, and takes place over 16 – 20 days, spread over an academic year. We have shown that when teachers have opportunity AND TIME to strengthen their relationship with mathematics (and by this I mean relearn mathematics they teach in greater depth, and learn new mathematics, while becoming more mathematical in how they think when doing mathematics) this impacts on the learning gains of their students. The model includes a version of lesson study – and so work on teaching and thus pedagogical skill. But even in our lesson study model, the focus is on what we call the object of learning – what learners are to know and be able to do mathematically, and how this is or is not brought into focus with learners in a lesson.

9)   If you ended up sitting next to the Minister of Education on a plane and she asked you what you think are the three biggest challenges facing South African education today, what would you say?

Hmm, an interesting question. Building respect for the profession, and the work of teaching is a huge challenge, and it requires engaging the organisation of the profession where at a public level, employment conditions and mainly salary is the issue. Changing that conversation to be one that is equally concerned about learners and learning is first and foremost. Second, I would focus on the challenges of time and knowledge in our education. We have systemic problems, underpinned by weak orientations to knowledge (whatever the discipline. Becoming knowledgeable – and that is what is needed for teaching – takes time, no matter what your discipline is; and it requires deep respect for the learning/teaching process.

10)   If you weren’t in education what do you think you would be doing?

 I suppose I would be in social service of some kind, or perhaps child psychology?

11)   Technology in education going forward – are you a fan or a sceptic?

Neither – any tool only takes on power in use. We can make more productive use of a range of technologies … if and only if we understand their use is never separate from the user and their context and conditions.

12) If you were given a R5million research grant what would you use it for? 

This could sound like a lot of money – depending on what it has to pay for, it could also do very little. The short of it is that I am doing the research I want to do, and think is important – studying the inter-relation between mathematics teaching in secondary school, mathematics teacher education and professional development, and student learning.


A full list of Gill’s research can be found here and here.

Some of the others on my “to-interview” list include Veronica McKay, Thabo Mabogoane, Andrew Einhorn, Maurita-Glynn Weissenberg, Shelley O’Carroll, Carole Bloch, Yael Shalem, Linda Richter and Volker Wedekind. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.

Previous participants (with links to their Q&A’s) include, Johan MullerUrsula HoadleyStephen TaylorServaas van der BergElizabeth HenningBrahm FleischMary Metcalfe, Martin Gustafsson, Eric AtmoreDoron IsaacsJoy OliverHamsa VenkatLinda Biersteker, Jonathan ClarkeMichael MyburghPercy Moleke , Wayne Hugo, Lilli PretoriusPaula Ensor and Carol Macdonald.

Links I liked :)

 dead fish

  • My presentation on the matric results 2014 (22 Jan 2015). Matric 2015: Understanding the results, interrogating the issues. Presentation at Eduvate’s Ed-Tech seminar (Stellenbosch)
  • Judge orders government officials to personally pay up” – this is an interesting development in SA. Unbelievably shocking story.
  • Report on an early grade reading initiative that showed promise but wasn’t followed up on :( Impact Study of SMRS Using Early Grade Reading Assessment in Three Provinces in South Africa  – I was alerted to this by Nick Taylor’s excellent 2013 NEEDU Reading Report (draft version)
  • Formative evaluation of workbooks and textbooks in South Africa” – Study by ACER.
  • Interesting article on “The superiority of economists
  • Great 2012 podcast on “True Grit” by Angela Duckworth. Are there any good SA psychologists/educationists doing research on this topic of perseverance, self-control and grit? If so please include in the comments. If not, someone get on it!
  • Minimum wages: the choices are not simple – UCT’s Seekings and Nattrass weigh in on the debate.
  • Great example of the power of open-source / Creative Commons – someone has curated the awesome aerial photos NASA takes. Free wallpapers for your phone.
  • DG Murray Trust Hands-on Learning Brief: Scaling up ECD in SA
  • Full list of presentations (and slides) from UNICEF’s recent Knowledge Building Seminar on Early Childhood Development (ECD) – I would recommend looking over the presentations by Mark Tomlinson, Linda Biersteker, Marie-Louise Samuels, Linda Richter and Jean Elphick.
  • Useful organogram of the Western Cape Education Department (thanks Mike Wilter)
  • Isabel Allende “This I believe: In giving I connect with others” – extremely moving one page essay about finding meaning in giving. I’ve added this to my list of “higher truths”
  • Private school effects in urban and rural India” – “The results have several implications of interest for policy-makers. Combined with previous work highlighting that the average cost per child in rural private schools is a fraction of the average cost in the state schools, and that private schools dedicate less instructional time to Telugu and Mathematics, they suggest strongly that private schools are considerably more productive than government schools. However, they also imply that the spread of private schools is unlikely to raise average achievement levels as measured by math skills or functional literacy significantly; with the exception of English, I do not find any large and consistently positive ‘private school effect’. To the extent that the first-order concern for education policy in India remains the abysmally low levels of achievement in general, rather than the inefficiencies in the delivery of education services, the spread of private schooling by itself is clearly not an adequate solution. The large and significant private school premium in English, provided without any trade-off in other subjects in the case of Telugu-medium private schools and only a modest trade-off in English-medium schools, could lead to a possibly large wage premium for private school students in the future. Combined with the selectivity on socio-economic background in the private sector, this premium provides possible grounds for concern that private schools hinder social mobility and facilitate the intergenerational persistence of socio-economic status.”
  • Quote of the week: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. […] Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” — Frederick Douglass, leader and one-time slave, in “An address on West India Emancipation” (via Jon Hodgson)
  • “Without words, without writing and without books there would be no history, there would be no concept of humanity.” – Hermann Hesse (On Lilli Pretorius’ recommendation I’m now listening to “Proust and the Squid” by Maryanne Wolf (first Audible book free)