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)

Q&A with Carol Macdonald

CarolThe 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 twentieth interview in the series. Carol Macdonald is a research fellow associated with the Department of Linguistics and Modern Languages at UNISA and also undertakes consulting work in the field of education and linguistics.

1)   Why did you decide to go into education?

I lived in the UK for five years doing a Masters and PhD. I would have loved to live over there, but it seemed best to come home. I decided that if I were to work in South Africa then I would necessarily have to work in black education. There wasn’t a choice. Otherwise I might just as well have stayed in Scotland.

2)   What does your average week look like?

 It depends if I am fatigued or not: I generally work about 40 hours, spread over seven days, I find the late morning and early evening are my most productive times. I do contract work and also academic work, and try not to go out in the week. It’s astonishing to me that people think I can take bites out of my working day simply because I work from home. Nobody would make that assumption if I worked in an office.

 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?

I read Curriculum and Reality by Hugh Hawes in the mid-eighties, and it seemed to capture the contradictions of African education. The work of Clifford Geertz, an anthropologist taught me a great deal about ethnography. The work of Piaget (numberless articles and books) helped me to understand meta-theory, and then the Collected Works of Vygotsky have been seminal in my life, partly also about meta-theory. I have gone on to read extensively in Cultural Historical Activity Theory, including Mike Cole and Andy Blunden, and am on the XMCA list serv where we discuss issues on a daily basis. You can see then that theoretical psychology (and not linguistics) is my preferred mode. However, I do keep abreast of developments in second language learning in primary school: I have an enduring interest in the relationship between language and cognition.

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

Clifford Geertz, Piaget (and Neo-Piagetians), Vygotsky, Cole, Blunden, Whitehead, Polanyi. This covers the broad interests I described under 3) above.

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

 The effects of rapid curriculum change on the confidence and practice of teachers. They are not treated with the respect they deserve. Educational change is stressful, and so too much change is even more stressful. I do understand that this kind of rapid change is a world-wide phenomenon, but we haven’t looked at the effects in our context.

I think we need to make a detailed study of the use of LTSM. In developed educational systems teachers only give a cursory look at textbooks, and tend to develop their own materials or use several sources. We need to know what happens when the challenges are much greater in context like our own.

We also need to have a long hard look at lack of prestige when young people go into education. Education is the easiest faculty to get into – the lowest number of matric points. There are so few really bright undergraduates in education, yet we entrust the future of the country to these young people. We need to look at countries like Finland where teaching is a highly respected profession.

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

 Margaret Donaldson, my PhD supervisor (and a doyen of child development), told me that one doesn’t have to read everything, one can think for oneself. That has built my confidence about moving out of my academic comfort zone. Then Len Lanham wrote a reference for me which said that I would rise to a prominent position in research and teaching in South Africa. I was about 22 at the time, and overwhelmed by this prospect, but I learned to grow into it. When I gave Lanham the six reports of the Threshold Project – he said “This is just the beginning”. I had to grow into that view too. If people trust you, you learn to fulfil what they hope for you. I have tried to pass this type of confidence on to my students.

7) In the late 1980s you lead a team of researchers in the Threshold Project. This has been an especially influential study looking at the transition from an African language into English. Can you give us a brief overview of the study, its findings and why you think it has been so influential?

From pilot studies I worked out that African children were having difficulties in making the transition from the first language to English as the medium of instruction in Std 3 (grade 5). We looked at a number of aspects. We looked at language teaching and testing, cognitive development, materials development, and school-based learning experiences. We also had a detailed study of textbooks – and the gap between English as a subject and English as the medium of education. We tried to break new ground in understanding the nature of educational development in the local context. Much of the information we derived should up the difficulties the teachers and learners were having in general in their schools and school practices. We came up with a range of policy options which could be used, based on choice at the school level. We stressed the need for deep literacy practice in the home language. (This remains a key issue right here and now.)

8) Knowing what you know now, if you were to do an update study of the Threshold Project, can you give us a brief sketch of the kind of research that you would do and what you would look into and how?

I might ask some of the same questions, but with an updated spin on the research. Although there are more children in the schools and they are generally better resourced, I think there are still critical gaps. One example would be the rapid turnout of textbooks with not much informed thought going into them. I would go into a deeper analysis of pedagogy. I would look at what constitutes a robust school. I would look at the sustainability of change, and what deep change looks like. Having said that, there would never be such an opportunity to do basic and applied research on the same scale now. There is now a great deal of emphasis on implementation.

9) If you had to go back 20 years and give yourself advice, what would you say?

I would still have pursued the same course (as I really try to live mindfully), but I might have looked more at educational policy, change and systemic change. I would have tried to keep out of tertiary teaching of undergraduates. I would have tried to move into being a Reader rather than a Lecturer right at the beginning.

10) If you had to pick 2 or 3 ‘reasons’ why most African language learners battle to transition to English in grade 4 which ones would you pick and why?

The absence of deep literacy at home. The poor management of resources like libraries, and classroom libraries. The failure of the teachers to realise what it takes to inculcate the practices of literacy, particularly in the Foundation Phases. This is because they never experienced this for themselves as learners and students.

11)   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?

 I would first commiserate with her for having such a daunting job. Then I would share with her about what I said in 10) above. Finally I would talk to her above the professional burden on teachers in the context of excessive and continuous curriculum revisions. Finally I would talk to her about the range of learners we have locally, and why their needs would not be met by all having the same textbook – that is really a very silly suggestion.

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

I would be doing theoretical psychology. (Actually you can do that in education too, of course!)

13)   Technology in education going forward – are you a fan or a sceptic and why?

I am a great fan of technology. We have access to so much information on the web; we can search so easily for articles online. But it should remain a tool rather than something which controls us. It’s not a panacea.  Social media sometimes supplants real contact, so a balance should be struck.

14) If you were given a R15million research grant what would you use it for? 

I would first ask if it was for basic or applied research (although it is very likely to be the latter). That would determine the range of questions I would address. I would like to have a project to run for five years. The most interesting questions tend to pop up in the third year.

Probably the most important aspect would be to pull in promising young research and mentor them. At the ripe age of 61, that is the key contribution I can make.


A list of Carol’s publications can be found here, and I would strongly recommend her short book Eager to talk and learn and think – Threshold Project (1991) which she co-wrote with Burroughs. 

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, Jill Adler, 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 Pretorius, and Paula Ensor.

How to raise the ‘real’ matric pass rate [my Africa Check article on Matric 2014]

matric 2

[This article first appeared on Africa Check on the 13th of January 2014]

The release of the 2014 matric results last week followed the now familiar routine of focussing primarily on the pass rate and how it changed, both nationally and provincially.

The notion of the matric pass rate is one that is deeply rooted in the South African psyche and seen as perhaps the most important indicator of education in the country. This is extremely short sighted.

The public, and it would seem the Minister as well, believe that if the pass rate goes up then the quality of education is improving, and if it goes down then this is an omen of deteriorating quality, or – as was the case in 2014 – due to some other factor like a change in the curriculum.

The problem is that the matric pass rate is a function of the students that actually reach and write matric. More and more commentators and critics are beginning to understand why the pass rate seen in isolation is problematic and in many instances misleading.

To illustrate; of 100 students that started school in 2003, only 49 made it to matric in 2014, 37 passed and 14 qualified to go to university. The pass rate is calculated by dividing the number of students that pass matric (37 of the 100) by those that wrote matric (49 of the 100), yielding 76% in 2014.

However, a more appropriate measure would be to calculate what proportion of a cohort that started school 12 years ago passed matric – what some people are calling the ‘real’ matric pass rate or the throughput-pass-rate. That would be about 36% for 2014, down from 40% in 2013.

(For those interested in the actual numbers the calculation is 403,874 students who passed matric in 2014 divided by the 1,085,570 students that were enrolled in grade 2 in 2004. I use Grade 2 figures as the proxy for the true size of the starting cohort because there is excess grade repetition in Grade 1, leading to an overestimate of cohort size if one uses Grade 1 enrolments.)

 As a nation with a skills shortage and a below average proportion of youth that complete upper secondary school, we should be very concerned that there were fewer students reaching and writing matric than last year.

The table below shows that although there had been a general increase in the throughput rate from 2010 to 2013, the rate came down in 2014. This year there were 29,252 fewer matric candidates than in 2013. Part of this is that 2014 was a smaller cohort than 2013, but the lower throughput rate is also part of the story.

Table 1: Students writing and passing matric relative to initial cohorts at public ordinary schools only (Education Statistics at a Glance and Matric 2014 Technical Report)

  Grade 2 students 10 years earlier (i.e. in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004) Students writing matric in 2014 Students passing matric in 2014 Traditional matric pass rate Throughput pass-rate from grade 2 to matric (proportion of grade 2’s 10 years earlier who passed matric)
2010 1,071,053 537,543 364,147 68% 34%
2011 925,761 496,090 348,117 70% 38%
2012 992,797 511,152 377,829 74% 38%
2013 1,087,933 562,112 439,779 78% 40%
2014 1,085,570 532,860 403,874 76% 37%

What causes fewer students to reach matric in one year relative to the previous year? It could be external changes that affect cohort sizes (like the change of age-of-entry policy in 1999). But it can also be through the direct actions and influences of principals, teachers and district officials. Given the attention and emphasis on the matric pass rate (for schools, districts and provinces), there are a number of people who have an incentive to ensure that the matric pass rate goes up, irrespective of how this is achieved.

For example in October 2014 the MEC for Basic Education in Gauteng, Panyaza Lesufi, explained to his district officials that “Any district that drops, even if it’s by 0.01 percent, before you give me the results, put the resignation letter on top.” This kind of approach to the matric pass rate introduces severe unintended consequences like teachers encouraging weaker students to leave school or repeatedly failing them in grade 11. Or, as was the case in some schools in the country, resorting to cheating and conspiring with students. I am all for more accountability in education in South Africa (including in the bureaucracy), but what exactly can a district official do in October to improve the outcomes in matric one month later? By all means set performance targets, but set the right ones. Like measuring the throughput pass-rate from grade 8 to matric, a far more sensible metric to use for accountability purposes (i.e. what proportion of grade 8 students in 2010 passed matric in 2014 relative to the throughput pass rate the previous year?) This is not an especially new argument. Nick Taylor, the CEO of the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit (NEEDU) commenting in 2011 explained the tension between quantity and quality as follows:

“Because the pass rate is a ratio consisting of two numbers—numbers of passes as a fraction of numbers of candidates—it can be improved by changing either or both these quantities. In the period 1999 to 2003 the one that was changed was the number of candidates: fewer children were given the opportunity to write matric whereas the number of passes stayed about the same. The result was that the pass rate went up and the government claimed victory… Ironically, although the 1999 to 2003 period received public approval for its increased pass rate, this was a period of declining quality that was achieved in two ways: encouraging candidates to register at the easier standard-grade level and lowering standards by making the examination papers easier, focusing largely on cognitive skills of an elementary nature at the expense of the higher-order processes of analysis and interpretation. In short, improved efficiency can be achieved by restricting opportunity or by compromising quality, or both, and this is what happened at the time.”

In light of the above statistics, it seems logical to ask not only how many students drop out (answer: 550,000), but also why they drop out. Perhaps the most comprehensive analysis of dropout is the article by Dr Martin Gustafsson titled “The when and how of leaving school.” In it he explains the reasons why South African students drop out, and in which grades they do so. Household surveys show that when youth are asked why they dropped out of secondary school, the four most prominent reasons were (1) lack of financing, (2) wanting to look for a job, (3) failing grades, and (4) pregnancy (for female learners). I would like to focus briefly on the last of these – pregnancy as the major cause of dropout for female students.

In 2010 there were 480,157 female students enrolled in grade 8, but by matric 2014 there were now only 289,795 female students. So 190,362 dropped out between 2010 and 2014. We know from household surveys that that 42% of female students that dropped out of school listed pregnancy as the reason. So a few back of the envelope calculations reveals that 79,952 female students dropped out of school between 2010 and 2014 because they fell pregnant (a figure close to the Department’s own estimates). This cause of dropout for girls is well defined and relatively well understood.

Despite being against policy, excluding pregnant students from school is widely practiced in South Africa, both formally and informally. In 2008 and 2009 school governing bodies at Welkom High School and Harmony High School in the Free State adopted pregnancy policies for their respective schools that allowed for the automatic exclusion of any learner from school in the event of her falling pregnant. In July 2013 the Constitutional Court ruled that this was unconstitutional and that pregnancy policies which exclude pregnant girls from attending class are prima facie a violation of pregnant learners rights to equality, basic education, human dignity and privacy.

While this cause of dropout primarily affects female learners, the fact that it is so well defined and measurable means that it is highly actionable from a policy perspective. There need to be better advocacy campaigns directed at youth – about sex, contraception, teenage pregnancy and the constitutional right to education of pregnant students. But there also needs to be tighter enforcement of policies that prevent unfair discrimination against pregnant girls. Perhaps most importantly the Department needs to develop workable solutions to facilitate the re-integration of school-age mothers after giving birth.

Decreasing pregnancy related dropout is likely to make a large dent in the 550,000 students that drop out of school before matric. Of course there are larger causes of dropout – notably the low quality of primary and secondary education and the lack of vocational opportunities – but these are notoriously difficult to understand and remediate. The fact that so little is done to firstly prevent teenage pregnancy, secondly to support pregnant learners, and thirdly to re-integrate school-age mothers, means that there is huge potential to improve the educational outcomes and life chances of thousands of girls in South Africa, and decrease dropout in the process.


For further reading on matric see the following articles:



Education woes go far deeper than matric pass rate [my Sunday Times article on Matric 2014]


[This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on the 11th of January 2014]

It’s at times like these that I sympathise with the Department of Basic Education and Minister Motshekga. Like the Goldilocks problem, it seems that nothing can be ‘just right.’ If the matric pass rate goes up, then standards are falling, but if it goes down then interventions are failing. Yet with the new, more rigorous CAPS curriculum we did expect the 2014 matric results to come down slightly. Yet there are many other problems we should be discussing. This year, as with previous years, not enough official attention was given to the high dropout rate. Of 100 students that started school in 2003, only 48 wrote matric in 2014, 36 passed and 14 qualified to go to university. I’ve been told by some that now is not the right time to talk about this. But when is the right time to talk about dropout? June? September? It’s never comfortable or convenient to talk about half a million children dropping out of school and facing unemployment or menial work – something that happens year in and year out. And lest you think these students are going to FET colleges or vocational training, let’s look at the stats. Household surveys show that only 1% of youths who did not hold a matric certificate held some other non-Grade 12 school certificate or diploma issued by an FET college for example. The rest have no educational qualifications whatsoever. It is highly problematic that around 60% of South African youth end up with no national or widely recognised educational qualification, despite spending a relatively high number of years in education. To be clear, the aim of education should not be to get everyone to matric. Rather we need trustworthy and credible exams at the grade 9 level, and legitimate vocational options with clear occupational roles that students are being prepared for.

This year we were also made aware of a surge in matric cheating with 5305 candidates implicated in 2014, more than ten times as many as in 2013 (473). Furthermore, the findings of ‘group copying’ by Umalusi (the quality assurance body) raises serious concerns about the involvement and complicity of teachers, departmental officials and examinations officers.


Much has already been said in the media about the drop in mathematics performance and the mathematics crisis in South Africa. Let me rather talk about another subject that should be receiving as much attention: English First Additional Language (EFAL). In South Africa students take at least one home language and one first additional (i.e. second) language. EFAL is the largest single subject in matric with 81% of all matric students writing the exam in 2014. One might expect weak performance in this subject given that most international assessments that South Africa participates in show that our students perform two to four grade levels behind their peers in reading literacy. However, the 2014 pass rate for English First Additional Language was 98%. This is largely because EFAL is set at the same standard as all the other First Additional Language subjects which are relatively easy and prioritize communication. Yet, as the 2014 Ministerial Task Team on the NSC identifies, “EFAL does not and cannot fulfil the same purpose in the curriculum as the other 10 First Additional Languages.” This is primarily because the purpose of EFAL for most students is not only communicative efficiency, but also to prepare students to learn all their other subjects in English (their second language) and to prepare them for the world of work. The Task Team report goes on to explain that most of these students are only ‘semi-lingual’ in either their home language or in English. One only needs to look at the EFAL curriculum and the EFAL exams to know why. In 2010 the EFAL exams were reviewed by a number of international benchmarking authorities. The Cambridge International Examinations body concluded that “reliance on testing memorisation and recall, rather than critical thinking and analytical and evaluation skills” was a major problem. The Australian Board of Studies New South Wales did not mince their words when they explained that “The cognitive levels assessed in the examination questions are heavily weighted towards lower-order skills…The grammatical activities themselves are meaningless and reflect a drill and practice approach to language learning which does not support the need to develop students’ language for work and participation in the broader community.” These are the same sentiments that are repeatedly expressed by business leaders and those in higher education institutions in South Africa.

The Task Team report also highlighted the low levels of English proficiency among teachers for whom English is a second language, a severe problem that is widely acknowledged in the research literature. Yet interventions to improve teacher subject knowledge in English are meagre and wholly inadequate. During the course of 2013 South African teachers who have English as a second language had a maximum of three hours of English training, and in four provinces they had none. You do not become proficient in a language with 2-3 hours of training. This is not learning how to play Sudoku. The two main reasons for the low levels of in-service teacher training are firstly that there are so few high-quality training programs available to teachers (none of which are properly evaluated), and secondly that teacher training is seen as too expensive for the Department. This is largely because many teachers, vigorously backed by their union, refuse to attend training courses unless there is additional pay for it. This makes training inordinately expensive. Alternatively the training must happen during school hours, which is basically standard practice across the country (despite it being against policy). Yet all of this is quite ridiculous and unnecessary. All South African teachers are already being paid for 80 hours of professional development per year as part of their existing employment contracts (see Government Gazette, Notice 222 of 18 February 1999, Chapter A, Number 3.2, Section D). Yet nationally representative data show that the average South African teacher spends less than 40 hours on professional development per year?

More questions than answers

We need to end our infantile obsession with the matric pass rate and move on to talking about the real issues affecting education. Poor performance in matric is rooted in weak foundations in grades 1-3. Rather than frown about the two percentage point drop in the pass rate, we should be asking why only one in three students who took maths or science scored above 40% in either subject in 2014? Or why so few take these subjects. Or why 40% of our matrics are taking Business Studies and 20% are taking Tourism, when in reality these are empty subjects that are ill conceived and prepare them for nothing? Researchers at Wits have highlighted this problem before, with Stephanie Allais concluding that, “Vast numbers of our children enrol for semi-vocational subjects that are not teaching them either robust academic skills by building concepts and knowledge, nor preparing them for work in any meaningful way.” Is there any plan to reform these curricula and the way that they are taught? Is there any commitment from the Department that from next year they will report the ‘real’ matric pass rate (the throughput rate from grade 8) in addition to the traditional matric pass rate? No single number can capture the health of our education system, the sooner we realise this the better.


Some other links to comments I’ve made on Matric 2014 results:

Q&A with Paula Ensor

Paula Ensor picThe 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 nineteenth interview in the series. Paula Ensor is Professor of Education at the UCT School of Education.

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

I left school with the intention of becoming an economist. My involvement in political activity, initially as a student and later as an activist in the liberation movement, cut across that. After some years of more or less full-time political engagement I realised I needed to qualify myself for a job, and so going into teaching was initially a fairly pragmatic decision. I trained in London to teach in further education, and taught mathematics for eight years at Botswana Polytechnic (it is now part of the University of Botswana), after that for 18 months in an inner London secondary school, and since my return to South Africa in 1991, I have been involved in higher education, first at UWC then UCT.

2)   What does your average week look like? 

 I have been on sabbatical leave for the past 12 months, as my term of office as Dean of Humanities [UCT] ended in 2013. So my average week this year has been quite unlike any weeks of the previous 10 years! I have spent most of my time reading and writing.

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?

Karl Marx’s four volumes of Capital probably shaped my thinking more than anything else I have read. It is an extraordinary intellectual accomplishment, in that from the notion of commodities and commodity exchange he builds an analytical framework to account for the workings of the capitalist system and the production and reproduction of inequality. One can be fully mindful of the critiques of this work but still appreciate the brilliance of his argument and of his literary style. It is very difficult to identify other texts which have had the same impact on my outlook. But in terms of thinking specifically about education, I would add Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Althusser’s Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses and Fanon’s Black Skins, White Masks.

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

This is a difficult question to answer. For me the most influential thinkers in education are deceased – Piaget, Vygotsy, Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Bourdieu, Foucault and Bernstein, for example. This year I have spent a great deal of time revisiting these foundational theorists, as well as engaging with more contemporary thinkers such as Amartya Sen (he reminds us so well how crucially important education is for development and for human flourishing), Randall Collins (I am interested particularly in his work on ritual), Henri Lefebvre (through her work on pedagogy Heather Jacklin introduced me to him and his work on rhythmanalysis) and Judith Butler (whose work on performativity in relation to gender has helped me to think about pedagogy as performance).

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

This is a tricky question as one could answer this question in so many ways, depending on the subfield of education one works in – ECD, primary and secondary schooling, further and higher education. I want to get a better grip on how education as a system articulates. Is there any research out there that provides guidance on this? I have been involved (either through research, or teaching) in different levels of the formal education system, from Foundation Phase through to higher education, but it is not clear to me how, and to what extent (if at all), government policy grasps education as a system rather than as a number of quite distinct silos. OBE had a disastrous impact on schooling; the NQF arguably has had a similarly disastrous effect on post-school (vocational and adult) education and Stephanie Allais’s recent book on the NQF and its effects is a must-read in this context. The parlous state of post-school education impacts negatively on schooling, and on higher education. So an interesting question for me (I wouldn’t claim it as the “most” under-researched area) is how (if at all) government policy understands and promotes the interconnection of the system as a whole. At the level of more personal interest, I want to understand better the regularity of pedagogic practice over time and place, and the difficulties of changing this, a question which for the moment I am placing under the working title of “ritual in pedagogy”.

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

 To respect the importance of empirical data in educational research, to respect the discipline it imposes, and to understand that working rigorously with data is both demanding and richly enabling.

 7) You have been involved in teacher education at UCT 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?

My PhD focused on a PGCE mathematics method course, the experiences of a group of students on this course and their encounters as they entered schools as beginning teachers. I found that the experiences of beginning teachers, and the challenges they faced, were shaped by three factors – access to the principles which framed the teacher education programme they completed at university; educational biography (that is, their own experiences of schools as learners); and the organisation of the school setting they entered as beginning teachers and the level of support they received there. Effective school governance and ongoing collaboration and support amongst teachers was the most crucial factor in assisting beginning teachers plan curriculum coverage, gain access to materials and other resources, organise assessment and feel confident about issues of control. I have read other work since then, especially in the context of mathematics education, and I think these findings have been broadly confirmed.

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

Well, I think I might have enjoyed being an economist. But I would have been very happy as an historian as well.

9)  You have recently returned to the UCT School of Education after being in management at UCT for some years. Have you noticed any changes in the field of education in SA compared to five or ten years ago?

 It is difficult for me to make claims about changes in the field as a whole. With regard specifically to schooling, well, we said goodbye to OBE, which inflicted severe damage on our system, and I think some headway has been made in schools with the development of CAPS and the recognition of the need for high quality textual resources (such as text books and work books) in classrooms. There is now regular, wide-scale assessment (such as ANAs) but is not clear to me what the pedagogic effects of these assessment practices are. In many respects the issues are the same as a decade ago – improving initial and inservice teacher education, strengthening school leadership, changing pedagogic practices in classrooms, understanding better the relationship between home and school, the complexity of linguistic practices in classrooms and so on. So the issues appear to be broadly the same over time, but the precision with which they are articulated seems to be much sharper, and there is a wider array of theoretical resources that researchers are working with.

10)   You have been involved with activist organizations like Equal Education and were yourself part of the anti-apartheid struggle. What do you think is the role of these activist organizations in South Africa and what advice would you give to other similar organizations?

Civic organisations like Equal Education are crucial for mobilising citizens to act in their own interests, and to hold government to account for service delivery across a broad front of issues. An active citizenry is the ultimate defence we have against corruption, cronyism, authoritarianism and the wasteful inefficiency we see so much of at the present time. Civic organisations like Equal Education not only put pressure on government and other agencies to improve the quality of education, but they also build and strengthen civil society in defence of democracy.

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

I am not sure what you mean by technology in education – pens and pencils are already aspects of pedagogic technology! I assume you mean forms of technology which involve the use of computers and other electronic devices and make use inter alia of the internet and specialised educational packages. These offer new ways of accessing knowledge and new modes of communication which are now deeply embedded in contemporary (globalised) culture. As educators it seems to me that in the end we have no option but to give young people access to the opportunities this technology offers. I am sceptical about claims that use of such technology will miraculously transform teaching and learning – I have seen far too many education technology fads consigned to store rooms and cupboards. But it is an unavoidable part of life in a globalised world and potentially very empowering.

12) If you were given a R20million research grant what would you use it for?

R20 million is a great deal of money and we would want to make sure that such a funded research project would have maximum impact on policy and practice. Having read through some of your earlier interviews I am struck by how much more precise we have become in our diagnosis of educational problems and in identifying areas that require further research, and at the same time how broadly these questions cut across the whole system. So the first thing I would do is bring together a group of the most productive and interesting thinkers and researchers in education in South Africa and map out a project which we collectively believed would make the most impact.


Some of Paula’s research can be found here and an extended bio hereSome 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, Jill Adler, Linda Richter and Volker Wedekind. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.

Q&A with Lilli Pretorius

Screen Shot 2014-12-23 at 4.46.41 PMThe 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 eighteenth interview in the series. Elizabeth (Lilli) Pretorius is a Professor of Linguistics at UNISA.

(1) Why did you decide to go into education? 

Well, I originally come from Linguistics, not Education, I stumbled sideways into education. I majored in English and Italian at university and although in my early twenties I didn’t know what exactly I wanted to do with English and Italian besides waft around in Literature, I emphatically didn’t want to go into education! It was while I was doing honours in Italian that I encountered linguistics and fell in love with it. From my early encounter with Chomskian phase structure rules in Italian I moved into phonology and psycholinguistics – specifically first language acquisition and studies on language and the mind. I was hooked. In the meantime, I needed a job, and a post in teaching English to Grade 11 and 12 students in a township school came up. I did that for 4 years – and loved it, so I got hooked a second time. I was then offered a junior position in the Linguistics Department at Unisa so I left classroom teaching for academia. My four years of teaching English as a second language in a township high school stood me in good stead in my university teaching as it gave me insight into the daily struggles of students who do their schooling in a language that is not their home language and who come from high poverty homes with very little exposure to print-based literacy practices. Through Linguistics I became interested in how we construct meaning via language – I first studied constructions and perceptions of causality in discourse at Grade 5 level for my Masters, and then looked in the role of inferencing in the reading of expository texts by university students. After my doctoral research I worked with a colleague from Information Science, Myrna Machet, on a project that over a 3-year period took me into deep rural areas, where we piggy-backed on adult literacy NGOs, looking at the effects of storybook reading by neoliterate adults on children at preschool level. I then spent the following decade looking at various aspects of reading development in high poverty contexts, from preschool to university level. It was never a conscious decision to ‘go into’ education – my research lead me into education.

  (2)   What does your average week look like?

Rather messy – a combination of teaching, admin work, meetings, academic stuff – and trying to do research in between. I teach honours modules in Applied Linguistics (second language teaching and learning) and I have quite a few Masters and doctoral students who take up a lot of time. I am also the departmental co-ordinator for about 70 Masters and doctoral students and that takes up a lot of admin. I do article reviews, examine M and D theses, review ethics applications in our college, occasionally play an advisory role in literacy programs. I have collected a lot of reading data over the years but increasing administrative demands in the work place make it challenging to find time for research. I have come to the realisation that it is difficult to manage one’s time effectively in an environment where waves of work continuously crash over you. I’m trying to develop ‘work wave’ stamina and resilience…

(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?

It’s interesting how some articles stand out among the many thousands one reads in the course of one’s academic career. I remember two articles in particular that affected me quite profoundly in my early research career – Keith Stanovich’s article on early reading development (Stanovich, KE. 1986. Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly 21, 360–406) and Meridith Daneman’s article on individual reading differences (Daneman, M. 1991. Individual differences in reading skills. In: Barr, R. et al. (eds) Handbook of Reading Research Volume II. London: Longman). I was impressed by two things: firstly, they asked different questions about reading. Changing the questions changes the way one looks at a phenomenon. Secondly, I was struck by the coherence of their articles – the clarity of their thoughts, the systematic nature of their arguments, and the rigour and compelling force of research evidence. We tend to associate aesthetic responses to texts with literary texts, but well argued and empirically well supported scientific texts have a beauty of their own too.

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

Reading is a complex phenomenon, the domain of reading research is very wide and is informed by a range of disciplines – linguistics, psycholinguistics, cognitive science, neuroscience, psychology, sociology, social anthropology, semiotics, education and special needs education. Each of these disciplines brings to reading research their own particular interests and agenda, their own research approaches, and their own gurus. Who one considers important depends on which aspects of reading ‘float one’s boat’, so to speak.

There are so many people who’ve done – and continue doing – amazing work in the field of reading research, at both the micro and the macro levels of processing and in terms of teaching reading. Scholars such as Marilyn Adams, Michael Pressley, Catherine Snow immediately come to mind. Keiko Koda and reading researchers in Canada have done important comparative studies on bilingual decoding skills, Paul van den Broek and Charles Perfetti in the USA and Jane Oakhill and Nicola Yuill in the UK have done interesting work over the years on reading comprehension, Stanovich and Cunningham have done fascinating work on the effects of print exposure on reading, vocabulary and knowledge development in general. The affective dimension of reading (e.g. Rosenblatt) and the broader social context in which literacy is used and enacted are also important areas with their own influential thinkers such as Brian Street, Dave Barton and Paul Gee.

Because of my own interest in language and the mind, a lot of the research that I read about comes from the cognitive and neuroscience disciplines. There has been a lot of really interesting reading research coming from neurolinguistics and the brain sciences in the past 20 years. Stanislas Dehaene’s book Reading in the brain and Marianne Wolf’s Proust and the squid convey this complex research domain in an accessible style to the ordinary reading public.

Because so much of what we know about reading in the past 70 odd years comes mainly from North America and Europe, we need to continuously ask ourselves Ok, so how does this relate to reading and education in developing, middle income countries. There’s a lot we still don’t know.

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

Approaches to early reading instruction are based mainly on reading in analytic languages. African languages are agglutinating languages with rich and complex morphosyntactic structures. The Nguni languages in particular have very long word units. At the micro level we actually know very little about what really works when learning to read in the African languages, from a decoding point of view, so that is an area that calls for further research.

Another area that merits closer scrutiny is the development of academic language proficiency in bilingual education systems. There are quantitative and qualitative differences in the ways in which we communicate orally in everyday situations and the way we use language in more formal educational contexts. In written language – whether in paper or electronic form, whether in the home language or a first additional language – the locus of meaning shifts to the text itself, and the ability to construct meaning relies largely on the linguistic and textual cues in the written text and in the conventions associated with its use. In effect, since the advent of modern education, when we acquire our home language or learn another language, we learn oral and written ‘dialects’ or registers, and we switch between them, depending on the context in which we use language. Although oral proficiency is what we rely on most throughout our lives on an everyday basis, it is proficiency in using literate or academic forms of language that determine success in the educational context. Many of our children who pass through the education system acquire only rudimentary reading abilities and are exposed to teaching practices where information is parroted in a superficial manner, so they are thus denied opportunities to develop new ways of using and understanding language. Although they are orally very proficient and may even be marvellously multilingual, if they don’t acquire academic registers they will continue to struggle academically. Finding ways to develop and support academic language proficiency is important in our context.

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

Comments from past professors such as “Mmm, interesting ideas, but where’s your evidence?” or “Re-write this, it reads like a first draft” or “Let’s talk about this once you’ve done more reading”, though mortifying to a tender graduate student or junior lecturer at the time, were valuable academic lessons that helped shape the person I am today. I also had an interest in humour and at an early stage of my academic career I considered doing research on the use of language in humour. My husband said I wouldn’t be taken seriously if I analysed Monty Python scripts and suggested I do something more practical – so I continued with my research on causality in texts instead, and that drew me into reading research.

(7) You have been involved in language education and linguistics 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?

Being in Linguistics, I have not been as directly involved with teacher training as my colleagues in education faculties are. However, having worked in high poverty schools over many years, I’ve come to see how demotivating a dysfunctional school environment can be on teachers. Strong leadership and good governance at a school provide an enabling and supportive environment for novice teachers. It’s also important for new teachers to have as a mentor a teacher in whose classroom learning actually happens, not just someone who’s ‘experienced’ and has been teaching for many years. There are many teachers who have been teaching for years but whose kids are not performing. Who novice teachers have as role models is important.

(8) I recently read your excellent 2014 article titled ‘Supporting transitions or playing catch-up in Grade 4? Implications for standards in education and training.’ It was easily the most informative academic article I’ve read this year. If you were put in charge of a national reading campaign with a large annual budget (R200m) and total discretion on how to spend it, what would you spend it on and why?

The bottom line in reading development is fairly simple – reading only develops through reading. Throughout Africa, children are expected to become readers without having proper access to books and they attend schools where books are rare, and rarely used. This is akin to expecting kids to play football without a ball. This would be unthinkable in the football world. Using the same football analogy, it would be unthinkable in football circles to appoint coaches who knew nothing about football, yet we have teachers whose task it is to develop readers but who themselves do very little reading and who know very little about reading. From questionnaires I’ve administered to teachers in township schools over a 10-year period, I’ve found that around 70% of teachers reported that they have 10 or fewer books in their homes, and although they all have positive attitudes to reading, when asked to name a book they’ve recently read, most teachers give the name of a book prescribed in high school. This suggests that they don’t read voluntarily. This is a sensitive area and not much hard core empirical research has been done on this topic. Although many more teachers these days have better formal teaching qualifications than was the case two to three decades ago, there is quite a lot of indirect or anecdotal evidence of teachers’ poor reading abilities. The NEEDU report of 2012 identified poor content knowledge as one the areas in which teachers struggled. If teachers know very little about their content subject, this means they probably do very little reading in their content subject. So, finding ways to raise teachers’ literacy levels is paramount at this point in our education history.

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One of my favourite posters about reading is this one. Reading awakens possibilities, it gives one independent access to knowledge. So, if I were put in charge of a national reading campaign, I would adopt a two pronged approach to the reading campaign, with one strand focussing on making books accessible to school children and the second strand focussing on building teacher capacity with regard to reading.

Less than 10% of our schools have functional libraries, and this in our 21st century world with its knowledge economy, where most of our knowledge is stored, transmitted and updated via written language. Learners who come from poor homes and communities have little access to books and hence to knowledge beyond their immediate world, so schools in these communities should become rich and stimulating sites of literacy. But simply putting books in schools does not necessarily make reading happen. The affective, social aspects of reading should be promoted, learners should be constantly motivated to read, reading should become a high status activity and reading be made a cool thing to do. Learners should also have strong reading role models and reading and books should be visibly valued – which is where the teacher capacity building strand comes in. The DBE has actually done quite a lot about putting books in schools in the past few years, but the next step, that of maintenance and use, is neglected. I’ve been to many schools that have been given lots of books – and they are often stored away and gathering dust in a room somewhere, unopened and inaccessible. This suggests that schools do not know how to manage resources and how to use books effectively in their teaching. So this strand of the campaign would build up individual teachers’ reading levels, and also teach teachers how to explicitly teach reading strategies (and I’m referring to much more than skimming and scanning here), and how to manage, maintain and use book resources in their schools and classrooms.

(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?

First of all, I’d thank her for arranging this sudden upgrade from economy to first class for me, for how else would I sit next to her? I’d also thank her for candidly acknowledging the reading crisis in our schools. I think she has quite a strong finger on the education pulse in that regard. Then, depending on how long the plane trip was, I’d highlight three challenges facing SA today, all of which revolve around literacy:

  1. Attention to changes in classroom literacy practices. After 70 years of reading research we have a pretty good idea of what works in early reading development and why a balanced approach to reading instruction is important. However, telling teachers what to do about reading and giving them resources with which to do it do not necessarily bring about educational reforms. Teachers’ perceptions, normative beliefs and knowledge influence their classroom practice. In order to get teachers to change ineffective classroom practices we need more research into theories of pedagogic change in schools and classrooms and how this can be done via in-service teacher training. We rely a lot on workshops to do this, but teachers often call these ‘hit and run’ affairs (facilitators come in, tell teachers what to do, then leave). How else can we support teachers in becoming more effective? All interventions should thus be informed by theories of change and be carefully monitored and evaluated so that factors that facilitate or hinder changes in teacher practice can be indentified and better understood.
  2. Attention to literacy in maths and science. In the past 20 twenty years millions of rands have been spent in this country on improving maths and science education, with very few dividends so far. The relationship between reading ability and maths and science learning needs to be given explicit attention. As long as we have low literacy levels in general, we will continue to have low maths and science performance. Students need to be explicitly taught how to read maths and science texts so that they can ‘read to learn’ more effectively from their textbooks.
  3. Attention to school libraries and post structures for school librarians. As mentioned above, very few schools in SA have functional school libraries, especially schools that serve poor communities, which is precisely where ready access to information and knowledge is most needed. Furthermore, school libraries need librarians, people who are specially trained to manage libraries and to help build a culture of reading and finding information. Teachers do not have the time or the expertise to run school libraries. This means that post structures for school librarians should also be created. Low quintile schools cannot afford to appoint school librarians because they would have to sacrifice a teaching post to do so. Although the DBE encourages schools to build up school libraries, in effect it does not provide the infrastructures to enable schools to do so. According to Equal Education’s statistics, by 2010 the state had spent a total of R13.6 billion on building ten new sport stadiums in SA. Surely providing easy access to knowledge via school libraries is a worthwhile investment too? It also helps to professionalise schools.

Just before we landed, I’d ask for more funding for raising teachers’ literacy levels in my national reading campaign. In light of the cost of sport stadiums, R200 million for a reading campaign that has the potential to improve teacher literacy seems rather stingy.

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

 Linguistics? Researching language and humour?

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

Well, there are lots of new and wondrous things happening on the technology front every week – but my default position is that of scepticism. I first want to see evidence of their benefits. The assumption that technology automatically confers advantages is rather naive. Young children in particular need social interaction and mediation in language and literacy development – and also for socio-affective development; technology cannot replace that.

(12) If you were given a R15million research grant what would you use it for?

 I’d really like to explore ways of boosting the development of academic language proficiency during the Intermediate Phase. If children don’t learn to engage with texts and read at a deeper level, then they battle to ‘read to learn’ through the rest of their schooling and it’s really difficult for them to become independent learners. So I would use the funding to explore ways to develop such proficiency, using randomised-control studies with different interventions that are carefully monitored and evaluated. For example, something along the lines of a genre approach to expository/information texts similar to what Dave Rose has been doing in Australia and an intervention that focuses on explicit instruction in reading strategies. Pauline Gibbons has also done interesting work in this area. However, interventions are also only as good as the people who implement them, so the first year would be spent training teachers (language and content subject teachers) in these different approaches, building up their own literacy skills, developing their academic vocabulary and content-specific terminology, as well as their content knowledge and pedagogic knowledge and their understanding of the logic behind the specific interventions. Many teachers attend workshops where they are shown specific methods to use in the classroom, but they have very little understanding of why, what the bigger picture is, and their own pedagogic or literacy skills are not necessarily enhanced by implementing the method.

A list of some of Lilli’s articles can be found below:

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, Jill Adler, Paula Ensor, Linda Richter and Volker Wedekind. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.