Q&A with Stephen Taylor


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 third interview in the series.

Dr Stephen Taylor is currently an advisor and researcher in the Director General’s office of the national Department of Basic Education in South Africa.

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

 After finishing school my interests lay mainly in the social sciences, so I decided to major in Political Science, Philosophy and Economics. I also did History and English at university. Upon finishing undergraduate studies it seemed to me that economics offered the widest range of applied career alternatives, so I felt that a BComm Honours degree in Economics was sensible.  One year goes by fast and so it seemed easy to continue with a one-year coursework Masters  in Economics.  Here I first was exposed to education through Professor Servaas van der Berg’s Economics of Education course.  At the end of a Masters Degree in Economics I felt that I had the perspective acquired through studies in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, but I felt that I still lacked a marketable skill.  So I thought hard about doing a postgrad LLB and even teaching, but in the end I decided to start out on a PhD focussing on the role of education in South Africa’s economic development.  The advantage of this topic was the quality of supervision available and that it was an applied issue – something very relevant in South Africa and in which a lot of work is already being done.  It was only really during my PhD that I learnt applied research skills, especially how to do survey data analysis.  In the context of increasing availability of nationally and internationally representative education data, these skills were enormously empowering and opened up powerful ways to contribute to education research.  After finishing my PhD in 2010 I continued to work in the RESEP group at Stellenbosch until in September 2011 I got an invitation to work in the national Department of Basic Education as an advisor and researcher in the office of the Director General.  I have been there since then, and have really enjoyed the policy environment, being able to assist in building internal technical capacity and I seem to have managed to continue with interesting academic work as well.

2)   What does your average week look like?

 I probably spend about 2 hours a week training others with the DBE (especially on data analysis and evaluation methods); about 8 hours a week in meetings where my role is mainly to give technical advice on projects such as running surveys and working with external service providers on research projects; about 8 hours working with raw data to respond to specific information queries or to form the basis of more academic research; about 6 hours writing academic papers or policy-oriented reports/briefs; about 6 hours on more administrative things such as responding to emails; about 5 hours reading; about 3 hours disseminating research and recommendations through presentations; and also some time these days on research project design (writing proposals, applications for funding, etc).  I think that gets me close to 40 hours.

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?

 I’ll say the combined work of Esther Duflo, Abijhit Banerjee and Michael Kremer (and their collaborators), who through many experimental research projects in developing countries have shed considerable light on what works and what doesn’t work in schools that are attended by the poor.  Their book “Poor Economics” is an accessible read and has an exciting chapter on education, drawing on many of their experiences and specific research projects.  For a very short but comprehensive account of the sort of lessons this strand of work is producing, see this paper in Science, here.

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

Same as above: Esther Duflo, Abijhit Banerjee and Michael Kremer

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

 We know incredibly little about what works to improve learning in the schools we have.  But let me pick one specific area:  What teacher support strategies actually work so that they change practice and consequently learning outcomes?

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

 “A PhD is just an academic exercise.”  There is a temptation, especially with a PhD, to want to change the world through your research, but that can leave one feeling insignificant and actually keep you from making progress.  The important thing is to keep learning through doing research, and hopefully over time you will make a contribution.

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?

 Diagnosis:  The fundamental problem in the school system is that as children progress through the school system not enough learning is happening in each year.  Put differently, learning trajectories are too flat. The problem is especially acute in the early grades where basic literacy and numeracy skills are not being acquired in time.  This leads to massive learning deficits which is the main cause of dropping out of school in grades 10 and 11.

Solution: Part 1: Address the root of the problem by coming up with a well-researched intervention in the Foundation Phase, which addresses both teacher capability and motivation. The challenge will be to design an intervention that avoids the typical implementation trappings of working within the large and decentralised system, by for example involving support from non-departmental actors, but that can also realistically be implemented at scale.

Solution Part 2: The reality is that we will not solve the root problem overnight and we have many children in the Intermediate Phase and early secondary school who have accumulated learning deficits.  We need to address these deficits through effective remedial interventions in order to help them cope with the grade-specific curriculum, which assumes earlier foundations are in place.  Here one should design, evaluate and implement an intervention such as afternoon classes focussed on foundational skills like reading, holiday learning camps or waiving the curriculum for a term to administer an intensive catch-up programme.  I would also take the opportunity while sitting next to the Minister to express support for the three major interventions under her leadership – CAPS, Annual National Assessments and the DBE Workbooks – which were the kinds of recommendations many of us were making 4 years ago.  These interventions need to be built on.  There is much room for improvement in their implementation and in the ways in which they can be used further.

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

 Okay, here comes a change in tone.  I have often considered law as well as teaching in high schools.  But right now, I think I’d consider devoting more time to be involved in Christian church work, specifically in planting new churches.  Why?! I really do believe in God, as revealed in the Bible and in the person of Jesus.  I am convinced that the message about Jesus, which is essentially an invitation to know him, is just as important and relevant as ever. And I believe local churches are a primary way in which God has chosen to reach out to people with this message.

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

I’m a sceptic until I see a well developed concept that is feasible in terms of cost and the South African context, integrated into an instructional regime, and rigorously shown to positively impact on learning outcomes.

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

I am currently trying to raise roughly this amount for a research project about how to improve early grade reading acquisition.  So to be consistent, I’ll say that I would use the money to implement this research project.  It uses a Randomised Evaluation methodology to rigorously measure the impact of 3 alternative reading interventions in combination with some qualitative research methods (mainly classroom observation) to answer the “why” questions.  You can read a short summary of this research proposal, which is already partly funded, here.


Links to some of Stephen’s recent Working Papers are included below:

Some of the other academics/policy-makers on my “to-interview” list include Servaas van der Berg, Martin Gustafsson, Veronica McKay, Hamsa Venkatakrishnan, Ursula Hoadley, Volker Wedekind, John Kruger, Eric Atmore, Linda Biersteker, Jonathan Jansen and Jon Clark. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.

6 responses to “Q&A with Stephen Taylor

  1. van Wyk, Liesbet

    Dear Nic What an insightful piece on a young and dynamic researcher. I would suggest you include Wayne Hugo from UKZN in your list of participants as well. He has done very interesting work on thinking about schooling in development contexts. Regards Liesbet

  2. Tha ks Dr Taylor , it was reading your comments, my interest is very much on foundation phase as you have correctly indicated. In 2013 I completed my MEd study on Foundation Phase HOD about their workload and their knowledge of PAM dlcument. I am very much interested to pursuade my PhD studies on the same topic.

  3. Great article. I would be fascinated to hear how Dr Taylors research pans out. My contention in 1994 was that if all available funds had been used in Foundation Education for the first year and then Grade 1 in the second year, and so on, those infants who are now our adults, would have had a great education and the bar would have been set for all those that followed. I am involved in a little reading program in Zambia and am currently looking at ischool….www.ischool.zm which involves a tablet called a Zedupad that is loaded with the complete Zambian primary school curriculum including teachers plans reading books and games. You might like to take a look.

  4. Plse diversify your interviewees and get people who are not close to you but think out of the box in a different non-euro-centric way

  5. Michelle Matthews

    Thanks Nic, great idea!

    Looking forward to more in this series.

  6. Hi Liesbet, I will add Prof Hugo to the list, thanks for the suggestion.

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