Monthly Archives: March 2014

Links I liked…


  • The above vase was made from ice-cream sticks – pretty epic.
  • This week I attended the Harvard African Development Conference and heard a bunch of cool talks : (1) Raul Pantaleo opened my eyes to a bunch of cool context-specific, culturally-relevant, architecture projects that they they’ve done around the world (TAM associati). Check out some of the their projects here. (2) The folks at Mass Design are also doing amazing work using architecture in new and interesting ways – think integrating sociology, ecology, the environment and design – pretty epic. (And they are crazy young which is always a plus!). Also watch this 5-min PopTech talk by Founder Michael Murphy on “Architecting Health” (3) interesting website aiming to “construct a web of knowledge” to learn new concepts – randomly started chatting to a guy at a cafe at MIT (Maths PhD student, of course) and it turns out he’s interested in  machine learning in education…
  • In 15 years the question of whether or not a surfer (or anyone) is gay will be so irrelevant that people will wonder why you are even asking it. See this short clip which is a rough-shod attempt at changing the gay narrative.
  • Great 2 page summary/highlights of the 2014 Budget for South Africa (thanks Treasury)
  • Helpful website listing post-doc opportunities in the US focussing on educational sciences.
  • “Gender-specific books demean all our children. So the Independent on Sunday will no longer review anything marketed to exclude either sex” (see here). Finally some sense.
  • Stem-cells in mothers breast milk (New Scientist article) “Cultured samples also grew into different tissues including bone, neuron, heart and pancreatic cells”
  • Great article by Servaas Van der Berg & Eldridge Moses (2012). How better targeting of social spending affects social delivery in South Africa.(accessible & important!)
  • Pretty interesting idea of offering a coding summer-school in CT – iExperience – with all the touristy bells-and-whistles that come along with trying to attract kids from America.
  • Interesting article on “The Rise of the Open Source Coder Generation” – thanks Christine

Help at last for gem in the dust (Daily News March 27)


The following article appeared in the Daily News on the 27th of March and highlights the tireless work that a friend of mine Anne Immelman has been doing in a rural school in KZN (Meadowsweet Combined School). Anne was a high-school Mathematics teacher at St Mary’s School in KZN and now that she has retired she helps out at Meadowsweet. Well done Anne – we need hundreds more active citizens doing what they can, where they are, with what they have. (The above picture shows some of the damage sustained to one of the classrooms during a recent storm). 


“On the backroads of KwaZulu-Natal, just off the R600, 20km from the farming town of Winterton, there is a gem: a school that has produced a 100 percent matriculation five years in a row. Meadowsweet Combined School is dilapidated, but shone brightly among the 116 schools in the province which achieved perfection with the class of 2013. The school outperformed KZN’s 6 125 other schools, many of them with resources and facilities that make Meadowsweet pathetic by comparison. It has 500 pupils and the teacher-pupil ratio, with between 60 and 88 to a class, makes its results astonishing.

Meadowsweet is defying the odds, triumphing over ramshackle neglect. It is making fools of school peers who blame poor outcomes on facility inadequacies. Something really good is happening there, a chemistry that should be analysed, bottled and spread to the rest of the province and the country.

Part of the answer is Anne Immelman, a retired maths teacher who volunteers at the school. She wrote to the Daily News to draw attention to this roughest of diamonds, and her dutiful intervention has caught the attention of education bosses in Pietermaritzburg. Meadowsweet, it turns out, has for years been on the department’s waiting list. Immelman’s cry for help has expedited it, with building of 17 new classrooms, two administrative blocks, four multipurpose rooms, fencing, and ablution facilities to replace the pit latrines, to start in May.

This school is the most deserving of recipients, with staff and pupils alike brushing aside bleak conditions, refusing ample excuses available to them for falling short of excellence. Praise to Meadowsweet for its outstanding achievements. And thanks to Anne Immelman for her citizen activism, drawing attention to this gem in the dust, and catching the eye of the right officials.”

Article from here.

Q&A with Doron Isaacs

Screen Shot 2014-03-23 at 5.05.43 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 eighth interview in the series.  Doron Isaacs is the Deputy General Secretary of Equal Education (Twitter: @DoronIsaacs).

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

It wasn’t so much a decision to go into education, as a decision to work in a poor community in order to help young people organise themselves to claim their rights and fight inequality. This involved building a small organisation, which became Equal Education.

When I was in my final year of law school at UCT I became interested in the role the legal system could play in the hands of progressive social movements. I wrote a paper about the efforts in the United States, during the second half of the 20th century, to use the courts to integrate and equalise schooling. It was eventually published in the SA Journal of Human Rights. That work helped me to understand that I didn’t want to practise as a lawyer at that time, that law alone is a fairly weak instrument, and that deep progressive social change is only produced through large movements of informed and organised poor and working-class people.

2)   What does your average week look like?

It is usually very full. I work in Khayelitsha at the EE head office. There are many meetings each week. One is with about 50 core staff members of Equal Education. Another is with a team of facilitators – post-matrics who have grown up in EE, and now organise high school students – to plan content for the weekly youth group meetings that take place across the city. Sometimes I attend a march, or facilitate a discussion. On Thursday evenings we have seminars which are open to the public. There are many projects EE runs, from our youth film school, to the school libraries, to camps and seminars, campaigns, court cases, and work elsewhere in South Africa. In addition to being a staff member at EE, I was elected, at the July 2012 Congress, onto its National Council and Secretariat, and those governance structures meet periodically. I also sit on the boards of other organisations: the Equal Education Law Centre and Ndifuna Ukwazi. I try to read every day, and occasionally find time to do some writing. I have seldom been bored over the past six years.

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?

When EE began in early 2008 the question of what to do about OBE was important and topical. I was curious to understand how pedagogy with such progressive intentions was damaging working class children. A book called Education and Social Control, by Rachel Sharp and Anthony Green, which looked at so-called progressive education in the UK in the 1970’s, was a truly fascinating account of why extreme learner-centeredness can be socially retrogressive.  A piece by Jo Muller, which connected me to Gramsci’s thoughts on the subject, was very helpful.

You know, just seeing the numbers on inequality had a big impact on me. EE used access to information law to make data on literacy and numeracy in the Western Cape publicly available. It showed that in 2009 only 2.1% of grade 6 kids in places like Khayelitsha were passing maths at 50%. Ursula Hoadley’s PhD thesis, which was a study of four Cape Town primary schools, showed me how inequality operates in education. Fiske and Ladd’s book, Elusive Equity, is still helpful in beginning to think about inequality. And I remember my eyes opening wide while reading a paper by your supervisor Servaas van der Berg where he showed that the socio-economic status of a school had a greater impact on academic performance than the socio-economic status of an individual child did (here, pg5). That really struck me, because it meant that investing in educational equality was a rational way to leverage social equality more generally.

When it comes to building organisation that can change society, there are so many good books. Two that come to mind are Steven Friedman’s Building Tomorrow Today about how the independent trade union movement was built here in the 1970s and 80s, and Parting the Waters, an epic account of the US Civil Rights Movement.

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

My ‘field’ is not just ‘education’! Equal Education is about changing society, through changing the education system. We’re interested in the political economy of education. Many of us are excited to read Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital in the 21st Century. That is serious thinking! There is a young education academic at Stanford named Frank Adamson – he’s great. We are incredibly lucky to have been able to learn directly from some marvellous thinkers and activists like Zackie Achmat, Mandla Majola, Rob Petersen, Paula Ensor, Vuyiseka Dubula, Mary Metcalfe, Mark Heywood, Peliwe Lolwana, Zwelinzima Vavi, Geoff Budlender and many others.

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

Well, take this provocative proposition: Achieving equal education would be a more potent way to build a socialist society than nationalising the mines or redistributing rural land. I’m not commenting on those last two right now, except to say that equal, quality, integrated education, from pre-school to tertiary level, would be a more radical and effective political program.

Okay that’s my provocation. Is anyone in South Africa doing research on education as a political and economic question? Is anyone even exploring what a transformed education system could look like? What its social impact could be? It’s being debated in healthcare around the NHI. Of course we need to fix teaching, textbooks and all that. But there is no imaginative thinking beyond that.

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

In 2008 we had one youth group in Khayelitsha. After a few months equalisers chose our first campaign, which was to fix 500 windows at Luhlaza High School. I’m not sure if I can call it advice, because it was their decision, but it was a vital lesson: in organising you start with small, visible things that can be achieved, and build from there.

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?

I think the Minister is fairly aware of major challenges facing education: teacher subject-content knowledge and motivation, text and textbook availability, school infrastructure conditions, and many others.

What I’d rather do is discuss certain dangers I see down the road. Testing is looming larger in our educational landscape. The matric results are the annual Holy Grail and the ANAs are on their way. I have concerns. Such intense focus on a few headline statistics could mean those stats lose their integrity. Matric results can be manipulated at all levels, including by schools who hold students back or push them out, driving up drop-out rates. Students are being pushed into Maths Literacy. In some cases schools are being closed because it’s a way to get rid of poor performance. What does she think?

There is a danger that this chorus of dismay about the public education system, and the need to fix it, turns into its opposite: a chorus for the false solution of privatising the schools. I think she’d agree, but I’d like to hear her thoughts on that.

The one thing I’d give her a hard time about is parents. I just don’t understand why the DBE doesn’t run massive campaigns to involve parents in education. There should be workshops in every community, often, about how to support your child, and how to support the local school. There is so much that could be done. EE has parent branches, but this is needed on a mass scale.

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

I would love to have studied pure science. I’d also like to write history or biography. And I could see myself running a newspaper.

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

I’m in favour of technology, starting with providing electricity to the 3,544 schools currently without it. After that it would be great if the 75% of schools with no e-mail address could get connected, and if the 46% of schools with no telephone could get one.

I think technology has a lot to offer but I’m yet to be convinced that it can replace the teacher. Those first few years of school need to give children the joy and spontaneity of learning, but also and equally the discipline of learning. It is a gift to be inducted into being able to sit at a desk, on your own, concentrating, mastering, acquiring, processing. A genuinely educational classroom, created by a teacher, is an environment that poor and working class children will encounter nowhere else.

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

I’m very curious to know whether the crisis of unemployed youth (3.1 million aged between 15 and 24 not in employment, education or training) can be partially dealt with by involving young people in our schools. Why can’t there be a national youth service with young people as sports coaches, librarians, teaching assistants, food-producing gardeners and much else?

11) Equal Education has been one at the forefront of the Minimum Norms and Standards case – do you think that we are likely to see more of this kind of “legal accountability” going forward? Furthermore do you think this is a positive development or not?

With EE the balance tilts towards people power, and away from lawyers. It’s been primarily a campaign of people, but the legal work which the LRC assisted us with also mattered. It enabled us to set out facts and arguments in a structured process, producing a powerful window onto education in this country. My colleague Yoliswa Dwane’s founding affidavit and replying affidavit are worth reading. The supplementary material put before the court by Debbie Budlender and Ursula Hoadley was great.  I think the achievement of norms and standards for school infrastructure is big and very positive. We’re still busy with that work, because the new law must now be implemented!

12) Equal Education is a grass-roots organization with considerable links to the community and to students. In many countries around the world there is often a disconnect between what is happening at a national-policy level and what the reality is on the ground – do you believe this is also the case in South Africa? And if so, in which areas is this disconnect most apparent? 

Government policy is often complicated. Take teacher post-provisioning for example. There is a mathematical formula used to calculate how many government-funded teaching posts a public school gets. It sits in an appendix to a regulation made in terms of the Employment of Educators Act. It is hard to find and harder to understand! And it is not pro-poor. And yet this formula plays a massive role in determining how about 80% of the education budget is spent.

An organisation like EE has to make policy accessible and open to debate. In Detroit a wonderful academic named Tom Pedroni runs a project to make education policy accessible to communities and activists. I wish progressive South African academics would set up a similar project together with EE.

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

The work we do is very tiring and sometimes depressing. But somehow I feel motivated to work hard, and I like the people I’m with every day. All organisations struggle for funding – it is an ongoing battle and there is not yet a culture of giving to social justice organisations. We have over 200 people who give monthly to EE and we desperately need more. Another challenge is to connect our work to a broader social justice agenda. For example, our divided education system still rests on apartheid geography. Poor people live on the edges of cities and so aren’t zoned to attend better schools. Housing and urban land activists need to get together with education activists. This race and class-divided society also challenges how an organisation like EE must go about its work. We can’t pretend that we have our own little utopia where race, class and gender oppression have ceased to exist. We have to overcome these things amongst ourselves as we try to overcome them in society.


Some of the other academics/policy-makers on my “to-interview” list include Servaas van der Berg, Martin Gustafsson, Thabo Mabogoane, Veronica McKay, Hamsa Venkatakrishnan, Volker Wedekind, John Kruger, 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.

Pistorius vs Marikana – Zapiro on justice?



(From here)

I’m reminded of the article “The Law’s Majestic Equality” which opens with a quote from Anatole France: “The majestic equality of the laws prohibits the rich and the poor alike from sleeping under bridges, begging in the streets and stealing bread

Q&A with Elizabeth Henning


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 seventh interview in the series.  Elizabeth Henning is a professor of Educational Linguistics at the University of Johannesburg and head of the Centre for Education Practice Research (Twitter: @ElbieHenning).

1)   Why did you decide to go into education?

Decide? No, it happened.

The only bursaries available for kids who had no money were for nursing and teaching. Ruling party was clever. They insisted on good school records for their future teachers. In my matric year only two people got six distinctions in the then Transvaal white system. Both became teachers.

 2)   What does your average week look like?

Meeting with field workers, editing manuscripts, meeting with field workers, writing annual, quarterly (feels like daily) research reports, writing proposals for funding, squeezing funding into field work cost categories, looking for translators, trying to read current research on cognitive development of young kids, meeting with fieldworkers, trying to do some classroom research, reading policy docs and trying to align them with educational reality, stressing/hyperventilating  about the effect and the cost-effectiveness of Tante ANA, meeting with field workers.

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?

Two oldies.

Jan Amos Komensky’s Didactica Magna, because he got it. There’s a teacher, there’s a learner and then there is content. Get on with it.

Lev Semenovich Vygotsky’s two books. He got it too. Pity he died so young. Specifically he said it so well – the ‘word’ that comes to you as you start to have ‘activity’ (Tätigkeit, ‘doingness’) is cognitively loaded and the way you use it will make a lot of the meaning for you (for me the central tenet of his work – semiotic mediation). And then his (so ahead of his time and spot-on with current neuroscience, but also coming from his knowledge of German philosophy) understanding that there’s some core knowledge (‘spontaneous concepts’ the English versions of his work say) and then there’s symbolic knowledge you get by instruction. And they meet in your early years on the planet and then what you do with them depends a lot on where you are on the planet.

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

Please can I mention four?

Elizabeth Spelke because she straddles education with developmental cognitive psychology and a bit of neuroscience and still manages to see the Vygotskian undertones of language and culture.

Jerome Bruner because he stayed with new ideas throughout his life and became critical of the ‘cultish’ ways of the new Vygotskians.

Stanislas Dehaene because he made the neuroscience of reading and of mathematical cognition accessible for anyone who can read.

Oh, and Bond and Fox because they were able to get ordinary folk like me hooked on Rasch modelling for test validity and I wish DBE would read them.

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

Kids. Or ‘learners’ if you must.

Not issues ‘about’ them like other people’s ideologies. ‘Them’ as unit of analysis. Not their ‘learning outcomes’ or ‘scores’ for the ‘national learner’. Them.

This includes South African made and standardised and normed instruments  to serve as measures for diagnosing South African kids’ knowledge and find out where they are struggling, individually, so they can get help fast.

And this includes the effects of using imported English tests (or their down-watered versions) to capture the competences, abilities, attitudes etc etc.

Research questions:

When was the last standardised instrument with which to capture primary school  children’s competence in (insert here what you wish) developed and what was the theoretical bases of this tests?

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

Read Goethe, Schiller, Shakespeare, Chekov, Strindberg, Van Wyk Louw and study the visual arts and music if you want to get to know the human condition from which you can then derive educational ideas. Beware of the pedagogists.

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?

Foundation phase teacher development to understand kids not methods.

Foundation phase classroom size:  have you ever taught a kid the part-part whole concept of number, Ma’am. Now do it with 35 kids, Ma’am. While you are also crowd controlling them and code-switching ‘cause, Ma’am, they aren’t all really isiZulu speaking kids –  their parents just said so to get them into this school.

Foundation phase teacher education –  please give more bursaries and more lecturers to educate the students  and to inspire and love them and help them to make a stunning identity and pay these teachers more than others because, Ma’am, they build the foundation for your house of education. Thank you Ma’am Angie.

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

Farm with veggies and train new veggie farmers. Organic, of course.

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

Quite a fan but also a control freak.

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

Check out the Grade R and Grade 1 kids with a good representative sample – as they come in from home and before we inject them with our curriculum and our ‘methods’ of teaching.

Oh yes, and go visit the educational philosopher(s) who write about the ‘learnification’ of education and probe them on what makes their minds tick this way.


A full list of Prof Henning’s academic research can be found here. I particularly enjoyed her recent blog post “Matric begins in Grade 1


Some of the other academics/policy-makers on my “to-interview” list include Servaas van der Berg, Martin Gustafsson, Thabo Mabogoane, Veronica McKay, Hamsa Venkatakrishnan, Volker Wedekind, John Kruger, 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.

Links I liked…

Child Bride

  • Revealing faux-magazine-cover exposing the horror of young children forced into marriage. For more see “Too young to wed
  • A cogent letter from an Indian judge and mother of a gay son – “In India if you’re gay you’re a criminal
  • Does America have to take sides in the Ukrainian crisis?” – Jerusalem Post: Only the best article I’ve read on the Ukrainian crisis…scathing, incisive and revealing. If you only read one article on the topic, this should be it…
  • Great NYT article by Maureen Dowd on American Political dynasties: “The Clintons don’t get defeated. They get postponed.
  • Why 30 is not the new 20 – scary (but enlightening) TED talk by Meg Jay
  • Chimamanda Adichie weighs in on the criminalization of homosexuality in Nigeria and Uganda.
  • Why is there a homophobe on the Global Fund? Great article on DailyMaverick
  • A Shifting Landscape: A Decade of Change in American Attitudes about Same-Sex Marriage and LGBT Issues” – fascinating report by the Public Religion Research Institute. Such encouraging findings and definitely a sign of things to come…
  • The boring development manifesto” – a wonderful and easy to read explanation why so many of the West’s efforts don’t work – Development Bloat is sexy, slog-and-grind incremental progress isn’t.
  • Quote of the week: “The distribution of income is determined by immensely complex processes in which government activity interacts with relatively autonomous initiatives and adjustments by ‘the myriad forces of the market’. There does not exist a well-tested, widely endorsed body of theory to model all of these processes. But it is clear that governments cannot readily control all of them, and there are limits to what governments may be able to do to change distributions. We must avoid assuming that if there is a change, or no change, government policy is responsible. Nor should we assume that government policies are either coherent or necessarily successful.” (Bromberger (1982: 167)


Dear UKZN, you know you’re doing it wrong when…

got any other bad ideas (stark)

For those of you who haven’t been keeping abreast of the recent student protests at UKZN (primarily around student funding, housing and fees), you may be interested to hear the latest development which is as sad as it is infuriating. On the 23rd of February four UKZN Masters’ students wrote an open letter to the Vice Chancellor Professor Makgoba criticising university policies and the VC himself. In response to the dissent, the UKZN Student Discipline Office has charged the four students with defamation and ordered them before the Student Discipline Court (see the list of disciplinary charges here).

I’ve just read the letter and while it is verbose, riddled with spelling mistakes and sounds a little like an ill-informed political-manifesto, it is certainly not defamation.  It makes me furious to see the management at UKZN trying to intimidate these students into compliance and, presumably, discourage future dissent. This kind of knee-jerk response smacks of fragile egos and deep insecurities. Universities have always been a hot bed of critique and dissent being, as they are, a collection of intellectuals who usually understand the need for things like free-speech, critical thinking and dissent. Aside from the fact that UKZN’s approach here is morally repugnant and intellectually bankrupt, you also have to wonder, who on Earth is giving this University PR advice?! How did they think this was going to pan out? They presumably thought they were swatting a fly when in fact this strategy looks a lot more like the Dutch boy plugging holes in a breaking dyke, thinking somehow that this is a sustainable solution. Such a pity.


As someone who did their undergrad at UKZN I am a more than a little ashamed that an institution of “higher learning” would take such a thuggish approach to something as harmless as a wordy letter from some politically-ambitious students. It’s called “engagement”/”discussion”/”dialogue”, you should try it sometime…


Also see the Right2Know write-up here.