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.

2 responses to “Q&A with Elizabeth Henning

  1. Brilliant interview, thank you Nic Spaull. Professor Elizabeth Henning, you have a new fan!

  2. Thank you! 😉

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