Monthly Archives: March 2014

Q&A with Eric Atmore

eric atmore

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 sixth interview in the series.  Eric Atmore is Adjunct Associate Professor of Social Development at the University of Cape Town and Director of the Centre for Early Childhood Development.

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

 I grew up in an environment where education and learning was of prime importance.  My parents each had only modest schooling, Grades 8 and Grade 10 and they impressed upon their children to study, study and study.  This probably led to an interest in education.  My career path has been through social development initially, then leading a large early childhood development (ECD) organisation in Cape Town and then in 1994 founding the Centre for Early Childhood Development.  Throughout this period I lectured at the University of Cape Town where I have been Adjunct Associate Professor in Social Development since January 2009.

 2)   What does your average week look like?

 The beauty of working at the same time in social development, education and the academic environment is that there is no “average week”.  In any one week I can visit ECD centres, speak to parents and caregivers, assist with developing a management programme, teach 110 students in political economy, meet with donors, write an article for publication, consider how to structure our investments, supervise post-graduate students and then celebrate success with my colleagues.  Every week is busy but I try to make time each day to think about what we are doing, how we are do what we do, and how we are going to get to where we want to be.

 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?

The most important book I have read has to be “Up the Organisation” by Robert Townsend (1970 and reworked in 2007). It is sub-titled “If you are not in business for fun or profit what the hell are you doing here?”  He was a business man who led Avis Rent-a-Car.  It has great advice such as “Don’t have assistants, give people real jobs”, “Lawyers are a liability”, “Don’t have reserved parking space for the boss” “Don’t have a mistress”, “Keep your promises”, “Small companies should be fun” and “Abolish your public relations department”. The other book is “What would Google do?” by Jeff Jarvis (2009).  It gives the reader an insight into how to run a company or organisation and it asks and answers the most urgent business questions of today.  The third book is “Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell (2008) which tells about extremely successful people and focuses on intelligence and ambition.

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

 In the early childhood development field internationally it is Professor James Heckman, Nobel economic s laureate of 2000.  His work has influenced the field tremendously. In South Africa, Linda Biersteker has been very influential.  She is a close colleague. Sadly, there have been and still are a number of negative influences in the ECD sector, individuals who do not have the interests of children at heart.  Some have moved off the scene but some still remain.

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

 In the ECD sector we have research, some very good and some really bad.  What bothers me is that there is no link between research evidence, policy change and programme implementation.  So we know how many children there are, what they need and how the country can provide it.  But government does not use it, or avoids acting on the research which does exist. We do not need another study on the importance of ECD, this has been done. Probably the most needed research is on how do we turn what we know into action?

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

My third daughter Catherine, who is a final year BEd student at Stellenbosch University gave me the best advice ever.  She said: “Before you walk into the lecture theatre make sure that your fly is done up”.  I have followed this advice religiously.

 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?

The biggest challenge is getting the political will of government to improve education.  I believe that the political will to improve education is not there.  The second challenge is to ensure that every school in the country has the basic infrastructure to function.  This means classrooms, qualified teachers, textbooks, desks amongst others.  This is linked to political will. The third challenge is to ensure that every child enters Grade 1 having had maximum opportunities to grow and thrive in a quality early learning environment.

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

Probably a professional sportsman.  I played soccer representing South African Universities over a period of 7 years, I was South African Universities Heavyweight boxing champion, I have run marathons including TwoOceans and Comrades, I have completed the long-distance Ironman Triathlon so I guess a professional sportsman.

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

 I am enthusiastic about technology, I encourage students to use technology in the lecture theatre during lectures.  For instance if we want to know the adult literacy rate in India I ask students to find this out whilst I talk.    However, the greatest technology lies between our ears but we do not seem to use it.

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

 I would assemble a dream team of education people (this is Dylan Wray’s idea) and give them two weeks to complete a plan for how to get quality education to every children in South Africa now.  The balance I would give to them to start to implement the plan.

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One or Eric’s recent (2012) articles discusses the “Challenges facing the early childhood development sector in South Africa” (co-authored with van Niekerk & Ashley-Cooper). For more research see here.

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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.

0-3 years: *Must-read* Educational info for parents (from ZeroToThree)

zero to three

In doing some reading on Early Childhood Development I came across the Zero-to-Three website which is a treasure trove for those interested in scientifically-informed information on early childhood development for children aged 0-3 years (see links below). If you know of anyone with a baby (or expecting one soon) do send this on to them, I’m sure they will find it fascinating and immensely useful! As Nobel Laureate Professor James Heckman has said “Early learning begets later learning and early success breeds later success.” Also be sure to check out the Zero-to-Three website: http://www.zerotothree.org/

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Everyday Ways to Support Your Baby or Toddler’s Early Learning

Download this handout (in both English and Spanish) to learn more about how you can support your child’s development from birth to three in the everyday moments you share. 

What We Know About Early Literacy and Language Development
This handout provides information on how early language and literacy skills unfold across the first three years of life.

Tips for Your Child’s Development Assessment
This handout provides tips on preparing for, and participating fully in, your child’s developmental assessment.

Healthy Eating Strategies for Young Children
This handout suggests 8 ways that parents can help their baby or toddler develop healthy eating habits in the first three years. [English ] [Espanol ]

Age-Based Handouts:

Birth to 12 Months 

Healthy Minds: Nurturing Your Child’s Healthy Development

Birth to 2 Months
English 
[286 KB]   Espanol  [387 KB]

2 to 6 Months
English 
[305 KB]   Espanol  [385 KB]

6 to 9 Months
English 
[286 KB]   Espanol  [379 KB]

9 to 12 Months
English 
[299 KB]   Espanol  [333 KB]

The Magic of Everyday Moments 

Birth to 4 Months
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English ]  [Espanol ]

4 to 6 Months 
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English ]  [Espanol ]

6 to 9 Months
[
English ]  [Espanol ]

9 to 12 Months 
[English ]  [Espanol ] 
Supporting Your Baby’s Language and Literacy Skills

Supporting Your Baby’s Thinking Skills

Supporting Your Baby’s Self-Confidence

Supporting Your Baby’s Self-Control


Your Baby’s Development

Birth to 3 Months

[232 KB  ] [Espanol  ]

 3 to 6 Months

[219 KB   [Espanol  ] 

6 to 9 Months

[239 KB  ] [Espanol  ]

9 to 12 Months

[243 KB  ] [Espanol  ]

12 to 24 Months

Healthy Minds: Nurturing Your Child’s Healthy Development

12 to 18 Months
English  [304 KB ]  Espanol  [324 KB ]

18 to 24 Months
English  [260 KB ]  Espanol  [331 KB ]

The Magic of Everyday Moments

12 to 15 Months
[English ] [Espanol ]

15 to 18 Months
[English ] [Espanol ]

18 to 24 Months
[English ] [Espanol ]

Supporting Your Baby’s Language and Literacy Skills

Supporting Your Baby’s Thinking Skills

Supporting Your Baby’s Self-Confidence

Supporting Your Baby’s Self-Control
Your Baby’s Development

12 to 15 Months

[232 KB  ] [Espanol  ]

15 to 18 Months

[224 KB   ]  [Espanol  ]

18 to 24 Months

[258 KB  ] [Espanol  ]

24 to 36 Months

Healthy Minds: Nurturing Your Child’s Healthy Development
English  [292 KB ]   Espanol  [336 KB ]

The Magic of Everyday Moments

24 to 36 Months
[English ] [Espanol ]

Supporting Your Baby’s Language and Literacy Skills

Supporting Your Baby’s Thinking Skills

Supporting Your Baby’s Self-Confidence

Supporting Your Baby’s Self-Control
Your Baby’s Development

24 to 30 Months

[228 KB  ] [Espanol  ]

30 to 36 Months

[239 KB  ] [Espanol  ]

Robocop, Ethics & Digital T-Rexs

robocop

Yesterday I decided to go and watch the new Robocop movie at Montecasino. I’ve never been to Montecasino before and, for those who haven’t been before, it is quite a surreal place. They have tried to recreate an Italian piazza inside a gigantic building. There are cobblestone roads and Tuscan buildings, complete with window-sills and balconies. There are trees and fountains and all the other things you might expect in some rural Italian village (albeit a highly commercialized one). The main thing that was weird for me was that the “time” inside seemed to be permanently set at around 5:30/6pm. I’ve heard of this happening in casinos where they try and fool people into thinking it’s evening time when in fact it might be 10am. People are immediately lulled into an evening mind-set and the usual evening familiarities (especially drinking alcohol) kick in. This was the first thing that made me feel a little uneasy in this place, and the feeling didn’t go away until I left the “building”.

Then I watched Robocop. It’s a great movie and the gist of the story is as follows: 1) Awesome, honest, handsome likeable cop gets blown up in a car-bomb after investigating corruption, 2) tech firm approaches grieving wife and asks if they can try out a new technology which integrates man and machine and would save her husband’s life, and 3) the bad tech firm actually plans on using it as a big Trojan-Horse PR scheme to make the American people love robots and overturn a law prohibiting “autonomous” machines in the US. As I’m sure you can already see, it touches on a number of important ethical and philosophical questions. Where is the line between man and machine when we start integrating the two? When we have chips in our brains that control part of our functioning (identifying and eliminating baddies in Robocop’s case), are we responsible for those actions? What is the definition of agency? Consciousness? At what point does a human become a machine? Is a human brain planted on a mass of body-machinery still a human? What is the test for “being a human”? These may sound like ‘out-there’ questions, but they will soon be very much ‘in-here’ as these kinds of questions come before congresses and parliaments around the world. Lant Pritchett recently said something to the effect of: “Change takes longer than you think but happens quicker than you think” which I think I agree with. The time between the first airborne flight (1903) to the first man on the moon (1969) was only 66 years! Or look at how quickly we have evolved from Pagers to Google Glasses. It’s not simply that the rate of new technology is accelerating, but that the growth in the rate of acceleration is also growing. Scary stuff.

When I came out of the movie I saw an 82-inch ultra-HD television standing right there with such clarity and precision it looked completely surreal. I was mesmerized. By this stage I was laughing to myself. Then the final straw was when we sat down for dinner at a random restaurant and the waiter hands us iPad-menus! This is first time in my life that I have been given a digital menu, but it makes complete sense. When the net-cost-benefit of technology is lower than the net-cost-benefit of physical menus, digital menus will become ubiquitous. Obviously.

On a more philosophical note I think one of the reasons why the rate of growth in technology scares me is because the youth are far more likely to be the ones who invent, understand and appropriate new technology. Yet wisdom and experience are still concentrated largely among the aged (as they have always been). There is also a parallel in the technical and non-technical disciplines…

trex

The ones creating new technology are often not the ones who contemplate or understand the moral, ethical or philosophical implications of those inventions. New technologies are not always benign. It is highly possible that facial-recognition technology was in existence long before there were any laws governing its use (I wonder if there are laws governing its use now?!). Is it OK to walk around in public with a camera that can match people’s faces to their Facebook profiles? Have those people given their consent to be identified simply by being outside? Do they need to give their consent? What are the implications for opt-in and opt-out rules when it comes to facial recognition? What about satellite surveillance? It’s completely unsurprising when you hear that 50-year old lawmakers are decades behind 20-year old hackers. While facial recognition may not sound like a big thing to many of you, the stakes are likely to escalate rapidly. If we found a way to “augment” sight and digitally record our stream of sight, is that legal? Why or why not? Currently the US is deciding whether or not Amazon can use drones to deliver Amazon parcels. While that may sound pretty quaint and novel, these type of questions are linked to bigger ones, especially the role we are willing to assign to robots in society. If robots can deliver parcels, can they also clear snow? drive buses? prescribe medicine? make citizens arrests? shoot criminals? Where and how does one draw the line between what robots can and can’t do?

Technology is advancing at a rapid pace and it won’t be long before these kinds of questions and terms become part of our everyday lives, words like “intelligent technology”, “thinking robots”, “artificial intelligence”, “smart phones”, oh wait…

Don’t get me wrong, I love tech and I’m a big fan of innovation and progress, but let’s not be caught  with our pants down surrounded by a small army of digital T-Rexes!

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PS If you haven’t seen the Google Glasses intro check it out here (scary and cool) and also check out one of Google’s new robots, Big Dog, from the Boston Dynamics stable.