Monthly Archives: May 2014

Q&A with Michael Myburgh


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 fourteenth interview in the series. Michael Myburgh is the CEO of NAPTOSA Gauteng.

1)    In your career, why did you choose to focus on education and how did you get where you are now?

 My choice of teaching was influenced by firstly a need to have my university education funded (bursaries for teaching were relatively easily available) and secondly by one particular teacher whose passion for teaching was inspirational, both inside and outside the classroom. He became a mentor when I entered the teaching profession. My plans at that stage were to obtain a degree in Mathematics, teach for the required 4 years and then get a “real job”. I started teaching and stayed in schools for 23 highly satisfying years in the classroom as well as school management, and then a change to tertiary education as Vice-Rector at the Johannesburg College of Education.  Throughout the years in schools and the College I had a parallel interest in teacher politics. The exciting period was from 1986 through 1994 when the teacher association I was involved with was attempting to break out of its apartheid mould.  First came a flirtation with the teacher unity forum, which lead to the formation of SADTU. This exercise came to an end one week before its launch!  Then came the work to provide a home for the so-called professional teacher associations and the founding of NAPTOSA, first as a federation and then as a unitary body.  In 1997 I left the profession to take on the post of chief executive of a teacher union which evolved into NAPTOSA in Gauteng.

 2)    What does your average week look like?

Sometimes it seems to be “death by committee”.  In truth the real work is the interaction with teachers. As an educator union we deal with teachers who are volunteers and give of their time to the union in order to promote a better teaching environment as well as those members who need assistance. Although the staffing corps of the Union deals with the usual unionist aspects of negotiations, advice to members and representing them in hearings and disputes when necessary, the exciting work is the professional development of members and other teachers.  A good deal of the week is taken up in the planning and organisation of 8 professional conferences held during the year and which focus on teacher development. That planning also includes a programme of professional development courses, activities and seminars held on most afternoons during the term.  Some of these are in collaboration with Wits and other organisations but all focus on needs expressed by teachers with an aim to improve teaching and learning.

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?

 The books and articles I read usually reflect my two overarching interests and the most influential at any one time are often those I am currently reading.  The first of these is the role and effectiveness of ongoing professional development of teachers.  The current interest in communities of practice and the role of the “expert” in these is a focus.  A book by Helen Timperey et al, “Teacher Professional Learning and Development”, is one I am reading which explores professional development of teachers.

The second interest is the teaching of Mathematics, how people learn mathematics (or construct their knowledge) and the formation of misconceptions in the learning of the subject.  A book by Paul Ernest, “Social Constructivism as a Philosophy of Mathematics” has led to a re-examination of my notions of the nature of mathematics and whether this influences how one teaches. Of more general interest to me is a book by the Russian mathematician now living in the US, Edward Frenkel, “Love and Math”, which is an account of how he became enthralled in the learning of mathematics through mentors and their challenges to him to solve problems in higher maths and  now his involvement in one of the great frontiers of maths research.

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

 I am not at all sure that in the field of unionism I believe there are eminent thinkers, certainly none I would regard as such.  There are those who promote a particular socialist philosophy.  I have difficulty in promoting workerest views in an education setting.  The conflict with a child-centred set of beliefs is all too apparent.

In education generally the work of the Finnish educationist Pasi Sahlberg interests me.  I have been following some of his work at Harvard where he was a visiting professor recently.  His account of Finland’s 40-year period of change in education which resulted in a phenomenal success story and education system is instructive in relation to our own halting efforts at education change.  In particular, the creation of teaching as a respected and sought after profession where a master’s degree is the entry level is important!  The work of Andy Hargreaves remains a favourite.

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

 Teacher training, both initial and continuing, need to be intensively researched.  What knowledge base do teachers need to effectively practice as educators?  Does initial teacher training prepare students for their roles as teachers?  The debate of a professional degree versus a general degree and postgraduate diploma is not yet dead and should be part of the research.  Implicit in these questions is the selection of students for teacher training.  Is it possible to identify what qualities an applicant should exhibit.  In Finland, for example, the selection criteria, including both academic and vocational interests, are stringent.

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

 Never stay in a job if you don’t enjoy what you are doing or your efforts are not appreciated. I have tried to follow that advice.  Life is far too short to be unhappy and to feel unfulfilled for a great part of each day.  Staying in education, whether it was teaching, management or teacher politics was the correct choice.

 7)    As the Chief Executive Officer of NAPTOSA Gauteng, can you explain some of the under-appreciated challenges faced by teacher unions in South Africa?

 The negative press that teaching attracts when a teacher is accused of some heinous behaviour frequently implies that the teaching corps is labelled as rotten, or when references are made to “teacher unions” when more often than not the author is referring to SADTU but for some reason or other would prefer to hide behind the generic.  Having said that, teacher unions in general do have an image problem which they are not dealing with effectively.

The dilemma of marrying the unionist functions with a desire to be a professional association is greater in some unions, such as NAPTOSA, than in some others but this remains an issue which teacher unions are having to face including their approach to the question of what is professionalism.

 The lack of funding for professional development activities, offered by most unions for their members and teachers in general, inhibits more ambitious programmes.  While the Department of Basic Education had proposed a funding model for teacher unions to assist with professional development this occurred once only and then quietly died.  The few provincial education departments that do provide funds for the development of teachers (eg Gauteng and Western Cape) usually tie these up in expensive programmes which are department controlled.  The Western Cape has shown some promise by outsourcing several of their programmes while Gauteng has brought all of their programmes back in-house (eg the literacy and mathematics primary school project).

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

 That is difficult to say.  It’s been such a long time since my plan of getting a “real” job. I suppose it would have been something related to mathematics research or when I finally accepted that I wouldn’t make it at that level in the discipline…

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

 A very cautious fan – I have little doubt about the value of many forms of technology, whether used by teachers or students when it aids the learning process and construction of knowledge.  Efforts though to downplay or even replace the human element appear to me to be an attempt to mechanise teaching and learning.

 10) If you were given a R10 million research grant what would you use it for?

The question of what constitutes good professional development for teachers and how this might lead to a sustainable improvement in teaching and learning is not well understood especially in the complex South African situation.  Researching the variety of different forms of ongoing teacher development and how each influences teaching and learning over a period of time is necessary.  While it is true that a number of doctoral studies have and are being conducted, a comprehensive research programme might provide an insight into one of the big questions in our system: how do we improve the quality of teaching and learning?

 11) Having considerable experience in basic education in South Africa, do you think there have been any major changes in the “mind-set” surrounding basic education in South Africa in the last 15 years? If so, what do you think those changes have been and what has caused them?

 The changes in the “mind-set” surrounding Basic Education has, amongst others, their roots in societal change, curriculum changes and the massification of education.

 Societal change and the culture of human rights have created an imbalance between rights and responsibilities.  While teachers point to the restrictions that children’s rights place on discipline in the classroom, they themselves are also part of the imbalance.  The increasing lack of autonomy is leading teachers in a retreat from taking responsibility for their own teaching.

 Curriculum change has contributed to this phenomenon.  From the heady days of OBE where teachers supposedly mediated the broad curriculum statement to the current situation where the curriculum statement (CAPS) instructs teachers what to teach and when to teach, what to assess, how to assess and how frequently. Teachers who are well educated, trained and experienced are able to resist the intrusion into their professional domain.  There are not nearly as many as there should be.

 The massification of education has been a huge achievement but the inequalities in the system still exist, and combined with the increasing lack of a sense of responsibility, quality education is perceived to be the victim.

 12)Although NAPTOSA is the second largest teacher union in South Africa, it is dwarfed in size by the much larger SADTU. Would you say that NAPTOSA and SADTU are well-aligned in terms of targeted “outcomes”? Why or why not?

 There are good reasons for the existence of more than one teacher union.  It is true that some of these are historical and in some cases are artefacts of the apartheid past.  The primary areas of difference between SADTU and NAPTOSA are the philosophy and principles that each claims as important.  More importantly it is how each union reacts in a variety of situations.  SADTU is often referred to as militant or worker oriented, while NAPTOSA has been accused of being “compliant” because of its child-centred approach.


Some of the other academics/policy-makers/activists on my “to-interview” list include Thabo Mabogoane, Veronica McKay, Volker Wedekind, John Kruger, Jonathan Jansen, Khulekani Mathe, Percy Moleke, and Joy Oliver. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.

Gauteng Dept. of Education vacancies


The lack of capacity of the civil service in South Africa is one of the major impediments to improvement in education (and obviously all the other sectors as well). In the spirit of getting competent people into important positions I thought I would draw your attention to two current vacancies in the Gauteng Department 20121211103022_thumb_DOE-Gauteng-provof Education: (1) Chief Education Specialist: Education Planning and Information, and (2) Chief Education Specialist: Education Research. The full description (requirements, remuneration, etc.) can be found here, and the deadline for applications is the 13th of June. If you know of anyone who may be interested in the position please do forward this on to them. (If you know of any government vacancies in education and would like them advertised on here please do send them along and I’ll post them on the blog).

Links I liked…


  • Great list of South African NGOs compiled by the Bertha Centre at UCT GSB
  • New paper on language compensation in South Africa by the prolific Stephen Taylor: “Reviewing the language compensation policy in the National Senior Certificate” 
  • Three minute video that will make you realize that we live in one of the most beautiful countries in the world.
  • Richard Branson is set to buy Mont Rochelle Hotel in Franschhoek. Small prediction folks – the insanely beautiful properties in Stellenbosch and Franschhoek are going to go like hot-cakes when wealthy europeans realize they are (comparatively speaking) very cheap. 
  • Susan Sontag on Beauty-vs-Interestingness via BrainPickings   
  • Thought provoking 5 minute video about how social media and technology are taking over our lives without us even knowing. We need more of this kind of thing to see and understand the insecurities that drive our compulsive use of technology.
  • Quote of  the day: “You may shoot me with your words, You may cut me with your eyes, You may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like air, I’ll rise.” – Maya Angelou
  • Quote of the week is from Justice Thurgood Marshall commenting on the process of desegregation of schools in the US: “The legal system can force open doors and sometimes even knock down walls. But it cannot build bridges. That job belongs to you and me.” — Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (1908–1993).
  • My presentation at the Moneyweb Ibandla Conference – An Overview of the SA Education System

Q&A with Jonathan Clark

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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 thirteenth interview in the series. Dr Jonathan Clark is the director of both the Schools Development Unit and the Schools Improvement Initiative at UCT.

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

After I finished my science degree I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was offered a job at Rossing (a mine in Namibia) and took it. It was a great experience but I knew from the outset that I wasn’t cut out for a life in steel-capped boots. So I spent two years saving money and then took off for the Middle East and Europe. A year into my travels, no closer to having a clue about what I should do next, a friend took me for a walk in a park in London and convinced me to become a teacher. I returned to South Africa and after completing my teaching qualification started working at a rural school called Nchaupe High in the village of Makapanstad, north of Pretoria. Three years later I moved down to Cape Town and Luhlaza High in Khayelitsha. I taught science, worked as a departmental subject advisor and ran a school (COSAT) in the township over the next 16 years. I moved to UCT to head up the Schools Development Unit (SDU) in the School of Education towards the end of 2007.

2)   What does your average week look like?

It’s quite long! I’m trying to juggle two jobs in one at the moment – my substantive post is as Director of the SDU and I’m also heading up one of the Vice Chancellor’s strategic initiatives – the Schools Improvement Initiative (SII). So it’s a bit of a challenge to fit everything in. I’m essentially in an administrative post, so I spend a lot of time in meetings and struggle to find time to do any research. There’s a lot of people management involved and the SDU is soft-funded so finding money and managing budgets keeps me busy too. Rather late in life I’ve found that I quite enjoy the financial side of things, so it’s not a strain but certainly a pre-occupation.  The multi-tasking keeps me on my toes and stops me getting bored!

I don’t get out into the field very often, but when I do it’s invariably back to Khayelitsha where the SII is working.  I feel quite an affinity with the township having spent (as mentioned early) so much time there.

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?

That’s a tough question. I’ve wide interests in education and I’m a bit of a magpie in my reading. More recently, I was most taken by Diane Ravitch’s ‘The Life and Death of the Great American Schooling System’. The writings of Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves, individually and together have always made a deep impression on me; Fullan’s ‘The new meaning of educational change’ remains a favourite. When I was doing my doctorate, a book by Harber & Davies called: ‘School management and effectiveness in developing countries: The post-bureaucratic school’, had a huge impact on my thinking, particularly their notion of school ineffectiveness.

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

Richard Elmore’s work on school reform and the long shadows of Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves continued collaboration – they might be getting on in years but still write passionately about the need to transform education.

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

For all what we think we know about teachers’ actual classroom practices, I think we actually have very little understanding of what really goes on at the chalk/whiteboard face. Particularly when it comes to working class urban and rural schooling, I think we tend to under-estimate the degree to which the pedagogic practices of teachers are forged in context and strongly influenced by their own lived experiences of schooling.  I’m of the opinion that many teachers operate in what are essentially ‘closed-loop’ systems which are very, very resistant to change.

How to support and enable teachers’ to bring about meaningful improvements in teaching and (critically) student learning in such contexts is, ‘the rub’ (so to speak)…

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

 Evidence, evidence, evidence – particularly when engaging in qualitative research, the challenge lies in backing up your knowledge claims.

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?

Firstly, we have to build the content, pedagogic and classroom organisational skills of teachers and capacitate school managers – we have no choice but to invest heavily in teacher professional and school organisational development.

Over a second drink, I might loosen up a bit and share with her my thoughts about the tensions between accountability and support which I believe permeate through all levels of the education system; and muse on the dilemmas we face in this regard. For how (I would ask her rhetorically) can we hold teachers and school managers to account unless we have in place functional support systems at levels from circuit through district to provincial and national levels?

I’d share some of my own experiences in the field, but seek to be humble – I’ve never under-estimated the immense complexity of (say) trying to run a large, under-resourced working class school in a community mired in poverty. It’s almost ironic isn’t it? The settings which require the most skilful practice, are inevitably the ones with the least ‘curriculum and organisational capital’ (as I like to think of it).

Then there’s the need to build the expertise of the technical core of the State so that it can play a more decisive supportive role.

By the third drink I would probably be saying something totally inappropriate about the power of the majority union…

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

I’d be an archaeologist; I’m fascinated by our past; or a meteorologist – but not one of those working on complex mathematical modelling, one who spends his time staring at clouds…

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

A fan, I think technology has immense potential to positively impact on teaching and learning. For a start, just think of the amount of paper we would save if we didn’t have to print millions of textbooks each year! But I definitely don’t see technology as some kind of panacea which will automatically improve things. I’m too much of a traditionalist I’m afraid, I think the teacher as mediator of learning still has an absolutely central role to play in the educational process.

And that’s what perturbs me, I don’t know how we are going to transform our ‘low skills’ base teaching corps into more effective users of educational technology – do you know how many un-used electronic whiteboards there are littered around the country? From the view of a typical working class school, the ‘flip classroom’ seems a paradigm away…

10) If you were given a R5 million research grant what would you use it for?

 A ten-year longitudinal study focusing on the unfolding narratives of practice of young teachers entering the profession and finding their ways in township schools.


Some of the other academics/policy-makers/activists on my “to-interview” list include Thabo Mabogoane, Veronica McKay, Volker Wedekind, John Kruger, Jonathan Jansen, Khulekani Mathe, Percy Moleke, and Joy Oliver. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.

Q&A with Servaas van der Berg


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 twelfth interview in the series.  Servaas van der Berg is a Professor in the Economics  Department at Stellenbosch University and the NRF Research Chair in Social Policy.* 

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

My interest in education largely stems from my concern with issues of poverty and inequality. It became increasingly clear to me that the policy area most pertinent to addressing these issues in South Africa is education. All other policies can have only a limited impact in reducing poverty and inequality if we should fail in our schools.

   2)   What does your average week look like?

 It varies much with the time of year and with the research projects I am involved with. My teaching load is mainly concentrated in the first semester, when I am largely responsible for three graduate courses. That means two mornings and one afternoon are involved directly with the teaching, whilst preparation (reading) takes almost as much time. I interact a lot with other members of the ReSEP research team, and often have to provide feedback on chapters of doctoral theses or inputs into our research projects. We also have a weekly brown bag lunch seminar where a member of the team would usually present her or his most recent research. In addition, there is a fair bit of administration to do, including dealing with research contracts, writing and presenting research reports, writing testimonials for students applying for bursaries or for jobs, or seeing students. So much academic writing and communicating with some of the other researchers often has to take place at night. In the second semester I have less teaching, but then I travel more to interact with policy makers. At times it is quite common for me to travel to Pretoria once a week, and sometimes I would remain there for a week at a time when we present courses for policy makers.

 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?

There are a few papers on South African issues that stand out for me. The one is a book chapter by Norman Bromberger that investigated government policies related to income distribution for a number of decades in the twentieth century. What still impresses me is his clear articulation of how difficult it is to ascribe distributional outcomes to particular policies, something we all usually fail to properly acknowledge. In the education field in South Africa I should mention an article by Luis Crouch and Thabo Mabogoane, which made the point very well that inputs explain very little of educational outputs. The other is a talk that Andrew Donaldson gave to the SA Institute of Race Relations in the early 1990s about post-apartheid education challenges; it is as enlightening today as it was then. I still prescribe all these readings to my students; their messages remain clear, even though they are dated. And then one should also mention some of the international literature; the joint work of Hanushek and Woessmann must be especially mentioned here, in all their different guises. I have also been fascinated by the work of Lant Pritchett, relating both to education and to service delivery more generally. His recent book on The Rebirth of Education paints a picture of low learning trajectories in India and Pakistan that is very familiar to South Africans, and he has fascinating insights on its causes and how to deal with them. It is for this reason that we recently invited him to Stellenbosch to spend a week with us discussing our common research and policy interests.

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

Eric Hanushek would obviously be high on the list, because of his volumes of work on the Economics of Education, and for best illustrating the limitations of input-based policies in education. I also have great admiration for his work with Woessmann about the importance of education quality rather than years of education for both individual earnings and the growth of nations. I think this work deserves a great audience. I have already mentioned Lant Pritchett, whose work has attracted a large following amongst those with an interest in understanding education in developing countries. An important insight from this work is that although school systems in many developing countries mimic those in developed countries, very little learning takes place in most such countries, so that the real challenge in developing countries is not how to ensure access to schools, but to ensure that learning really happens within those schools. This is a very necessary corrective to the drive for Education for All and the Millennium Development Goals, which focused attention only on education quantity and not quality.

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

We know far too little of how much children learn in South Africa (i.e. the gains they make in a year, for instance), we have only limited systematic evidence of what happens in classrooms, we do not know enough about the difficulties of and consequences of language choices in our historically black schools, we know too little of what is necessary to overcome home learning deficits, and we do not know what are the best policy levers to improve performance at school level. The new wave of quantitative and other evidence-based research to which we have tried to contribute has brought some advances in our understanding of all these issues, but we still have very far to go.

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

That in every class there are always some students that are brighter than the lecturer. Once one realises this, the task of the lecturer becomes opening up routes to learning rather than providing knowledge. The young researchers and doctoral students that I work with are likely to develop far more skills than I can teach them, if only they are given the opportunity. So the question is simply how to channel the technical skills of these bright minds into research work that is useful for policy and that can allow them to earn academic credit that would also be compensated in the labour market.

 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?

My answer to this question may differ depending on what day you ask me – there are many challenges. But let me talk about three.


  1. I would say to the Minister that a political resolution of the unproductive relationship between the teacher unions and government has to be found. This is clearly a process where politicians should take the lead. We cannot continue with the present situation where one union has de facto veto power over appointments and policies, and often uses this power to the detriment of children.
  2. Then I would argue that we need to create a situation where there are consequences for teachers who do not take their work seriously. We all know that parents and fellow teachers would make life difficult for a lazy teacher in a well-functioning, good school. In a weak, dysfunctional school on the other hand, some teachers can get away with putting in little effort, as parents cannot apply such pressure in such schools, and principals often simply do not do so as that is the way of least resistance. That is what makes instructional leadership by principals such an important part of their jobs, and too often gets neglected in our weak schools. This also leads me to my next point.
  3. I would advise the Minster to focus attention on the Foundation Phase, as this is so often neglected. (For instance, few primary school principals have Foundation Phase experience, and energies are more often focused on older children, whether that be in academic matters or in sports and culture). We believe that a concrete central objective is needed for the Foundation Phase, that every child should learn to read fluently by age 10. Such a focus would assist much by focusing energies, in a similar way as the matric examinations have done in secondary schools – particularly if teachers, principals, districts, provinces and provincial ministers have to report regularly on progress in achieving universal reading. Such accountability for a single goal that everyone can agree on – reading – would have positive consequences for learning in all fields, and also for other school phases.

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

Research in education is to me a means to an end. Though education is a fascinating and very important field of research globally, its main interest to me is because of its influence on outcomes in terms of life chances, poverty and income distribution, and economic growth. From the very first lectures I attended as an undergraduate that dealt with these issues, I knew that this was the area where I wanted to make a contribution, and it still is my consuming research interest.

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

There are good reasons why the basics of education have not changed much from the time of Socrates, or earlier – it is always about interactions between a lecturer/teacher and students, in some way or another. Young children in particular need the social context and need to develop social skills. Technology can make important contributions, but cannot replace person to person contact for most educational purposes. The internet and libraries offer a wealth of information, but transferring that information to young people requires more than simply the presence of these possibilities, and education is more than knowledge transfer. That is why good teachers will always be a great asset.

 10) If you were given a R5 million research grant, what would you use it for?

I would want to research learning from the Early Childhood Development (ECD) level and into the early grades of school, because we know too little about it, and about the extent that good ECD and Foundation Phase teaching can overcome home deficits. For our circumstances, that remains a central question.

 11) You have been incredibly successful at creating a collaborative and productive research group (RESEP). If you had to give advice to someone wanting to start a similar group elsewhere what would it be? What do you think were the keys to RESEPs success?

 To the extent that ReSEP has been successful – and I cannot doubt its success when I look at the wonderful work that gets done by this group of keen young researchers –, it is precisely because of collaboration. The Department of Economics at Stellenbosch has given me the freedom to focus on research and on nurturing young researchers. Given this privilege, the question was simply how to create a similarly supportive environment for students and young researchers who are attracted to apply their talents in this field. We have been greatly fortunate in the quality of the young talent we have attracted into ReSEP, thus to a large extent it is simply a matter of unleashing these talents. I often stand in awe of what keen young researchers can produce once they have been given the technical skills; as a society we should draw more from such talent.

12) You currently have strong links with policymakers, what do you think is the main reason why there is a disconnect between research and policy in South Africa and what do you think can be done to fix it?

Most researchers do not understand the policy process or the constraints policy makers face, while few policy makers stay in close enough touch with their discipline. I think institutions such as the SA Reserve Bank offer an example of how those who make policy gain from reading and interacting with research, or even doing research. Furthermore, I think there is a lot to be said for using internships and joint research projects involving both people from the policy making institutions and academic researchers to broaden contact and mutual understanding. But often the time constraints on good government officials are very severe, so they lose touch with reading research and rather end up writing Ministers’ speeches or attending very unproductive meetings. It is therefore encouraging that the DBE has created positions and space for researchers to inform their policy making. It is important that this should also happen in provincial departments, who generally remain less well informed about research. This is one reason why we want to actively engage with provincial policy makers so that they can also learn more from the results of research in education in South Africa and abroad.


*Full disclosure – Servaas is my PhD supervisor at Stellenbosch University (and was also my supervisor for my Masters). As has been mentioned by countless other former students of his – he is the best supervisor one can hope for. 

For a full list of Servaas’ research see here. I especially enjoyed a recent paper of his (co-authored with Eldridge Moses) titled “How better targeting of social spending affects social delivery in South Africa.

Some of the other academics/policy-makers/activists on my “to-interview” list include Thabo Mabogoane, Veronica McKay, Jon Clark, Volker Wedekind, John Kruger, Jonathan Jansen, Khulekani Mathe, Percy Moleke, and Joy Oliver. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.

Q&A with Linda Biersteker

lindaThe 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 eleventh interview in the series.  Linda Biersteker is the head of research at the Early Learning Resource Unit (ELRU) in Cape Town. 

1)   Why did you decide to go into education and how did you get where you are?
I have always been interested in development and education and was involved with youth at SHAWCO when I studied at UCT in my psychology major year I opted for a child development research project which took me to the Athlone Early Learning Centre, a Head Start type intervention the first of its kind in South Africa.  It was my first exposure to preschool education (I was a nursery school run-away in my own childhood) and I was hooked. When I joined the research department there and later the Early Learning Resource Unit, early learning was very undeveloped in South Africa, and we did everything, designed new programmes, wrote materials, developed training for the large numbers of untrained women working with poor children across the country and were key in the policy development process for ECD in a democratic South Africa.    In addition to directing research at the Early Learning Resource Unit, I have also worked on numerous research, programme development and training assignments for international agencies  as well as academic institutions and with NGOs.   This year I am freelancing though I still have research links to the Early Learning Resource Unit.

  2)   What does your average week look like?
Varies hugely depending on the current assignment.  Right now I am part of the team completing the development of a National ECD Policy and Programme for South Africa.  I am also working  on some quality improvement initiatives for early learning   centres,  writing some parenting materials for some countries in the region, a few evaluations and some articles. 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?My introduction to feminist pedagogy through an article by Patti Lather when I was studying adult education at CACE UWC was a huge influence;  and the work of Robert Chambers and his colleagues in terms of participatory methodologies also stands out and has had an enormous impact on my research practices.

4)   Who do you think are the current two or three most influential/eminent thinkers in your field and why?Without doubt,  the field of neuroscience is the most prominent influence today, Jack Shonkoff and the Center on the Developing Child  at Harvard are leaders here,  and  together with economic analyses of returns on investment (such as James Heckman)  is driving world- wide interest in scaling up early childhood development services as the basis for human resource development. 5)   What do you think is the most under-researched area in South African education?

In early childhood development  in South Africa it is looking at ‘what’ and ‘how much’ is needed to make a difference for children, we rely so much on international studies mostly from the North and make assumptions about how to improve quality and implement without testing.

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

Robert Chambers’ advice that “Expert and professional knowledge and ways of knowing need to be humble and to appreciate people’s own knowledge and ways of knowing.”

 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?

(1) Quality, (2) removal of all access barriers and lastly (3) engaging the energy, will  and creativity of everyone working in the education system.

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

Trying to make a difference in some other field involving people.

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

I was BBT (born before technology) so I don’t think I can remotely imagine what it could do for us, but I believe that it is the major change.  Best practice principles for programming have  not really changed in all the time I have worked in the ECD field, but the harnessing of technology to help us do it better, to scale up  systems, services and training, to bring children in touch with wider experiences, to help monitor and evaluate our efforts – Wow!  Having said that, we need to be  very cautious in how we use it with young children to ensure that their development is holistic and includes masses of active  play with real people and concrete materials!

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

Pilot a continuous quality improvement system for ECD services of different kinds, including developing differentiated levels of quality – our current registration requirements are only the minimum.  Within this explore self evaluation by educators/practitioners, verification and the role of external support and incentives.

Some of Linda’s research can be found here.
Some of the other academics/policy-makers/activists on my “to-interview” list include Servaas van der Berg, Thabo Mabogoane, Veronica McKay, Jon Clark, Volker Wedekind, John Kruger, Jonathan Jansen, Khulekani Mathe, Percy Moleke, and Joy Oliver. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.

My M&G article on Stellenbosch Uni & apartheid


The article below first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on the 2nd of May and is also available on their website (see here).

Varsity buildings salute apartheid – Nic Spaull 

This past week we celebrated Freedom Day, commemorating 20 years of democracy in South Africa. Naturally the media reflected on the pressing issues of the day, such as corruption, inequality, poverty and the upcoming elections.

One issue that didn’t feature as prominently was the fact that, 20 years into democracy, Stellenbosch University still has buildings and plaques honouring people such as DF Malan and HF Verwoerd, the founders of apartheid.

We have, for example, the DF Malan Memorial Centre, which is used for indoor sports and graduation ceremonies. Malan was chancellor of Stellenbosch University from 1941 to 1959, and prime minister of South Africa from 1948 to 1954, and he was the very embodiment of supremacist racial ideology and paternalistic oppression.

He was the one who implemented “grand apartheid” and infamously concluded: “The Afrikaner has power over the kaffir. But truly, we would not have possessed this power if it had not been given to us from above. Has God not embedded it with a high and holy calling for our nation?”

Irreconcilable ways of life
This is the same man who believed that the difference between black and white people was “merely the physical manifestation of the contrast between two irreconcilable ways of life, between barbarism and civilisation, between heathendom and Christianity”.

He was a zealous racial supremacist who argued that, in order to avoid being “submerged in the black heathendom of Africa”, the white minority would have to employ “the armour of racial purity and self-preservation”.

Biographical scholarship has helped shed light on what made Malan the man he was and shows that he was obviously a product of his time. But being able to explain his views and policies in no way justifies or excuses them: this man was directly responsible for decades of oppression for millions of black South Africans.

Without any on-site explanation to the contrary – and there is none at the centre – buildings confer honour and respect on their namesakes. Should we really be celebrating and memorialising someone like Malan? Of course, he should be remembered in South African history, but his place is in an apartheid museum, not adorning an important building at a public university.

If you walk across the river from the centre and into the Accounting and Statistics Building (previously called the HF Verwoerd Building), you will still see a large dedication in the foyer: “In grateful memory of the Honourable HF Verwoerd, Prime Minister of the Republic of South Africa, after whom this building was named on 3 April 1963 and who on 6 September 1966 died in Parliament in the service of his people.”

Teaching the “bantu”
This “honourable” man was the same one who, when discussing his government’s education policies in the 1950s, declared: “There is no place for [the bantu] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour … What is the use of teaching the bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice? That is quite absurd.” He is also the one who decreed that it was better “to be poor and white than rich and multiracial”.

But perhaps some would argue otherwise, saying: “What is the harm in keeping the names of these buildings given that they were part of our history and that these were great men at the time?” To this I would answer that any achievements these men may have made have been vastly overshadowed by their heinous crimes against black South Africans.

Nefarious policies
I would also suggest addressing this question to any black student on campus whose parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were oppressed and subjugated by these very same individuals and their nefarious policies. Names have symbolic power. A black friend of mine who studied statistics at Stellenbosch University told me earlier this year about how, every time she walked into that building, “it served as a constant reminder of where I was and who I am”.

Malan and Verwoerd are by no means the only link between the university and apartheid: indeed, Stellenbosch was the crucible for Afrikaner Nationalist thought in the 20th century. Between 1919 and 1978, every single* prime minister of our country hailed from Stellenbosch University – Jan Smuts, JBM Hertzog, Malan, JG Strijdom, Verwoerd and BJ Vorster – whether as students, professors or chancellors. They then went on to become the architects and implementers of the oppressive apartheid regime of legislated racial exclusivity.

Oddly enough, there is scant mention of any of this on the university website and no mention whatsoever under the “historical background” section. This is a strange omission. Why is there no permanent exhibition or museum explaining the pivotal role that the university and its staff played in developing and implementing the apartheid ideology? One cannot simply sweep this under the rug, especially when you have buildings named after the perpetrators.

As I see it, there are two possible ways forward. Both would involve permanent recognition of the pivotal role the university played in the conceptualisation, implementation and maintenance of the supremely oppressive apartheid regime. Beyond this, one could also change the names of these buildings and remove the plaques.

Half-baked arguments
I have not found a legitimate reason why we should not change the names and put the plaques in museums, only a few legal trivialities and half-baked arguments about keeping a reminder of the past. But these are not benign reminders: they are commemorations, celebrations, remembrances.

Some see poetic justice in black students graduating in the DF Malan Memorial Centre. But at what price? Without on-site explanations denouncing these individuals, their visibility and prominence translate into honour and respect.

One wonders why we commemorate these fathers of apartheid when there are many anti-apartheid Afrikaners who are actually worth celebrating, people such as Antjie Krog, André Brink, Beyers Naudé, Bram Fischer, Nico Smith and Breyten Breytenbach. But we have no buildings named after these honourable heroes. Why is that?

But perhaps some feel that simply changing names is a shallow way of dealing with an inconvenient truth; or worse, that it amounts to whitewashing history. To these people I would say: fine, keep the plaques in place but then install museum-type exhibitions in situ and do so in such a way that there can be no doubt that these men orchestrated and implemented apartheid. They should not be remembered fondly. Given the university’s pivotal role in apartheid, what better place to have the country’s foremost campus-wide apartheid museum?

Remnants of the past
The fact that we are now 20 years into democracy and still see uncritical remnants of the past is all the more peculiar when one looks at some of the positive developments at the university. Last year it voted to make the student residences significantly more inclusive and diverse, and to promote the inclusion of more first-generation students actively. The vote passed 51% to 49% and was a heated affair, but it also marked an important milestone proving that the university is serious about transformation.

Some might argue that the university should not be singled out from other universities and that there are many examples of similarly offensive buildings and plaques at other institutions. Although I would caution that Stellenbosch is different in that it was the epicentre of apartheid, I agree 100% with the sentiment.

Rhodes University and Rhodes Memorial, for example, are named after one of the most despotic, racist and imperialistic men ever to set foot in Africa. This is the deplorable man who infamously said, “I prefer land to niggers” and “One should kill as many niggers as possible”. I focus on Stellenbosch only because I am studying here and I see these memorials every single day.

There is no doubt that it is one of the top universities in Africa. It is functional, entrepreneurial, safe, efficient and productive, and it has begun to make a concerted effort to become a more racially diverse and inclusive campus.

However, it simply has not done enough to acknowledge its role in apartheid and unequivocally distance itself from its infamous apartheid alumni.

Nic Spaull is a PhD student in the economics department at Stellenbosch University. He can be followed on Twitter @NicSpaull


*This is a corrected version and differs from the printed M&G article. The original M&G article had this as “Between 1919 and 1978, six of the seven prime ministers” which is incorrect and is a small typo from an earlier draft of the article. See here for background info. 


For those interested in this issue I would encourage you to read Pieter Odendaal’s open letter (2012) to the Rector of Stellenbosch University Russel Botman, Prof Botman’s reply, Johna Fourie’s blog post on this, and the recent article in Die Matie dealing with the topic.

Are there any alternatives to the two options I propose here? If you can think of any please do post in the comments section below.

Q&A with Hamsa Venkat

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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 tenth interview in the series.  Hamsa Venkatakrishnan is an Associate Professor at Wits and holds the position of SA Numeracy Chair

1)   Why did you decide to go into education?

Had decided by the time I was 10 or 11 that I wanted to be a teacher, and probably, a maths teacher. I had no thoughts, at the point at which I started teaching, that I would become an academic working in a university – that came quite a lot later. I’m not sure what prompted wanting to teach – but my mum had been a teacher and her father had been a lecturer – so they were probably both influences.

2)   What does your average week look like?

I don’t really have an ‘average’ week – which is part of what I like about the job I currently do. Some days (and some weeks), I am in schools for most of the time, I teach undergraduate seminars and postgraduate courses, and do a lot of postgraduate supervision.  I also go to conferences, nationally and internationally, and sit in meetings – at my university, with teachers and with policy makers. I love the fact that my current role as SA Numeracy Chair, leading a 5 year research and development project aimed at improving primary maths teaching and learning, allows me to teach everything from Grade 1 classes to PhD students. That range is unusual – and great fun!

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 love reading, and all kinds of reading – from mathematics education, to classic literature, to Cosmopolitan! In education, I read a range of work, both theoretical and empirical, but really admire the people who write in thoughtful and accessible ways about how we might re-think teaching and learning. In mathematics education, I think Professor Anne Watson at Oxford University does this really well, as does Professor Mike Askew at Monash University.

More broadly, I like classic literature – the girly stuff like Jane Austen and George Eliot, and lots of modern world literature. I also loved reading Sunday papers all day when I lived in London. And yes, Cosmopolitan is good fun too!

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

It’s quite hard to narrow down two or three ‘most influential’ thinkers in mathematics education, or in education more broadly, because the church is a broad one with diverse interests and multiple sub-fields. While there are ‘eminent’ thinkers in maths education, what counts as ‘influential’ is eclectic and subjective and shifts over time. So, influential for me at the moment, George Lakoff’s work on human understanding of concepts through embodied cognition. And lots of people working in the field of mathematics teacher knowledge and maths teaching development – Deborah Ball, Brent Davis and Jill Adler amongst these.

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

I am increasingly interested in understanding what people think children should be able to do mathematically at various stages of schooling, and then thinking about what teachers need to do to develop these competences. I don’t think we have sufficiently shared understandings – even within mathematics education – about what children should be able to do, and we seem reluctant to build the platforms and networks and engage in the hard conversations that might allow us to develop more shared perspectives across a terrain that is as riven with an inequitable history of access to education as South Africa is. Differences of opinion relate to both the type of mathematics children should be able to do, and the extent of the mathematics that schools should offer. For example, look at these two questions:

  • 4/5  +  1/3  equals  ____
  • How many fractions lie between 1/4 and 1/2?

Learner performance is usually higher on the first question than the second. I get mixed responses when I ask teachers and teacher educators whether they think that children should be able to answer both of these questions. Some say ‘Yes, children should be able to answer both’. Most say they have taught children how to work out the answer to the first question, but have not dealt with the idea underlying the second question. Underlying these differences in what gets taught are different views about what school mathematics is actually about.

I think it is critically important that children are able to answer both of the questions above, but I would go further. I think being able to do the first question without having any idea about how to answer the second is pretty useless. But we need to be able to understand what underlies these different positions, and then start building agreement over what we want children to be able to do and what we put in the school curriculum. If we don’t, I can’t see how we will move towards closing the gaps in performance that are so widespread on the ground. So that is my under-researched priority (for now!).

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

‘Do it for as long as you enjoy it – and resign if it gets to the point that you don’t enjoy it any more’.

I’m still enjoying it enough to stay in!

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?

  1. Teacher content knowledge – and openings for developing this in ways that are useful for teaching. This might mean more conversations around the kinds of understandings underlying the second question above, rather than more practice of the first question – which is what many of us did more of in school
  2. Lack of shared understandings of what mathematics we teach in school and why.
  3. Access to good quality primary level education

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

I think I would have liked to be a scriptwriter – for film or television. Or a travel writer like Bill Bryson. But I think I am quite a vocational teacher – so would not want to lose being able to do that!

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

            A fan, although a bit of a Luddite one in some ways!

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

            Longitudinal studies that tracked through from developing teacher content knowledge from a teaching perspective, into supporting teachers to make mathematics more coherently and interestingly and purposively accessible to learn in classrooms. Research would aim to understand the conditions, constraints and development trajectories within these processes.


A list of Hamsa’s publications can be found here. We are currently working on a joint paper (or two) analysing the SACMEQ III (2007) Grade 6 Mathematics teacher test data, and *hopefully* they’ll be finished in the next few months.

Some of the other academics/policy-makers on my “to-interview” list include Servaas van der Berg, Thabo Mabogoane, Veronica McKay, Jon Clark, Volker Wedekind, John Kruger, Linda Biersteker, Jonathan Jansen, Khulekani Mathe, Percy Moleke, and Joy Oliver. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.