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.

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