Monthly Archives: January 2015

Q&A with Andrew Einhorn (Numeric)

andrew einhorn

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 twenty-second interview in the series. Andrew Einhorn is the founder of Numeric, a South African NGO using Khan Academy to teach mathematics. 

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

I’ve missed a few big opportunities in my life. I was at Harvard when Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook. I can remember one evening considering going round to his dorm to talk about getting involved. Facebook was tiny then; it only had a few thousand members. Still, I thought it was a nice idea and wondered if I could help out. But I was busy with classes and never got around to getting in touch with him. I guess that ship has sailed.

I came back to South Africa in 2007 and got a job with a financial firm. But I had seen the Netflix model in America and wondered if it could be established here. A friend and I looked into it – it just seemed like a no-brainer. But ultimately I was still a little risk averse and couldn’t summon the chutzpah to up and leave my investment analyst position. Another opportunity missed!

A few years later I received an email from a funder querying whether Khan Academy might be used in the South African context. I watched Sal’s TED Talk and saw in it another big opportunity. This time I wasn’t too keen to let it slide. So I started to look for ways to connect this powerful online learning tool with children in townships with a view to strengthening South African maths education. Four years later, my thinking around how to use Khan Academy has changed somewhat, but I’ve never looked back and feel as motivated today (if not more) as the day I started.

2) What does your average week look like?

The truth is my days are rather unglamorous. A lot of my time is spent attending to small details – logistics and people. I have less contact time with kids than I would like, but I am satisfied that my work allows a much larger number of pre-service teachers to get valuable class time with our students. They do a great job. Better than me. My job is to make sure that everything runs smoothly and that our team of programme managers and coaches are well supported. Numeric is fortunate to have a set of supportive and clued-up funders, which means I spend relatively less time canvassing funders and more time on operations, which is a big plus.

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?

In terms of maintaining balance and a sense of perspective, Bertrand Russell’s “The Conquest of Happiness” is undoubtedly amongst the most influential books I have read. Sam Walton’s “Made in America” is an excellent read, especially if you have an entrepreneurial leaning and are considering doing something that involves scaling. 

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

I’m not too well placed to answer this one, I’m afraid, I am woefully under-read!

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

I’m also not an expert here, but it does surprise me that there isn’t a bigger lobby to up the ante in the teacher-training space.

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

One of the most valuable insights I have come across in recent years is a quote from Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

And in a recent tweet from Ricky Gervais: “It’s better to create something that others criticise than to create nothing and criticise others. Go create! Have fun :)”

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?

Teacher training

Teacher training

Teacher training

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

Setting up bubble tea stalls at farmers’ markets, or otherwise looking for ways to bring Italian cheese-making expertise to South Africa.

9) You founded the organization Numeric in 2011 – can you give us some background information on the organization and discuss its aims, plans and approach?

With the average score on the Grade 9 Annual National Assessment sitting at 10.8% (2014), it has become clear that South African maths education is broken well before children reach Grade 9. This has informed Numeric’s decision to focus on Grades 6 – 8. We currently run after-school maths programmes in 35 partner schools in the Western Cape and Gauteng. We recruit pre-service teachers (mostly bachelor of education students), train them intensively, and then pair them with groups of 22 learners at our partner schools. They then meet with their kids twice a week throughout the school year, and take the children through an intensive maths programme that starts with times tables and builds up through fractions, negative numbers and order of operations.

Numeric is highly quantitative in its approach. All Grade 7s and 8s at our partner schools write a baseline test in January and an endline test in November. We use these tests to measure the improvement in the scores of learners on the Numeric programme over the course of one year, net of the improvement of learners who are not on the programme. We call this measure the “delta”. The tests are created, administered and graded by an independent assessment committee, and to keep things honest, no Numeric staff member or coach has access to the tests before or after the testing. The two key metrics that drive Numeric are the delta and the cost per learner per month (CLM). Our goal is to maximize the delta and to minimse the CLM.

While the main focus of our programmes is to improve the learners’ maths, we are aware that, in the process. our coaches – future maths teachers – improve enormously both in terms of content and confidence. With the average public school teacher teaching over 5,000 kids during their career, any improvement we can bring about pre-service has positive and far-reaching consequences.

10) Three years after founding Numeric I imagine you are in a different space now than you were then, what are the lessons that you have learnt and what advice would you give to yourself 3 years ago?

When I started out, it was my naive hope that technology could be used to educate children in the absence of a (competent) teacher. I would set up computer labs, put in some bandwidth, show the kids Khan Academy, and voila, they would educate themselves!

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

While we continue to be big fans of technology (Khan Academy in particular), we are increasingly convinced that the key to generating results lies in the quality of our coaches/teachers. While at the tertiary level, platforms like Coursera, Udacity and edX have allowed people to learn things fairly independently, we believe that at the primary and secondary school level, particularly in the classroom environment, the human presence is indispensable. The role of our coaches is threefold: To motivate learners, to support them when they are struggling, and (perhaps most importantly) to praise them when they are doing well.

Due to infrastructure limitations in certain areas where we work, nearly half of our programmes run in the absence of Khan Academy. Our observation? The biggest delta is generated by the best coaches, technology or no technology.

11) What is the most frustrating and most rewarding thing about your job? 

One of the most rewarding parts of my job is working with the leadership and management of our partner schools. There is a lot of negative media around South Africa’s teachers and schools, but the picture I see is quite different. We work with some real superstars both in Johannesburg and Cape Town – principals, teachers, administrators etc. I’d like to take the media to meet them sometime!

I am occasionally frustrated by poor policy decisions, but tend not to lose too much sleep over them as they are outside of my control. And there are good people (like you guys) lobbying to get these issues rectified.

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

It concerns me how much time and effort the founders and leaders of many civil-society organisations have to put into funding. Most organisations have fragmented funding bases with tens or even hundreds of contributors. This goes together with a donor mentality that wants to have fingers in as many pies as possible (I will give R10 000 to 10 organisations rather than R100 000 to one). The result is a large amount of administrative and communication work which usually falls to the organisation leadership. This comes at the expense of them innovating, improving and driving change. I understand that organisations mitigate risk by having a diversified funding base, but a lot of time and energy is spent dressing up social initiatives so that they can be sold to funders, rather than focusing on the problems themselves.

13) What would you most like to see change in the South African education system?

I’d like to see sensible legislation passed that makes space for charter schools. These are schools which receive public funding but operate independently of the established public school system. There are many people chomping at the bit to open and run good public schools with the government’s assistance. I think providing space for them to do so would bring a lot of talent into South African education and I suspect the government would ultimately get kudos for the improved educational outcomes.

I would also like to see sensible legislation passed that allows for independent teacher-training institutions to be opened. At present, the universities carry the entire burden of teacher training. I think there are lots of talented people outside of universities who would relish the opportunity to open and run small, high-impact teacher training institutes. The effect of such institutes, in my view, would be substantial.

Finally, I’d like to see a PR campaign that brings more talented matriculants into bachelor of education (or teacher training) programmes. As the famous American engineer Lee Iacocca once said: “In any rational society, the best of us would be teachers and the rest would make do with something else.” I have sat in too many interviews with prospective pre-service teachers where they explain to me that the bachelor of education was their second choice or their fall-back option. This mentality needs to change. There are few professions that compare in importance with that of teaching and it’s time we communicate this to young South Africans and bring our best into the teaching profession.


Some of the others on my “to-interview” list include Veronica McKay, Thabo Mabogoane, Maurita-Glynn Weissenberg, Shelley O’Carroll, Carole Bloch, Yael Shalem, Linda Richter and Volker Wedekind. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.

Previous participants (with links to their Q&A’s) include, Johan MullerUrsula HoadleyStephen TaylorServaas van der BergElizabeth HenningBrahm FleischMary Metcalfe, Martin Gustafsson, Eric AtmoreDoron IsaacsJoy OliverHamsa VenkatLinda Biersteker, Jonathan ClarkeMichael MyburghPercy Moleke , Wayne Hugo, Lilli PretoriusPaula EnsorCarol Macdonald and Jill Adler.

Curro private school assigns kids to classes based on race. WTF?!


It would seem that as far as education is concerned 2015 is not off to a good start. First we had the MEC for education in KZN explaining that her “visions of an ideal education system” include 18th century pseudo-science, namely streaming 6 year old children based on the size and shape of their skulls (phrenology) and the style of their handwriting (graphology). She has subsequently apologized to “everyone who felt offended” but did not retract the statement. Now this week Eyewitness News reports that a private school in Pretoria – Curro Roodeplaat – is assigning children to classes based on race?! They report that a group of 30 parents have signed a petition demanding an explanation from the school and the company. The explanation given by the company (Curro is one of the few for-profit private school chains in the country) was equally dumb-founding.  Curro Holdings’ regional manager Andre Pollard explained their rationale as follows:

“It’s not because we would like to segregate the whites, it’s just because of friends. Children are able to make friends with children of their culture.”

This sounds like a social/friendship-based version of ‘separate development.’ Fifty-two years ago the Bantu Education Act was made into law, segregating children based on the colour of their skin. Still today we are dealing with the aftermath of that one piece of legislation. By conflating education and subjugation it transformed our schools from sites of learning to sites of activism and resistance. It destroyed the culture of teaching and learning and created a lingering fear of education as an instrument of political subjugation.

With a history such as ours how can a school possibly argue that separating children based on race or ‘culture’ is necessary?! The sheer nerve that their regional manager can justify this racial segregation saying that children find it easier to make friends with children of their own culture is astounding and shameful. This is not the first time I have heard about racial discrimination in Pretoria’s Curro schools, but it is the first time I have seen it reported in the media. Currently there are 43 Curro schools across the country raising revenue of over R400 million in 2014. The company recently invested R1,5 billion in expanding their facilities with an aim of reaching 80 schools by 2020.  Only 4% of South African students attend Independent (i.e. non-public) schools but the vast majority of those are not-for-profit schools with about 0,4% attending for-profit schools like Curro.

While we might be tempted to brush this off as an isolated instance at a single Curro school, we need to ask why this behaviour is seen as acceptable by their regional manager? Curro needs to unequivocally condemn these practices and ensure that they are not practiced at any of their other schools. Looking at the speeches and policies at the time of our transition one can clearly see that education was (and is) seen as one of the most promising channels of integration, nation-building and transformation. The actions of this school show utter contempt for the democratic project in South Africa. There are many amazing Independent schools in this country who offer high quality education in a socially inclusive and culturally sensitive way. It would seem that Curro Roodeplaat is not one of them.

The ideal school system to get one’s head around [my Sunday Times article]


[This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on the 25th of January 2015, it is also available online on Daily Maverick]
Earlier this month the MEC for Basic Education in KwaZulu-Natal, Ms Nelisiwe Peggy Nkonyeni, announced the provincial results of the 2014 matric class. Reading through her speech, it was difficult to know whether to laugh, cry or scream, and in the end one could but shake one’s head in disbelief.

After re-reading the speech, and checking online that this wasn’t in fact a hoax, one could only settle on anger and outrage. Reading through the concluding remarks of Nkonyeni’s speech, it is not hard to see why.

“As I conclude, I revisit the thoughts that guide my innermost conscience in the execution of my responsibilities. Visions of an ideal education system dominate my thinking. In the realm of my thought world, I wish […] That our system could have graphologists who would analyse the uniqueness of each child’s handwriting and channel them accordingly […] That philosophy could be a subject offered at a basic education level so that the system could produce critical thinkers; that chess lessons could be offered to all mathematics learners in order to improve their mathematical schools; and that our system could train and produce phrenologists who would study the shape of a child’s head at Grade R so that we channel the children accordingly”

(MEC Nkonyeni, 7 Jan 2015).

I’m sorry, but you really cannot make this kind of stuff up. Essentially, we can summarise the above and say that the four things that “dominate” the thinking of the KZN MEC for Basic Education are graphology, philosophy, phrenology and chess. Given that there is some international research showing that chess and philosophy can have a positive impact on educational achievement, I will put those two aside for now and discuss the other two issues. This is not to say that I see chess and philosophy as solutions to our education crisis (I don’t), but only that the other two – phrenology and graphology – are so outlandishly ridiculous and unscientific that I do not want to lend them credibility by association.

To be clear, phrenology aims to make judgements about a person’s character and mental capacity based on the structure of their skull, while graphology aims to make similar judgements by analysing the physical characteristics and patterns of their handwriting. Both of these fields are generally considered pseudo-science, since they have no scientific evidence base whatsoever, and have been debunked for over 100 years already.

The fact that MEC Nkonyeni uses these fringe theories to “guide her innermost conscience” and is on record stating that they dominate her “vision of an ideal education system” is deeply problematic. We are talking about the most basic possible level of scientific literacy. To quote one definition of scientific literacy, it refers to “distinguishing scientific facts and theories from pseudoscientific beliefs such as those found in astrology, alchemy, medical quackery and the occult”. If we are willing to stream our children in Grade R based on phrenology and graphology, why not horoscopes and palm readings?

One might be tempted to brush off these statements as harmless rhetoric from a left-field thinker and that these beliefs couldn’t possibly make their way into public policy. However, it would be wise to recall what happened in the province under her leadership as MEC for Health a decade ago. Based on her medical beliefs, she refused to give the go-ahead for the use of ARVs in the treatment of HIV-positive individuals, claiming that they were toxic and had bad side effects. Instead, she encouraged HIV-positive people to take uBhejane, an untested herbal concoction. As we all know, anti-retroviral therapy is now the standard of care for those who are HIV positive. The fact that this life-saving treatment was denied to hundreds of thousands of people for many years because of the MEC’s pseudo-scientific beliefs is one of the enduring scars on our country’s medical history. Seen in this light these statements about phrenology and graphology don’t seem so harmless anymore.

These are not just the careless statements of an unimportant politician. Ms Nkonyeni is the MEC for Basic Education in our most populous province. She is directly responsible for the education of every child in KwaZulu-Natal, i.e. 2,901,697 children in 6,151 schools (23% of all South African students, to be specific). She also oversees the largest single provincial budget in the country (R39,4 billion). And she wants to stream your children when they are six years old based on the size and shape of their skulls?! You cannot make this stuff up.

As an educational researcher in South Africa, I am deeply concerned that these are the principles that are guiding the educational leadership of KwaZulu-Natal. We have more than enough problems dealing with the education crisis in our country as it is. Careless statements about pseudo-scientific beliefs undermine the legitimacy of the education department in KZN and cast doubt on the strategic direction of education in the province. MEC Nkonyeni needs to clarify her views on graphology and phrenology and issue a public statement assuring parents that they will not influence education policy in the province in any way, shape or form. “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Q&A with Jill Adler


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 twenty first interview in the series. Jill Adler is a professor in the education faculty at Wits and Chair of Mathematics Education. 

1)   Why did you decide to go into education?

I always loved mathematics, and was inspired by particular teachers in both primary and secondary schools, and so I went to University to study mathematics. I gave “extra mathematics lessons” while I was doing my degree and enjoyed this (as well as earning quite well from it) and so went on from a B Sc to do my professional teaching diploma. Psychology was my second major – this also wasn’t in my original plan – I had thought I would do Applied Maths, but I enjoyed Psychology in first year and so continued, and then enjoyed work on child development, learning and so on. So I moved into teaching – rather than set out to teach, or work in education. When I began my working career as a secondary mathematics teacher, I had no intention of becoming an academic and researcher in education. My first post was in a so-called ‘coloured’ school in Cape Town, a school with a strong political identity tied to the Unity Movement. This strengthened my concerns with and interest in educational inequality. My work turned in that direction, and in 1977 I went to work at the SACHED trust. I wrote mathematics materials for Weekend World Newspaper (which was banned in 1977) and then Sunday Post, and found in the early 1980s that the materials were being used by adults working in various sectors including the mines. This stimulated research that led to my Masters degree which focused on “Adults learning mathematics through the newspaper”. I tracked down and interviewed a group of these aduts and learned a great deal about what it meant for many to return to study – and do this through a written mass medium; of course I also learned about how mathematics can be communicated in that medium. And as they say, the rest is history. After completing my Masters, and my children were a little older, I decided to re-enter formal teaching and the university sector, and was fortunate to get a lecturing position first in primary mathematics at what was then JCE and then in the Department of Education, at Wits.

2)   What does your average week look like?

It’s busy! I don’t have an ‘average’ week – my work spreads across all components of research, teaching both post graduate courses and professional development, lots of post graduate supervision, reviewing journal papers, writing references, assisting others with papers they are working on, and running a large project (managing staff, finances, reporting) and so on. This is my current work and a function of the position of Chair of Mathematics Education, and director of a large research and development project – my work spread is not the same as it was five years ago before I took on this chair. Broadly my time is shared between supporting the professional development work we do in schools, and doing and supporting the research that is linked to this work, with a large proportion of time supporting full time doctoral students in the project. I teach less than I did before. I travel internationally a fair amount, to conferences and for other international work I do. Also, until July 2014, I held a joint part time Professorship at Kings College London, and so spent time there each year … I am now a visiting professor, and only continue with some doctoral supervision. I will still spend some time there, but not as much and with less commitment and work demands.

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?

Interesting as I think about this, Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation had an immense effect on me. I happened to read this while I was working on my PhD, and it provided a different gaze on what it meant to learn and live in a language that was not your mother tongue, or as she called it, the language of her heart and emotions. I have since read much of her work, the most powerful of which was After Such Knowledge: Meditations on the Holocaust. The latter, a philosophical and social commentary rather than an academic text, has contributed significantly to my understanding of the social world, as well as some of my own location in history.

Most influential at the start of my academic career was Lev Vygotsky’s work: Mind in Society and Thought and Language. As a mathematics education researcher I am always working between educational theory and literature in mathematics education. With my early work on teaching mathematics in multilingual classrooms, David Pimm’s book Speaking Mathematically was pivotal in turning my attention to mathematical language more generally. More recently, with my interest in mathematical knowledge in and for teaching and particularly what is produced as mathematics in teacher education practice, influential resources are Basil Bernstein’s Pedagogy, Symbolic Control and Identity, and Anna Sfard’s Thinking as Communicating and then the extensive work done by Deborah Ball in the past decade. I could go on, as I enjoy reading, and spend time relaxing with whodunnits …

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

Three people come to mind: Anna Sfard and Luis Radford are both influential and eminent thinkers in mathematics education today. Each has and continue to develop a theory of mathematics learning, Anna through a quite radical discursive turn, and Luis also with semiotics, with a stronger cultural activity orientation. Both have produced rigorous and conceptually complex frames with which to engage (describe and explain) mathematics teaching and learning. And then Steve Lerman, long time collaborator and friend, for his breadth of knowledge and wisdom in our field and his continuing work related to the social turn as he named it many years ago.

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

I think our whole field of educational research in South Africa is relatively young. There is so much we need to know more about, and from the empirical base of our schools, classrooms and learners. I think the transition years from primary into secondary mathematics what teachers need to know and do to teach across subjects at that level are very poorly understood. This is critical in mathematics where the move to greater abstraction and working with symbolic forms emerges. It is also a critical point where we need to know more about what it means to learn and teach mathematics in a dominant minority but extremely powerful language (English).

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

To be a learner … a good researcher has to be willing to be a learner … to be in a position of ‘not knowing’, and then learning through and from research.

 7) You have been involved in mathematics teacher education at WITS for a long time – in your experience what are the two or three areas that students struggle with most when they become teachers and start teaching in schools?

Just coping with the demands of a full time teaching job in the first year is difficult enough for anyone. Teaching is very hard work. Those entering first year on the job are lucky if they come into a school where there is a depth and range of experience and so can support you in the first year. Just keeping up with the work to be done is challenge enough. For mathematics teachers going into many of our secondary schools, a real struggle is dealing with the backlog in learner knowledge – this compounds the difficulties of teaching “all your learners” and moving on at a pace demanded by the curriculum.

8) There is widespread agreement in the mathematics education literature in South Africa that a large proportion of mathematics teachers do not have the content knowledge and pedagogical skill to teach mathematics effectively. What do you think are the most promising models or interventions that deserve further investigation or evaluation?

Given our history, and the way in which apartheid education ravaged both sense of self, and of knowledge and learning, I think the models that require support NOW, are those that provide practicing teachers sufficient TIME to (re)learn mathematics, more specifically what the field calls ‘mathematics for teaching’. The model we have developed in the Wits Maths Connect Project is promising – it is grounded in a conception of mathematics for teaching, and takes place over 16 – 20 days, spread over an academic year. We have shown that when teachers have opportunity AND TIME to strengthen their relationship with mathematics (and by this I mean relearn mathematics they teach in greater depth, and learn new mathematics, while becoming more mathematical in how they think when doing mathematics) this impacts on the learning gains of their students. The model includes a version of lesson study – and so work on teaching and thus pedagogical skill. But even in our lesson study model, the focus is on what we call the object of learning – what learners are to know and be able to do mathematically, and how this is or is not brought into focus with learners in a lesson.

9)   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?

Hmm, an interesting question. Building respect for the profession, and the work of teaching is a huge challenge, and it requires engaging the organisation of the profession where at a public level, employment conditions and mainly salary is the issue. Changing that conversation to be one that is equally concerned about learners and learning is first and foremost. Second, I would focus on the challenges of time and knowledge in our education. We have systemic problems, underpinned by weak orientations to knowledge (whatever the discipline. Becoming knowledgeable – and that is what is needed for teaching – takes time, no matter what your discipline is; and it requires deep respect for the learning/teaching process.

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

 I suppose I would be in social service of some kind, or perhaps child psychology?

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

Neither – any tool only takes on power in use. We can make more productive use of a range of technologies … if and only if we understand their use is never separate from the user and their context and conditions.

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

This could sound like a lot of money – depending on what it has to pay for, it could also do very little. The short of it is that I am doing the research I want to do, and think is important – studying the inter-relation between mathematics teaching in secondary school, mathematics teacher education and professional development, and student learning.


A full list of Gill’s research can be found here and here.

Some of the others on my “to-interview” list include Veronica McKay, Thabo Mabogoane, Andrew Einhorn, Maurita-Glynn Weissenberg, Shelley O’Carroll, Carole Bloch, Yael Shalem, Linda Richter and Volker Wedekind. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.

Previous participants (with links to their Q&A’s) include, Johan MullerUrsula HoadleyStephen TaylorServaas van der BergElizabeth HenningBrahm FleischMary Metcalfe, Martin Gustafsson, Eric AtmoreDoron IsaacsJoy OliverHamsa VenkatLinda Biersteker, Jonathan ClarkeMichael MyburghPercy Moleke , Wayne Hugo, Lilli PretoriusPaula Ensor and Carol Macdonald.

Links I liked :)

 dead fish

  • My presentation on the matric results 2014 (22 Jan 2015). Matric 2015: Understanding the results, interrogating the issues. Presentation at Eduvate’s Ed-Tech seminar (Stellenbosch)
  • Judge orders government officials to personally pay up” – this is an interesting development in SA. Unbelievably shocking story.
  • Report on an early grade reading initiative that showed promise but wasn’t followed up on 😦 Impact Study of SMRS Using Early Grade Reading Assessment in Three Provinces in South Africa  – I was alerted to this by Nick Taylor’s excellent 2013 NEEDU Reading Report (draft version)
  • Formative evaluation of workbooks and textbooks in South Africa” – Study by ACER.
  • Interesting article on “The superiority of economists
  • Great 2012 podcast on “True Grit” by Angela Duckworth. Are there any good SA psychologists/educationists doing research on this topic of perseverance, self-control and grit? If so please include in the comments. If not, someone get on it!
  • Minimum wages: the choices are not simple – UCT’s Seekings and Nattrass weigh in on the debate.
  • Great example of the power of open-source / Creative Commons – someone has curated the awesome aerial photos NASA takes. Free wallpapers for your phone.
  • DG Murray Trust Hands-on Learning Brief: Scaling up ECD in SA
  • Full list of presentations (and slides) from UNICEF’s recent Knowledge Building Seminar on Early Childhood Development (ECD) – I would recommend looking over the presentations by Mark Tomlinson, Linda Biersteker, Marie-Louise Samuels, Linda Richter and Jean Elphick.
  • Useful organogram of the Western Cape Education Department (thanks Mike Wilter)
  • Isabel Allende “This I believe: In giving I connect with others” – extremely moving one page essay about finding meaning in giving. I’ve added this to my list of “higher truths”
  • Private school effects in urban and rural India” – “The results have several implications of interest for policy-makers. Combined with previous work highlighting that the average cost per child in rural private schools is a fraction of the average cost in the state schools, and that private schools dedicate less instructional time to Telugu and Mathematics, they suggest strongly that private schools are considerably more productive than government schools. However, they also imply that the spread of private schools is unlikely to raise average achievement levels as measured by math skills or functional literacy significantly; with the exception of English, I do not find any large and consistently positive ‘private school effect’. To the extent that the first-order concern for education policy in India remains the abysmally low levels of achievement in general, rather than the inefficiencies in the delivery of education services, the spread of private schooling by itself is clearly not an adequate solution. The large and significant private school premium in English, provided without any trade-off in other subjects in the case of Telugu-medium private schools and only a modest trade-off in English-medium schools, could lead to a possibly large wage premium for private school students in the future. Combined with the selectivity on socio-economic background in the private sector, this premium provides possible grounds for concern that private schools hinder social mobility and facilitate the intergenerational persistence of socio-economic status.”
  • Quote of the week: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. […] Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” — Frederick Douglass, leader and one-time slave, in “An address on West India Emancipation” (via Jon Hodgson)
  • “Without words, without writing and without books there would be no history, there would be no concept of humanity.” – Hermann Hesse (On Lilli Pretorius’ recommendation I’m now listening to “Proust and the Squid” by Maryanne Wolf (first Audible book free)

Q&A with Carol Macdonald

CarolThe 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 twentieth interview in the series. Carol Macdonald is a research fellow associated with the Department of Linguistics and Modern Languages at UNISA and also undertakes consulting work in the field of education and linguistics.

1)   Why did you decide to go into education?

I lived in the UK for five years doing a Masters and PhD. I would have loved to live over there, but it seemed best to come home. I decided that if I were to work in South Africa then I would necessarily have to work in black education. There wasn’t a choice. Otherwise I might just as well have stayed in Scotland.

2)   What does your average week look like?

 It depends if I am fatigued or not: I generally work about 40 hours, spread over seven days, I find the late morning and early evening are my most productive times. I do contract work and also academic work, and try not to go out in the week. It’s astonishing to me that people think I can take bites out of my working day simply because I work from home. Nobody would make that assumption if I worked in an office.

 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 read Curriculum and Reality by Hugh Hawes in the mid-eighties, and it seemed to capture the contradictions of African education. The work of Clifford Geertz, an anthropologist taught me a great deal about ethnography. The work of Piaget (numberless articles and books) helped me to understand meta-theory, and then the Collected Works of Vygotsky have been seminal in my life, partly also about meta-theory. I have gone on to read extensively in Cultural Historical Activity Theory, including Mike Cole and Andy Blunden, and am on the XMCA list serv where we discuss issues on a daily basis. You can see then that theoretical psychology (and not linguistics) is my preferred mode. However, I do keep abreast of developments in second language learning in primary school: I have an enduring interest in the relationship between language and cognition.

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

Clifford Geertz, Piaget (and Neo-Piagetians), Vygotsky, Cole, Blunden, Whitehead, Polanyi. This covers the broad interests I described under 3) above.

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

 The effects of rapid curriculum change on the confidence and practice of teachers. They are not treated with the respect they deserve. Educational change is stressful, and so too much change is even more stressful. I do understand that this kind of rapid change is a world-wide phenomenon, but we haven’t looked at the effects in our context.

I think we need to make a detailed study of the use of LTSM. In developed educational systems teachers only give a cursory look at textbooks, and tend to develop their own materials or use several sources. We need to know what happens when the challenges are much greater in context like our own.

We also need to have a long hard look at lack of prestige when young people go into education. Education is the easiest faculty to get into – the lowest number of matric points. There are so few really bright undergraduates in education, yet we entrust the future of the country to these young people. We need to look at countries like Finland where teaching is a highly respected profession.

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

 Margaret Donaldson, my PhD supervisor (and a doyen of child development), told me that one doesn’t have to read everything, one can think for oneself. That has built my confidence about moving out of my academic comfort zone. Then Len Lanham wrote a reference for me which said that I would rise to a prominent position in research and teaching in South Africa. I was about 22 at the time, and overwhelmed by this prospect, but I learned to grow into it. When I gave Lanham the six reports of the Threshold Project – he said “This is just the beginning”. I had to grow into that view too. If people trust you, you learn to fulfil what they hope for you. I have tried to pass this type of confidence on to my students.

7) In the late 1980s you lead a team of researchers in the Threshold Project. This has been an especially influential study looking at the transition from an African language into English. Can you give us a brief overview of the study, its findings and why you think it has been so influential?

From pilot studies I worked out that African children were having difficulties in making the transition from the first language to English as the medium of instruction in Std 3 (grade 5). We looked at a number of aspects. We looked at language teaching and testing, cognitive development, materials development, and school-based learning experiences. We also had a detailed study of textbooks – and the gap between English as a subject and English as the medium of education. We tried to break new ground in understanding the nature of educational development in the local context. Much of the information we derived should up the difficulties the teachers and learners were having in general in their schools and school practices. We came up with a range of policy options which could be used, based on choice at the school level. We stressed the need for deep literacy practice in the home language. (This remains a key issue right here and now.)

8) Knowing what you know now, if you were to do an update study of the Threshold Project, can you give us a brief sketch of the kind of research that you would do and what you would look into and how?

I might ask some of the same questions, but with an updated spin on the research. Although there are more children in the schools and they are generally better resourced, I think there are still critical gaps. One example would be the rapid turnout of textbooks with not much informed thought going into them. I would go into a deeper analysis of pedagogy. I would look at what constitutes a robust school. I would look at the sustainability of change, and what deep change looks like. Having said that, there would never be such an opportunity to do basic and applied research on the same scale now. There is now a great deal of emphasis on implementation.

9) If you had to go back 20 years and give yourself advice, what would you say?

I would still have pursued the same course (as I really try to live mindfully), but I might have looked more at educational policy, change and systemic change. I would have tried to keep out of tertiary teaching of undergraduates. I would have tried to move into being a Reader rather than a Lecturer right at the beginning.

10) If you had to pick 2 or 3 ‘reasons’ why most African language learners battle to transition to English in grade 4 which ones would you pick and why?

The absence of deep literacy at home. The poor management of resources like libraries, and classroom libraries. The failure of the teachers to realise what it takes to inculcate the practices of literacy, particularly in the Foundation Phases. This is because they never experienced this for themselves as learners and students.

11)   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 would first commiserate with her for having such a daunting job. Then I would share with her about what I said in 10) above. Finally I would talk to her above the professional burden on teachers in the context of excessive and continuous curriculum revisions. Finally I would talk to her about the range of learners we have locally, and why their needs would not be met by all having the same textbook – that is really a very silly suggestion.

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

I would be doing theoretical psychology. (Actually you can do that in education too, of course!)

13)   Technology in education going forward – are you a fan or a sceptic and why?

I am a great fan of technology. We have access to so much information on the web; we can search so easily for articles online. But it should remain a tool rather than something which controls us. It’s not a panacea.  Social media sometimes supplants real contact, so a balance should be struck.

14) If you were given a R15million research grant what would you use it for? 

I would first ask if it was for basic or applied research (although it is very likely to be the latter). That would determine the range of questions I would address. I would like to have a project to run for five years. The most interesting questions tend to pop up in the third year.

Probably the most important aspect would be to pull in promising young research and mentor them. At the ripe age of 61, that is the key contribution I can make.


A list of Carol’s publications can be found here, and I would strongly recommend her short book Eager to talk and learn and think – Threshold Project (1991) which she co-wrote with Burroughs. 

Some of the others on my “to-interview” list include Veronica McKay, Thabo Mabogoane, Andrew Einhorn, Maurita-Glynn Weissenberg, Shelley O’Carroll, Carole Bloch, Yael Shalem, Jill Adler, Linda Richter and Volker Wedekind. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.

Previous participants (with links to their Q&A’s) include, Johan MullerUrsula HoadleyStephen TaylorServaas van der BergElizabeth HenningBrahm FleischMary Metcalfe, Martin Gustafsson, Eric AtmoreDoron IsaacsJoy OliverHamsa VenkatLinda Biersteker, Jonathan ClarkeMichael MyburghPercy Moleke , Wayne Hugo, Lilli Pretorius, and Paula Ensor.

How to raise the ‘real’ matric pass rate [my Africa Check article on Matric 2014]

matric 2

[This article first appeared on Africa Check on the 13th of January 2014]

The release of the 2014 matric results last week followed the now familiar routine of focussing primarily on the pass rate and how it changed, both nationally and provincially.

The notion of the matric pass rate is one that is deeply rooted in the South African psyche and seen as perhaps the most important indicator of education in the country. This is extremely short sighted.

The public, and it would seem the Minister as well, believe that if the pass rate goes up then the quality of education is improving, and if it goes down then this is an omen of deteriorating quality, or – as was the case in 2014 – due to some other factor like a change in the curriculum.

The problem is that the matric pass rate is a function of the students that actually reach and write matric. More and more commentators and critics are beginning to understand why the pass rate seen in isolation is problematic and in many instances misleading.

To illustrate; of 100 students that started school in 2003, only 49 made it to matric in 2014, 37 passed and 14 qualified to go to university. The pass rate is calculated by dividing the number of students that pass matric (37 of the 100) by those that wrote matric (49 of the 100), yielding 76% in 2014.

However, a more appropriate measure would be to calculate what proportion of a cohort that started school 12 years ago passed matric – what some people are calling the ‘real’ matric pass rate or the throughput-pass-rate. That would be about 36% for 2014, down from 40% in 2013.

(For those interested in the actual numbers the calculation is 403,874 students who passed matric in 2014 divided by the 1,085,570 students that were enrolled in grade 2 in 2004. I use Grade 2 figures as the proxy for the true size of the starting cohort because there is excess grade repetition in Grade 1, leading to an overestimate of cohort size if one uses Grade 1 enrolments.)

 As a nation with a skills shortage and a below average proportion of youth that complete upper secondary school, we should be very concerned that there were fewer students reaching and writing matric than last year.

The table below shows that although there had been a general increase in the throughput rate from 2010 to 2013, the rate came down in 2014. This year there were 29,252 fewer matric candidates than in 2013. Part of this is that 2014 was a smaller cohort than 2013, but the lower throughput rate is also part of the story.

Table 1: Students writing and passing matric relative to initial cohorts at public ordinary schools only (Education Statistics at a Glance and Matric 2014 Technical Report)

  Grade 2 students 10 years earlier (i.e. in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004) Students writing matric in 2014 Students passing matric in 2014 Traditional matric pass rate Throughput pass-rate from grade 2 to matric (proportion of grade 2’s 10 years earlier who passed matric)
2010 1,071,053 537,543 364,147 68% 34%
2011 925,761 496,090 348,117 70% 38%
2012 992,797 511,152 377,829 74% 38%
2013 1,087,933 562,112 439,779 78% 40%
2014 1,085,570 532,860 403,874 76% 37%

What causes fewer students to reach matric in one year relative to the previous year? It could be external changes that affect cohort sizes (like the change of age-of-entry policy in 1999). But it can also be through the direct actions and influences of principals, teachers and district officials. Given the attention and emphasis on the matric pass rate (for schools, districts and provinces), there are a number of people who have an incentive to ensure that the matric pass rate goes up, irrespective of how this is achieved.

For example in October 2014 the MEC for Basic Education in Gauteng, Panyaza Lesufi, explained to his district officials that “Any district that drops, even if it’s by 0.01 percent, before you give me the results, put the resignation letter on top.” This kind of approach to the matric pass rate introduces severe unintended consequences like teachers encouraging weaker students to leave school or repeatedly failing them in grade 11. Or, as was the case in some schools in the country, resorting to cheating and conspiring with students. I am all for more accountability in education in South Africa (including in the bureaucracy), but what exactly can a district official do in October to improve the outcomes in matric one month later? By all means set performance targets, but set the right ones. Like measuring the throughput pass-rate from grade 8 to matric, a far more sensible metric to use for accountability purposes (i.e. what proportion of grade 8 students in 2010 passed matric in 2014 relative to the throughput pass rate the previous year?) This is not an especially new argument. Nick Taylor, the CEO of the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit (NEEDU) commenting in 2011 explained the tension between quantity and quality as follows:

“Because the pass rate is a ratio consisting of two numbers—numbers of passes as a fraction of numbers of candidates—it can be improved by changing either or both these quantities. In the period 1999 to 2003 the one that was changed was the number of candidates: fewer children were given the opportunity to write matric whereas the number of passes stayed about the same. The result was that the pass rate went up and the government claimed victory… Ironically, although the 1999 to 2003 period received public approval for its increased pass rate, this was a period of declining quality that was achieved in two ways: encouraging candidates to register at the easier standard-grade level and lowering standards by making the examination papers easier, focusing largely on cognitive skills of an elementary nature at the expense of the higher-order processes of analysis and interpretation. In short, improved efficiency can be achieved by restricting opportunity or by compromising quality, or both, and this is what happened at the time.”

In light of the above statistics, it seems logical to ask not only how many students drop out (answer: 550,000), but also why they drop out. Perhaps the most comprehensive analysis of dropout is the article by Dr Martin Gustafsson titled “The when and how of leaving school.” In it he explains the reasons why South African students drop out, and in which grades they do so. Household surveys show that when youth are asked why they dropped out of secondary school, the four most prominent reasons were (1) lack of financing, (2) wanting to look for a job, (3) failing grades, and (4) pregnancy (for female learners). I would like to focus briefly on the last of these – pregnancy as the major cause of dropout for female students.

In 2010 there were 480,157 female students enrolled in grade 8, but by matric 2014 there were now only 289,795 female students. So 190,362 dropped out between 2010 and 2014. We know from household surveys that that 42% of female students that dropped out of school listed pregnancy as the reason. So a few back of the envelope calculations reveals that 79,952 female students dropped out of school between 2010 and 2014 because they fell pregnant (a figure close to the Department’s own estimates). This cause of dropout for girls is well defined and relatively well understood.

Despite being against policy, excluding pregnant students from school is widely practiced in South Africa, both formally and informally. In 2008 and 2009 school governing bodies at Welkom High School and Harmony High School in the Free State adopted pregnancy policies for their respective schools that allowed for the automatic exclusion of any learner from school in the event of her falling pregnant. In July 2013 the Constitutional Court ruled that this was unconstitutional and that pregnancy policies which exclude pregnant girls from attending class are prima facie a violation of pregnant learners rights to equality, basic education, human dignity and privacy.

While this cause of dropout primarily affects female learners, the fact that it is so well defined and measurable means that it is highly actionable from a policy perspective. There need to be better advocacy campaigns directed at youth – about sex, contraception, teenage pregnancy and the constitutional right to education of pregnant students. But there also needs to be tighter enforcement of policies that prevent unfair discrimination against pregnant girls. Perhaps most importantly the Department needs to develop workable solutions to facilitate the re-integration of school-age mothers after giving birth.

Decreasing pregnancy related dropout is likely to make a large dent in the 550,000 students that drop out of school before matric. Of course there are larger causes of dropout – notably the low quality of primary and secondary education and the lack of vocational opportunities – but these are notoriously difficult to understand and remediate. The fact that so little is done to firstly prevent teenage pregnancy, secondly to support pregnant learners, and thirdly to re-integrate school-age mothers, means that there is huge potential to improve the educational outcomes and life chances of thousands of girls in South Africa, and decrease dropout in the process.


For further reading on matric see the following articles:



Education woes go far deeper than matric pass rate [my Sunday Times article on Matric 2014]


[This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on the 11th of January 2014]

It’s at times like these that I sympathise with the Department of Basic Education and Minister Motshekga. Like the Goldilocks problem, it seems that nothing can be ‘just right.’ If the matric pass rate goes up, then standards are falling, but if it goes down then interventions are failing. Yet with the new, more rigorous CAPS curriculum we did expect the 2014 matric results to come down slightly. Yet there are many other problems we should be discussing. This year, as with previous years, not enough official attention was given to the high dropout rate. Of 100 students that started school in 2003, only 48 wrote matric in 2014, 36 passed and 14 qualified to go to university. I’ve been told by some that now is not the right time to talk about this. But when is the right time to talk about dropout? June? September? It’s never comfortable or convenient to talk about half a million children dropping out of school and facing unemployment or menial work – something that happens year in and year out. And lest you think these students are going to FET colleges or vocational training, let’s look at the stats. Household surveys show that only 1% of youths who did not hold a matric certificate held some other non-Grade 12 school certificate or diploma issued by an FET college for example. The rest have no educational qualifications whatsoever. It is highly problematic that around 60% of South African youth end up with no national or widely recognised educational qualification, despite spending a relatively high number of years in education. To be clear, the aim of education should not be to get everyone to matric. Rather we need trustworthy and credible exams at the grade 9 level, and legitimate vocational options with clear occupational roles that students are being prepared for.

This year we were also made aware of a surge in matric cheating with 5305 candidates implicated in 2014, more than ten times as many as in 2013 (473). Furthermore, the findings of ‘group copying’ by Umalusi (the quality assurance body) raises serious concerns about the involvement and complicity of teachers, departmental officials and examinations officers.


Much has already been said in the media about the drop in mathematics performance and the mathematics crisis in South Africa. Let me rather talk about another subject that should be receiving as much attention: English First Additional Language (EFAL). In South Africa students take at least one home language and one first additional (i.e. second) language. EFAL is the largest single subject in matric with 81% of all matric students writing the exam in 2014. One might expect weak performance in this subject given that most international assessments that South Africa participates in show that our students perform two to four grade levels behind their peers in reading literacy. However, the 2014 pass rate for English First Additional Language was 98%. This is largely because EFAL is set at the same standard as all the other First Additional Language subjects which are relatively easy and prioritize communication. Yet, as the 2014 Ministerial Task Team on the NSC identifies, “EFAL does not and cannot fulfil the same purpose in the curriculum as the other 10 First Additional Languages.” This is primarily because the purpose of EFAL for most students is not only communicative efficiency, but also to prepare students to learn all their other subjects in English (their second language) and to prepare them for the world of work. The Task Team report goes on to explain that most of these students are only ‘semi-lingual’ in either their home language or in English. One only needs to look at the EFAL curriculum and the EFAL exams to know why. In 2010 the EFAL exams were reviewed by a number of international benchmarking authorities. The Cambridge International Examinations body concluded that “reliance on testing memorisation and recall, rather than critical thinking and analytical and evaluation skills” was a major problem. The Australian Board of Studies New South Wales did not mince their words when they explained that “The cognitive levels assessed in the examination questions are heavily weighted towards lower-order skills…The grammatical activities themselves are meaningless and reflect a drill and practice approach to language learning which does not support the need to develop students’ language for work and participation in the broader community.” These are the same sentiments that are repeatedly expressed by business leaders and those in higher education institutions in South Africa.

The Task Team report also highlighted the low levels of English proficiency among teachers for whom English is a second language, a severe problem that is widely acknowledged in the research literature. Yet interventions to improve teacher subject knowledge in English are meagre and wholly inadequate. During the course of 2013 South African teachers who have English as a second language had a maximum of three hours of English training, and in four provinces they had none. You do not become proficient in a language with 2-3 hours of training. This is not learning how to play Sudoku. The two main reasons for the low levels of in-service teacher training are firstly that there are so few high-quality training programs available to teachers (none of which are properly evaluated), and secondly that teacher training is seen as too expensive for the Department. This is largely because many teachers, vigorously backed by their union, refuse to attend training courses unless there is additional pay for it. This makes training inordinately expensive. Alternatively the training must happen during school hours, which is basically standard practice across the country (despite it being against policy). Yet all of this is quite ridiculous and unnecessary. All South African teachers are already being paid for 80 hours of professional development per year as part of their existing employment contracts (see Government Gazette, Notice 222 of 18 February 1999, Chapter A, Number 3.2, Section D). Yet nationally representative data show that the average South African teacher spends less than 40 hours on professional development per year?

More questions than answers

We need to end our infantile obsession with the matric pass rate and move on to talking about the real issues affecting education. Poor performance in matric is rooted in weak foundations in grades 1-3. Rather than frown about the two percentage point drop in the pass rate, we should be asking why only one in three students who took maths or science scored above 40% in either subject in 2014? Or why so few take these subjects. Or why 40% of our matrics are taking Business Studies and 20% are taking Tourism, when in reality these are empty subjects that are ill conceived and prepare them for nothing? Researchers at Wits have highlighted this problem before, with Stephanie Allais concluding that, “Vast numbers of our children enrol for semi-vocational subjects that are not teaching them either robust academic skills by building concepts and knowledge, nor preparing them for work in any meaningful way.” Is there any plan to reform these curricula and the way that they are taught? Is there any commitment from the Department that from next year they will report the ‘real’ matric pass rate (the throughput rate from grade 8) in addition to the traditional matric pass rate? No single number can capture the health of our education system, the sooner we realise this the better.


Some other links to comments I’ve made on Matric 2014 results:

Q&A with Paula Ensor

Paula Ensor picThe 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 nineteenth interview in the series. Paula Ensor is Professor of Education at the UCT School of Education.

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

I left school with the intention of becoming an economist. My involvement in political activity, initially as a student and later as an activist in the liberation movement, cut across that. After some years of more or less full-time political engagement I realised I needed to qualify myself for a job, and so going into teaching was initially a fairly pragmatic decision. I trained in London to teach in further education, and taught mathematics for eight years at Botswana Polytechnic (it is now part of the University of Botswana), after that for 18 months in an inner London secondary school, and since my return to South Africa in 1991, I have been involved in higher education, first at UWC then UCT.

2)   What does your average week look like? 

 I have been on sabbatical leave for the past 12 months, as my term of office as Dean of Humanities [UCT] ended in 2013. So my average week this year has been quite unlike any weeks of the previous 10 years! I have spent most of my time reading and writing.

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?

Karl Marx’s four volumes of Capital probably shaped my thinking more than anything else I have read. It is an extraordinary intellectual accomplishment, in that from the notion of commodities and commodity exchange he builds an analytical framework to account for the workings of the capitalist system and the production and reproduction of inequality. One can be fully mindful of the critiques of this work but still appreciate the brilliance of his argument and of his literary style. It is very difficult to identify other texts which have had the same impact on my outlook. But in terms of thinking specifically about education, I would add Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Althusser’s Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses and Fanon’s Black Skins, White Masks.

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

This is a difficult question to answer. For me the most influential thinkers in education are deceased – Piaget, Vygotsy, Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Bourdieu, Foucault and Bernstein, for example. This year I have spent a great deal of time revisiting these foundational theorists, as well as engaging with more contemporary thinkers such as Amartya Sen (he reminds us so well how crucially important education is for development and for human flourishing), Randall Collins (I am interested particularly in his work on ritual), Henri Lefebvre (through her work on pedagogy Heather Jacklin introduced me to him and his work on rhythmanalysis) and Judith Butler (whose work on performativity in relation to gender has helped me to think about pedagogy as performance).

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

This is a tricky question as one could answer this question in so many ways, depending on the subfield of education one works in – ECD, primary and secondary schooling, further and higher education. I want to get a better grip on how education as a system articulates. Is there any research out there that provides guidance on this? I have been involved (either through research, or teaching) in different levels of the formal education system, from Foundation Phase through to higher education, but it is not clear to me how, and to what extent (if at all), government policy grasps education as a system rather than as a number of quite distinct silos. OBE had a disastrous impact on schooling; the NQF arguably has had a similarly disastrous effect on post-school (vocational and adult) education and Stephanie Allais’s recent book on the NQF and its effects is a must-read in this context. The parlous state of post-school education impacts negatively on schooling, and on higher education. So an interesting question for me (I wouldn’t claim it as the “most” under-researched area) is how (if at all) government policy understands and promotes the interconnection of the system as a whole. At the level of more personal interest, I want to understand better the regularity of pedagogic practice over time and place, and the difficulties of changing this, a question which for the moment I am placing under the working title of “ritual in pedagogy”.

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

 To respect the importance of empirical data in educational research, to respect the discipline it imposes, and to understand that working rigorously with data is both demanding and richly enabling.

 7) You have been involved in teacher education at UCT for a long time – in your experience what are the two or three areas that students struggle with most when they become teachers and start teaching in schools?

My PhD focused on a PGCE mathematics method course, the experiences of a group of students on this course and their encounters as they entered schools as beginning teachers. I found that the experiences of beginning teachers, and the challenges they faced, were shaped by three factors – access to the principles which framed the teacher education programme they completed at university; educational biography (that is, their own experiences of schools as learners); and the organisation of the school setting they entered as beginning teachers and the level of support they received there. Effective school governance and ongoing collaboration and support amongst teachers was the most crucial factor in assisting beginning teachers plan curriculum coverage, gain access to materials and other resources, organise assessment and feel confident about issues of control. I have read other work since then, especially in the context of mathematics education, and I think these findings have been broadly confirmed.

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

Well, I think I might have enjoyed being an economist. But I would have been very happy as an historian as well.

9)  You have recently returned to the UCT School of Education after being in management at UCT for some years. Have you noticed any changes in the field of education in SA compared to five or ten years ago?

 It is difficult for me to make claims about changes in the field as a whole. With regard specifically to schooling, well, we said goodbye to OBE, which inflicted severe damage on our system, and I think some headway has been made in schools with the development of CAPS and the recognition of the need for high quality textual resources (such as text books and work books) in classrooms. There is now regular, wide-scale assessment (such as ANAs) but is not clear to me what the pedagogic effects of these assessment practices are. In many respects the issues are the same as a decade ago – improving initial and inservice teacher education, strengthening school leadership, changing pedagogic practices in classrooms, understanding better the relationship between home and school, the complexity of linguistic practices in classrooms and so on. So the issues appear to be broadly the same over time, but the precision with which they are articulated seems to be much sharper, and there is a wider array of theoretical resources that researchers are working with.

10)   You have been involved with activist organizations like Equal Education and were yourself part of the anti-apartheid struggle. What do you think is the role of these activist organizations in South Africa and what advice would you give to other similar organizations?

Civic organisations like Equal Education are crucial for mobilising citizens to act in their own interests, and to hold government to account for service delivery across a broad front of issues. An active citizenry is the ultimate defence we have against corruption, cronyism, authoritarianism and the wasteful inefficiency we see so much of at the present time. Civic organisations like Equal Education not only put pressure on government and other agencies to improve the quality of education, but they also build and strengthen civil society in defence of democracy.

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

I am not sure what you mean by technology in education – pens and pencils are already aspects of pedagogic technology! I assume you mean forms of technology which involve the use of computers and other electronic devices and make use inter alia of the internet and specialised educational packages. These offer new ways of accessing knowledge and new modes of communication which are now deeply embedded in contemporary (globalised) culture. As educators it seems to me that in the end we have no option but to give young people access to the opportunities this technology offers. I am sceptical about claims that use of such technology will miraculously transform teaching and learning – I have seen far too many education technology fads consigned to store rooms and cupboards. But it is an unavoidable part of life in a globalised world and potentially very empowering.

12) If you were given a R20million research grant what would you use it for?

R20 million is a great deal of money and we would want to make sure that such a funded research project would have maximum impact on policy and practice. Having read through some of your earlier interviews I am struck by how much more precise we have become in our diagnosis of educational problems and in identifying areas that require further research, and at the same time how broadly these questions cut across the whole system. So the first thing I would do is bring together a group of the most productive and interesting thinkers and researchers in education in South Africa and map out a project which we collectively believed would make the most impact.


Some of Paula’s research can be found here and an extended bio hereSome of the others on my “to-interview” list include Veronica McKay, Thabo Mabogoane, Andrew Einhorn, Maurita-Glynn Weissenberg, Shelley O’Carroll, Carole Bloch, Yael Shalem, Jill Adler, Linda Richter and Volker Wedekind. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.