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 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 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, 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.