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.

One response to “Q&A with Carol Macdonald

  1. Hi Carol, I am trying to reach out to you and hoping you will receive this message somehow.
    Please contact me if you can on 071 600 2159

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