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?
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 Muller, Ursula Hoadley, Stephen Taylor, Servaas van der Berg, Elizabeth Henning, Brahm Fleisch, Mary Metcalfe, Martin Gustafsson, Eric Atmore, Doron Isaacs, Joy Oliver, Hamsa Venkat, Linda Biersteker, Jonathan Clarke, Michael Myburgh, Percy Moleke , Wayne Hugo, Lilli Pretorius, Paula Ensor, Carol Macdonald and Jill Adler.