Monthly Archives: July 2016

21st Century Skills: MakerSpace


If you’re interested in 21st Century Skills (like Creativity, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, Communication), you should be looking into MakerSpace which now has a branch in Durban 🙂 The aim is a kind of ‘make it yourself’ drive, and helps by providing the skills, tools and training to do it. For education this might be about 3D-printing, or how to use and program an Arduino, or Robot Making (see pamphlet below). This reminded me of Stanford’s FabLearn Labs which works on a similar logic (the photo above is of a FabLearn Lab). If your school can afford these types of courses I would strongly recommend moving in this direction…

School programmes

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You can find out more here –

Exemplary school design: Seven Fountains Primary School (Kokstad)

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The above was one of the case studies featured in”Designing for Education” – a publication by the OECD (2011). More information about the design of this school can be found here and here.

What makes a school really great? [Guest blog post: Gabi Wills]


What makes a school really great? Those first impressions that count” – Dr Gabi Wills

Curriculum coverage? Teacher motivation? Print-rich environments? Learning goals and targets? These are a few of the things that I see as important as I have looked through mounds of literature on what makes an effective school. Together with a team of education experts we are preparing to engage in research in schools in South Africa in township and rural areas that exceed despite the odds. In preparation we are having to think hard and fast about questionnaires to capture what it is that separates these schools from the rest. Most of the time this can be a surprisingly difficult task. In post-Apartheid South Africa there have been numerous studies on schools where data is captured on indicators of school functionality. Using our fanciest modelling, we then try and see which of the many indicators of observed factors explain why certain schools do better than others. But most of the time we simply can’t explain the variation in learner performance that we observe across schools, particularly in the majority of poorer schools in the system. I am however starting to wonder if we simply have not measured effectively the things that really count.

As academics we tend to limit ourselves to our peer-reviewed readings, to our computer screens and the occasional conference. But we miss too many opportunities for the ‘aha’ moment when it all comes together. Increased burdens of work limit time to experiment and explore. Well at least for me. After feeling unusually disimpassioned and just wearied by just too much information, today I did something different but obvious. Rather than running off to the office and opening my computer, I started my day in the reception of a great preparatory school in Durban. I sat and observed. I started reading the display books on the reception table, observed the honour boards proudly displayed, watched teachers coming in and out and hearing in the background the sound of children vocalising their prose for the next drama production. After 60 minutes of this, and particularly reading an inspiring 2010 prize-giving speech of the headmaster in one of the coffee table books, things were becoming clearer. Before I even got to the classroom, I realised that great schools do this:

  • They celebrate their history – no matter how small or great. Equally they dream about the future. As read in one of the headmasters prize-giving speeches (also documented) there is “a deep affectionate respect for folk who have gone before”. When history has not been particularly becoming, they consider how they learn from this and how obstacles were overcome.
  • They celebrate excellence. Even the smallest achievement of present and past students is meticulously documented and preserved that all who visit can see. The annual prize-giving is a revered and celebrated event. Photographs of awards and those awarded take centre stage.

But you are probably wondering why these two features (past history, past achievement) matters for the now? The importance of this extends beyond school pride, it legitimises the worth of the institution beyond one individual. Great people create great institutions with a reason for existence beyond their founders. Moving on, great schools….

  • Are intentional about cultivating school pride. In just this reception area, school pride emanates from every intentionally displayed item on the walls, in the greeting of the security guard to the glow from the weekly polished floors. School logos, obviously displayed school songs and mottos are evident. Children don’t just come here to learn. They find a sense of a belonging in an organisation with its own unique character which parents have strategically worked at crafting with the school staff over decades.
  • They treat discipline and manners among children as non-negotiable inputs and outputs of the schooling process. I was greeted with respect by even the littlest grade Rs who politely stood aside and smiled as they did. Where the banter of naughty children is heard, the voice of disciplinary teacher towers louder. It’s clear who is in control.

These are just four observations before I have even spoken to a single person. Moving on to meeting two principals in the school…

  • Respect for teachers, visitors, cleaning staff and the security guard is evident from leaders in this institution. Despite the hassle I present, I am given a tour of classrooms, cupboards, facilities and libraries as two principals enthusiastically express why and how they do things around here. The cleaner is introduced as a fellow colleague.
  • Leaders have intentionally hired the right people (of course in this case they have the privileged control over hiring with lots of SGB paid teachers they can afford). The principal talks about each teacher as a “leader”, “striving relentlessly”, “passionate” and “dedicated.”
  • The economist in me can’t help but ask a few monetary related questions and it’s obvious that there are well-proven financial structures in place. This school doesn’t miss a beat when it comes to the financial operations it requires to keep this ship moving. This is where parents with financial skills come in and are drawn upon for their expertise. The principals I speak to are exactly aware of how much this ship requires, where it requires resources and if anything is ever left over.
  • Teachers have a sense of mastery of the curriculum and are acutely aware of where it can be altered or adapted to better the learning opportunities for their students without stepping beyond CAPS learning requirements. Official workbooks are only used if a more suitable option for their students is not available (and positively at times the workbooks are often considered the best option).

After just 2 hours, I think I have got clearer what my next questionnaire needs to be about and probably saved myself two day of agonising thinking. For all our studies after just bumbling along as a regular person I come that much closer to realising what matters, what separates out the average school from the great. I suspect I have just observed what every interested parent or teacher has known all along.


One of Gabi’s recent Working Papers on principal leadership changes in South Africa is available here.

Recruiting 12 fieldworkers for our ESRC study :)


Fieldworkers required: Research on Socio-Economic Policy (ReSEP), based in the Economics Department at Stellenbosch University, has embarked on a research project focussing on exceptional township and rural primary schools in three provinces in South Africa. ReSEP plans to recruit 9 experienced fieldworkers to assist them with school-based research.

Job description: Fieldworkers

Periods of work: Early October 2016 with an option to renew for forthcoming fieldwork

Overall period of fieldwork: Early October 2016, February/March 2017, September/October 2017

Daily rate for fieldwork: R800 per day with R100 per day subsistence allowance

Daily rate for training: R450 per day

Description of the project: The main aim of the research is to better understand why some schools perform better than others specifically in township and rural areas. We will develop a new survey instrument that captures the actual practices and behaviours of teachers and principals in challenging contexts.

This will be done where each exceptional school is paired with a nearby ‘typical’ school, i.e. one with similar geographical and socioeconomic characteristics.

The study will be conducted in various phases from May 2016 to September 2018 in 60 schools across the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo provinces. This advert is based on fieldwork for the first phase, piloting the various research instruments in three schools per province, this may however be extended to the subsequent data collection phases (February and October 2017) based on fieldworker performance and availability.

Fieldworkers will be required to

  • interview school principals and teachers using quantitative instruments;
  • conduct reading and vocabulary tests with young children;
  • conduct assessments of classrooms and learner workbooks;
  • provide informative insights into the school environments they visit.

Minimum requirements: 1) A bachelor’s degree (although in exceptional cases 3 year diploma’s also considered) 2) Fluency in reading and writing in English as well as one of the three following languages: Sepedi, isiZulu or IsiXhosa

Preference will be given to individuals:

  • with previous research experience particularly from academic disciplines such as linguistics, psychology, teaching and education research. Although other background disciplines will also be considered.
  • with a valid driver’s license and regular driving experience.  with a research interest in the project.
  • who live in the province in which they are surveying schools (i.e. Limpopo, Western Cape or KwaZulu-Natal).


Ideal candidates should possess the following qualities:

  • Integrity and honesty
  • Organised with the ability to plan effectively
  • Confident and professional
  • Good interpersonal skills
  • Works easily in a team
  • Enjoys working with children
  • Takes initiative to solve problems as they arise
  • The ability to objectively observe an environment without influencing how it functions.
  • The ability to articulate clearly in language and writing your observations.

Required time commitments:

  • 2016: Early October 2016 (6 days). 2 days compulsory training. 3-4 days pilot fieldwork.
  • Working hours in field: 6.30am/7am start to be at a school by 8am depending on travel distances. 8 hour working day. Each fieldworker will be expected to verify the GPS location/address of the piloting schools prior to the field visit. Late arrivals will not be accepted as this will jeopardise the completion of data collection.
  • Important note: Fieldwork will likely involve being away from home Monday to Friday (given that schools may be located very far from central hubs) and will potentially require driving to required areas on a Sunday to be able to start fieldwork promptly in schools on a Monday morning. All travel arrangement, logistics and accommodation will be arranged through ReSEP, however it is the responsibility of each fieldworker to verify the suitability of the arrangement.


12 shortlisted candidates will be required to attend training at a central location where 9 fieldworkers (3 per province) will be chosen from the most suitable candidates identified. All shortlisted candidates will be compensated the daily rate of R450 for the duration of the training.

If you are interested in applying for the position please send to by Mon. 8 August 2016

i) Your CV. Including two references.

ii) A short written piece (500 word limit) on what characteristics/features in your opinion distinguish a school as being better than others. The piece must be written in English and in one of the three following languages: Sepedi, isiZulu or IsiXhosa.

iii) A covering letter. In your covering letter please explain why you think you would be a good match for this position. In the subject line please include: “Application: ESRC fieldworker.”

The University reserves the right to investigate qualifications and conduct background checks on all candidates. Should no feedback be received from the University within four weeks of the closing date, kindly accept that your application did not succeed.

Links I liked :)

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Some things I’ve been reading:

New Research:

This article reports on a two-year evaluation of the Gauteng Primary Language and Mathematics Strategy (GPLMS), an innovative system-wide reform intervention designed to improve learning outcomes in Gauteng Province, South Africa. Using data from universal testing of all learners in 2008 on a provincial systemic evaluation, as well as data from the 2011, 2012 and 2013 Annual National Assessment tests, this article investigates whether or not the GPLMS improves the numeracy skills of learners in early-grade mathematics in underperforming schools. Using as identification strategy, the natural experiment that resulted from a miscalculation of the provincial systemic evaluation test scores in 2008, which had been used to assign schools to the GPLMS intervention, the study shows that the GPLMS intervention is positively associated with improvements in early-grade mathematics performance of schools in the neighbourhood around the assignment threshold. The findings of the study contribute to the growing body of knowledge that shows the effectiveness of combining lesson plans, learner resources, and quality teacher capacity building.

Sci-Hub–>Knowledge moves forward :)


I haven’t been blogging for a while for a couple of reasons. I’ve moved to the OECD in Paris for the TJA Fellowship and will be here until the end of August. I’m working on PISA data in middle-income countries and finding some really interesting results – working paper(s) should be done by the end of the year and I’ll be back in South Africa mid-September.

In the last few months it feels like the world became a much more interesting and scary place than it was this time last year. Apart from things like Brexit and Trump, there’ve been terrorist attacks around the world showing how vulnerable big cities are (even in wealthy countries) to very small groups of people with bombs and guns. In the last two days there has been a terrorist attack in Nice (France) and yesterday a failed coup in Turkey. So I think I’ve been running low on good news for a while. Then I was reminded of Sci-Hub, which is kind of the Naptster/PirateBay of academic publishing. If you know the DOI (document object identifier) or the journal name you can usually find it on Sci-Hub. It was founded by a 22 year-old graduate student from Kazakhstan, Alexandra Elbakyan. The site provides up-to-date access to 50 million articles. In February 2016 alone there were 6 million downloads. Providing access to the world’s academic knowledge to anyone with an internet connection is absolutely amazing. It’s also something that one of the Internet’s geniuses, Aaron Swartz, seemed to be planning before his untimely death (suicide). Millions of people (myself included) have access to online journal articles, primarily through institutional access arrangements (typically universities). Having such a distributed network of people, all of whom have access means that something like this was bound to happen and is impossible to prevent. Much like downloading pirated movies or music which are here to stay. This is creative disruption in its purest form.

I think Alexandra is a hero and that Sci-Hub is here to stay. It’s bull-shit to argue that the peer-review process depends on 37% profit margins (Elsevier) or heavily gated elite journals. The logic that we must conduct research using tax-payers money, then submit and review the articles for free but that we must pay to get access to those articles is totally antiquated and perverse. This also explains why countries (such as the US) and donors (such as the Gates Foundation) are requiring that research that they fund be made available online within a year of completion.

Onward and upward…