Category Archives: Q&A

My Q&A with Nali Bali

Usually the sensational titles that sub-editors choose to use drives me crazy. This time I actually love that they focus on this quote about the lack of NRF Chairs in African Languages: 100% true!! 

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The edited Q&A is available on the TimesLive site here. But my unedited answers are here:

You’ve talked before about reading being South Africa’s biggest solvable problem. But the recent pre-Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) survey puts the number of Grade Four children who cannot read for meaning in any language at 58%. Where to begin turning this around?

I think there are a number of ‘basics’ that we need to get in place to rectify this problem. They can broadly be grouped under ‘Time’, ‘Text’ and ‘Teachers’.

Teachers: I think we need to ensure that all teachers actually know how to teach reading. Unfortunately most teachers have not been taught what the various components of reading are (phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, fluency and motivation) or how these fit together into a cohesive whole. Currently teachers focus on communalized activities like chorusing and offer very little differentiation or individualized instruction or assessment. There is little formal teaching of vocabulary, spelling, writing or phonics and almost no understanding of how to develop the most important skill in reading: comprehension. Countless research studies have shown that our teachers simply do not know how to teach reading and writing systematically. 

Text: Given that 70% of children in South Africa are learning to read in an African language in grades 1-3 before transitioning into English in Grade 4, we need to ensure that there are enough texts available to actually teach reading. I’ve recently looked at the number of graded readers that exist in the African languages and most series have 15 very short books per year from grades 1-3. This is simply unacceptable. If one looks at wealthy English schools children are reading up to 200 graded books per year. They usually take one home per day. We really need to increase the number and quality of resources available in African languages.

Time: A number of studies have shown that teachers are only using about 50% of the instructional time that is available during the year. As a result children do not have enough opportunity to learn to read.

At grade four level, children are expected to transition between the phases of ‘learn to read’ and ‘read to learn’ – essentially being able to read for meaning. Yet it’s also the age when schools tend to switch children from mother-tongue education to English-language instruction. That sounds like a recipe for disaster?

The transition to English in grade 4 is fraught with difficulties. For learners that have not become literate in their home language in grades 1-3 it is almost impossible to become literate in a second language (English). I think this points to two things: (1) deficiencies in how we are teaching home language in grades 1-3 and (2) deficiencies in how we are teaching English First Additional Language (EFAL) in grades 1-3. There is also a dearth of research on this transiton. The best research on this comes from the work of Carol MacDonald in the Threshold Project which was done in 1989! We need more research on the transition and how to ensure that learners are not only bilingual but also biliterate.

It’s worth noting that a number of other African countries also transition to English in Grade 4 and have much better reading outcomes than we do. The transition to English in Grade 4 is certainly not unique to South Africa.

Text-poor environments are definitely a contributor to our national literacy crisis. What are some of the most interesting projects you’ve come across to encourage production of books in indigenous languages?

 I think the move to develop graded readers in the African languages from scratch is a great example of progress. Up until recently most of the graded readers that had been developed in African languages were just translations from English, and often would lost all the ‘grading’ in the translations. This is because some words and themes that are ‘easy’ in English are actually very difficult in some African languages. The Vula Bula books by Molteno are a good example of de novo graded readers that were developed with the concept of grading in the specific language. I think the work of Nali Bali is also really important – developing stories written by home-language speakers and easily accessible to children.

It’s not just hard to find published literature in indigenous languages, there’s a dearth of linguistic research too – there are no oral reading fluency benchmarks for African languages, for example. Where would you particularly like to see significant change?

100%. This drives me absolutely crazy. Why on earth are there no National Research Foundation (NRF) Chairs in teaching reading in African languages?! Why is early grade reading research not a national research priority with priority funding? This is such a huge scandal in South Africa. The absolute failure of PanSALB to do what it was mandated to do by Parliament is a disgrace. While it’s great to see individual publishers and authors pushing forward and publishing books and stories in African languages, ultimately we need the funding and commitment from government that this is a national priority.

You’ve talked about making the achieving of mother tongue reading competency by grade three a prioritized national goal. What – and how long – might it take to achieve this?

To be 100% honest this will take time. It takes time to train teachers. Get high quality resources I nevery classroom and every home. We could create a great campaign and say that it needs to be done by 2020 and try and galvanize everyone, but that’s just not how long these things take. I think a ten-year time-horizon is probably more realistic. Even that is really ambitious. The Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen uses the Japanese experience in the mid-19th century as a classic example of the relentless focus on basic education. Soon after the Meiji restoration of 1868 The Fundamental Code of Education was issued (1872) which stated that there must be “no community with an illiterate family, nor a family with an illiterate person.” By 1913 the country was almost entirely literate, publishing more books than Britain and more than twice as many as the United States, even though it was much poorer than both of these countries. But none of this happens without a country-wide commitment to eradicating illiteracy and ensuring that every South African can read for meaning and pleasure.


Q&A with Jonathan Jansen (SAERA SIG)


The Q&A with Professor Jonathan Jansen below first appeared in the SAERA “System-wide Educational Change” Newsletter.

Q&A with Jonathan Jansen

You have recently published two new books on educational change that have received critical attention from the public, How to Fix Schools (2014) and Leading for Change (2015). What is it about your thinking that has attracted so many readers?

First of all, everyone knows that there is something wrong in education, those that work in schools and those that send their children there and the general public. So I think that it helps attract a broad readership because of the focus on the issue in the media. Second, I think people don’t just read books they read authors and so the fact that I have been in the public space a lot more in recent years largely through my column in The Times for example. This gives the books the kind of attention that they would not have gotten otherwise. Third, in both of these publications, I try not to deal with these concerns in abstract academic language but to make them as practical as possible and to be as insightful as possible for people who are not specialists. It is for them to enjoy and to spur them to action. And fourth, I try to insert a sense of hopefulness at the end to each book.

Much of your work centres on educational leadership at various levels, particularly the role of leaders in transforming relationships. Can you talk a little about how you conceptualise the relationship between leaders and leadership at institutional level and system-wide policy or programme driven change?

I have more or less given up on the ability of system leaders to be able to make change from the top. I have been around too long to believe that this is even possible.
As you know in the early days of the transition, during and after the days of NEPI, I sat on committees of government when there was excitement about being able to say something worthwhile and there was a fair chance that you would be heard by the minister or the DG. I don’t have that sense anymore. My sense is that critics and public intellectuals are being shut out of these kinds of spaces. So I made a conscious decision to engage through visible practices of leadership. Sometimes these gain the attention of those in higher authority. Idon’tthinkwehavea government that is attentive enough or serious enough about educational change to allow practice and research to inform policy. For example, the most profound piece of practical research ever done in the history of this country is the National Development Plan. The diagnosis is profound. And yet, the government seems unable to absorb the good thinking and sound data into development actions. In saying this, I have not strayed too far from my work on the symbolic functions of policy. That is not to say that I am cynical or unpatriotic. Quite the opposite. There is limited space time and space to make a difference. For me, I am able to do this, for example, by working on projects like How to Fix Schools by providing books and videos to all high schools in the country with training support where required.

This doesn’t require working directly with government at national, provincial or local levels on policy.

What do you consider to be the key research areas to focus on for young and mid-career researchers interested in leadership and system- wide educational change?

The first thing to be said to young and mid-career scholars working on system-wide educational change is that it is time for bold new ideas and approaches to the subject. In other words, instead of replicating the kinds of things senior scholars like myself, Pam Christie and Jo Muller have done, a new generation needs to ask different kinds of questions and experiment with new methodologies. The upcoming generation of scholars need to provide new insights about the persistence of certain kinds of problems built into the system of education. Second, we need to move away from the fidelity perspective in policy studies. Too many policy studies still focus on how faithfully people implement this or that policy. When there is a big gap, they explain it as the consequence of ‘stubborn teachers’ or think that policies are ‘stupid’. We need to move beyond this fidelity approach to policy studies and introduce new questions about the relationship between policy and practice. This will take us away from stale formulations. Third, I also think we need to move away from a pre-occupation with analyses of exceptional cases. When we do use them, we need take a fresh look at how they are used. Finally, I think we need to shift our focus from the problem of change to the problem of continuity.

The System-wide Educational Change SIG has had its inaugural meeting this year in Bloemfontein at SAERA. What do we need to do as an emerging research community to build scholarship in our field?

We need to get more people with great potential into the field. That must be the number one priority. We need to connect them with scholars and scholarship around the world. It is not sufficient that they do their PhD studies at UCT, Wits or the Free State. New scholars with great potential need to spend time with people like Alma Harris in the UK or Andy Hargreaves at Boston College. The capacity to speak to local problems in intellectually powerful ways means knowing about and being fluent with educational change discourse and practices in other parts of the world. This would allow us to be theoretically courageous. As you know I have often say that you cannot get very far at UCT without referencing Bernstein or Bourdieu, at UWC without referencing Marx and Frere, and Stellenbosch without van der Walt or van der Stoep. Getting out will allow people emerge from the deeply entrenched tracks of theory and method. Broadening intellectual life requires being international and comparative in focus. Advanced scholars these days need more than a PhD and for a good post-doc experience, they need wider exposure.

We know that you tweet and have a strong presence on YouTube. How should our research community be engaging with the new media space?

This is an important issue less for myself than for a new generation of scholars. I really cannot see how a new PhD scholar in the post 2015 world can work unless they are connected to a whole lot of sites and platforms for their day to day research. Online professional networks provide a platform for your ideas, for your CVs, for the circulation of your research papers. These new media spaces allow for wider audiences to actively engage with your ideas and scholarship. The people I spoke about earlier, Alma and Andy use twitter to give

the latest updates on the papers they are presenting at conferences in Malaysia and Australia. I’m amazed at how a bunch of us get tagged and can engage with their ideas through the simple medium of twitter. I have just recorded a series of lectures on leadership and research that will go on YouTube. And we will see the responses from around the world. We are certainly not going to get far unless there is a consciousness about social media and the technical ability to navigate with these new spaces.

What would you want to see us doing with the SAERA SIG newsletter?

I’m excited about the potential of the newsletter. It can allow us to know more about what everyone is doing around the country. I often get surprised about research that is going on in some institution or another, and I think of myself as being in touch. The newsletter is a forum for sharing new ideas, new questions, and new methodologies. It can also showcase the experts in specific areas. For example, Brigette Smit knows a lot about computerised qualitative data analysis. It also provides a space to highlight what is happening around the world. The newsletter can also stimulate a dialogue between up- and -coming scholars and established academics. I’m amazed at how many emails I get from young scholars asking advice and requesting to be mentored. The newsletter would provide an organised platform for this.

Guest blog post: Erin Raab

erinFor a while now I’ve been meaning to ask a few people who I know if they’d like to do a guest blog post on something they’re interested in. While I was at Stanford earlier this year I met Erin Raab in David Labaree’s course “A History of School Reform in the US” (which is a great course). Erin is currently doing her PhD at Stanford in the Graduate School of Education where she’s trying to answer the following question: “How might we might re-envision, re-design, and transform our schooling system so that it empowers teachers and students as positive changemakers, in their own lives and in their communities?”
Prior to Stanford she worked in international educational development, including five years in Durban where she completed her Master’s in Development Studies (cum laude) as a Rotary Scholar. She also founded the KwaNdengezi Education Centre which serves 8000 learners in 9 schools, and worked with the Department of Basic Education as a Senior Researcher for MIET Africa on SADC’s program Care and Support for Teaching and Learning.
After realising that we both loved James Scott’s “Seeing Like a State” (which is an absolute must-read for everyone interested in anything ever) I asked her to make a list of other influential books/articles/videos. This is what she sent 🙂
**-  Allen Article by Danielle Allen (political philosophy) on disentangling the relationship between equality & education – she really helped clarify links I was struggling with.
**-  Aukerman, Lyle Articles on Dialogic Pedagogy  – I think this way of thinking about understanding learning (combined with socio-cultural ways of thinking about it) is key, really fundamental, somehow
–  Boyce & HertzmanArticle on how our environments affect us at the genetic level attached — This FASCINATES me…I think it’s important to think about how this is all really affecting us…not just psychologically but physiologically….it’s related to Nadine Burke Harris’ talk in a way.
–  GehlbachArticle on why social psychology might be important for educators to consider

Some books that have been influential:

**- Seeing Like a State – Scott – a lens for analyzing the failure of big social engineering schemes of the 20th century & a useful framework for exploring the design and impact of a more varied array of smaller social reforms (or attempts at social reform).  I attached the reaction paper I wrote on it.
**-  KahnemanThinking Fast & Slow – This book blows my mind.  Looks at how the brain works and “the psychological basis for reactions, judgments, recognition, choices, conclusions, and much more”.  I’m halfway through.
**-  Capra & LuisiA Systems View of Life – Another one I’m working on in bits and pieces and am about halfway through because it’s mindblowing.  Starts with an overview of the history of scientific thought and how we’ve gone back and forth between believing we can boil things down to their smallest parts and then understand them, vs. the view that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.  I got into it as I started thinking that the answer had to lie in shifting the whole system — which meant considering how systems work and systems theory.
**-  Asch – Social Psychology – he’s one of the fathers of social psychology and, while dense, his book touches on so many core aspects of what humans need to flourish.
*-  Why We Do What We Do (by Deci) – precursor to Daniel Pink’s book Drive — about our three core human psychological needs – essential to considering intrinsic motivation.
* – Foucault – Discipline & Punish – A number of things stick with me, in particular about how we’ve made the punishment for “crime” to be separated from society and invisible.  I also think much of it relates to how we think about schooling & behavior.  Deleuze’s book “Foucault” is also a great accessible interpretation.
* – MarxDas Kapital – I haven’t read the whole thing, but the chapters I have read from the first volume blew my mind. If you haven’t read him at all, it seems important, especially for an economist 🙂
*-  LS Vygotsky & Education – Moll – — socio-cultural approaches to learning that I think are more representative of how we actually learn than traditional conceptualizations.  Relatively easy introduction to the ideas
*-  Scarcity – Mullanaithan — effects of scarcity mindset on people – — (I think this book and Daring Greatly & Deci & Soul of Money get at some of the core ways we are affected by our culture, but blame it on individuals).
*-  Pedagogy of the Oppressed – Freire – classic, amazing.
*-  Daring Greatly – Brown – I keep thinking about the role of shame in our organizations vs. wholeheartedness (also great for thinking about our own wholeheartedness 🙂 ).
*-  Soul of Money – Twist – Interesting look at interaction b/w cultural & individual relationships with money.
–  Flourish – Seligman – framework from positive psychology about what “flourishing” might mean.
–  Creative Confidence – Kelley – By the originators of design thinking.
–  The Price of Inequality – Stiglitz – looks at the political and social costs of inequality – rooted in the U.S. but perhaps even more applicable in SA.
–  The New Jim Crow – Alexander – unrelated to education, per se, but it really affected me and I’d like to write a similar kind of expose book looking at the system of education.
Interesting Videos
–  Ken Robinson’s Ted Talk – schools kill creativity

–  Nadine Burke Harris’ Ted Talk – effects of toxic stress

–  Story of Stuff Mini-movie – we should make one like this about ed!

–  Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk – the original why/how/what 🙂

–  Tony Robbins’ Ted Talk –  framework for thinking about motivation/psychological needs, I think he pulls from Deci a good deal

–  Shawn Achor’s Ted Talk – happiness advantage (basically, I just like this one ;o …and I think he has a good critique of methodologies that focus on the mean)



I’m always fascinated to know about the books/articles/movies/experiences that influence the way people see the world, themselves and each other. If you’d like to share yours please include links in the comments section below 🙂

Q&A with Maurita Glynn-Weissenberg

MauritaThe 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-fifth interview in the series. Maurita Glynn-Weissenberg is the founder and director of the Shine Centre.

1) How did you get into education, can you summarise your journey to get to where you are?

I started off teaching my toys as a little girl as I only ever wanted to teach. I taught in the UK and SA in both private and state schooling of which the latter were in pretty edgy neighbourhoods in both countries. Struggling to read seemed to be something that followed children irrespective of where they grew up which led me to study remedial education at UCT in 1995.

In 1998 I started volunteering two mornings a week at Observatory Junior School. A school where most of the children travel long distances at their families expense to learn in English. However, more than half the class were not nearly reading at Grade 1 (?) level by Grade 4. What struck me was the commitment from families to educate their children and how keen the children were to do well. After two years of tutoring Grade 5 and 6 children I started looking for an early intervention which took me to visit a project in Tower Hamlets, East of London, UK. Here I saw corporates giving up a lunch hour once a week to read with children and the idea of Shine was born.

2)   What does your average week look like.

In the last year I have finally moved into a position of moving out of the day-to-day operations of the Shine Programmes and concentrating on developing the right systems and policies to reach our long term vision.

Last week I spent two mornings reviewing policies and researching a few more.

I had a meeting with one of our funders to look at making some changes to our peer-learning project, met with the Chairman of another literacy organisation to discuss collaboration and spent a morning reviewing our Social Franchise.

I also attended the Year Beyond Dinner at Chrysalis Academy where we welcomed 33 amazing youth who will be Shine Learning Partners in 8 schools who benefit from the Western Cape’s MOD programme. I ended the week attending a committee meeting of RASA (Reading Association of South Africa) as we are hosting this year’s RASA Conference along with the Pan African Reading Association.

However, after having quite a serious accident in 2009 I strongly believe in balance and I do manage to pick up my children from school and walk the dog along the green belt most days.

 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?

Systemic change begins with people changing the way they think and do things. So that is what I am most interested in. Especially as Shine’s workforce is currently 700 volunteers, 23 Centre Managers, 23 school heads, 33 youth and a head office team of 13. Our focus group is thousands of young children and their caregivers.

The book and teachings that made the greatest impact on our work and my thinking is Nancy Cline’s Time to Think. Nancy Kline has identified 10 behaviours that form a system called a Thinking Environment, a model of human interaction that dramatically improves the way people think, and thus the way they work and live. We work this model into our programme and all our meetings. Meetings are useless if people don’t listen to one another, interrupt one another, talk too much or say nothing at all.

The second book that I learnt so much from was Playful Approaches to Serious Problems by David Epston, Jennifer Freeman and Dean Lobovits.

Our volunteers are offered training by Linda van Duuren who’s incredible work is based on David Epston’s Narrative Therapy. Our children come with huge challenges in their lives and it is important that as adults we are able to listen to and respect their unique language, problem-solving and resources. David Epston’s work gives us a framework to work from.

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

I have recently been lucky enough to be part of some incredible thinking.

In 2011 Shine was a finalist for the Wise Awards and ever since I have been sponsored to attend the Word Innovation Summit for Education. What I love about this Summit is that they want to hear from everybody in the field and actively sponsor thousands of people from all areas of education. There is as great a respect for the voice of a field worker in a refugee camp school as the chairman of Unesco for instance. There is so much to learn from the many people around me but I do have some favourites:

Firstly, Charles Leadbeater, who is a leading authority on innovation and creativity and co-wrote Learning from the Extremes. Published early in 2010 by Cisco, Learning from the Extremes examines how social entrepreneurs around the world are devising new approaches to learning in extreme social circumstances – favelas, slums, informal settlements – when there are few teachers, schools, text books. The radically innovative approaches they develop challenge conventional wisdom about schooling and provide new insights into how the developed world should reform its education systems.

My second favourite is Professor Anil Gupta who created the Honey Bee Network to ensure recognition, respect and reward for grassroots inventors and innovators at local, national and global levels. Searching the country with colleagues, he has found countless inventions developed out of necessity, which he has documented and often shared with the global community.

My wish for this year is for a larger group of South African educationalists and policy makers to attend the Wise Summit.

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

 Can’t say for sure but possibly Early Childhood Development.

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

I think I have learnt the most from Kathryn Torres, our current chairperson, who has partnered me on the Shine journey since 2006. I always tended to allow my visions to paralyse me whereas she is someone that thrives on getting the job done. How lucky is this relationship?

Whenever I have an idea she gets me to haul out my diary and put the next step into action. So usually by the end of that conversation I have identified who I need to speak to, have made contact and the appointment is in the diary. That is simply how new centres were established in 2009, how our Social Franchise model came about and hopefully how our new project involving peer learning will evolve .

Kathryn’s advice: ‘One step at a time.’ It’s as simple as that!

7) You founded the Shine Centre in 2000 – can you give us some information about what Shine is all about, its aims and approach and maybe some of your plans for the future?

The Shine Model

We currently have 8 Shine Centres supporting 10 primary schools and 13 Shine Chapters (our Social Franchise Model) which supports 13 primary schools in 3 provinces.

The Shine Programme runs from a centre in schools each morning. It is managed by a Shine Centre Manager and between 40 to 80 trained volunteers run the programme (depending on the need). Grade Two or Three children are partnered with a volunteer for a year and together they work through a one hour structured literacy programme, twice a week.

Children who attend the Shine Centre have been assessed by Shine to be ‘at risk’ in terms of their literacy scores. This is determined at the end of their Grade One year when Shine assesses all Grade One children. Their progress is monitored twice a year which is shared with the class teacher together with any anecdotal information that the volunteer picks up.

The Literacy Programme consists of: Paired Reading, Shared Reading, Have a Go Writing and Word Games, using 36 five-minute games specially designed by Shine. Our programme complements the school curriculum and provides individual support to children who are struggling. All volunteers receive initial training on the methodology surrounding each of these areas, as well as continuous in-depth training on key and additional skills and learning areas.

On top of that we offer eye testing and glasses to the schools, parent workshops and soon we hope to introduce a peer-learning programme to the teachers.

Importantly, everything is tied together using our Shine Ethos which is based on the principles by Nancy Cline’s Time to Think, and we believe that this is what makes our programme both unique and successful. Children are encouraged to work at their own pace in a fun, warm and nurturing environment, where appreciation and praise are used to positively reinforce progress and good behaviour.

8) I’m sure you are in a different space now than you were in 2000 when you founded Shine, what advice would you give to yourself 14 years ago?

There are things I wish I had done differently but I do believe that it’s part of what I needed to experience and learn. In 1999 I lacked confidence to even think of knocking on doors to get funding. Thus I ended up designing a project that used volunteers and the infrastructure of the school that hosted it. The first Shine Centre established in 2000 ran on the smell of an oil rag but it was quickly noted that the literacy at this school rose steadily from 50% in 2002 to 82.7%% in 2008 (Western Cape Grade 3 testing).

But if I had to choose anything it is to have the courage of my convictions. I used to second-guess myself too much. And I wish I had been a little wilder in my youth. By 21 I was already married, had built a house and had two dogs that were serious hand-breaks! (I may have made up for that in my forties.)

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

Walking into a Shine Chapter that has had our basic support and training and seeing the powerful interaction between the Learning Partners taking place. We won the Truth and Reconciliation Prize in 2008 based on the relationships that develop during a Shine session. It is nation building – without a doubt.

The most frustrating is seeing the huge potential of the children in our schools and the seemingly insurmountable challenges that confront them in our schooling system.

10) If you ended up sitting next to the Minister of Basic Education on a plane and she asked you what you think are the three biggest challenges facing the South African ECD sector, what would you say?

  1. The difficulty of finding and tracking every informal and formal crèche and nursery school in the country let alone the cost and challenges of training, resourcing and monitoring each facility.
  2. The challenge of training in a sector where caregivers have varying background in education.
  3. The fact that parents can often only pay a minimal cost which results in children spending their day in impoverished and over-crowded facilities with little or no individual care.

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

I’d be in HR or maybe a feng-shui consultant. My team tease me because I love nothing more than rearranging the furniture in our offices and centres. I love making a space conducive to allowing people to really feel good.

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

I love the idea of children being given the power to create their own learning using technology and Dr. Sugata Mitra who started the first Hole-in-the-Wall in a slum in New Delhi proposed the following hypothesis when he delivered an inspiring presentation at WISE in 2011: The acquisition of basic computing skills by any set of children can be achieved through incidental learning provided the learners are given access to a suitable computing facility, with entertaining and motivating content and some minimal (human) guidance.

However, being the mother of two boys who attend Waldorf Schools, I still believe that the most cost–effective and meaningful medium of teaching can be and should be dynamic, warm, positive human beings who are passionate about their subject and have mastery of it.

12) If you were given a R10 million research grant what would you use it for?

As we know children across the board in South Africa have poor literacy skills, which impacts on their opportunity or ability to learn and has devastating consequences for their chance to succeed in life. I would like to research innovative ways to improve literacy in South African schools through a national peer reading programme in which children read together for set times during the day. Paired and shared peer reading programmes have been introduced in both the UK and Canada and there is sufficient positive research emerging from these countries to support introducing a Book Buddies programme in schools throughout South Africa. I would love to be able to visit and observe the most successful peer reading programmes in the world and then research ways in which these could be modified to fit into the South African context. I would like to implement a Book Buddy programme nationally and complete a longitudinal study on the effects of the programme on the children. It is my dream to see children pairing up with their Book Buddy spontaneously and reading for pleasure at any time of the school day. If children learn to read for pleasure at school this translates into a life-long love of reading, which, in turn, impacts positively on generations to come as the children become parents and read to their children.


*Full disclosure: my mom (Sally Spaull) is a Shine volunteer in Durban and regularly tells me how wonderful the program is 🙂

Some of the others on my “to-interview” list include Veronica McKay, Thabo Mabogoane, 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 MacdonaldJill Adler and Andrew EinhornCarole Bloch and Shelley O’Carroll.

Q&A with Shelley O’Carroll

shelThe 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-fourth interview in the series. Shelley O’Carroll is the Director of Wordworks.

1)   How did you get into education, can you summarise your journey to get to where you are?

I’ve always been a bit of an idealist and can remember having a very keen sense of injustice during my school years in the late 1980’s. I was a bit late to be an activist, but left school as Mandela was released and for me there was a strong sense that I had a responsibility to contribute to a process of redress and do what I could to improve the lives of people who had been deprived of opportunities. I chose to become a teacher and majored in psychology. While I was busy with my undergrad studies I was involved in an adult literacy project in Khayamandi, and looking back, I think that was probably when I realised what a gift you give when you help people to learn to read. When I finished my HDE, I applied for a Commonwealth Scholarship and went to the Institute of Education in London where I did my masters in Psychology of Education. I came back to South Africa after my masters, taught at a bridging school in Joburg and then went to WITS to do a BEd (Remedial) as I needed an honours in order to register for an educational psychology internship. This gave me great clinical experience working with children who struggled with reading. I was a part time research assistant while I did my BEd and really enjoyed writing and being part of a research team. After I completed my BEd, I came back to the Cape to do an internship and registered as an Educational Psychologist. I worked for a few years as a school counsellor and then in private practice doing psychoeducational assessments, and specialised in working with children with reading difficulties. I also did some community work with Grade One children at a very disadvantaged school. For a while, I felt like I was living in two different countries – doing assessments with children from ex-model C and private schools – and then spending the rest of my time working with children who had so few opportunities and were so far behind even in their first year of school. I applied for an NRF scholarship and went back to London to do a doctorate – I really wanted to better understand how to help children as they started learning to read in Grade One. After I completed my PhD, I stopped working as an Educational Psychologist and set up a non-profit organisation with two colleagues.

 2)   What does your average week look like?

I juggle quite a bit – and rush around a lot! I am a mother of two young children and so I tend to start work at 7am, do school lifts and spend time with my children in the afternoon and then get back into work again most evenings. I spend some of my working day running Wordworks, managing projects, funders and budgets – and increasingly working with partner organisations who use our resources in their work. I invest quite a bit of time working with our programme teams on materials development and guidelines for training. Whenever possible, I try to find time to read and share new things I learn. I’d like to be spending more time writing and documenting our work.

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?

An old favourite is ‘Literacy before schooling(Ferreiro and Teberosky, 1982) – this really helped shape my thinking about how, given opportunities, children try to make sense of printed words and written language long before teachers in formal school settings begin ‘teaching them to read’. Apprenticeship in thinking(Rogoff, 1990) made me realise how children (mine included) were being apprenticed into literacy through daily experiences with print and oral language.  Other articles and books by Connie Juel, Morag Stuart, Brian Byrne, and Linnea Ehri helped me to understand what skills and knowledge children must have in order to learn to read – and how much children’s thinking has to shift in order to understand how written language works.

When I look at my bookshelf, I realise that the other books that have been influential have been a set of Handbooks of Early Literacy and Language’ (Vol 1-3). These consist of articles written by a number of leading researchers and when I first read them I just remember being struck by how much research there was on how important young children’s language and emergent literacy was for later literacy development at school level. This was not part of mainstream thinking about literacy in South Africa at the time, and even now, evaluations of literacy performance and interventions to improve literacy tend to focus on teaching and learning in classroom contexts, largely ignoring what happens before children begin school in homes and preschool settings.

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

I think this would be easier to answer if I a.) had more time to read and b.) had a clearly defined field of research. Although I position myself in the field of early language and literacy development, our work spans home, community and school contexts and children from birth to seven years. There are so many areas of work within this broad field, and I probably know a bit about some of the leading thinkers, but not enough to really comment with any authority. Having said that, I think Lynn Murray, Peter Cooper, Zahir Vally and Mark Tomlinson’s research on booksharing with toddlers in Khayelitsha is groundbreaking and really shows the potential impact and value of sharing books with young children.

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

It will come as no surprise that I think the field of early language and literacy learning is significantly under-researched. We need more evidence about what children begin school knowing, not only what happens at school. We need more evidence about what kinds of interventions work to improve children’s early learning, and models of how to take good programmes to scale. We need to understand better how families can play a role in children’s education at school and at home.

7) You are currently the director of WordWorks – can you give us some information about what WordWorks is all about, its aims and approach and maybe some of your plans for the future?

Wordworks is a non-profit organisation that has been working in the field of early language and literacy development for the past ten years. We’ve developed programmes and resources for parents, volunteers, home-visitors and teachers of young children, with the aim of supporting them to build young children’s language and early literacy. Over the past few years we’ve also contributed to sharing knowledge about early language and literacy through policy briefs and reports.

Our team offers direct training and mentoring to schools in Cape Town, and we also work with partner organisations who we train and resource to deliver our programmes as part of their work in schools and communities.

We wish to remain a small organisation and our aim is to grow our reach through sharing knowledge, skills and resources, and building the capacity of schools, communities and organisations.

7b) As I understand it WordWorks has been asked to do the training of all registered Grade R practitioners in the Western Cape? Can you give us an overview of the training and what the desired outcomes of the training are?

Thanks to donor funding from USAID, ELMA and JP Morgan, we are going to be working in partnership with the WCED to provide training for all Grade R teachers across the province in a balanced language approach, and to provide teaching resources we have developed over the past three years. Together with partners SDU, PSP and ELRU, we will reach 3000 teachers through training and supporting ECD Curriculum Advisors and Lead Teachers in all 8 Districts in the Province. The teachers will attend a 5 day block training and then be supported through monthly collaborative enquiry workshops over a period of 8 months. The training will be grounded in a balanced language approach to literacy, and aligned with provincial training of Grade 1-6 teachers as part of the provincial LITNUM strategy.

Our aim is that teachers will have more knowledge about how children learn to read and write and the important role that Grade R teachers can play in building language and early literacy. We also want to share practical resources and ideas about how to support young children’s learning in an age appropriate way. Without making Grade R a watered down Grade 1 year, very important language and early literacy skills can be developed if teachers have the skills, knowledge and resources.

8) I’m sure you are in a different space now than you were in a decade ago. What advice would you give to yourself 10 years ago?

Be realistic about what can be achieved in a day.

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

The most frustrating thing is that I never have enough time! I seldom end a day feeling like I finished what I wanted to do, and am constantly trying to fit in too much.

Apart from having too much work and too little time, there is very little I don’t like about my job. I work with a fabulous team of very dedicated people, and we have the privilege of contributing to change and making a difference to young children’s lives. It’s great to be reminded of how much good there is in the world, and most of our work is with volunteers and parents who inspire us with their commitment to children in their communities. We get to develop and share great resources and ideas – and are constantly humbled by what this means to people. We started off with the aim of supporting young children’s language and literacy development, but realise more and more how our work is impacting on women in communities.

10) If you ended up sitting next to the Minister of Basic Education on a plane and she asked you what you think are the three biggest challenges facing the South African ECD sector, what would you say?

  1. Improving the quality of teaching and learning through high quality, relevant and practical teacher training (both preservice training and ongoing professional development)
  1. Improving the status and working conditions of ECD professionals so that teaching young children becomes a more attractive career path and teachers are recognised for the important role they are playing.
  1. Increasing the provision of and access to non-centre based support for young children through supporting parents and caregivers (e.g. home-visiting programmes, workshops for parents).

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


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

 I think it can be useful, but doesn’t take the place of good old fashioned conversation and dedicated time given to children by an interested caregiver.

13) If you were given a R10 million research grant what would you use it for?

  1. To develop and/or validate tools that we could use to assess the impact of early intervention programmes for young children.
  2. To set up a team to research two related questions: a.) whether low cost interventions can lead to changes in parents’ and teachers’ knowledge about young children’s learning, and b.) to what extent/under what conditions changes in knowledge lead to changes in everyday parenting and teaching practice.
  3. Although I’d have run out of money by now…. a longitudinal study that followed a cohort of children and evaluated the impact of early interventions to improve language/literacy on children’s reading and writing development once they started school.


Some of the others on my “to-interview” list include Veronica McKay, Thabo Mabogoane, Maurita-Glynn Weissenberg, 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 MacdonaldJill Adler and Andrew Einhorn and Carole Bloch.

Q&A with Carole Bloch

carole bloch

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-third interview in the series. Carole Bloch is Director of PRAESA.

(1) Why did you decide to go into education?

As a student, I taught guitar to children, then music appreciation to preschool children. I loved this experience and found that I connected really well with little children and was fascinated by their imaginations and the way they played and thought. After my BA at UCT, it was really luck that I got to do a PGCE in the UK… a long story, but I never looked back. I loved teaching, first teens with literacy learning problems, later preschoolers who played voraciously, with everything they could get their hands on. I experienced first-hand how to facilitate reading and writing as a personally meaningful, emergent process… I’ve been a teacher, and a learner in literacy education ever since.

(2) What does your average week look like?

I am a bit of an octopus these days – I have tentacles waving about in all directions with Nal’ibali. Keeping a national campaign moving along means having an overall vision at the same time as you are involved in details. There is ongoing networking and fund raising, overseeing and informing the literacy and literary information we put out across platforms, training and mentoring programmes and of course troubleshooting technical challenges, like newspaper supplements not arriving where they should on time and supporting colleagues, dealing with payments and staffing issues. Then there is always the daily email deluge! We communicate with great rapidity which means things can happen quickly, but I sometimes feel quite alarmed by the sheer volume of messages that come my way! The evenings and early mornings are often times to catch up with reading and trying clear my head to write.

(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?

It’s hard to choose just one or two: Illich Chukovsky’s 1960 classic From 2 to 5 on the extraordinary linguistic genius of young children and all of Vivian Paley’s books, especially The Boy who would be a Helicopter on the enormous literacy learning and general educative power of imaginative play and stories and Stephen Krashen’s Power of Reading from the 1990s which summarises the research on free voluntary reading (see

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

There are so many. Quite a few I don’t agree with, so I won’t mention them! For me, social anthropologist, Barbara Rogoff ‘s work on children participating as cultural apprentices in communities of (reading and writing) practice is really useful when thinking about what we need to understand about how reading culture development takes place. It fit’s amazingly well with the New Literacy Studies – Brian Street and David Barton et al’s conceptions of literacy as social practice – what I like especially about her is that she makes clear that people both join communities of practice and change them by their participation, such a critical insight for South African environments (eg Rogoff 1991, 2005).

Kenneth Goodman, though sadly much vilified I think is one of the greatest thinkers about the reading  process – it is in many ways really anticipating some of the recent insights from brain research – about how the senses work in general such as Chris Frith’s fascinating 2007 book Making up the Mind, on how the brain predicts (Goodman said that “reading is a psycholinguistic guessing game” (see eg Goodman, 1967). His work also helps us to understand that the process underlying reading is the same in any language (research with languages very different from English, like Chinese shows this), and so we don’t have to get bogged down worrying about that in literacy teaching with little children. There’s a really interesting article by him and others too which contests some of the neuroscientifc claims about how children read put forward by phonics proponents like Sally Shaywitz (see I think there is so much differing ‘evidence’ that refers to teaching reading by experts in diverse fields, like linguistics, (who often tend to like to dissect languages and think when you learn to read you have to do this too) and also neuroscientists who do not necessarily understand how little children learn to read (eg Stanislas De Haene 2009). These can influence policy and have negative effects on the lives of young children – I mention some of this later.

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

Understanding the way babies and young children learn to speak, read and write in multilingual settings.

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

I think two pieces of advice have stood out for me over the years – the one was from Neville Alexander who I worked closely with for two decades. In the days when very few people were working on ‘alternative’ approaches to young children’s literacy teaching, I sometimes would feel despondent when my ideas and approach seemed to fall on unresponsive ears. Neville used say “Don’t worry about what other people say or think – you know what you are doing, just get on with it”. I realised how significant a) support and b) conviction are to push on and keep going. Another person who helped me with a wise comment which I’ve never forgotten was Elsa Auerbach, an adult literacy specialist from Boston, who’s classic article also influenced me many years ago: When I asked Elsa how she would help teachers and teacher educators to deepen their literacy knowledge and understandings, given the huge disparities in education we were trying to address, she said to me very simply, that we all need the same kind of opportunities– in a nutshell to read, reflect and experience many demonstrations of good practice. This simple insight has guided me for many years as I’ve mentored others.

7) You are currently the director of PRAESA and involved with Nali’bali, for those that are unfamiliar with these organizations can you give an overview of their aims and approach and maybe some of your/their plans for the future?

PRAESA from its beginnings in 1992 was an NGO based at UCT involved in multilingual education, research, training and materials development – essentially to help transform children’s educational opportunities using the foundation of mother tongue based bilingualism. Our research and all development work has been embedded in the view that a home language or languages should be the bedrock for learning, used to deepen thinking and conceptual understanding (see Other languages can be learned and added to a child’s linguistic repertoire, rather than being replacements. The longer the home language is used, the more support the child is actually getting. As many of us are aware, this mother tongue based education has not been implemented, except for in experimental ways, I believe to the extreme detriment of the educational opportunities for the majority of children.

In 2012, we initiated the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment-campaign. This grew out of the previous twenty years of literacy research and practical work in multilingual settings which used stories and home languages for language and literacy teaching and learning. Because the story form is universal to all of us and integral to the way our minds work, the obvious route to literacy learning is to inspire a love of reading among all children. So Nal’ibali aims to nurture storytelling and reading for personal satisfaction, particularly in children, but also in the adults who are their role models and nurturers. Nal’ibali involves an ongoing collaborative effort with many partners to help put into place the conditions that support the initial and ongoing literacy development of all children irrespective of class, linguistic or cultural backgrounds. We’re doing this through mentoring, workshops and collaboration with communities, supporting reading clubs, literacy organisations and trying to elicit the support of volunteers of all ages, integrated with a media campaign and the development of multilingual literacy resources and stories. Our vision is a literate society that uses writing and reading in meaningful ways and where children and adults enjoy stories and books (and of course non-fiction too) together as part of daily life. The mission – and clearly we all need to be involved for this to happen – individuals, NGO’s, universities, government and business – is to create the conditions across South Africa that inspires and sustains reading-for-enjoyment practices ( and facebook nalibaliSA).

8) You have been heavily involved in research on early literacy in African settings, can you give us an overview of what we know about early literacy in African settings and also what we don’t know?

I can only talk about my views as to what I think we know and don’t know or somehow don’t acknowledge or value …

In a nutshell, we know that most children, irrespective of class, socio-cultural and linguistic background are capable of becoming competent, avid and creative readers and writers but that huge numbers of mainly African language speaking children don’t – and that the conditions that need to be in place for successful learning to take place are mainly in place for children of the elite only. We know that a combination of factors is involved and that these cut across home, community and school. But we don’t seem to widely appreciate the incredible importance of the ‘invisible’ literacy learning that takes place in the daily, informal community and home language ‘goings on’ of literate homes, and what it means when such learning, for whatever reasons, cannot take place.

We know that teachers ‘bring with them’ like children do, their literacy theories and practices into the classroom, and that a real stumbling block in the early years is how we still tend to train teachers to view their task as teaching skills as a priority over demonstrating and making possible the use of written language for personally meaningful reasons (This contributes to the learn to read/read to learn myth). We should know that this blocks many children off from highly effective learning strategies that could reveal them as exuberant emergent readers and writers that we expect from most young English speaking children. We don’t widely acknowledge, and maybe we don’t know, that the consequence is a cyclical one of adults tending to underestimate poor children’s capabilities in formal education situations, believing the children are struggling with ‘the basics’, when actually the struggle is that the basics of written language are being denied them!

We know that the push down from higher education is exacerbating this through the justification of curricula that package skills and knowledge in ways that override considerations about how to motivate young children ‘s enormous learning capacity. Global forces push down too – a current example is an assessment packages like EGRA, which grew from the USA ‘s DIBELS, that has caused so much heartache and stress for so many families (see The Truth About Dibels, Goodman 2006).

We know that low status and use of African languages for print functions (including the dearth of fiction and non fiction) means fewer adults are leisure readers. But we don’t widely value or address the fact that it seems extremely difficult to teach others to read when you don’t have your own repository of knowledge and stories arising from the texts you’ve read over time, to draw from – with the overwhelming effect of poor reading habits being that you tend not to have what it takes to reap the benefits from and pass on a passion for knowledge and story to others.

Given what we do know, we don’t know why government (with support from business) seems unable to invest with unflinching determination in the translation of desirable world texts, including ones from Africa, to support African publishers to produce a steady flow of the books we need and order these to stock community and school libraries …. to inspire reading and creative writing among adults and children in African languages and English and also to use in the training and mentoring of adults to grow to know and manage these collections. We also don’t know why there is an insistence on making teaching so very hard for teachers and learning difficult for the majority of children living in South Africa after grade 3 by forcing teaching in a language often not known well enough to use with dignity and depth.

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?

The first is the fact that it is a tragedy that we haven’t implemented our Language in Education Policy of 1997, but that it is not too late and that this needs leadership from government and lots of information – in fact a campaign – to allow parents the opportunity to appreciate the issues involved in educating their children from a language perspective – how they would come to realise that they do not need to choose between English or African languages but that both are possible, and desirable.

The second is related and I’ve raised already – that government needs to act on the fact that until publishing in African languages is supported in a serious way, so that these languages are used in print for high status functions, including literature – and more of our adult population starts reading regularly for personal satisfaction and for pleasure, many children won’t become readers and writers in the fullest sense.

The third, if she was still listening, would be to discuss how to use literature to find practical ways to create a different ethos among us – one that promotes and encourages empathy and respect for each adult and child living in South Africa irrespective of background. We’d gather people together to generate a curriculum of shared stories for children of all ages, from South Africa, Africa and the rest of the world, which reflect the highs and lows of humanity – to support the growth of a new generation of people who reject stereotyping and prejudice, and value what we share in common, as well as our differences.

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

I’d be a professional gardener as I love growing things, or I’d be a cellist.

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

The most rewarding thing is seeing partnerships grow that are allowing so many people across South Africa to get involved in quite relaxed ways to enjoy the substance of reading: Seeing how my colleagues inspire others is humbling. Watching how interest in books grow in people of all ages when they are motivated. Seeing sceptical and weary-looking adults put on their playful hats to communicate with children and share stories in animated ways  – this is stunning for me.

Frustrations are around how hard it can be to convince others that sometimes the most simple seeming solutions are the most profound sometimes… and of course the time it takes to get things done, mainly because we just don’t have the capacity, either human or financial – and knowing how much more SA industry and government could do to help us change the desperate situation we face in literacy education.

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

Total fan and total sceptic! I’m a fan of making the most use of technology. In Nal’ibali, for example, we offer a growing repository of free multilingual stories and guidance etc. on web, mobi and cellphone for adults to use with children of all ages. I think that the freedom it allows to create multilingually is extraordinarily powerful and I love the potential and sometimes actual freedom to share material without the rigid constraints of traditional publishing. But I’m a sceptic about the wisdom of proclaiming paperless learning. I don’t believe we should attempt to create an either-or situation. Particularly, but by no means only – for babies and young children we still want print on paper and books. I think we need to support and nurture our publishing industry more now than ever before.

13) If you were given a R15million research grant (and complete discretion on how to spend it) what would you use it for?

I’d facilitate a major qualitative research process on various aspects of Nal’ibali: I’d like to track groups of children living in different settings from home to reading club to school over a period; document the indicators of the effects of reading for enjoyment on motivation, engagement and achievement, literacy and school learning, family dynamics etc. I know that our only glimmer of hope to persuade policy makers, linguists and many involved in education that what we are doing is essential is ‘scientific’ evidence!


Some of the others on my “to-interview” list include Veronica McKay, Thabo Mabogoane, Maurita-Glynn Weissenberg, Shelley O’Carroll, 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 MacdonaldJill Adler and Andrew Einhorn.

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.