Category Archives: Q&A

Q&A with Jill Adler


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 first interview in the series. Jill Adler is a professor in the education faculty at Wits and Chair of Mathematics Education. 

1)   Why did you decide to go into education?

I always loved mathematics, and was inspired by particular teachers in both primary and secondary schools, and so I went to University to study mathematics. I gave “extra mathematics lessons” while I was doing my degree and enjoyed this (as well as earning quite well from it) and so went on from a B Sc to do my professional teaching diploma. Psychology was my second major – this also wasn’t in my original plan – I had thought I would do Applied Maths, but I enjoyed Psychology in first year and so continued, and then enjoyed work on child development, learning and so on. So I moved into teaching – rather than set out to teach, or work in education. When I began my working career as a secondary mathematics teacher, I had no intention of becoming an academic and researcher in education. My first post was in a so-called ‘coloured’ school in Cape Town, a school with a strong political identity tied to the Unity Movement. This strengthened my concerns with and interest in educational inequality. My work turned in that direction, and in 1977 I went to work at the SACHED trust. I wrote mathematics materials for Weekend World Newspaper (which was banned in 1977) and then Sunday Post, and found in the early 1980s that the materials were being used by adults working in various sectors including the mines. This stimulated research that led to my Masters degree which focused on “Adults learning mathematics through the newspaper”. I tracked down and interviewed a group of these aduts and learned a great deal about what it meant for many to return to study – and do this through a written mass medium; of course I also learned about how mathematics can be communicated in that medium. And as they say, the rest is history. After completing my Masters, and my children were a little older, I decided to re-enter formal teaching and the university sector, and was fortunate to get a lecturing position first in primary mathematics at what was then JCE and then in the Department of Education, at Wits.

2)   What does your average week look like?

It’s busy! I don’t have an ‘average’ week – my work spreads across all components of research, teaching both post graduate courses and professional development, lots of post graduate supervision, reviewing journal papers, writing references, assisting others with papers they are working on, and running a large project (managing staff, finances, reporting) and so on. This is my current work and a function of the position of Chair of Mathematics Education, and director of a large research and development project – my work spread is not the same as it was five years ago before I took on this chair. Broadly my time is shared between supporting the professional development work we do in schools, and doing and supporting the research that is linked to this work, with a large proportion of time supporting full time doctoral students in the project. I teach less than I did before. I travel internationally a fair amount, to conferences and for other international work I do. Also, until July 2014, I held a joint part time Professorship at Kings College London, and so spent time there each year … I am now a visiting professor, and only continue with some doctoral supervision. I will still spend some time there, but not as much and with less commitment and work demands.

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?

Interesting as I think about this, Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation had an immense effect on me. I happened to read this while I was working on my PhD, and it provided a different gaze on what it meant to learn and live in a language that was not your mother tongue, or as she called it, the language of her heart and emotions. I have since read much of her work, the most powerful of which was After Such Knowledge: Meditations on the Holocaust. The latter, a philosophical and social commentary rather than an academic text, has contributed significantly to my understanding of the social world, as well as some of my own location in history.

Most influential at the start of my academic career was Lev Vygotsky’s work: Mind in Society and Thought and Language. As a mathematics education researcher I am always working between educational theory and literature in mathematics education. With my early work on teaching mathematics in multilingual classrooms, David Pimm’s book Speaking Mathematically was pivotal in turning my attention to mathematical language more generally. More recently, with my interest in mathematical knowledge in and for teaching and particularly what is produced as mathematics in teacher education practice, influential resources are Basil Bernstein’s Pedagogy, Symbolic Control and Identity, and Anna Sfard’s Thinking as Communicating and then the extensive work done by Deborah Ball in the past decade. I could go on, as I enjoy reading, and spend time relaxing with whodunnits …

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

Three people come to mind: Anna Sfard and Luis Radford are both influential and eminent thinkers in mathematics education today. Each has and continue to develop a theory of mathematics learning, Anna through a quite radical discursive turn, and Luis also with semiotics, with a stronger cultural activity orientation. Both have produced rigorous and conceptually complex frames with which to engage (describe and explain) mathematics teaching and learning. And then Steve Lerman, long time collaborator and friend, for his breadth of knowledge and wisdom in our field and his continuing work related to the social turn as he named it many years ago.

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

I think our whole field of educational research in South Africa is relatively young. There is so much we need to know more about, and from the empirical base of our schools, classrooms and learners. I think the transition years from primary into secondary mathematics what teachers need to know and do to teach across subjects at that level are very poorly understood. This is critical in mathematics where the move to greater abstraction and working with symbolic forms emerges. It is also a critical point where we need to know more about what it means to learn and teach mathematics in a dominant minority but extremely powerful language (English).

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

To be a learner … a good researcher has to be willing to be a learner … to be in a position of ‘not knowing’, and then learning through and from research.

 7) You have been involved in mathematics teacher education at WITS for a long time – in your experience what are the two or three areas that students struggle with most when they become teachers and start teaching in schools?

Just coping with the demands of a full time teaching job in the first year is difficult enough for anyone. Teaching is very hard work. Those entering first year on the job are lucky if they come into a school where there is a depth and range of experience and so can support you in the first year. Just keeping up with the work to be done is challenge enough. For mathematics teachers going into many of our secondary schools, a real struggle is dealing with the backlog in learner knowledge – this compounds the difficulties of teaching “all your learners” and moving on at a pace demanded by the curriculum.

8) There is widespread agreement in the mathematics education literature in South Africa that a large proportion of mathematics teachers do not have the content knowledge and pedagogical skill to teach mathematics effectively. What do you think are the most promising models or interventions that deserve further investigation or evaluation?

Given our history, and the way in which apartheid education ravaged both sense of self, and of knowledge and learning, I think the models that require support NOW, are those that provide practicing teachers sufficient TIME to (re)learn mathematics, more specifically what the field calls ‘mathematics for teaching’. The model we have developed in the Wits Maths Connect Project is promising – it is grounded in a conception of mathematics for teaching, and takes place over 16 – 20 days, spread over an academic year. We have shown that when teachers have opportunity AND TIME to strengthen their relationship with mathematics (and by this I mean relearn mathematics they teach in greater depth, and learn new mathematics, while becoming more mathematical in how they think when doing mathematics) this impacts on the learning gains of their students. The model includes a version of lesson study – and so work on teaching and thus pedagogical skill. But even in our lesson study model, the focus is on what we call the object of learning – what learners are to know and be able to do mathematically, and how this is or is not brought into focus with learners in a lesson.

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?

Hmm, an interesting question. Building respect for the profession, and the work of teaching is a huge challenge, and it requires engaging the organisation of the profession where at a public level, employment conditions and mainly salary is the issue. Changing that conversation to be one that is equally concerned about learners and learning is first and foremost. Second, I would focus on the challenges of time and knowledge in our education. We have systemic problems, underpinned by weak orientations to knowledge (whatever the discipline. Becoming knowledgeable – and that is what is needed for teaching – takes time, no matter what your discipline is; and it requires deep respect for the learning/teaching process.

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

 I suppose I would be in social service of some kind, or perhaps child psychology?

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

Neither – any tool only takes on power in use. We can make more productive use of a range of technologies … if and only if we understand their use is never separate from the user and their context and conditions.

12) If you were given a R5million research grant what would you use it for? 

This could sound like a lot of money – depending on what it has to pay for, it could also do very little. The short of it is that I am doing the research I want to do, and think is important – studying the inter-relation between mathematics teaching in secondary school, mathematics teacher education and professional development, and student learning.


A full list of Gill’s research can be found here and here.

Some of the others on my “to-interview” list include Veronica McKay, Thabo Mabogoane, Andrew Einhorn, Maurita-Glynn Weissenberg, Shelley O’Carroll, Carole Bloch, Yael Shalem, 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 Ensor and Carol Macdonald.

Q&A with Carol Macdonald

CarolThe aim of the Q&A series is to get an inside look into some of South Africa’s leading education academics, policy-makers and activists. This is the twentieth interview in the series. Carol Macdonald is a research fellow associated with the Department of Linguistics and Modern Languages at UNISA and also undertakes consulting work in the field of education and linguistics.

1)   Why did you decide to go into education?

I lived in the UK for five years doing a Masters and PhD. I would have loved to live over there, but it seemed best to come home. I decided that if I were to work in South Africa then I would necessarily have to work in black education. There wasn’t a choice. Otherwise I might just as well have stayed in Scotland.

2)   What does your average week look like?

 It depends if I am fatigued or not: I generally work about 40 hours, spread over seven days, I find the late morning and early evening are my most productive times. I do contract work and also academic work, and try not to go out in the week. It’s astonishing to me that people think I can take bites out of my working day simply because I work from home. Nobody would make that assumption if I worked in an office.

 3)   While I’m sure you’ve read many books and articles in your career, if you had to pick one or two that have been especially influential for you which one or two would they be and why?

I read Curriculum and Reality by Hugh Hawes in the mid-eighties, and it seemed to capture the contradictions of African education. The work of Clifford Geertz, an anthropologist taught me a great deal about ethnography. The work of Piaget (numberless articles and books) helped me to understand meta-theory, and then the Collected Works of Vygotsky have been seminal in my life, partly also about meta-theory. I have gone on to read extensively in Cultural Historical Activity Theory, including Mike Cole and Andy Blunden, and am on the XMCA list serv where we discuss issues on a daily basis. You can see then that theoretical psychology (and not linguistics) is my preferred mode. However, I do keep abreast of developments in second language learning in primary school: I have an enduring interest in the relationship between language and cognition.

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

Clifford Geertz, Piaget (and Neo-Piagetians), Vygotsky, Cole, Blunden, Whitehead, Polanyi. This covers the broad interests I described under 3) above.

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

 The effects of rapid curriculum change on the confidence and practice of teachers. They are not treated with the respect they deserve. Educational change is stressful, and so too much change is even more stressful. I do understand that this kind of rapid change is a world-wide phenomenon, but we haven’t looked at the effects in our context.

I think we need to make a detailed study of the use of LTSM. In developed educational systems teachers only give a cursory look at textbooks, and tend to develop their own materials or use several sources. We need to know what happens when the challenges are much greater in context like our own.

We also need to have a long hard look at lack of prestige when young people go into education. Education is the easiest faculty to get into – the lowest number of matric points. There are so few really bright undergraduates in education, yet we entrust the future of the country to these young people. We need to look at countries like Finland where teaching is a highly respected profession.

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

 Margaret Donaldson, my PhD supervisor (and a doyen of child development), told me that one doesn’t have to read everything, one can think for oneself. That has built my confidence about moving out of my academic comfort zone. Then Len Lanham wrote a reference for me which said that I would rise to a prominent position in research and teaching in South Africa. I was about 22 at the time, and overwhelmed by this prospect, but I learned to grow into it. When I gave Lanham the six reports of the Threshold Project – he said “This is just the beginning”. I had to grow into that view too. If people trust you, you learn to fulfil what they hope for you. I have tried to pass this type of confidence on to my students.

7) In the late 1980s you lead a team of researchers in the Threshold Project. This has been an especially influential study looking at the transition from an African language into English. Can you give us a brief overview of the study, its findings and why you think it has been so influential?

From pilot studies I worked out that African children were having difficulties in making the transition from the first language to English as the medium of instruction in Std 3 (grade 5). We looked at a number of aspects. We looked at language teaching and testing, cognitive development, materials development, and school-based learning experiences. We also had a detailed study of textbooks – and the gap between English as a subject and English as the medium of education. We tried to break new ground in understanding the nature of educational development in the local context. Much of the information we derived should up the difficulties the teachers and learners were having in general in their schools and school practices. We came up with a range of policy options which could be used, based on choice at the school level. We stressed the need for deep literacy practice in the home language. (This remains a key issue right here and now.)

8) Knowing what you know now, if you were to do an update study of the Threshold Project, can you give us a brief sketch of the kind of research that you would do and what you would look into and how?

I might ask some of the same questions, but with an updated spin on the research. Although there are more children in the schools and they are generally better resourced, I think there are still critical gaps. One example would be the rapid turnout of textbooks with not much informed thought going into them. I would go into a deeper analysis of pedagogy. I would look at what constitutes a robust school. I would look at the sustainability of change, and what deep change looks like. Having said that, there would never be such an opportunity to do basic and applied research on the same scale now. There is now a great deal of emphasis on implementation.

9) If you had to go back 20 years and give yourself advice, what would you say?

I would still have pursued the same course (as I really try to live mindfully), but I might have looked more at educational policy, change and systemic change. I would have tried to keep out of tertiary teaching of undergraduates. I would have tried to move into being a Reader rather than a Lecturer right at the beginning.

10) If you had to pick 2 or 3 ‘reasons’ why most African language learners battle to transition to English in grade 4 which ones would you pick and why?

The absence of deep literacy at home. The poor management of resources like libraries, and classroom libraries. The failure of the teachers to realise what it takes to inculcate the practices of literacy, particularly in the Foundation Phases. This is because they never experienced this for themselves as learners and students.

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

 I would first commiserate with her for having such a daunting job. Then I would share with her about what I said in 10) above. Finally I would talk to her above the professional burden on teachers in the context of excessive and continuous curriculum revisions. Finally I would talk to her about the range of learners we have locally, and why their needs would not be met by all having the same textbook – that is really a very silly suggestion.

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

I would be doing theoretical psychology. (Actually you can do that in education too, of course!)

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

I am a great fan of technology. We have access to so much information on the web; we can search so easily for articles online. But it should remain a tool rather than something which controls us. It’s not a panacea.  Social media sometimes supplants real contact, so a balance should be struck.

14) If you were given a R15million research grant what would you use it for? 

I would first ask if it was for basic or applied research (although it is very likely to be the latter). That would determine the range of questions I would address. I would like to have a project to run for five years. The most interesting questions tend to pop up in the third year.

Probably the most important aspect would be to pull in promising young research and mentor them. At the ripe age of 61, that is the key contribution I can make.


A list of Carol’s publications can be found here, and I would strongly recommend her short book Eager to talk and learn and think – Threshold Project (1991) which she co-wrote with Burroughs. 

Some of the others on my “to-interview” list include Veronica McKay, Thabo Mabogoane, Andrew Einhorn, Maurita-Glynn Weissenberg, Shelley O’Carroll, Carole Bloch, Yael Shalem, Jill Adler, Linda Richter and Volker Wedekind. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.

Previous participants (with links to their Q&A’s) include, Johan MullerUrsula HoadleyStephen TaylorServaas van der BergElizabeth HenningBrahm FleischMary Metcalfe, Martin Gustafsson, Eric AtmoreDoron IsaacsJoy OliverHamsa VenkatLinda Biersteker, Jonathan ClarkeMichael MyburghPercy Moleke , Wayne Hugo, Lilli Pretorius, and Paula Ensor.

Q&A with Paula Ensor

Paula Ensor picThe aim of the Q&A series is to get an inside look into some of South Africa’s leading education academics, policy-makers and activists. This is the nineteenth interview in the series. Paula Ensor is Professor of Education at the UCT School of Education.

1)   Why did you decide to go into education and how did you get where you are?

I left school with the intention of becoming an economist. My involvement in political activity, initially as a student and later as an activist in the liberation movement, cut across that. After some years of more or less full-time political engagement I realised I needed to qualify myself for a job, and so going into teaching was initially a fairly pragmatic decision. I trained in London to teach in further education, and taught mathematics for eight years at Botswana Polytechnic (it is now part of the University of Botswana), after that for 18 months in an inner London secondary school, and since my return to South Africa in 1991, I have been involved in higher education, first at UWC then UCT.

2)   What does your average week look like? 

 I have been on sabbatical leave for the past 12 months, as my term of office as Dean of Humanities [UCT] ended in 2013. So my average week this year has been quite unlike any weeks of the previous 10 years! I have spent most of my time reading and writing.

3)   While I’m sure you’ve read many books and articles in your career, if you had to pick two or three that have been especially influential for you which two or three would they be and why?

Karl Marx’s four volumes of Capital probably shaped my thinking more than anything else I have read. It is an extraordinary intellectual accomplishment, in that from the notion of commodities and commodity exchange he builds an analytical framework to account for the workings of the capitalist system and the production and reproduction of inequality. One can be fully mindful of the critiques of this work but still appreciate the brilliance of his argument and of his literary style. It is very difficult to identify other texts which have had the same impact on my outlook. But in terms of thinking specifically about education, I would add Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Althusser’s Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses and Fanon’s Black Skins, White Masks.

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

This is a difficult question to answer. For me the most influential thinkers in education are deceased – Piaget, Vygotsy, Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Bourdieu, Foucault and Bernstein, for example. This year I have spent a great deal of time revisiting these foundational theorists, as well as engaging with more contemporary thinkers such as Amartya Sen (he reminds us so well how crucially important education is for development and for human flourishing), Randall Collins (I am interested particularly in his work on ritual), Henri Lefebvre (through her work on pedagogy Heather Jacklin introduced me to him and his work on rhythmanalysis) and Judith Butler (whose work on performativity in relation to gender has helped me to think about pedagogy as performance).

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

This is a tricky question as one could answer this question in so many ways, depending on the subfield of education one works in – ECD, primary and secondary schooling, further and higher education. I want to get a better grip on how education as a system articulates. Is there any research out there that provides guidance on this? I have been involved (either through research, or teaching) in different levels of the formal education system, from Foundation Phase through to higher education, but it is not clear to me how, and to what extent (if at all), government policy grasps education as a system rather than as a number of quite distinct silos. OBE had a disastrous impact on schooling; the NQF arguably has had a similarly disastrous effect on post-school (vocational and adult) education and Stephanie Allais’s recent book on the NQF and its effects is a must-read in this context. The parlous state of post-school education impacts negatively on schooling, and on higher education. So an interesting question for me (I wouldn’t claim it as the “most” under-researched area) is how (if at all) government policy understands and promotes the interconnection of the system as a whole. At the level of more personal interest, I want to understand better the regularity of pedagogic practice over time and place, and the difficulties of changing this, a question which for the moment I am placing under the working title of “ritual in pedagogy”.

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

 To respect the importance of empirical data in educational research, to respect the discipline it imposes, and to understand that working rigorously with data is both demanding and richly enabling.

 7) You have been involved in teacher education at UCT for a long time – in your experience what are the two or three areas that students struggle with most when they become teachers and start teaching in schools?

My PhD focused on a PGCE mathematics method course, the experiences of a group of students on this course and their encounters as they entered schools as beginning teachers. I found that the experiences of beginning teachers, and the challenges they faced, were shaped by three factors – access to the principles which framed the teacher education programme they completed at university; educational biography (that is, their own experiences of schools as learners); and the organisation of the school setting they entered as beginning teachers and the level of support they received there. Effective school governance and ongoing collaboration and support amongst teachers was the most crucial factor in assisting beginning teachers plan curriculum coverage, gain access to materials and other resources, organise assessment and feel confident about issues of control. I have read other work since then, especially in the context of mathematics education, and I think these findings have been broadly confirmed.

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

Well, I think I might have enjoyed being an economist. But I would have been very happy as an historian as well.

9)  You have recently returned to the UCT School of Education after being in management at UCT for some years. Have you noticed any changes in the field of education in SA compared to five or ten years ago?

 It is difficult for me to make claims about changes in the field as a whole. With regard specifically to schooling, well, we said goodbye to OBE, which inflicted severe damage on our system, and I think some headway has been made in schools with the development of CAPS and the recognition of the need for high quality textual resources (such as text books and work books) in classrooms. There is now regular, wide-scale assessment (such as ANAs) but is not clear to me what the pedagogic effects of these assessment practices are. In many respects the issues are the same as a decade ago – improving initial and inservice teacher education, strengthening school leadership, changing pedagogic practices in classrooms, understanding better the relationship between home and school, the complexity of linguistic practices in classrooms and so on. So the issues appear to be broadly the same over time, but the precision with which they are articulated seems to be much sharper, and there is a wider array of theoretical resources that researchers are working with.

10)   You have been involved with activist organizations like Equal Education and were yourself part of the anti-apartheid struggle. What do you think is the role of these activist organizations in South Africa and what advice would you give to other similar organizations?

Civic organisations like Equal Education are crucial for mobilising citizens to act in their own interests, and to hold government to account for service delivery across a broad front of issues. An active citizenry is the ultimate defence we have against corruption, cronyism, authoritarianism and the wasteful inefficiency we see so much of at the present time. Civic organisations like Equal Education not only put pressure on government and other agencies to improve the quality of education, but they also build and strengthen civil society in defence of democracy.

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

I am not sure what you mean by technology in education – pens and pencils are already aspects of pedagogic technology! I assume you mean forms of technology which involve the use of computers and other electronic devices and make use inter alia of the internet and specialised educational packages. These offer new ways of accessing knowledge and new modes of communication which are now deeply embedded in contemporary (globalised) culture. As educators it seems to me that in the end we have no option but to give young people access to the opportunities this technology offers. I am sceptical about claims that use of such technology will miraculously transform teaching and learning – I have seen far too many education technology fads consigned to store rooms and cupboards. But it is an unavoidable part of life in a globalised world and potentially very empowering.

12) If you were given a R20million research grant what would you use it for?

R20 million is a great deal of money and we would want to make sure that such a funded research project would have maximum impact on policy and practice. Having read through some of your earlier interviews I am struck by how much more precise we have become in our diagnosis of educational problems and in identifying areas that require further research, and at the same time how broadly these questions cut across the whole system. So the first thing I would do is bring together a group of the most productive and interesting thinkers and researchers in education in South Africa and map out a project which we collectively believed would make the most impact.


Some of Paula’s research can be found here and an extended bio hereSome of the others on my “to-interview” list include Veronica McKay, Thabo Mabogoane, Andrew Einhorn, Maurita-Glynn Weissenberg, Shelley O’Carroll, Carole Bloch, Yael Shalem, Jill Adler, Linda Richter and Volker Wedekind. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.

Q&A with Lilli Pretorius

Screen Shot 2014-12-23 at 4.46.41 PMThe 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 eighteenth interview in the series. Elizabeth (Lilli) Pretorius is a Professor of Linguistics at UNISA.

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

Well, I originally come from Linguistics, not Education, I stumbled sideways into education. I majored in English and Italian at university and although in my early twenties I didn’t know what exactly I wanted to do with English and Italian besides waft around in Literature, I emphatically didn’t want to go into education! It was while I was doing honours in Italian that I encountered linguistics and fell in love with it. From my early encounter with Chomskian phase structure rules in Italian I moved into phonology and psycholinguistics – specifically first language acquisition and studies on language and the mind. I was hooked. In the meantime, I needed a job, and a post in teaching English to Grade 11 and 12 students in a township school came up. I did that for 4 years – and loved it, so I got hooked a second time. I was then offered a junior position in the Linguistics Department at Unisa so I left classroom teaching for academia. My four years of teaching English as a second language in a township high school stood me in good stead in my university teaching as it gave me insight into the daily struggles of students who do their schooling in a language that is not their home language and who come from high poverty homes with very little exposure to print-based literacy practices. Through Linguistics I became interested in how we construct meaning via language – I first studied constructions and perceptions of causality in discourse at Grade 5 level for my Masters, and then looked in the role of inferencing in the reading of expository texts by university students. After my doctoral research I worked with a colleague from Information Science, Myrna Machet, on a project that over a 3-year period took me into deep rural areas, where we piggy-backed on adult literacy NGOs, looking at the effects of storybook reading by neoliterate adults on children at preschool level. I then spent the following decade looking at various aspects of reading development in high poverty contexts, from preschool to university level. It was never a conscious decision to ‘go into’ education – my research lead me into education.

  (2)   What does your average week look like?

Rather messy – a combination of teaching, admin work, meetings, academic stuff – and trying to do research in between. I teach honours modules in Applied Linguistics (second language teaching and learning) and I have quite a few Masters and doctoral students who take up a lot of time. I am also the departmental co-ordinator for about 70 Masters and doctoral students and that takes up a lot of admin. I do article reviews, examine M and D theses, review ethics applications in our college, occasionally play an advisory role in literacy programs. I have collected a lot of reading data over the years but increasing administrative demands in the work place make it challenging to find time for research. I have come to the realisation that it is difficult to manage one’s time effectively in an environment where waves of work continuously crash over you. I’m trying to develop ‘work wave’ stamina and resilience…

(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 interesting how some articles stand out among the many thousands one reads in the course of one’s academic career. I remember two articles in particular that affected me quite profoundly in my early research career – Keith Stanovich’s article on early reading development (Stanovich, KE. 1986. Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly 21, 360–406) and Meridith Daneman’s article on individual reading differences (Daneman, M. 1991. Individual differences in reading skills. In: Barr, R. et al. (eds) Handbook of Reading Research Volume II. London: Longman). I was impressed by two things: firstly, they asked different questions about reading. Changing the questions changes the way one looks at a phenomenon. Secondly, I was struck by the coherence of their articles – the clarity of their thoughts, the systematic nature of their arguments, and the rigour and compelling force of research evidence. We tend to associate aesthetic responses to texts with literary texts, but well argued and empirically well supported scientific texts have a beauty of their own too.

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

Reading is a complex phenomenon, the domain of reading research is very wide and is informed by a range of disciplines – linguistics, psycholinguistics, cognitive science, neuroscience, psychology, sociology, social anthropology, semiotics, education and special needs education. Each of these disciplines brings to reading research their own particular interests and agenda, their own research approaches, and their own gurus. Who one considers important depends on which aspects of reading ‘float one’s boat’, so to speak.

There are so many people who’ve done – and continue doing – amazing work in the field of reading research, at both the micro and the macro levels of processing and in terms of teaching reading. Scholars such as Marilyn Adams, Michael Pressley, Catherine Snow immediately come to mind. Keiko Koda and reading researchers in Canada have done important comparative studies on bilingual decoding skills, Paul van den Broek and Charles Perfetti in the USA and Jane Oakhill and Nicola Yuill in the UK have done interesting work over the years on reading comprehension, Stanovich and Cunningham have done fascinating work on the effects of print exposure on reading, vocabulary and knowledge development in general. The affective dimension of reading (e.g. Rosenblatt) and the broader social context in which literacy is used and enacted are also important areas with their own influential thinkers such as Brian Street, Dave Barton and Paul Gee.

Because of my own interest in language and the mind, a lot of the research that I read about comes from the cognitive and neuroscience disciplines. There has been a lot of really interesting reading research coming from neurolinguistics and the brain sciences in the past 20 years. Stanislas Dehaene’s book Reading in the brain and Marianne Wolf’s Proust and the squid convey this complex research domain in an accessible style to the ordinary reading public.

Because so much of what we know about reading in the past 70 odd years comes mainly from North America and Europe, we need to continuously ask ourselves Ok, so how does this relate to reading and education in developing, middle income countries. There’s a lot we still don’t know.

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

Approaches to early reading instruction are based mainly on reading in analytic languages. African languages are agglutinating languages with rich and complex morphosyntactic structures. The Nguni languages in particular have very long word units. At the micro level we actually know very little about what really works when learning to read in the African languages, from a decoding point of view, so that is an area that calls for further research.

Another area that merits closer scrutiny is the development of academic language proficiency in bilingual education systems. There are quantitative and qualitative differences in the ways in which we communicate orally in everyday situations and the way we use language in more formal educational contexts. In written language – whether in paper or electronic form, whether in the home language or a first additional language – the locus of meaning shifts to the text itself, and the ability to construct meaning relies largely on the linguistic and textual cues in the written text and in the conventions associated with its use. In effect, since the advent of modern education, when we acquire our home language or learn another language, we learn oral and written ‘dialects’ or registers, and we switch between them, depending on the context in which we use language. Although oral proficiency is what we rely on most throughout our lives on an everyday basis, it is proficiency in using literate or academic forms of language that determine success in the educational context. Many of our children who pass through the education system acquire only rudimentary reading abilities and are exposed to teaching practices where information is parroted in a superficial manner, so they are thus denied opportunities to develop new ways of using and understanding language. Although they are orally very proficient and may even be marvellously multilingual, if they don’t acquire academic registers they will continue to struggle academically. Finding ways to develop and support academic language proficiency is important in our context.

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

Comments from past professors such as “Mmm, interesting ideas, but where’s your evidence?” or “Re-write this, it reads like a first draft” or “Let’s talk about this once you’ve done more reading”, though mortifying to a tender graduate student or junior lecturer at the time, were valuable academic lessons that helped shape the person I am today. I also had an interest in humour and at an early stage of my academic career I considered doing research on the use of language in humour. My husband said I wouldn’t be taken seriously if I analysed Monty Python scripts and suggested I do something more practical – so I continued with my research on causality in texts instead, and that drew me into reading research.

(7) You have been involved in language education and linguistics for a long time – in your experience what are the two or three areas that students struggle with most when they become teachers and start teaching in schools?

Being in Linguistics, I have not been as directly involved with teacher training as my colleagues in education faculties are. However, having worked in high poverty schools over many years, I’ve come to see how demotivating a dysfunctional school environment can be on teachers. Strong leadership and good governance at a school provide an enabling and supportive environment for novice teachers. It’s also important for new teachers to have as a mentor a teacher in whose classroom learning actually happens, not just someone who’s ‘experienced’ and has been teaching for many years. There are many teachers who have been teaching for years but whose kids are not performing. Who novice teachers have as role models is important.

(8) I recently read your excellent 2014 article titled ‘Supporting transitions or playing catch-up in Grade 4? Implications for standards in education and training.’ It was easily the most informative academic article I’ve read this year. If you were put in charge of a national reading campaign with a large annual budget (R200m) and total discretion on how to spend it, what would you spend it on and why?

The bottom line in reading development is fairly simple – reading only develops through reading. Throughout Africa, children are expected to become readers without having proper access to books and they attend schools where books are rare, and rarely used. This is akin to expecting kids to play football without a ball. This would be unthinkable in the football world. Using the same football analogy, it would be unthinkable in football circles to appoint coaches who knew nothing about football, yet we have teachers whose task it is to develop readers but who themselves do very little reading and who know very little about reading. From questionnaires I’ve administered to teachers in township schools over a 10-year period, I’ve found that around 70% of teachers reported that they have 10 or fewer books in their homes, and although they all have positive attitudes to reading, when asked to name a book they’ve recently read, most teachers give the name of a book prescribed in high school. This suggests that they don’t read voluntarily. This is a sensitive area and not much hard core empirical research has been done on this topic. Although many more teachers these days have better formal teaching qualifications than was the case two to three decades ago, there is quite a lot of indirect or anecdotal evidence of teachers’ poor reading abilities. The NEEDU report of 2012 identified poor content knowledge as one the areas in which teachers struggled. If teachers know very little about their content subject, this means they probably do very little reading in their content subject. So, finding ways to raise teachers’ literacy levels is paramount at this point in our education history.

Screen Shot 2014-12-23 at 5.54.38 PM

One of my favourite posters about reading is this one. Reading awakens possibilities, it gives one independent access to knowledge. So, if I were put in charge of a national reading campaign, I would adopt a two pronged approach to the reading campaign, with one strand focussing on making books accessible to school children and the second strand focussing on building teacher capacity with regard to reading.

Less than 10% of our schools have functional libraries, and this in our 21st century world with its knowledge economy, where most of our knowledge is stored, transmitted and updated via written language. Learners who come from poor homes and communities have little access to books and hence to knowledge beyond their immediate world, so schools in these communities should become rich and stimulating sites of literacy. But simply putting books in schools does not necessarily make reading happen. The affective, social aspects of reading should be promoted, learners should be constantly motivated to read, reading should become a high status activity and reading be made a cool thing to do. Learners should also have strong reading role models and reading and books should be visibly valued – which is where the teacher capacity building strand comes in. The DBE has actually done quite a lot about putting books in schools in the past few years, but the next step, that of maintenance and use, is neglected. I’ve been to many schools that have been given lots of books – and they are often stored away and gathering dust in a room somewhere, unopened and inaccessible. This suggests that schools do not know how to manage resources and how to use books effectively in their teaching. So this strand of the campaign would build up individual teachers’ reading levels, and also teach teachers how to explicitly teach reading strategies (and I’m referring to much more than skimming and scanning here), and how to manage, maintain and use book resources in their schools and classrooms.

(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?

First of all, I’d thank her for arranging this sudden upgrade from economy to first class for me, for how else would I sit next to her? I’d also thank her for candidly acknowledging the reading crisis in our schools. I think she has quite a strong finger on the education pulse in that regard. Then, depending on how long the plane trip was, I’d highlight three challenges facing SA today, all of which revolve around literacy:

  1. Attention to changes in classroom literacy practices. After 70 years of reading research we have a pretty good idea of what works in early reading development and why a balanced approach to reading instruction is important. However, telling teachers what to do about reading and giving them resources with which to do it do not necessarily bring about educational reforms. Teachers’ perceptions, normative beliefs and knowledge influence their classroom practice. In order to get teachers to change ineffective classroom practices we need more research into theories of pedagogic change in schools and classrooms and how this can be done via in-service teacher training. We rely a lot on workshops to do this, but teachers often call these ‘hit and run’ affairs (facilitators come in, tell teachers what to do, then leave). How else can we support teachers in becoming more effective? All interventions should thus be informed by theories of change and be carefully monitored and evaluated so that factors that facilitate or hinder changes in teacher practice can be indentified and better understood.
  2. Attention to literacy in maths and science. In the past 20 twenty years millions of rands have been spent in this country on improving maths and science education, with very few dividends so far. The relationship between reading ability and maths and science learning needs to be given explicit attention. As long as we have low literacy levels in general, we will continue to have low maths and science performance. Students need to be explicitly taught how to read maths and science texts so that they can ‘read to learn’ more effectively from their textbooks.
  3. Attention to school libraries and post structures for school librarians. As mentioned above, very few schools in SA have functional school libraries, especially schools that serve poor communities, which is precisely where ready access to information and knowledge is most needed. Furthermore, school libraries need librarians, people who are specially trained to manage libraries and to help build a culture of reading and finding information. Teachers do not have the time or the expertise to run school libraries. This means that post structures for school librarians should also be created. Low quintile schools cannot afford to appoint school librarians because they would have to sacrifice a teaching post to do so. Although the DBE encourages schools to build up school libraries, in effect it does not provide the infrastructures to enable schools to do so. According to Equal Education’s statistics, by 2010 the state had spent a total of R13.6 billion on building ten new sport stadiums in SA. Surely providing easy access to knowledge via school libraries is a worthwhile investment too? It also helps to professionalise schools.

Just before we landed, I’d ask for more funding for raising teachers’ literacy levels in my national reading campaign. In light of the cost of sport stadiums, R200 million for a reading campaign that has the potential to improve teacher literacy seems rather stingy.

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

 Linguistics? Researching language and humour?

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

Well, there are lots of new and wondrous things happening on the technology front every week – but my default position is that of scepticism. I first want to see evidence of their benefits. The assumption that technology automatically confers advantages is rather naive. Young children in particular need social interaction and mediation in language and literacy development – and also for socio-affective development; technology cannot replace that.

(12) If you were given a R15million research grant what would you use it for?

 I’d really like to explore ways of boosting the development of academic language proficiency during the Intermediate Phase. If children don’t learn to engage with texts and read at a deeper level, then they battle to ‘read to learn’ through the rest of their schooling and it’s really difficult for them to become independent learners. So I would use the funding to explore ways to develop such proficiency, using randomised-control studies with different interventions that are carefully monitored and evaluated. For example, something along the lines of a genre approach to expository/information texts similar to what Dave Rose has been doing in Australia and an intervention that focuses on explicit instruction in reading strategies. Pauline Gibbons has also done interesting work in this area. However, interventions are also only as good as the people who implement them, so the first year would be spent training teachers (language and content subject teachers) in these different approaches, building up their own literacy skills, developing their academic vocabulary and content-specific terminology, as well as their content knowledge and pedagogic knowledge and their understanding of the logic behind the specific interventions. Many teachers attend workshops where they are shown specific methods to use in the classroom, but they have very little understanding of why, what the bigger picture is, and their own pedagogic or literacy skills are not necessarily enhanced by implementing the method.

A list of some of Lilli’s articles can be found below:

Some of the others on my “to-interview” list include Veronica McKay, Thabo Mabogoane, Andrew Einhorn, Maurita-Glynn Weissenberg, Shelley O’Carroll, Carole Bloch, Yael Shalem, Jill Adler, Paula Ensor, Linda Richter and Volker Wedekind. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.

Q&A with Wayne Hugo

Wayne pic

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 seventeenth interview in the series. Wayne Hugo is an Associate Professor at the UKZN School of Education (CV here, personal website here). 

1) Why did you decide to go into education and how did you get where you are?

Four motivations that started the ball rolling – Firstly I was a working class boy with no means to fund higher education and the teaching bursary was very attractive. It actually gave me enough money to help my folks out a little, go out every night for a beer and some pool at the Dev, pay for a small flat in Braamfontein, and buy whatever books I wanted. Secondly, my favorite subjects at school were English and History, so it was easy to make these my majors. Thirdly, I had always loved explaining stuff to my school friends and found I had a knack for it. They are all now making a lot more money than me. Fourth, I have always had a strong desire to write and liked the idea of a half day job that would give me time. Those were the motivations pushing and pulling me into teaching. But then I stumbled into Education Studies at Wits with characters like Joe Muller, Mary Crewe, David Bensusan, Penny Enslin, Ian Moll, Pam Christie, Mike Kissack, Shirley Pendelbury, and Jill Adler. I was pursuing my own curriculum at Wits, spending time in the William Cullen library reading collected works of various luminaries. Joe and Mary Crewe, in particular, actively guided this process, pointing me towards Gramsci, Althusser, Saussure and others, whilst critically taking me on. Education Studies became a place of exploration that allowed me massive freedom along with critical comment. It helped that Lynne Slomimsky was with me for part of this process, as it gave me an intellectual partner who was happy to talk about Laclau and Mouffe, Post Modernism, Freud, dreams and whatever else was brewing. I then left the country to avoid army service and landed up in Wigan as a bouncer, but the massive bursary came back to haunt me as my parents could not afford to pay it back – so back I came into the army and into teaching. I loved teaching, especially as a young teacher, and am writing a book on it to try and capture all the energies and tensions a young male teacher experiences in high school. Anyway, whist teaching I carried on doing my honours and masters part time. A choice quickly arose between shifting into school management or taking a senior lecturing position at the Johannesburg College of Education, and I chose the latter. I will never forget getting my lecturing load and being astonished that I only had to lecture around twice a day. I loved JCE, became the coach of the rugby side, and pretty much carried on as I had at varsity. I did not have a PhD and when friends of mine in Grahamstown needed me to go down there for personal reasons, I decided to do my PhD there. So began a five year journey into the depths of educational thought. I went back to Plato and started to systematically read through all the classical educational texts, making it to Descartes and Hegel. Looking back now there has been an astonishingly consistent daily pattern that has consisted of morning and afternoon reading and writing, late afternoon intense exercise, and evening socialising. After getting my PhD the first post that became available was in Pietermaritzburg. It had academics I deeply respected – Ken Harley, Ben Parker (RIP), Volker Wedekind – so I was pleased to get a post there, and that is where I have settled until now, very happy with a sweet daughter and good friends.

2) What does your average week look like?

Days where I am free – Wake up at 5. Quick check of email, news, facebook. Start writing or reading or both until around 11. Go out for coffee and brunch. Carry on reading, writing and dealing with daily work requirements. Around 4 take the body out to play – go swim, touch rugby, cycle. Around 6 see friends, have a beer, supper, maybe yoga, go to sleep.

My daughter plays havoc with this routine, but then she is worth all of this and more.

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?

Plato’s Republic, Dante’s Divine Comedy

Plato exists for me as an unexplainable divine force at the fount of education. His work is beyond profound, continuously astonishes me, humbles me, enriches me.

Dante exists as a luminosity in my imagination – he is my muse and represents a teacher who was able to swallow his whole age and transmutate it into a pedagogic journey from the depths to the heights in a poem.

Below these two are Kant critiques, Hegel Phenomenology and Logic, Marx’s Kapital (vol1) and Piaget’s corpus.

The educational text that blew my mind open was Bourdieu and Passeron’s Reproduction in education, society and culture. I loved its axiomatic style that went back to Spinoza. Bernstein has been a growing love affair that has formatted my thinking.

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

Joe Muller – Lucid thinker where others are struggling to find a path, nevermind understand it. My experience of him is that he is always on the boundary, pushing towards the unspoken, but able to articulate what the new is and why it is relevent. He is very generous with his insights and recommendations. Almost always I come away from a meeting with him with new thoughts and breakthroughs.

Karl Maton – Brave man with enormous energies and ambitions, complimented by one of the sharpest intellects I have come across. He is quickly developing a comprehensive analytical framework that is process oriented, research driven, and gets to the dynamics of education in ways that help students get to grips with curriculum and pedagogy. Legitimation Code Theory combines field insights of power with an internal analysis of educational events. It pushes Bernsteinian binary into process and flow.

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

 We are way behind in Mind, Brain and Education research, and I feel this will give us strong insights into improving how learning works. We are clueless about Instructional Design, especially how it is currently playing out with new developments in technology and engineering. We are struggling with Big Data analysis. My basic take is that the social sciences have shifted sharply closer to the STEM subjects (Science, Tech, Engineering, Maths), and that education is not following suit. We need to strengthen our research by using insights and methods taken from Engineering, Economics, Computer programming, Biology, Geography and other ‘complexity’ sciences.

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

From my dad – always act from a position of strength inside yourself. I have taken this to mean that you have to work at knowing so much more than what is expected. It is astonishing how an expanding and deep network consolidates and clarifies whatever it is you are working with. Everything lights up and is of interest because it places itself inside a glowing network.

 7) You are actively involved in teacher education at UKZN – in your experience what are the two or three areas that students struggle with most when they become teachers and start teaching in schools?

The transference relation between young teacher and learner. There are massive energies and emotions that cook under the surface when you start as a young teacher with learners who are only a couple of years younger than you. It’s a very difficult dynamic to talk about with students, because the unconscious works in such powerful and strange ways. Often naming and studying the process only makes it harder to control when encountered.

Over work. Young teachers are exploited and find themselves quickly stretched and exhausted, resulting in burn-out, drop out, and compromised standards

Too much coffee, too much alcohol

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

Education allows me the space to do all the things I want to do, so it’s hard to answer. I suppose a full time novelist. I enjoy trickery, so a magician would have been nice. At one stage I liked the idea of being a Psychoanalyst. A secular Monk of the Franciscan type would be my ideal.

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

Big fan. I get the over hype and the over expectations and the dangers, but it is taking us into new spaces. It’s the connectivity and creativity it enables that astonishes me. Often we use technology just to replicate existing practices, but it is breaking these practices, changing them, moving us into a new terrain. Technology innovates faster than culture can keep up with, it is our job as the current generation of education academics to stay on the wave, learn to surf it, and articulate what its great strengths and dangers are. I love the post human stuff of Harraway and Crew, feel it speaks to a new mode of existence arising in and through us.

10) If you were given a R20million research grant what would you use it for?

Certainly not whole school improvement. I would like to set up an education website similar to Khan Academy but in education and then track and trace student responses in a way that improves the curriculum, pedagogy and assessment of the website material. The website would give the basic building blocks that specialise a student into education and provide a dialogic space for interaction and engagement that can be used across South Africa, outwards and onwards.


A full list of Wayne’s publications can be found here. He has also done a video lecture series on “Cracking the code

Some of the other academics on my “to-interview” list include Veronica McKay, Elizabeth Pretorius, Jill Adler, Paula Ensor and Volker Wedekind. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.

Q&A with Percy Moleke


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 sixteenth interview in the series. Percy Moleke is Programme Manager and Coordinator of the Human Capabilities and Social Protection Working Group of the National Planning Commission

1)   In your career, why did you choose to focus on education and social policy and how did you get where you are now?

While studying economics, which has been my favourite subject since Matric many moons ago, the social part made much more sense to me. When I proceeded to university, the social electives were much more attractive, i.e. public sector economics, public finance, labour economics, economics of education were my favourite electives. It is their closeness to reality, and to my personal background that made sense; even econometric analysis related to these subjects made sense. I related to them in many ways and they gave a sense that what I was learning could make a difference. I am mostly attracted by the role of social policy in addressing inequality and particularly looking at the linkages between education and the labour market and understanding their role in addressing inequality. I believe they (education and labour market) are the root cause of inequality (engineered by apartheid) and should thus be key instruments in addressing inequality.

Education and hard work got me where I am. A bit of luck and a higher power helped definitely, but only if you work hard. Patience and being realistic are also part of the ingredients/characters.

 2)   What does your average week look like?

My weeks vary. Some are packed with meetings, which are a must when you are a public servant, and they demand a lot. Most of these require preparation, reading, preparing presentations, etc. Some weeks are a few meetings and one gets time to read a bit and reflect on issues, i.e. brainstorm with colleagues. This does not happen as often as I would like though. Some weeks are a mixture of all sorts of things, meetings, a bit of reading, a bit of trying to sort out some problem(s), a lot of time on the phone and email, and/or face to face with colleagues talking through some issue(s), writing some note/speech, a bit of whining, etc. these are long and happens more often that I would like. But all these are necessary and part of the job. I think this is why my job is interesting, sounds contradictory. I bemoan the lack of time to read and attend engagements such as seminars/workshops, etc., which makes weeks and days even longer. It means compromising evenings/nights and weekends as these are used for reading to catch up. Reading is a necessary part of the job, but time for it is not adequately factored in.

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?

Hard to say as I read a variety of books and articles. My reading currently is influenced by the area of work I am busy with. So I am reading in education (ECD, schooling, vocational education, higher education), labour markets, social protection, as these are the areas I am working on. I was an influenced reader when I was younger. I would recall that some of the work that influenced my interests and a broader key message of interest in each are Becker’s work on Human Capital and equally Blaug’s work on education as a ‘screening device’, and Thurow’s work on labour market as a training market rather than an auction market. Then there is Hanushek’s work, I think it brings together a group of good analysts in the area of economics of education. It is like a ‘reference’ source. For a young student (then), with interest in education and labour markets, it was fascinating to read their work and the different views. But it also highlighted the important yet complex relationship between education and the labour market. My reading processes have changed since then. I distil critical messages from my readings; I don’t have any particular favourite. I would however prescribe Outliers to all students in particular. Hard work pays but it does not come easy and is not immediate, practice, practice and practice.

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

I think, most areas have been researched, but under-researched. Meaning it is the same narrative, almost similar analysis, hence same outcomes/messages from the research.

But I will go with the following:

First; is accountability in education. We all know that teachers are a critical component for improvement in education, we all point fingers at teachers (and Sadtu) for poor performance, we point to teachers’ poor content knowledge, etc.  I have not seen an analysis that looks at why teachers (a large proportion of them) in our system are doing so badly. What is the impact of poor education administration on school performance? Econometric analysis that I have seen says, not much, but I argue that if one was to use a different methodology to assess this, you may find that it has a huge impact. Hence we cannot only point fingers at teachers when there is poor performance, if they do not get support from the districts, provinces, national, they can’t be blamed. Teachers in performing schools have mostly gone through the same training as those in under-performing schools, why does the issue of teachers’ mastery of content an issue in under-performing schools and not in other schools?

Similarly, why is Sadtu so powerful? I think it point to failure of management/administration. Lines are blurred. It is almost as if we have not defined the line between a teacher and an administrator/management in the system. In my view, once a person becomes a principal/district /provincial/national official they take on a different role in the system, their labour relations interests cannot be represented by Sadtu. And I think that happens because of the way our ‘education system’ has evolved. There is no accountability built in the system.

The second; is centralisation versus decentralisation of education. It is related to the first, but takes a slightly different angle. Here as well I think the lines are blurred. Hence accountability is an issue. Who do we hold accountable for what in education, and who is responsible for what part of the system. Given the vast geographical differences in our country, should we decentralise more (and to what level, i.e. Province or District or School) or is centralisation the best model, what part of the system should be centralised/decentralised. What are the lessons from the past 20 years or so?

The third is related to foundation learning. Starting from ECD (not Grade R, but prior to that). Here one of the areas that I think need thorough research relates to the language of instruction and the impact of learning or not learning in mother tongue at foundation phase for future performance. I don’t think this issue is well understood and properly contextualised. It seems many people are saying teach in mother tongue at foundation phase? I wonder if, despite what international evidence say, we understand what this means in the South African context and how correct and feasible this is.

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

To apply in my life – love what you are doing and give it your best shot, it makes doing it enjoyable and easy. And don’t be afraid to try new things, it is okay to fail as long as you learn lessons from failure and do better next time.

To apply at work- inconsistency in application/implementation can turn an excellent public policy into a bad policy.

6)   As Programme Manager and Coordinator of the Human Capabilities and Social Protection Working Group of the NPC,  I’m sure you have considerable first-hand experience of the real-world challenges that those in government face on a daily basis. Can you explain some of the under-appreciated challenges faced by the NPC?

I think people forget that it is only now that as a country we are appreciating the importance of having a long-term plan for the country, that this is a ‘new function’ in government. The NPC does not have answers and shares everyone’s concerns with respect to how the NDP will be implemented. We are all learning.

It is also under-appreciated that the NPC as a structure is not properly institutionalised. Sometimes there are huge expectations and while the NPC tries its best, it has not been worked out how it operates and relate to other functions of government. Every department has its ‘planning’ unit, but we know the challenges with how these are conceptualised and function. We need to work out how these interface with the NPC, National Treasury, StatsSA, etc. as all these form part of the planning function. It is exciting that the ANC, in its manifesto, put this issue of institutionalising planning on the agenda. It must happen. We need to improve our planning in government, and move from high level plans to planning implementation to the ‘t’. Planning is not an event with a defined single output –A plan, it is a continuous, iterative process.

There are also expectations that because there is now an NPC and NDP implementation will improve. NDP is still very high level, and most of the proposals need to be unpacked. I am not sure if the NPC is given enough space and time to unpack these proposals and engage with those who should implement. The advantage of the NPC is that you have people who are not drowned in the day to day running of line-function departments, hence should have space to read, think differently about the challenges of implementation and support line-function departments in every step of the implementation process. Department officials should be relying on the NPC to assist and support. It can be a neutral player as it has no interest except to support, improve coordination and bring in fresh thinking. Currently most of the challenges get picked up during monitoring of progress by the Department of Monitoring and Evaluation, and even then, it is still high level monitoring, the fault- lines are missed. Most of these fault-lines are in implementation plans and strategies, which, most of the time do not exist. This however, cannot happen with a structure that is under-capacitated. Commissioners are not full-time, it is difficult to get all Commissioners to a meeting for example, and there is a small secretariat.

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

 An environmentalist of sorts. I think I will be spending time doing something related to studying and protecting animals, I have a special liking of the big cats. National Geographic is my favourite TV channel.

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

A bit of both. I like face to face interaction. Maybe it’s because of my age! But I also think given our socio-economic challenges, it may perpetuate inequality (some would say it may be the game changer). We should not underestimate the poor access to basics of technology for most poor people in this country!

I recently read a book by Salman Khan –The One World School House. It made me think about the possibilities of technology in education, especially in instances where teachers’ content knowledge is lacking. It also scared me a bit, because I think it is not about ‘if’ but ‘when’ technology will be a key component in education. It makes me scared because I am not sure if we are ready for that.

I am also influenced by the increasing number of young people who are doing wonders with technology.

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

I interpret research broadly. I would use it to pilot different ways of improving quality teaching and learning in different contexts in SA. We all complain about poor quality of education, but I am not sure we know what we are complaining about and what to do about it. What works in what context and how to effect change. One of the fascinating areas to investigate is what is happening in the Quintile 2 schools that seem to be performing relatively well, what makes them work and why not in other schools. We need to move away from high level talk and analysis and understand what is happening at the school level, at the individual learner level. Our policies and intervention programmes must be informed by that.

Part of the problem I think is that we ‘overuse’ senior certificate results as a measure of how our system is doing. By the time learners are in Grade 12, it is a bit too late, because they are exiting the system. Meanwhile, every semester at least and yearly learners write exams in each Grade, we do not know how they are performing at the lower Grades, their progression, etc., and there is no mechanisms to use these results to understand performance at lower Grades and find ways to improve. We only wake up to the fact that about 40-50 per cent of a cohort that started Grade 1 is not writing senior secondary certificate, but are not sure at what point in the system do things begin to go bad and why, thus how can we intervene. We speculate that it at the end of the compulsory phase – Grade 9 or age 15, but the question is why a rational learner would drop out of the system when there are no positive prospects for them beyond that point.

R10 million is not a lot of money, but I would also invest a bit on education planning. I am referring to broad planning, understanding the implications of demographics, migration, social dynamics, town planning and developments, etc. on education provision and funding of education.

10) Having considerable experience in higher education in South Africa, you are well positioned to answer the following question: what do you think are the major challenges facing the higher education sector in South Africa in the next 10 years?

Inability to reproduce itself. I would spend all my money on ensuring that output in higher education increase both quantitatively and qualitatively, from undergraduate to post graduate. It is scary, and I am not sure if we are paying enough attention to this. I don’t use the term crisis often and loosely, but I think we are facing a crisis there. This is also because higher education has to produce skilled people for the economy as well. The pool is very small. Progress in development of this country is dependent on what we do in this area today I would argue. If we do not turn the wheel now, we should forget about taking this country to a higher and positive trajectory.

Related to the first challenge is the small size of the sector. We must look beyond the enrolment numbers in higher education and focus on participation rate, the distribution of these numbers by area of study and the throughput (graduates). While it is understandable that to grow the size, schooling has to improve and grow even faster, there is more that can be done to make the system more efficient. The failure and drop-out rates at these institutions are unacceptable.

The third challenge relates to clarity of identity and mission of our institutions, FET Colleges, and the newly proposed Community Colleges, Adult Education Centres and Comprehensive Universities and Universities of Technology. I am not sure if it is clear for young people in secondary school today what options they have when they leave school, which option is better suited for their career choices, pros-and cons of each, etc. For example, do they have to study up to matric to gain entry into an FET College, and is this applicable to all areas of study?

Universities are expected to be everything to everyone, because they have a relatively good reputation compared to Colleges. If we do not ensure that we clean up the image of colleges, ensure that they produce quality graduates who are employable, then we will continue to put pressure on universities, hence they have so many students doing Diplomas, which should be done in Colleges. It is pointless to have high numbers of young people in Colleges when the outcome of that is not of value for the individual, the economy and society.

 The fourth I think is the link between higher education and the world of work. The two seem to be operating in isolation. There are pockets of cooperation and linkages, but for the most part there is a serious disconnect. You see this in teaching, research, innovation and employability issues.


Some of the other academics/policy-makers/activists on my “to-interview” list include Thabo Mabogoane, Veronica McKay, Volker Wedekind, John Kruger, Jonathan Jansen, and Khulekani Mathe. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.

Q&A with Joy Olivier


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 fifteenth interview in the series. Joy Olivier is co-founder and Director of Ikamva Youth.

1)   Why did you decide to go into education and how did you get where you are?

In 2003 I was working at the HSRC, looking at how research and development and science, technology and innovation (STI) drive the economy. We were also looking at the transformation of the scientific community for NACI, and this brought me to the (then) Higher Grade maths and science results of black matriculants. My colleague Makhosi Gogwana and I shared an office, and talked about this a lot. Initially, I thought there must be something wrong with the data as the numbers of learners who were matriculating with results that made them eligible to study anything requiring Maths and Science in an entire province were more like what should be coming out of a handful of schools. Makhosi had gone to junior school in the Eastern Cape, and then moved to a high school in Khayelitsha for secondary for a better education. In comparing our educational backgrounds, we realised that what’s missing for learners in disadvantaged areas are information and support. Naive, optimistic and driven to do something about the problem we were learning about, we called up Makhosi’s old school and sent emails to our friends asking who wants to tutor. Everyone said yes and Ikamva Youth (IY) was born. I had no idea that what was essentially a hobby would become my full time job – never mind other peoples’!

2)   What does your average week look like?

I don’t really have an average week. In the past two weeks I’ve had to go to Joza township near Grahamstown to deal with an organisational crisis, and am currently at an airport on my way back from a workshop with one of our donors in San Francisco.

My work pings me between the extremities of poverty and wealth; between townships and palaces. It can be quite discombobulating, but I also feel really lucky to have these super diverse experiences. I’m always learning a LOT.

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?

He summarises the work that’s been done with disadvantaged, poor-performing high school students very well, and makes a convincing argument that change can happen at this level.

Reminding us that believing that you can do it, and having access to middle-class resources like networks, advice, community norms of tertiary education and access to employment, are some of the things that explain the disparities in academic achievement between under- and well-resourced kids.

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

Nic Spaull 😛 He’s super smart and has a wonderful mix of passion to do something balanced with an analytical and critical view on things.

It’s pretty depressing that I can’t think of anyone else right now, but it could also be the jetlag

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

It’s crazy to me that we don’t know the percentage of black kids going into university that come from disadvantaged areas. Without knowing this and then seeking to improve on it, we’re essentially ensuring the perpetuation of inequality and the widening gap between rich and poor.

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

Leigh Meinert told me that people take you seriously when you start to take yourself seriously. She was right.

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?

  1. Someone has to take on the unions. Teachers are not “workers”; it’s a profession, and not showing up to work and striking when you’re supposed to be teaching is not only unprofessional, it’s diabolical.
  2. Rather than have curriculum delivered to them, learners need to learn how to learn. The focus should be on pedagogy and peer learning; there is WAY too much focus on curriculum and content.
  3. Literacy and Numeracy.

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

Hmm good question. Community psychology, maybe. Or perhaps an entrepreneurial venture that has a smart way to reduce inequality. Oh actually what I’m doing falls into both of these things. I think I’d like to find a model that’s self-sustaining and not donor reliant. When things are heavy and the stress of responsibility and challenges get to me I think I might like to be a lady of leisure, although I know that wouldn’t last too long.

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

So this was my field, when I worked at and then did my masters in Ed and Tech. And it made me a sceptic. However, I do feel that mobile tech and some of the apps are starting to look really promising. I’m excited about what Siyavula and Fundza are doing, and with most kids having feature phones and Internet access gradually becoming more of a reality, I’m shifting back towards potential fanhood.

10) If you were given a R10million research grant what would you use it for?

I’d like find answers to these questions:

  • See answer to q5 above.

Then IY-specific qs:

  • How many learners in township and rural schools would opt into being a part of IY if they had the opportunity?
  • How much of our learners’ results are due to their being a part of IY and how much is due to what they would have achieved anyway without us?
  • Which aspects of what we do feed into the results, and which bits are just nice to have or could be tweaked to be more efficient (eg. learner:tutor ratio, winter school etc.)
  • Piloting different models of online tutoring and seeing what works.

11) Ikamva Youth  is a highly successful NGO providing meaningful opportunities to many South African youth. What would you say are the three or four major “ingredients” in its success?

  •  A culture of learning and collaboration, where learning is cool and learners are motivated to attend
  • Low cost, high impact (with clear metrics for measuring impact)
  • Learners becoming tutors; they’re amazing role models who are changing their communities
  • Focus is on learning and not content

12) Ikamva Youth is a grass-roots organization with considerable links to the community and to students. In many countries around the world there is often a disconnect between what is happening at a national-policy level and what the reality is on the ground – do you believe this is also the case in South Africa? And if so, in which areas is this disconnect most apparent? 

Yebo. There is some awareness of the usefulness of extending school hours, which is great, with SSIP and other after-school programmes being implemented. However, what’s being implemented in most places is just more of what’s already not working for more money. Its really frustrating when initiatives get scaled up and funds spent without any tracking or monitoring of results and impact.

13) What would you say are the three major difficulties faced by civil-society organizations in South Africa, and what advice would you give to people who are in the start-up phase of an NGO? 

  • Hiring experienced, good people who can exceed expectations is a major challenge and a key to getting things right
  • Decide what you want to achieve and how you’re going to measure whether or not you’re achieving it from the beginning
  • Think about self-sustainability models from the beginning
  • Always stretch to implement learnings and grow, but don’t stretch too much too quickly


Some of the other academics/policy-makers/activists on my “to-interview” list include Thabo Mabogoane, Veronica McKay, Volker Wedekind, John Kruger, Jonathan Jansen, Khulekani Mathe, and Percy Moleke. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.