Tag Archives: South Africa

Q&A with Elizabeth Henning


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 seventh interview in the series.  Elizabeth Henning is a professor of Educational Linguistics at the University of Johannesburg and head of the Centre for Education Practice Research (Twitter: @ElbieHenning).

1)   Why did you decide to go into education?

Decide? No, it happened.

The only bursaries available for kids who had no money were for nursing and teaching. Ruling party was clever. They insisted on good school records for their future teachers. In my matric year only two people got six distinctions in the then Transvaal white system. Both became teachers.

 2)   What does your average week look like?

Meeting with field workers, editing manuscripts, meeting with field workers, writing annual, quarterly (feels like daily) research reports, writing proposals for funding, squeezing funding into field work cost categories, looking for translators, trying to read current research on cognitive development of young kids, meeting with fieldworkers, trying to do some classroom research, reading policy docs and trying to align them with educational reality, stressing/hyperventilating  about the effect and the cost-effectiveness of Tante ANA, meeting with field workers.

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?

Two oldies.

Jan Amos Komensky’s Didactica Magna, because he got it. There’s a teacher, there’s a learner and then there is content. Get on with it.

Lev Semenovich Vygotsky’s two books. He got it too. Pity he died so young. Specifically he said it so well – the ‘word’ that comes to you as you start to have ‘activity’ (Tätigkeit, ‘doingness’) is cognitively loaded and the way you use it will make a lot of the meaning for you (for me the central tenet of his work – semiotic mediation). And then his (so ahead of his time and spot-on with current neuroscience, but also coming from his knowledge of German philosophy) understanding that there’s some core knowledge (‘spontaneous concepts’ the English versions of his work say) and then there’s symbolic knowledge you get by instruction. And they meet in your early years on the planet and then what you do with them depends a lot on where you are on the planet.

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

Please can I mention four?

Elizabeth Spelke because she straddles education with developmental cognitive psychology and a bit of neuroscience and still manages to see the Vygotskian undertones of language and culture.

Jerome Bruner because he stayed with new ideas throughout his life and became critical of the ‘cultish’ ways of the new Vygotskians.

Stanislas Dehaene because he made the neuroscience of reading and of mathematical cognition accessible for anyone who can read.

Oh, and Bond and Fox because they were able to get ordinary folk like me hooked on Rasch modelling for test validity and I wish DBE would read them.

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

Kids. Or ‘learners’ if you must.

Not issues ‘about’ them like other people’s ideologies. ‘Them’ as unit of analysis. Not their ‘learning outcomes’ or ‘scores’ for the ‘national learner’. Them.

This includes South African made and standardised and normed instruments  to serve as measures for diagnosing South African kids’ knowledge and find out where they are struggling, individually, so they can get help fast.

And this includes the effects of using imported English tests (or their down-watered versions) to capture the competences, abilities, attitudes etc etc.

Research questions:

When was the last standardised instrument with which to capture primary school  children’s competence in (insert here what you wish) developed and what was the theoretical bases of this tests?

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

Read Goethe, Schiller, Shakespeare, Chekov, Strindberg, Van Wyk Louw and study the visual arts and music if you want to get to know the human condition from which you can then derive educational ideas. Beware of the pedagogists.

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?

Foundation phase teacher development to understand kids not methods.

Foundation phase classroom size:  have you ever taught a kid the part-part whole concept of number, Ma’am. Now do it with 35 kids, Ma’am. While you are also crowd controlling them and code-switching ‘cause, Ma’am, they aren’t all really isiZulu speaking kids –  their parents just said so to get them into this school.

Foundation phase teacher education –  please give more bursaries and more lecturers to educate the students  and to inspire and love them and help them to make a stunning identity and pay these teachers more than others because, Ma’am, they build the foundation for your house of education. Thank you Ma’am Angie.

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

Farm with veggies and train new veggie farmers. Organic, of course.

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

Quite a fan but also a control freak.

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

Check out the Grade R and Grade 1 kids with a good representative sample – as they come in from home and before we inject them with our curriculum and our ‘methods’ of teaching.

Oh yes, and go visit the educational philosopher(s) who write about the ‘learnification’ of education and probe them on what makes their minds tick this way.


A full list of Prof Henning’s academic research can be found here. I particularly enjoyed her recent blog post “Matric begins in Grade 1


Some of the other academics/policy-makers on my “to-interview” list include Servaas van der Berg, Martin Gustafsson, Thabo Mabogoane, Veronica McKay, Hamsa Venkatakrishnan, Volker Wedekind, John Kruger, Linda Biersteker, Jonathan Jansen and Jon Clark. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.

Race Attitudes and Education – EG Malherbe speech 1946

PDF of the book “Race Attitudes & Education” by EG Malherbe (1946) which is his speech from the Hoernle Memorial Lecture for the SA Institute of Race Relations – 17 pages and well worth the read.

Some notable excerpts:

“Troops fight well in proportion as they understand the things they are fighting for as well as the things they are fighting against” – Malherbe 1946

“Mr Hofmeyr devoted his first Memorial Lecture last year to a discussion of the bearing of the Christian principles on race problems. He showed how the central truth of the Fatherhood of God carried with it “the implication of the brotherhood of man, irresepctive of race or creed or colour and the concept of a world-wife family, all the members of which stand in the same relationship to its Head.” He also showed how “this family association is independent of the physical origin and the racial characteristics of those who make it up” p3
“So what do we have here: a country where there is on the one hand a tendency to oppress the Jews because they are so few and so clever, and on the other hand a tendency, equally strong, to deny democratic privileges to the natives because they are so many and so ignorant” p7
“Racial prejudices operate on the emotional plane and often spring from fear and a curious set of inferiority complexes.” p7
“English-Afrikaans relationships have improved considerably amongst the men in the army. We have strong proof that as a result of playing, working, fighting, suffering and dying together, a mutual appreciation and in many cases genuine affection has sprung up” – Malherbe 
“Education for mere literacy is not enough. In fact, that stage of education is in many respects a dangerous one, because it is too inadequate. It makes him an easy prey of propaganda through press headlines which is all he usually reads in a newspaper. he has not had enough education to make him propaganda-proof. One of the functions of education is to develop in men defence mechanisms against having their critical sense blurred or their consciences violated. A man should at least know when he is being propagandized. If a person’s schooling is insufficient to provide this armour, he should be taken care of by means of a system of adult education. in fact I am convinced that in matters of social and political education the late adolescent and adult period is far more important than the ordinary school age period.”
Professor Edgar Brookes realized this when he so succinctly summed up the South African’s attitude to Native education as “too humane to prohibit it, but too human to encourage it” p22
“Even the fine idea of trusteeship is not without its shortcomings in practice. According to this the natives stand in relation to Europeans as wards to a guardian who accepts as “a sacred trust of civilization” the task of helping his immature wards on to those advantages of civilization which they are unable to attain for themselves. I sometimes wonder whether those who carried out this concept have considered, at least in the Union, the possibility that the wards should or will ever grow up. There is no Master of a Supreme Court to ensure that this trusteeship does not become stepmothering!” p22
“Plato said that the man who wrote the nation’s songs wielded greater influence than the man who made the nation’s laws. I would say that the men who write the headlines of our newspapers wield far greater influence than our legislators”
“These were men trained and experienced in the techniques of adult education and it will not be easy to recruit that type of objective minded and well-informed officer again. I very much fear that if an attempt is now made to start, the whole movement might be becalmed in the haven of mediocrity. The idealism, the enthusiasm as well as the intellectual capacity will not be there to buy” p24
“Education for leaders should be our first objective amoungst the Non-European. To spread mere literacy thinly amongst the masses is dangerous, unless it is accompanied by the training of truly educated leaders who can guide the masses and who will see to it that their little education is not exploited and cultivating more bitterness” p26
The mark of a good education is to see such things in their right perspective and not to mistake the exceptional (however serious and annoying) for the significant. p27
“The chief reason why one war has always followed another throughout history seems to me to be in large measure due to the fact that the self-sacrificing idealism, without which battles cannot even be fought, much less won, and with which youth is so generously endowed, is featured in times of war and discounted in times of peace. When youth are faced with the necessity to undergo hardships, sufferings, and death in order to save their countries from disaster, they are implored to become idealists. Even the most crass-minded realist knows that no other philosophy can sustain men’s minds in moments of crisis. Once the crisis is over, the order of the day to youth is that they all put away their idealism as they do their outmoded weapons of combat. He who sacrifices his personal interest in the cause of the common good in war is called a hero. He who imagines that such principles of behavior should be put into practice in times of peace is apt to be thought of as an unrealistic, starry-eyed idealist. The one has a crown as the reward of his labours, and the other a cross.”
John M Fletcher in The Virginia Quarterly Review (quoted in Race Attitudes and Education by E G Malherb 1946)

Advertising masquerading as statistics – Kerr Wittenberg 2011