Stretching ourselves beyond the ordinary.

img_3685The title of this article is taken from one of the seven Stanford Lake College values – ‘I have Courage – I stretch myself beyond the ordinary’. This line has never been more relevant than it is today. Like so many other countries throughout the world, the South African education system is in a state of turmoil. Universities and Schools around the country are being defaced, even burned to the ground, and lack of service provision in rural schools is constantly being highlighted in the press.  However, like many of you reading this article, I firmly believe that good education is the key to a successful future and that we as individuals can make a difference!

There is an ongoing debate raging throughout the world about what constitutes a ‘good’ education. In countries around the globe, question marks are being raised about the efficacy of their education systems. A few beacons of good practice are being held up as shining examples but in reality, very little is being done to emulate these models. Despite the numerous articles on our current approach not being sufficient to drive our country forward we still seem to lack the bravery, or the will, to make the necessary changes. In a country hamstrung by bureaucratic red tape, we seem unable to shift ourselves away from our obsession with pass rates and University exemption rates as well as our fixation on Mathematics and Science. Yes, Mathematics and Science are important, exceptionally so, but no more so than English and Social Sciences, or indeed any other subject for that matter. We seem to have totally forgotten that University may not be the ideal route for many of our students. We seem to wear the fact that our children have qualified for University as a badge of honour, allowing ourselves to become myopic in our views of post-matric pathways for our students. We forget that without tradesmen and women our country could not sustain itself. Don’t get me wrong, when the end of year results come out I am the first one skimming through my school’s results to make sure we maintain our stellar record, but unfortunately this only serves to progress the current notion that an individual’s ability to contribute to a successful society can only be measured by how well they do in a set of standardised examinations, and that the worth of our school can only be bench-marked by their pass and Bachelor Degree (BD) rates.

Not only this, but the psychological damage we are doing to our children by trying to pigeon-hole them all into Universities who seem to be Mathematics and Science-obsessed is of grave concern.  This obsession seems to be born from ‘stats watching’ results like the World Economic Forum’s annual report, the triennial Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Scores (TIMSS). Whilst academics around the world are criticising the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) for the nature of these assessments and for the damage it is doing to education systems, we seem hell-bent on focussing on short-term wins and ignoring the warning signs being highlighted both by other countries, and by the unhappiness simmering below the surface at our own Tertiary Institutions.  My hypothesis is that our poor performance in these assessments stems from a systemic problem in our education system which is hampering all subjects, not only Mathematics and Science. It is now time we as educators at all levels, from Foundation Phase through to Post-Graduate University level  ‘stretch ourselves beyond the ordinary’ to find a way forward where each child is valued and where education benefits all of us, regardless of what level that may be at. We are in desperate need for our young people to feel that irrespective of what they choose to do after school they will be valued – we are in grave need of nurses, teachers, farmers, carpenters, builders and many other trades. Yet we continue to set our sights on getting each and every child into University, creating an increasingly shallow pool of candidates for many of the important roles in society. So, in Henry Ford’s words, ‘If we keep doing what we’ve always done, we’ll keep getting what we’ve always got’, and that I’m afraid does not bear thinking about.


My life-long goal as a teacher and something I often speak about at Conferences is how we as educators should be developing our student’s self-efficacy. Self-Efficacy is the belief that you have the ability to succeed at something. A skilled educator has the ability to teach each child in what Russian Psychologist, Lev Vygotsky calls the ‘zone of proximal development'(ZPD), that area where students are stretched just beyond their current skill level but not too far that they feel that they can’t cope. By consistently teaching in that ‘ZPD’ we are continuously improving our student’s skill levels, but at the same time maintaining their levels of self-efficacy, allowing them to believe in themselves, as they move into the next phase of their learning.

Unfortunately, we don’t seem to be getting it right at the moment.  Just speak to any student, teacher, or High School parent about how they are feeling around the 1st November each year and that alone will paint a picture of the current state of education. I believe it is however much worse than this. Not only are we creating a generation of anxious, stressed teenagers, but the expectations placed on many of our younger children has escalated well beyond what we ever experienced at the same age. Quality ‘play time’ is being squeezed in favour of worksheets and Maths rehearsal, all of this in the name of preparing our kids for the next step in their industrialised (read, sausage factory) education. The notion of quantity seems to outweigh that of quality. The view of many of our schools is that the more work our students are doing the better they will do at school. We are in desperate need of a paradigm shift towards focussing on quality, where less is done by our kids but we closely look at the quality and nature of the work they are doing.

As a caveat to what I write below, I cannot emphasise enough how exceptionally lucky my children are to attend a most fantastic Prep School, and that each and every one of their teachers are truly caring, remarkable folk. They, however,  face the exact same conundrum, caught between a rock and a hard place, that many of our schools currently face.  I recently watched my 10-year-old son trying to do his homework at 4 o’ clock in the afternoon after a full day of school and two more hours of sport. The picture of my extremely patient (to begin with) wife and exhausted child trying to grapple with various concepts made me question what it is we are trying to achieve as educators.  In the end, it all ended in tears of frustration. All my son wanted to do was go outside and play cricket. Unfortunately, this was not a once off occurrence. This picture plays itself out at least two or three times a week, as I imagine it does in many homes around the country. I doff my hat to the likes of Gavin Keller, from Sun Valley Schools in Cape Town, who have made the courageous move to redesign homework in such a way that it instils a life-long love of learning in their students. As a psychologist, I shudder to think of the negative conditioned response my child is developing towards school work when sitting at his homework desk at 4.30 in the afternoon desperate to go outside and throw a ball around? I would imagine that this is a scene which is replicated and played out many times throughout our country and one that many parents can sympathise with.

Putting our money where our mouth is

It is always an interesting exercise to read the abundance of articles, on Social Media and in the mainstream press, on the topic of education and how we should be changing it. What is even more interesting is to see the hundreds and thousands of ‘likes’ on each of these, and yet very little seems to change. At Stanford Lake College we have recently introduced a new approach to Teaching & Learning based on the International Round Square Organisation’s ‘Discovery Framework’. This academic framework dovetails very well with the ‘College’s Dream an’ Do’ (DaD) Outdoor Education programme, where every Grade 8 and Grade 9 pupil gets to spend the equivalent of a day per fortnight at the school’s dedicated Outdoor Centre immersed in the  Outdoor Education programme. The Round Square is an international group of 160 schools from 40 different countries, which subscribe to the educational philosophies of Kurt Hahn. Kurt Hahn was the founder of Outward Board, the Duke of Edinburgh Award (President’s award in South Africa), United World Colleges and the Round Square, and he believed that a true education should be experiential and values based. The values of concern and compassion for others, the willingness to accept responsibility, and tenacity in pursuit of the truth, were central to his educational philosophy. It is interesting to ponder the last sentence for a moment – what would our world look like today if education systems produced citizens who valued and elicited these traits?

The Round Square is an international group of 160 schools from 40 different countries, which subscribe to the educational philosophies of Kurt Hahn. Kurt Hahn was the founder of Outward Board, the Duke of Edinburgh Award (President’s award in South Africa), United World Colleges and the Round Square, and he believed that a true education should be experiential and values based. The values of concern and compassion for others, the willingness to accept responsibility, and tenacity in pursuit of the truth, were central to his educational philosophy. It is interesting to ponder the last sentence for a moment – what would our world look like today if education systems produced citizens who valued and elicited these traits?

The Round Square Discovery Framework (RSDF) shifts the focus of learning away from a content-based approach, which most education systems currently follow, to a skills-based approach. The Round Square IDEALS of Internationalism, Democracy, Environment, Adventure, Leadership and Service are infused into the entire programme and all activities at the school. These IDEALS are known as ‘Spirits’ and they underpin the ‘Discoveries’ which become the focal point of each lesson. The 12 Discoveries include attitudes, values, skills and competencies, such things as Tenacity, Courage, Creativity, Inquisitiveness, Inventiveness, Self-awareness, Compassion for others, Commitment to sustainability, the Ability to solve problems, an Appreciation for diversity, a Sense of responsibility, and Communication skills.

Teachers design lesson plans with the ‘Discoveries’ at the heart of their lesson. Although the content delivered is still very similar and in most cases identical to what was done previously, it is the development of these ‘skills’ which is the priority. Over the two-year programme subject teachers aim to move a child along a continuum from less skilled to highly skilled in each of the 12 Discoveries. By doing so we believe that each child will develop higher levels of self-efficacy in each of these areas and that this self-efficacy will reap academic rewards across all the subjects they learn, as well as producing Ethical, Compassionate, Globally aware young people.

Stanford Lake College has a long-standing tradition of being at the forefront of Outdoor Education is South Africa. This combined with a thirst for innovation in education has driven the Stanford Lake College team to develop educational programmes which focus on developing character and learning skills. These skills are always taught from a deep-seated belief in our school value system. The aim of the ‘RSDF’ and ‘DaD’ programmes is to ensure that students understand that character traits and skills are relevant both inside and outside of the classroom, as well as relevant to their life-long learning. As an example, students are taught about what Courage looks like in Outdoor Education when asked to abseil off the 40-foot climbing wall but then also asked to identify what Courage may look like in an academic sense? In this way, students learn that academic skills are transferable to areas beyond the classroom.

Having now completed the full first year of the ‘RSDF’ and having undertaken research on levels of Self-Efficacy and Grit along the way we are beginning to see an interesting picture emerge. The most recent findings are that there is a strong correlation between academic success and levels of self-efficacy as well as levels of Grit. The challenge for us at Stanford Lake College was to design a programme where we can nurture each individual in such a way that they would develop increased levels of self-efficacy.

History tells us that the students who have come through our ‘Dream an’ Do’ programme have a highly developed sense of tenacity and courage and that many of them have gone on to be ethical leaders in their chosen fields. The proof is there, what we need now is a way to scale this up so that many more young South Africans can develop their own levels of self-efficacy so that they can leave school knowing that no matter who they are, or in what field they are working, they can make a difference in our country by contributing to a bright new future.

So where to next?

There is a growing realisation that we cannot continue in our current way and, just as Stanford Lake College has, there are already a number of schools out there who have begun to steer new paths. A number of schools are being brave and shifting their focus towards a skills-based educational approach. One such pathway is being championed by Thinking Schools South Africa (TSSA), whose training programmes include the de Bono ‘Six Thinking Hats’ and the CoRT tools, Thinking Maps, Belle Wallace’s Thinking Actively in a Social Context (TASC) and Costa and Kallick’s Habits of Mind. TSSA are at the forefront of facilitating this movement and provide training and a superb support network to assist schools on their learning journey. These schools are to be commended but constitute a mere drop in the proverbial ocean at the moment. We will need to make a collective effort to ensure that these programmes sit at the heart of our teaching and learning and are not just mere add-ons to be used as marketing tools.

At the annual South African Heads of Independent Schools Conference in Limpopo in 2015,  Advocate Thuli Madonsela told a brief story of four men in a boat. Two were sitting on one side of the boat and the other two on the opposite side. A hole had developed on the one side of the boat. One of the men sitting on the side without the hole turned to his companion and said, ‘Thank goodness the hole is on the other side of the boat!’ Is this not a metaphor for education in our Country at the moment? We can no longer sit and look from afar as the water pours in and our countries education system slowly sinks around us.  For us to succeed in this future, we will need large doses of Courage, we will need to stretch ourselves beyond the ordinary. We will need to be brave enough to reinvent what a good education looks like (and I believe it should look nothing like the current one does!).

The latest call for ‘decolonised education’ has sent a shudder through the education system and has lead to heated, and often emotionally blinded debate, about what we require in South Africa. Peter Ruddock, of the Independent Examinations Board, spoke very eloquently at a recent Head’s of Schools meeting about what he felt a ‘decolonised’ education looked like. His call was for a ‘reconstruction’ of our education where all South African cultures and histories were equally considered and where we put aside our preconceived ideas of each other. Perhaps what has happened over the past 18 months or so will be the catalyst that is so sorely needed for us to seriously review what it is we want from our education system. My belief is that every child matters and that each and every child has a role to play in our successful future. I believe that what our Country now requires more than anything is a shift in focus towards character education, where Morally and Ethically sound Entrepreneurial Leaders are produced who will contribute to the future of our Country. Perhaps the current educational landscape is now fertile ground for planting the seed of Kurt Hahn’s educational vision.

Our journey is only just beginning, but I am extremely excited about what lies ahead. As CP Cavafy said in his poem ‘Ithaka’,

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.

If this article acts as a call to arms for a few fellow Heads and Educators and serves to further steel those who have already begun their journey, then I will deem it to have been a success.


One thought on “Stretching ourselves beyond the ordinary.

  1. It is inspiring to read such a well-argued motivation for a 180 degree change to the approach that educators should adopt to their calling. Many schools have explored and developed the thinking and skills-based approach, but it is enlightening to see these incorporated into the Round Square Discovery Framework. I agree that there are many pathways to success and happiness in life, and it is up to educators, and especially heads to educate parents concerning the choices of their children with regard to tertiary study and careers. Many times it is the so-called less academically able youngsters who leave a mark on society as they are forced to fall back on their own resources and not rely on formal qualifications.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s