The school infrastructure we need and why we don’t have them

In South Africa, we do spend an awful amount of money on building schools and we are building them based on the view that the best learning takes place when the teacher stands in front of the class and deliver education to students sitting in neat rows. To be fair, the newer building projects of post-apartheid South Africa are aesthetically more appealing, compared to what we had before. But, while the buildings look different, the structure is still the same – teacher in front, students in neat rows.

This is not the only problem. There are more students than space available to teach them. This is aggravated by migrations between provinces as parents, for obvious reasons, seek greener pastures for their children. Some provinces are perceived to do a better job in providing good education than others.

Also, the complex interchange between the life of the school and the burdens in the community are inhibiting Principals from thinking of the school buildings as multifunctional facilities. High crime levels, for example, deter a Principal from opening the doors of the school to the community. Many well-intentioned development initiatives ignore this reality and show little appreciation for the Principal’s deep concerns.

Lastly, young teachers who exit teacher training colleges with bright innovative new ideas find structural obstacles to their newfound and 21st century pedagogical ideas. They find no sympathy or help in the existing physical structure to implement all the new high-tech, disruptive and blended learning frameworks that excited them in the lecture at college or university. Consequently, they quickly revert back to ‘chalk-and-talk’.

What then are the conditions for future infrastructure planning? 

Planning for 21st century infrastructure in South Africa will have impact if:

  1. Infrastructure solutions and its design involve more than just the department of education. Schools exist in broken and pained communities where multiple factors contribute to its fragmentation.
  2. The department of education decentralized the design of the structure to allow forward-looking and creative Principals to influence design decisions. The Principal must cease to underestimate the difference her insight can make and government must aggressively solicit knowledge and skills from Principals.
  3. Curriculum design was modified to connect learning with current needs and realities. This will include students as collaborators for infrastructure solutions. Imagine if school was the place where students’ knowledge and skills are immediately put at use in the design and construction of infrastructure?
  4. Teacher training and development is transformed to strengthen young teachers’ capacity to creatively modify strategies in favour of the best learning.

Ignited by History to Lead Wisely

Ignited by History to Lead Wisely

One of the most unnerving questions a student can pose, circles around the matter of relevance. ‘Why am I doing this?’

In the study of History, for example, this probe is never meant as a genuine delving for answers. In fact, for most of structured learning, the same applies. The question is a suggestion that the discipline is completely useless and irrelevant. As the smart people put it: ‘The question is rhetorical.’

For our young people, historical studies is, in the words of a sage from another age, ‘a cruel strain on the memory for the sake of passing exams.’ 

But there is a permanent good, in sharp antithesis to a cruel strain, that comes to mankind so aptly described by the historian Burckhart when he concluded that historical studies is not intended ‘to make us more clever the next time, but wiser for all time’. The problem for our young people, when searching for relevance is that they have not seen much of that wisdom. Instead, they have seen foolishness, irrationality, selfish and nationalist ambitions, greed, revenge and ignorance displayed in too many forms of leadership. Although we think that most of these leaders are out there, they pop up so now and then when, at that awkward moment, you look into the mirror.

If we agree with the sage, Mortimer Jerome Adler, that ‘The highest value of history is prudent judgement in worldly affairs’, then we can appreciate why our students see no relevance in understanding history. The evidence around them shows that understanding history made no difference in us. From our calloused leadership in the refugee crises to the cold shoulder a parent give to a child needing appreciation, we have all failed to be an example shaped partly by a lack of understanding history. So, instead, our young people opt for alternative ‘examples’ often those in flashy cars, dark glasses against the glare of moonshine and, ironically, with chains around their necks.

But there are some amongst us, whose examples shine like bright lights in a grim world. They know that although emergencies are real, you cannot spend all your days putting out fires. Hasty decisions have become a rarity for them and they know when and how to say ‘no’. Also, they make time for reflection and refueling and would rather ‘do less but do it better’, than ‘progressing’ one inch in a million directions.

Most of all, they lead by example. They understand that their words and their actions are sparks that can either inflame hatred or ignite hope. They choose hope.

Of Sol Plaatje it was said that ‘personal example was his prime strategy’. 

Now there’s a word from the past that can make us ‘wiser for all time’ and inspire us to ignite a generation of thinkers whose understanding of history will enable them to lead wisely when the time comes.


The Boer War Diary of Sol Plaatje, (1976)  Edited by John L.Comaroff 

The Paideia Program,  (1984) Mortimer Jerome Adler

The Essentialist, (2014) Greg McKeown

Long Road of Loneliness

A rather compelling case has been made for the ‘unnatural’ introduction and flawed recruitment processes of school principals in South Africa. Tony Bush noted that “school leaders begin their professional careers as teachers and progress to headship via a range of leadership tasks and roles” (Tony Bush et al. 2011).*

This “exit” from their familiar teacher network of friends have not been extensively researched, but it is very likely that the new “tasks and roles” (Tony Bush et al. 2011)* of the ‘new journey’ for the principal comes with a range of complex psychological ramifications of which loneliness is a real possibility. Alone he must fight for the school’s financial survival. While everyone else sleeps their full 8 hours a day, she is up in the middle of the night, in solitary pursuit for solutions to teacher shortages, large class sizes and a never-ending set of demands from the department of education, the parents and the community.

This lonely road feels even worse in the absence of a home, a hub of comrades wherein she can be herself and find support from peers who can support with strength and upliftment that leads to rejuvenation and empowerment.

Truthfully, too few leaders have access to, or are bold enough to participate in such a needed ecosystem and too many leaders believe the myth that they are untouchable – unaffected by the perils of loneliness. The truth, of course, stands tall against this myth.

How then, does one lead wisely in a world where loneliness is a real threat?


Bush, T et al. (2011)  Preparing new principals in South Africa: the ACE: School Leadership Programme1, (Accessed 8 March, 2016)

The Complexity of Decision-Making

The emergencies that school principals wrestle with each day, demand a constant flow of choices and decisions, or as one principal described it, “reactions.”

From the most mundane requests to the demands of an irate parent, the school principal must make choices each day largely around the priority of keeping everyone happy.

Dealing with the constant ‘live moment’, she develops a habit of navigating through decision-making based on emergencies. Those decisions are made on the spur of the moment, where the temptation is high to opt for shallow and short-sighted considerations. There is seldom time to reflect over a long-term view of the implications of decisions or careful scrutiny of the ramifications for people.

As a consequence, an abnormally high percentage of the school principal’s time is spent on making decisions as a way of stopping the bleeding, as it were. Also, this energy-zapping process leaves the principal with fewer chances to develop sound decision making processes.

Instead of consistently demonstrating a razor-sharp mind honed by a capacity to synchronize, compare, contrast and assimilate, the principal finds his mind in atrophy, blunted by trivialities and too exhausted to capably deal with the real courageous choices that she needs to make.

Tomorrow, they go through the same cycle.

How then, does one lead wisely when decision-making is so complex?

The Horror of the Immediate

The vast amount of complexities and problems of our South African school leaders and principals are immediate and desperate.

Some of them require rather drastic interventions. It is highly likely, therefore, that leaders view their own development and growth as substantially significant in relation to the extent to which it enables them to solve these immediate problems.

Solving problems is an indicator, as such, of the principal’s capacity to lead. Fear of being labeled a failure because of a malfunctioning school pushes most leaders to do whatever it takes to bring immediate relief.

Tomorrow, they go through the same cycle.

How then, does one lead wisely in the midst of the perils of immediacy?

Disciplined mental spadework – a pillar of Nelson Mandela’s acumen

Many of our reflections on the life of Nelson Mandela are deep insights into the obvious, often described in sentimental terms. But few understand, not only the ideas, but the origin and vibrant processes that shaped the ideas of Nelson Mandela. Few of us fully comprehend the secrets to how trials and struggles shaped and sharpened those ideas and even fewer grasp the difference that it is suppose to make, or supposed to have made in all of us in South Africa and in this world.

Admittedly, the goodness, the kindness and reconciliatory spirit of Nelson Mandela are the reasons why we admire him. It is sad, however, that not more of us understand the mental, academic and intellectual strain it took to arrive at such a disposition. We hardly reflect seriously over Nelson Mandela’s disciplined mental spadework, during the times where and when no one was around and how those “habits of the heart and mind” formed the pillars of his brilliance and impact.

We love the story of a forgiving Nelson Mandela, but know very little about the logic behind that forgiveness. We are blind, thinking that forgiveness is illogical. Maybe, at some level it is, and I suppose we mean that it is incredible, surprising and unexpected, especially given the fact that revenge was an expected reply in 1994.

But I am beginning to see that the incredible, surprising and unexpected response of Nelson Mandela was not a blind sweeping of transgressions underneath a mat. While he is not the first in history to do so, it is wise to acknowledge that his capacity to forgive was a deliberate intention to not hold the past atrocities against the perpetrators. Such a thoughtful, deliberate, calculated and volitional response reflect his wisdom and soundness of mind.

Our country, our world needs leaders characterized by this kind of acumen.

Brokeness Breeds Brokeness

Describing the world as unstable and volatile, commentators and columnists sometimes point to the past as a need to look differently at the future.

In Education, for example, having been under enormous strain to cope with advances in technology, the view is that “in the past, education was about imparting knowledge. Today, it is about providing students with the tools to navigate an increasingly uncertain world.”

The complexity within this conclusion is that, firstly, it blurs an important  acknowledgement that the past it refers to, is not a common global past. Pockets of excellence in different parts of the world approached education as MORE THAN just the acquisition of knowledge while others reveled in rote learning and somewhere else, proponents probably opted for an approach in between. Secondly, simply ‘imparting knowledge’ was and is a fragmented approach to education. Recent positive examples like Finland is a throwback to models of learning, that date back to some 5000 years BC when connecting knowing with doing was obvious.

The brokeness, instability and volatility in Education are therefore not only as a result of a current fragmented approach to learning, but also a consequence of an already fragmented approach to learning.