#16 Pete Le Roux – (Part 1) Education is Art, ‘Why’ Moments, and Creating Delight for Students
PODCAST: Episode 16
Pete Le Roux – (Part 1) Education is Art, ‘Why’ Moments, and Creating Delight for Students
Pete Le Roux, an educator with 29 years of experience, discusses the positive and negative aspects of and challenging traditional education. We were so engrossed in our conversation that we lost track of time and as a result, there are two parts to this episode.
Click on the YouTube link below to watch Part 1 of this episode about challenging traditional education. This episode is brought to you by Smartick.
About Our Guest: Pete Le Roux
Pete Le Roux is the CEO of Stone Dragon, a registered South African NPO with a focus on youth volunteerism, social care, and social justice. Pete is a proud educator with 29 years of experience and holds a Master’s degree in Marine Ecology and an HDE from the University of Cape Town. Pete is proudly married to his lovely wife, Sue, the head of Emergency Medicine at a secondary hospital in Cape Town, and father to Cami, his 17-year-old daughter.
Pete decided that, in Grade 10, he wanted to teach and told us it is a decision he has never regretted. He is challenging traditional education through his passionate and real-life approach to teaching.
“Along the way I have learned to believe in the humanity and the raw power of adolescents. I believe in their capacity to make a change, their open-hearted compassion, and their devil-may-care courage. I have learned to love the liquid joy of being in their company and the blunt satisfaction of fighting for them. I have spent years fighting alongside them too, on behalf of others far less fortunate. In each young person I see the dormant dragon; glittering, gleaming, moving softly in the half-light.”
– Pete Le Roux
Join Pete’s NPO by signing up here.
- Pete’s unique and powerful views on education.
- Challenging traditional education.
- The importance of shouldering responsibility at a young age.
- The raw potential that lies within each student.
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Full Episode Transcription
Philip von Ziegler: In today’s episode, I’ll be speaking with Pete le Roux. Pete is the CEO of Stone Dragon and a proud educator of 29 years. He currently holds a Master’s degree in Marine Ecology and an HDE from the University of Cape Town. Pete is proudly married to his lovely wife, Sue, the Head of Emergency Medicine at a secondary hospital in Cape Town, and a father to Cami le Roux, his 17-year-old daughter.
In this episode, we discuss Pete’s unique and powerful views on education, the importance of shouldering responsibility at a young age, and the raw potential that lies within each student, and a range of other thought-provoking and super interesting topics.
I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation with Pete and I’m sure you will, too. Without further ado, I bring you Pete Le Roux. Pete, nice to have you here.
Pete le Roux: Hi, thanks for having me.
PvZ: Thank you. So we’re here to talk about education and I believe you know a little bit about that?
PLR: Yea, you want some background?
PvZ: Yea, please.
PLR: So next year will be my 30th year in formal teaching. The first 11 in a state and then the remainder in a private school environment, where I still am. Choice of the heart, so I made the choice to teach in Grade 10. I never regretted it. I still don’t regret it. I think you occasionally wish your life was slightly less complicated, but I don’t regret making the choice.
I think in the beginning the choice was juvenile, as it is when you’re in Grade 10. But it matured and it’s for me a first love. It’s not something I take lightly, not even for one second, and it brings me great joy.
I’m a life science teacher, so I have a Master’s in Marine Ecology, which is a bit dated now, but nonetheless, and a PGCE. And I am in modern terms, slightly unusual in South Africa at this point, because I’m field-qualified first and education-qualified second.
I think I run a pretty avant-garde department. It’s a little different. It’s been very different since I started it. I think I started it with a great deal of naivete, but that’s also matured over time. And yea, so that’s me, basically.
PvZ: Great, very interesting. So let’s start with the traditional education model. As you know, many people have criticised the traditional Edwardian education model over the last couple of years. In the last 10 years, we’ve seen significant development in the online space and more progressive education models coming to the fore. What are your thoughts on the current state of education?
PLR: Okay, so as I said on a call chatting about this, that question alone is probably an hour-long podcast, because we make the assumption that traditional education has been done well. And a lot of it is done badly, very badly. And a lot of it focuses away from what I think is primary, which is artistry in the classroom.
So a lot of it is focused on getting some kind of standardised, technocratic, nuts-and-bolts measure of Child A, Child B, Child C. Child A in School A, Child B in School B, Child C in School C, taught by three different, in my case, three different life science teachers with three different passions and particular desires and delights in the way that they deliver.
So we have things like standardisation, which we consider an empirical exercise, but which I consider to be virtually only theoretical. We all do an empirical dance around those numbers every year. And in the end, we all get together and concur and pat each other on the back that the numbers all match and that it all works. When in reality there is almost no comparability, really. The way I teach and the way you teach would be completely different. What your children in your classes found impassioning, mine would find boring. Or we would cross-pollinate brilliantly, and it would work wonderfully if we could swap around.
I don’t know that traditional education is done very well, because it has become ever more regulated. So for me, I much prefer that question to have a whole host of adjectives in the front of it, because traditional education done well is beautiful. It’s master/student, it’s Socratic. It’s full of questions. It flies up every person’s exhaust pipe. It results in reconciliation of worldview, reconsideration of worldview, going home with brand-new ideas. Your child comes to school on Monday. One person goes home on Friday another person. In theory, that’s what should be happening.
So if I’m being asked what is my view on traditional education, I would say that traditional education has been so severely made technocratic, and so severely regulated, and so severely politicized, that it’s hardly ever done as beautifully as it could be done.
And then if you go to the private market, many of the private markets have their flow of academic funding strangulated. So even though it’s a beautiful place, even though it has theoretically world-changing capabilities, each individual department doesn’t have the latitude to explore new horizons. Assuming that the teachers concerned were not technocrats and they had new horizons at heart, they don’t have the money to explore them.
Then you take our country and you lay on top a nice, thick layer of apartheid, critically damaging and destroying traditional schooling amongst previously disadvantaged people. And you take apartheid, critically destroying the way teachers were trained in the privileged white market back in 1975, 1980. And now you’ve got a system that not only has the technocratic dysfunctions, you’ve also got the dysfunction of disparity and you’ve got the dysfunction of teachers who have been trained to perpetuate the status quo rather than address it.
And then to that we add growing into the future and the acceptance into the profession of, sometimes because we don’t have a choice, sometimes because apartheid has visited on it we just don’t have a choice. But sometimes because of poor choice-making, it’s easy. We welcome into the profession people who are field-unable. So they sit in a classroom teaching maths, but they are mathematically unable. And they’re unable beyond the ordinary boundaries of Grade 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, never mind beyond the boundaries of basic maths.
So that lack of literacy translates into an even worse crisis. So, yes, you are right, traditional education really isn’t done well. I’m not 100% convinced it’s because traditional education works badly per se.
Giving Children Responsibility
PvZ: There are some underlying frameworks and structures-
PLR: Yea, yea, I don’t know that they don’t work, actually. I think that when you make them, I mean, I’ll give you a very simple example. If you take responsibility out of a child’s learning, right? And I would argue that I don’t know about the Edwardian model, but if we went slightly pre-Edwardian, responsibility played a big role in apprenticeship.
If you were a kind, loving person who had an apprentice, rather than obviously an awful exploiter of other humans. If your apprenticeship model was kind and caring about your young charges, you gave them responsibility. Edwardian education reduces responsibility and modern expressions that don’t allow any responsibility at all. A child, a young person, who’s 16, is a highly capable individual.
PLR: And if you give them responsibility, they not only step up to it, but they execute at an extremely high level. So the removal of responsibility from traditional education makes traditional education a failure. If an individual teacher puts it back, they can experience enormous success in their classroom. Whether that ever upgrades to a systemic success is a different matter, so it’s complicated.
Pete’s View on Schooling Models
PvZ: Is that a symptom of society becoming softer, or us trying to strive for this more progressive, very egalitarian, inclusive schooling model?
PLR: Is schooling really egalitarian? I don’t know that it is. An ADHD pupil in an average school wouldn’t say that it was egalitarian. There’s no emphasis on ADHD being a neurodiversity problem. They’re just a pain in everybody’s backside, right? In an institution where they are lacking, for whatever reason, in the ability to handle those students, they are just constantly the kids that are in trouble. There’s no focus on neurodiversity, no focus on the human brain operating in more than one way, and so on.
I would say, if you pushed me, I would say it is a combination of underlying corporate agendas with education. So we’re always hearing, let’s get together as a caucus of universities and a caucus of schools, and let’s decide what our children actually need to be commercially competitive. There is very little talk about what they need as human beings to be whole.
And I would argue that a 16-year-old, a 17-year-old, an 18-year-old, even a younger child than that, I’ve already said they’re humans. They’re not cattle, they’re not property. They are capable of bearing responsibility and executing on their charges, and the only likely problem you’re going to pick up is a problem around lack of experience. So they’re going to make mistakes that are associated with just being young and doing something for the first time.
But if they are well-schooled and well-trained, they are highly, highly capable human beings. So I think that if you pushed me, I would have to say that it’s because we have systematically devalued adolescents and forced them into a subadult space. That’s why it doesn’t work. We’re treating them as though they are only an adult when they have the necessary access certificates and they are old enough, then they’re an adult. Until then, we get to be the boss of them.
What happens if you hand a child a sense that they are fully human when they’re in Grade 9? Then who do they become by the time they’re Grade 12? How dangerous are they politically, societally, culturally? How dangerous are they by the time they get to Grade 12?
If you’ve given them a sense that they can belong, and they can make a change, and they can attack problems, and they can do them on their own Cartesian plane of axes, then you’re sitting with children who are dangerous. Dangerous citizens are inconvenient both to government and to corporate. So push me and I would say it’s because we’ve devalued, for our own power dynamics, we’ve devalued who adolescents are.
Why Teaching Different Subjects Can Be Challenging
PvZ: Is that why we don’t teach philosophy at school? To a degree?
PLR: Yes, I think that we don’t teach philosophy at school for several reasons. One, how many teachers would be sophisticated enough to do it? And I don’t mean that in an insulting, I really don’t mean that to be insulting, it is just not a simple thing to teach. Two, how much unacceptable indoctrination would go on? Because there’s plenty of acceptable indoctrination.
And I lived through apartheid, I was a victim of that ‘acceptable’ indoctrination. It took UCT breaking the law and showing me the four videos from the BBC that were banned in South Africa. It took those videos for me to finally grasp the breadth, width, depth, magnitude of apartheid. Until then, I pretty much had no idea. Partially, I’m sure, because I didn’t bother to look, and partially because my Edwardian education system was entirely effective at sterilising my circumstances from any of that information.
And it wasn’t what they actually taught me that was my problem in life. It was what they failed to teach me that was my problem.
PvZ: And probably sterilised your ability to think critically and question assumptions and question authority.
PLR: They made absent the language that I needed to think with. And so, again, if you pushed me, I would say that the place where you’ve raised the role of online schooling and the media. The place where that’s causing trouble is it’s disenfranchising students by language. So it is easy to disenfranchise a child if a child has never heard the words of enfranchisement. If I’ve never heard about the Population Registration Act, I can’t articulate with it mentally. The moment I’ve heard about it and I’ve seen it and I’ve had an idea of its expanse and size, and so on, then I can begin to engage with it.
Black Lives Matter is another great space. Until you’ve had an opportunity to sit with a Black leader and listen, really listen, to the Black Lives Matter argument, you can’t articulate or connect with that language. So if I can keep you away from that language for 30 years, then I can get you to vote for all the right people, do all the right things, donate to all the right charities, and stay in power and stay in control of everything.
The moment you are exposed to it, that particular person, that particular class of children, that particular school of children, becomes a very dangerous civic entity because they have the capacity within them for overturn. They have the capacity for producing a giant who will stride across the land and make everything different.
PvZ: Yes, that speaks to something that I’ve not only noticed this year but given my economics background, something that I’ve been passionate about. And that is the failure of the education system to provide some framework of financial literacy in the foundation of our education.
And you look at 2020 and we’ve got the US Federal Reserve inflating the US dollar through debasing the monetary base and printing money. About 20% of all US dollars ever printed in history were printed in 2020. And what the average man on the street doesn’t know, is the inflationary consequences of that. Which is a silent tax, which is generally paid back by the bottom 80% of the economy, and benefitted from by the top 1 or 2%.
PLR: Yea, and I suffer very badly sometimes from of well-developed streak of idealism. I’m sure you’ve heard this phrase, you will do a job like mine and you’ll be told it’s a game. You’ve just got to play the game. Got to work the assessment around so that you’re playing the game.
A Glimpse of What The Future Could Look Like
PLR: It’s never been. Since I started it, it’s never been a game for me. It’s not a game. And I take grave offense when I’m told it’s a game, and I particularly dislike it if it comes from a commercial source. And I think in 2020 it is most certainly not a game because the kids, my daughter, and my daughter’s child in the future, children, are going to live in a crisis state.
And that crisis is either, as you’ve just pointed out, going to be mass inflation. A huge difference between the ultra-wealthy and the shrinking middle class, which, she may not be able to occupy because the number of available middle-class spaces will have declined. Neo-feudalism, back to the kind of serf/lord environment, with the church being made up of Amazon and Google and what have you, controlling information, just like the church did in the Dark Ages. It’s either going to be that, or it’s going to be that plus the climate coming to pieces.
And even if we avoid both of those, and we may well avoid the climate one for a while still, we’re not going to avoid overall systemic ecological collapse. So training a child to balance accounting books is great. Training them to appreciate the structure of a cell is great. Training them to you know why World War ll panned out the way it did, great. But ultimately, cross-curricular training for crisis is going to be essential. Every single human being is going to have to be able to cope under crisis circumstances, in my opinion.
Now, here’s hoping I’m proved entirely wrong. I don’t think I’m going to be. And as long as those interests are in power in a classroom, then the children in that classroom are under threat. So how do I run my career? I disempower those forces to the best of my ability at my front door. And if that gets me into trouble-
PvZ: You’re doing a good job.
PLR: I’m fine with it. And I think that I owe somebody for that, so I would like to acknowledge them in this in this podcast. So I owe Nigel Bakker for that at UCT. Nigel was an English Method professor at UCT. And he lectured us in the last three weeks of our PGCE, up to which point I didn’t really feel like I’d gained a great deal. Those three weeks were transformative. One of the things he said right at the end of his course is that he doesn’t believe in any of the structures of traditional education. He spent nearly 40 minutes listing them.
PLR: Yea, it was like a real kind of sermon ending to two or three weeks. You can imagine how he piled on the pressure. And having grown up in a pure Capetonian alpha boys school, right, for me that was quite traumatic. Because if he doesn’t believe in those things, if they are all a fabrication, then we’re in a lot of trouble.
But right at the end, he said, but I believe absolutely in the power of a teacher. When you close your door, remember, you are autonomous, and that’s the fundamental thing that traditional education requires. It requires, never mind traditional education, any education, adult, tiny, teeny tots, whoever. It requires that we defend the autonomy of an individual teacher in the classroom.
PvZ: Yes, that’s a very powerful thing.
PLR: The moment that autonomy is lost, either to government, like in apartheid, if I speak about apartheid, I’m fired. Or to religion, I can’t teach about evolution because otherwise, everyone’s going to have a heart attack and fall over in their chair. Or to a method, all hail the iPad for it shall rescue us, there’s another one.
Impact of a Curriculum on Teaching
PvZ: Yes, a curriculum.
PLR: A curriculum. The moment autonomy is relinquished and a teacher is regulated, and especially his or her mouth is regulated in the room, then it’s dead.
So the best gift I could ever offer a young teacher is to say to them, do everything in your power to mask your rebellion with the trappings of convention. And be as autonomous as you possibly can be below the surface, because that sets kids free.
PvZ: Yea, that’s very powerful. I would assume that that’s a very difficult task for a lot of teachers because you could get sort of consumed after a couple of months of trying and trying and trying. It’s a pretty lonely path.
PLR: It is, and you have to be, I think you’ll laugh. When I started my career, I thought all teachers were like that. I thought all of them were like me. I thought everyone was thinking the same thoughts as me.
PvZ: Maybe they start out that way.
Education Is Art
PLR: I remember being laughed at in our first condonation meeting, which is the meeting you have at the end of the year, to decide which of the pupils who have failed should be pushed through because they’ve done well and they’ve struggled and they’ve got other mitigating circumstances. And I remember being laughed at for proposing that, if we’ve assessed them fairly all year, perhaps we should just stick to the assessment we’d made. And I remember being laughed at. And when I think back on it now, I think how incredibly naive I was to even say that sentence.
But underneath it was a good motive, which was that, hey, aren’t we all serious? Hey, aren’t we all assessing properly? Hey, if we’ve made a professional judgment that a kid can’t manage, then, hey, you know, maybe they can’t manage.
It is hard, so I recognise that I’m constructed rather unique in that I am pro-education being art. Which in your case might be, you might be able to make art out of online, but I can make art out of straight chalk and talk oratory. And if you ask people in education, is that possible, you’ll have so many modern commentators say to you, oh, no, no. Chalk and talk, chalk and talk, speaking from the board, it can’t possibly be valuable.
But those same people will buy tickets to Trevor Noah and they will spend an hour and a half rapt in their seats while Trevor Noah does nothing except speak. And when they go home, they will tell Trevor Noah’s jokes verbatim to their family because they remember them verbatim. And all Trevor Noah did was speak, but he was so good in his zone of expertise.
And I follow a guy called Bozeman, who’s a life science teacher. Bozeman teaches on video, so it’s not very sophisticated online, but still. And he’s the same, he’s an absolute artist with what he does online. From my perspective, he’s wonderful to listen to. I can’t do what he can do, partly because I’m not technologically competent.
But how many teachers out of 100 are truly doing art? So then you go in a cascade. How many of them want to do art? How many of them know they have to do art? How many of them can do art? How many of them are empowered to do art? How many of them have the money to do art? How many of them have … and so the number gets fewer and fewer and fewer and fewer and fewer, and that’s the problem.
That is the problem with making online work in a school, you don’t have many online artists. And that is the problem when a traditional school train-smashes for a particular group of kids. Often it train-smashes matters because there’re just not enough artists.
Developing a Curiosity for Learning
PvZ: Yes, so you mentioned something earlier which sparked the thought, and this has been a common thread throughout my education, and that’s the moment that you realise why you’re learning something.
Earlier you mentioned that it’s great if we could teach kids to balance accounting books, or complete a maths equation, or solve some or other physics problem. But that is very different from the how and the why, the understanding component. That was sort of lost in my education and it’s something that I had to learn myself.
But the moment you get that sort of unlock that aha moment, that’s a very powerful moment. How do you get that in schools on a more consistent basis? I feel like so many kids leave matric-
PLR: Yea, that’s wonderful. So there’s a guy called Parker J Palmer who writes about education, and Parker J Palmer calls that particular thing you’ve spoken about there. He has a chapter on it, it’s called ‘the grace of great things. He says when a Grade 3 teacher is sitting at storytime and all the kids are sitting on the floor with their Grade 3 teacher. And the Grade 3 teacher’s talking about the elephant, right? Then, if the teacher does it well, if the teacher’s present, then what happens is that the room fades and the kids fade and the teacher fades. And all that remains in the room, in the center of that carpet, is the elephant. And that is the great thing that day. And those kids go home and they just chatter to their parents about elephants, and elephants are the coolest, or what have you.
So there are two kinds of moments there. One is a content moment, so, wow, elephants are amazing. I didn’t know they were amazing. I found out today that wolves and ravens are in symbiosis, I didn’t know that, so for me, that’s my content thing today.
But then there is a bigger moment, which is why the content, which is the moment I think you’re referring to. I’m just pointing out to you that a moment with the content can be beautiful in its own right. So when you’re teaching and teaching well, you’re shooting for as nigh on 100% in a week, of kids coming home and saying, I didn’t, oh, my goodness, I didn’t know that and I didn’t know this. So those are content moments.
And maybe once a term, twice a term, more if you’re very, very good. They’ll come home and they will say, you know what? I am not going to let the ecosystems of the world collapse. That’s going to be a why moment. For me one of my why moments was on second-year zoo camp. So the first year I loved the info. I loved all of those content moments. I loved, just wow, so much I didn’t know.
But on second-year zoo camp, we took a walk with George Branch, and George Branch spoke about marine ecology and he just walked and talked. And for the first time, I understood the synthesis between what I knew, and how what I knew was supposed to work. So I have tried my whole career to sub-create, okay, I’m not George Branch, not by a long shot, but to try and sub-create those moments for kids. So why am I telling you that?
So I’m telling you that so that you get that when a kid is on camp with me for example, and we open up a wood ant nest and I say to a child, here, take these forceps and catch me five workers and put them in this test tube so we can have a look at them. There is no content there. Those kids, the sense of falling in love that they feel, is with the wood ant. It is, as you’ve pointed out, the higher thing.
And the great thing, in that little group of kids, all sitting and squealing and shouting, because the ants are running everywhere and they’re huge. All that squealing is the grace of great things. Everything’s faded, their self-image’s faded, their weaknesses have faded, the fact that they’re supposed to hate school has faded away. It’s all faded away because the wood ants are going to bite them. So the wood ant becomes the great thing, they don’t need an elephant.
And then, having had that moment, when you say to them, right, now did you know that ants take slaves? And did you know that when you go, and now suddenly, they don’t even register that that information is just pouring in and being absorbed. Because in that case, you’ve given them the why before you’ve given them, both create delight. And stringing them together, or building the one to the other, so you can build your curricular moments to an aha moment.
Or you can start with an aha moment, and then throw the curriculum in afterwards. That’s all part of the artistry of doing it well, and to do that, you need to know something about wood ants, you need to have the latitude to take your kids on a camp, you need, whatever. You’ve got to have those pieces in place. And sadly, for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of teachers in every country, even, to their great discredit, in the most powerful countries in the world, those opportunities are denied both teacher and child.
PvZ: Yea, and in those moments, speaking about the wood ant, for example, you’re educating kids by stimulating multiple senses at once. And I’ve always found that to be one of the keys to retaining information.
PLR: And accidentally retaining is the best. Retaining because you’re so engaged, you’ve forgotten you’re supposed to be the tough guy. You’ve forgotten you’re supposed to be disgruntled, you’ve forgotten you’re supposed to be the ugly duckling of the class, or whatever your issue is, or the class clown. You’ve forgotten, and you’re just so, oh, my goodness!
PvZ: Yea, yea.
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