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#18 Ross Hill – The Importance of Math, Finding a Balanced Curriculum, and Student-Focused Growth

PODCAST: Episode 18

Ross Hill – The Importance of Math, Finding a Balanced Curriculum, and Student-Focused Growth

In episode 18 of the Future Minds podcast, we speak to Ross Hill, a parent, education specialist, and innovator.

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About Our Guest: Ross Hill

Ross Hill is the Head of Curriculum and Operations at Curro DigiEd where he uses his vast experience in curriculum development and technology to design and implement affordable and scalable learning solutions. Ross holds a BSc in Applied Mathematics from the University of Cape Town.

ross hill

He previously worked as the Head of Education, Head of Department, and Principal of LEAP Science and Maths School as well as Principal of Spark Schools Ferndale. In our conversation we discuss the importance of math, designing a well-balanced curriculum, how to manage screen time, and what’s being done in schools today to prepare students for the future.

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Topics Discussed

  1. The importance of math.
  2. Designing a well-balanced curriculum.
  3. How to manage screen time.
  4. What’s being done in schools today to prepare students for the future.

Full Episode Transcription

Guest Introduction

Philip von Ziegler: In today’s episode, I’ll be speaking with Ross Hill. Ross is the head of Curriculum and Operations at Curro DigiEd where he uses his vast experience in curriculum development and technology to design and implement affordable and scalable learning solutions. Ross holds a B.Sc. in Applied Mathematics from the University of Cape Town, and he’s previously held positions as the Head of Education, the Head of Department, and was the Principal of LEAP Science and Maths School, as well as the Principal of Sparks School, Ferndale.

In this episode, we discussed the importance of maths, designing a well-balanced curriculum, how to manage screen time and what’s being done in schools today to prepare the students for tomorrow. I really enjoyed this conversation with Ross and I’m sure you will, too. Without further ado, I bring you Ross Hill.

Ross, welcome, thank you for joining me.

Ross Hill: And thank you for having me.

PvZ: No, absolute pleasure. It’s crazy times that we’re living in at the moment, so thank you for coming in and not making this another one of our virtual podcasts. So to start off, I think maybe just tell us a little bit about yourself, maybe referring to your academic history, and how you got into the position that you’re in now.

RH: Yeah, I heard the podcast is only 30 minutes, so we’ll have to take up the whole podcast. [laugh] My background, from an academic point of view, is Applied Maths background. But I went into that with the Psychology and Physics, knowing that I was going to go into Education. And then, yea, I’ve had a whole journey from classroom to management.

And quite a big thing in my career was when I got a scholarship to go to the States and study opening schools, and it happened at a time when people were starting to look at technology as well. So that’s when it took a technology route in my career.

PvZ: Okay, and of the multiple steps in your career, do any of those points stand out as highlights? Times in your life that you enjoyed the most, aside from what you’re doing right now?

RH: So, yea, it’s been quite an organic journey and I wouldn’t have predicted what would happen, and I was just an enthusiastic teacher. I started my career in townships and I was always interested in ed transformation. I wouldn’t have guessed I would have ended up in an innovative technology space. So I only got there because I’ve been looking at holistic educational solutions.

And yea, I’ve ended up becoming an expert, well, I hope, useful in opening and getting schools going. So in the last 8 to 10 years, I’ve just been involved in a lot of startups for various companies and getting schools going. So it’s taken that route, and I’m really enjoying the space of helping new models develop and new schools develop.

Shortcomings of the Education System

PvZ: All right, great, so we’ll start off with a couple of small questions. What’s wrong with the education system?

RH: Oh, yes, no, it’s always good to have a lighthearted start! [laugh] The education system, I think, hmm, …

PvZ: I think if we start off maybe with specific reference to South Africa, before unpacking the global problem.

RH: So I think that the educational system really struggles, as a system, with adjusting to change. It’s a really slow adaptor and mover. And I think, as a system, there’s historic problems that people just haven’t got around. So in the educational system in South Africa, particularly, there’s inequality and different amounts of investments that is still lagging. And I think we’re really stuck in a relationship with trade unions and traditional frameworks that are really difficult to break out of as a system.

Looking at it from a different angle, I think the system doesn’t have enough, yea, I think people struggle to be innovative in the different spaces. I think private schools or the private sector has got more freedom in that regard. So I think that’s what they’ve got to offer the entire system, they’ve got more space to be innovative.

But I think it’s this big ship that’s going in one direction and it’s just really struggling to change course. And it’s a ship that some people are being served very well, I think there’s an amount that has greater education. And there’s just a vast majority that is being served by an education system and an experience that is not really helping them in their adult life at all. And it’s well-documented, there’s a number of big problems in the system. And it’s just so big, the main one, that it’s just really struggling to change direction.

PvZ: Yea, and obviously administration is a big problem, especially at the government level. Now, technology is always seen as this savior to the education system, both a threat and a savior, I guess. And at a more macro-level, I think some of the concerns that people have with regards to technology coming and helping the education system, is that infrastructure layer that’s needed specifically at a government level.

Now private schools are fortunate enough to afford some of these solutions if you want to call it that. But what are some of the things that you think are the biggest barriers we see at the moment to adopting classroom technology, or technologies in classrooms, that help educators facilitate that learning process?

RH: Yea, there’re quite a few barriers. And I think one of the big ones is most organisations, be it government or private, they react at the wrong pace. So either they react too quickly and they get all gimmicky and they just throw something in the classroom, without thinking quite carefully of how they’re going to adapt this technology. Where are they going to put it, who’s the adult going to be, what’s the space? Or they don’t adapt at all, and they’re not making any adaptation at all.

A lot of the times, on the ground level, you’ll see teachers having endless workshops and put this in, put this in. But no one’s really looking at the entire school and thoughtfully saying, okay, what’s this technology? What’s its educational value and what’s the best way of using it?

I’ve been involved in a number of different models and they’re all good models, but they’re different models because we had a different starting point. So what do we want to do? What’s our budget, what’s our space, what’re we working with, which technology do we want to do it in? And then we change the solution and the use of whatever it might be, a product. How are we going to use this product, where are we going to use it?

And I think a lot of times it gets thrown in at the teacher level, and just like, here’s something, go with it. And you get some amazing teachers who then take it and run with it. And a lot of times it’s gimmicky and doesn’t actually change the educational experience for the student.

So I think, yea, sometimes people are just not thoughtful enough in actually designing an entire education. Like, use technology in the core of your design of your school, rather than throw it in as an afterthought, or just throwing money at it without thinking what’s the educational value.

What Does the Classroom Look Like Post COVID

PvZ: Yea, and in your current role, let’s talk about coronavirus and how that’s impacted the traditional school environment, and what does that mean for 2021? Because essentially we haven’t solved the problem yet. School openings are to be delayed again this year. There’s this cloud of mystery as to whether or not we’re going to have multiple lockdown periods throughout the year again, inhibiting learning. So what does 2021 look like for you in your specific role?

RH: So, it’s full of uncertainty and we’ve gone into the year with three plans. And each of those plans has subsections, and there’s a gift in it. I think the gift is making us come down to the core and say, what’s the most important thing we’re doing here? I remember last year I was chatting with some teacher and she was worried about some detail that was not quite right. And I was like, well, are the kids learning in your class, are they learning? She was like, yes, so I said, well, that’s the main thing. We can sort out this detail, but are they learning? And it’s helping us to refocus on are they learning? What’s the most important thing for them to learn?

I think a lot of schools are having to play at catch-up with technology and being able to communicate. The irony of our schools is we’re very technology-driven and we have had to go more paper-based because we’ve realized that we’ve got different groups of students.

So we’ve got a whole bunch of students who’ve got great Internet at home. They’ve got their computers and what we had designed is just being used with them. Then we’ve got a whole bunch with Internet, but they share a device, so we’ve had to find alternative solutions. And then we’ve got a contract now with the local printing company because we’re doing more print now for those who don’t have access to both.

And in these different offerings, this is just our example of differentiation, but I think it’s forcing people to do two things. One is realise they need to differentiate, you’ve got different students in different situations. And, two, reminding people of the main thing that you’re trying to do.

So, okay, you can’t finish the curriculum in your particular subject. Or you can keep trying, and flogging a donkey, and ignoring the fact that everyone’s complaining, your kids are exhausted. Or you can adjust, and when you’re making that adjustment, to think, okay, what’s the main thing they need to do in these next few months?

And those who are willing to be brave are actually given the freedom now to do that. And to realise, okay, we’ve got almost a little bit less accountability because there’s a virus going around that’s disrupting everything. So use this opportunity to be braver than you might normally have been and say what can I really focus on? Can I get the kids to be spending a few hours doing some really great deep learning, rather than just going through the motions?

PvZ: Yes, and when it comes to 2021, looking back at 2020. We see traditional schools or traditional education institutions try to adopt this blended learning approach. You’ve got some days at school, some days at home. How does that work and how effective has that been? It has been pretty new.

RH: So I think some have adapted really well. I think the first round of adaptation getting set-ups going was pretty good. I think perhaps where people can improve is then collecting, there’s been quite clear data coming back saying, hold on, this is not working, this is not working. Some have adapted to that and some haven’t.

So some have realised, okay, a lot of people made the mistake of doing too much synchronous. Just having whatever, Zoom, Teams meeting one after each other for 10 hours straight. And then everyone’s like, well, this is exhausting.

And then some people adapted quickly and said, okay, let’s change this. Let’s make sure there’s a lot more asynchronous content, let’s get it out there. So the other opportunity this has provided is, it’s had to change people’s power dynamic between the teacher, knowledge, and the student. Because we haven’t been able to hold the power, and we’ve had to be force it and give it to the students. And those [inaudible] students are like, okay, well, it’s not working. Let’s do a little bit less. Let’s focus on the synchronicity and say what’s the best time to use when we’re all going to be together over the computer?

And when we’re not, let’s do everything we possibly don’t have to do then, let’s not do then. Let’s give more power to the students. And I think a lot of educators are realising now, which a lot have realised all along, but the importance of being a guide, a coach, a facilitator versus a teacher.

And when people have adapted to that, and I’ve been surprised. Even some leading organisations made the mistake of doing too much synchronous work and not trust in the students. Let’s give them material, let’s give them a learning path, not just a video, but some things. And then let’s just follow up and coach and guide them. So be the adult, so do follow up, check that they’re doing it, but also give them the space to do their own learning.

Yea, so I think some have adapted very well and I think they must realise that your first run of adaptions, it can’t end there, you’ve got to keep being flexible.

The Homeschooling Route

PvZ: Yes, and I guess a lot of parents are also asking themselves the question, should this not work out for whatever reason, do they homeschool their kids? And is this something that you’ve seen in your school? And if not, how do you feel about homeschooling?

RH: I think for this particular time, I think homeschooling and online schooling are good options. I know some people are managing, those with the resources, are actually saying, well, let’s live somewhere nice and do some more family time, do my work remotely, and homeschool.

I think your reason for homeschooling should always be something interesting that you’re not doing at home. For example, living somewhere else, or being more involved, or something like that. Then I think homeschooling is great. And for example, what you’re saying, now is a good time to do it. So I think it’s a good time to be experimental and to do something interesting, and homeschooling is one of them they can do.

And the online schools and the homeline schools for the most part are specifically designed for distance learning, and can arguably do a good job compared to maybe some schools who have struggled more with that transformation. But a lot of the schools are doing well as well.

Online Learning

PvZ: Are there certain subjects that you find is easier to educate online versus offline? Is it easier to teach a math curriculum online, for example, versus an English or a history curriculum?

RH: So I have very particular views on what the role of different subjects have in someone’s learning. So a lot of subjects, they’re going to look different when you do them online. So one thing that I realised before this is make a space for inter-subject work, but subjects have a very specific way of thinking and all that. So they’ve got to look different to the way you present it online or offline.

Some subjects, for example, like life orientation, is particularly designed for the human part of you. And I think that’s harder online because some presentation on making good choices, sexual choices or sub abuse things, that doesn’t help adolescents deal with adolescents. They need a conversation for that and to be able to trust.

And then obviously some very hands-on subjects are easily done in this space. But I’ve seen some phenomenal work from the design teacher who works with us, and what she’s managed to do online. And design does lend itself a bit more than perhaps fine art does, but she’s able to coach people. She’s been able to watch people and comment on how they’re holding whatever they’re working with, so people have managed to adapt.

But certainly some subjects like maths, and other subjects, probably lend itself more to online. But I think the key thing is, is having both. Having good online work and letting them work by themselves and practicing stuff, and then also having some sort of space where they can collaborate. Whether it’s a forum where it’s asynchronous, I think the hybrid combination is best.

The Future of Education

PvZ: Okay, and going forward over the next couple of years, how does the traditional classroom environment change going forward? I remember when I was at school, it started off with the whiteboard. Well, actually, it started off with a chalkboard, moved to a whiteboard, moved to a smartboard, which most teachers didn’t know how to operate, and sort of defaulted back to the whiteboard to a degree.

But things are changing quite progressively and, especially, 2020 has been a catalyst for the adoption of technology both inside and outside of the classrooms. It would be interesting to know what you think on where are we heading towards over the next 5 to 10 years?

RH: So I always see there’re these three groups roughly – you’ve got the students, you’ve got the parents and community, and you’ve got teachers. And often I found in terms of people who’ve been the most adaptable and willing to change, students are easy. They’re like, oh, this is great, let’s go with this way. Parents are not that difficult to persuade either. They see, oh, yea, this is the way things are going. And teachers have often been the hardest to convince this is the way things are going.

And so I do see this as a breaking point when it’s forcing teachers who have done things a certain way year in, year out. And as you say, a lot of technology has replaced what they do. It hasn’t actually changed the pedagogy of the classroom practice at all. Chalkboard versus a whiteboard versus a smart whiteboard, it’s no different.

So I think the way that I think teaching’s going forward is I’m hoping that teachers are going to realise that they’re educators, not teachers. And really get good at all the fantastic practices that are other than teaching that they can do with students. Which great educators have been doing for a long time, but not enough of them, it’s been a smaller percentage.

So I’m hoping we see braver, more creative, courageous, playful educators coming forward, and a lot more differentiation. Where they’re using the opportunity technology can bring and using the opportunity of thinking of yourself as a guide or a facilitator and a coach. To be able to adapt way more according to students’ intellectual needs and emotional needs, and to be coaches and guides and facilitators.

For so many times, such a vast amount of people who come out of high school, and obviously adolescence is a thing in itself, but they don’t feel like they got anything out of high school. And I think it’s just because it was a one-size-fits-all.

And those educators who can break out of their need for teaching and actually realize and unharness themselves. And to really embrace helping the people in front of them take ownership for their learning, and coaching and facilitating and guiding and mentoring. Then I think all of this will help, and that’ll be great if that’s where traditional teaching goes.

Responsibility of the Parent vs. the Teacher

PvZ: On the point of mentoring, another question that I often ask guests, and it’s been something on my mind since almost school days. Your parents play a fundamental role in your life, obviously, as a student, but then teachers also play a powerful role. But sometimes that line gets blurred between where a parent’s responsibility ends and a teacher’s responsibility picks up.

In your opinion, to what degree are teachers or educators responsible for raising their students to be young, respectable, value-driven, responsibility-carrying young adults? Because a lot of parents obviously end up spending a lot of time working, unfortunately, and sort of default that responsibility to educators.

RH: I think the relationship between the school, the teacher, and the parent changes over the course, and a lot has got to do with psychology. So in primary school, you often find parents are way more involved, and that’s also more natural. The psychology of a child is that they love adults, affirmation, etc.

When children go into adolescence, they naturally become a bit more distant from their parent. They’ve probably got a bit of fatigue on both sides now. I’ve been involved in your school for the last 7 years. So there is something natural, just from a psychological point of view, for a non-parent adult to be quite important in a child’s life. Whether it’s that teacher or an aunt or uncle. It used to be, and in some people still, having that godparent.

So there is something healthy about that where it’s a safer adult where I can maybe share about like a girlfriend or a boyfriend or something. So there is a sort of natural thing about that. But a parent, I think, often has to build on what they did in the early years. Or if they haven’t, because we all fault as parents, it’s a natural part of that process. And to really hone in, why, I’m the parent, I’m here giving them support and love and spend as much quality time with them as possible.

But they’re also going on a journey. Adolescence is this sort of in-between stage of letting go, but not letting go. So it’s a natural in-between step where they’re still under the care of their parent, but they’re also starting to break free as an adult.

So I don’t know if I’ve described where the line is, I’ve just sort of described the complexity of the line! [laugh]. But the encouragement of the parents is to hang in there. It’s difficult with adolescents, it’s very difficult, and you just do your best. You just be consistent. You share your life with them, and you’ll get on well with them again once they’re in their 20s and 30s [laugh]. And you’ve got to trust the process a little bit and try to find out bit and try to be supportive.

I think we’re going to be talking about maths just now, I hope so because I like maths.

The Importance of Maths

PvZ: That’s the next one.

RH: But maths, I think has a wonderful role in us because it helps us with our rational beings and our rational minds, which I think sets us aside on planet Earth. But I don’t think we’re rational beings, we’re emotional beings. And so we’re emotional beings that can think rationally, and so we should develop that rational thought because it’s what makes us unique.

But I bring that up with the parents because I think the role of the parent’s still going to be that emotional support that you find at home. And if you feeling a little bit outsourced in the rational bit and their education, I think that’s okay [laugh]. And then you’ve just got to, sort of, get assessments and get your [inaudible] feedback and then encourage and motivate or bribe or whatever you need to do.

PvZ: Yea, well you’ve stolen my next question from me to a degree-.

RH: Well, I’m actually hoping for a new job. I’m hoping we can change the dynamic completely! [laugh]

PvZ: And that was going to be, why maths? Why is maths so important? What drew you to maths initially? Take this and run with it in whichever direction you want. But essentially, we know that maths is that foundation of logical thinking. And it’s from the earliest age the thing that your parents tell you is the most important, but they can never really explain why. So why maths?

RH: Yea, so I can tell you quite a few things. So one thing that I can say is when I wrote my matric maths exam, I thought that was the last time I was doing maths, and now I have an applied maths degree.

I was talking about this with a friend of mine who makes kitchens. He designs kitchens and he makes kitchens. He also studied maths. And we were talking about the facts, and a lot of people can easily quote however… You know, I saw some sort of picture the other day of maths progressing from basic Excel to something complicated and go back in the real world and you’re back to Excel.

And we were both reminiscing about how hard we found maths at university and how it pushed us. And he was reminiscing about the time in his third year studying, he just took his textbook and threw it against the wall. But nothing, I hope I’ve learned since my tertiary, but I think there’s been no period of life where I’ve stretched my brain more than when I was studying maths.

And so I just think that the role of maths is actually just about stretching your ability to think logically and rationally. And we were also having a debate last year about what type of maths we were going to offer in our FETs, a section of our schools. So we were going into that with our new schools, and whether we should have maths literacy and mathematics.

And it was tempting to be like, oh, so many kids, they don’t like maths. And it’s so cruel, they’re sitting at 20% at the moment in Grade 8. Where’s the ethics in not letting them do maths literacy? And I doubted my beliefs in maths in this discussion. But we thought, hold on, no, we’re going to believe that kids can do mathematics. And so we were like, no, we’re not, we’re going to start off and only offer mathematics at our schools, there’s no maths literacy as an option.

And the feedback a couple of months later was thanks for making that decision. It made us look at the problem in a different way. So you can look at the kid who’s getting 20% for maths and hating maths and be like, ag, we’ve just got to hang in for another year or two. Or you can look at it differently, it’s like, well, actually, I do believe everyone can learn from maths, and it’s got lots of value.

So let’s make this student love maths again because it has got benefit. And we did that and the results did go up because we just thought of it differently and we realized the value difference.

So I’m a big fan of maths, even though I wrote that final matric paper of maths thinking, I don’t want to ever do maths again. I don’t necessarily think our curriculum is that awesome at high school. For me, it wasn’t. I was an undiagnosed or unmedicated ADD person for many years of my life. And so for me, high school maths just changed topics too often. And when I got to tertiary, we got to do something for half a year and do it deeply, and that was just a lot better for me and a lot more interesting for me.

But, yea, I’m forever grateful for the stretch that happened in my brain, I think. Luckily there’s no one else here to say that’s incorrect, and there’s nothing intelligent about Ross whatsoever! But yea, for whatever I am able to, I’m grateful for mathematics for stretching my brain.

PvZ: And at university, which section of mathematics did you enjoy the most?

RH: So it’s interesting, I was lucky at university. We had a lot of maths lecturers who were these big brains going around with a body supporting them. A lot of them from foreign countries, and we spent the first few weeks just trying to understand what they said. But we had one particularly brilliant lecturer who made the subject come alive. He was an A-Grade scientist at the time, he did the undergrad because he was trying to blow up his section for researchers.

He made mathematical modeling come alive, so that was the applied maths, so applied maths is sort of half physics-based and half just like applied maths to solving problems around how data works, or traffic, or problems like that. And you end using equations to solve problems, and that section came alive with me, I really enjoyed that. I remember I really enjoyed he did some mathematical modeling around economics. I hadn’t done much work with economics.

So that’s what I enjoyed, but I also really enjoyed the super logic stuff, like the maths that’s got nothing to do with the world. And proving things and the logical thought of going out into some really clever proofs out there. I got to see what other geniuses had done and tried to understand them, not do any fancy proofs of my own, but that was actually quite beautiful.

There were a lot of people in our maths class that were also doing English and arts and stuff, and I think there’s something quite pretty about some of the maths and the logic. And I did a little bit of coding then, haven’t done much since then. But I know that some coders often talk about some code actually being quite attractive. It’s clever, the way that people have put this code together. You could have solved this with three pages of coding, but sometimes it’s really clever to do half a page of coding. And I think when you get to the level of actually just seeing, yea, that actually can be beautiful.

Ross’ Role as a Teacher and a Parent

PvZ: Yea, in its simplicity. Do you have kids?

RH: I do.

PvZ: And how do you keep them interested in learning? What do you do at home? What’s the secret?

RH: So I mean, I’m lucky, I’ve got a 6-year-old, so it’s not very high stakes. I completely gave up on some stuff. So I was like, ag, at his age, I’m not going to try these Zoom calls or anything like that. I did one just as an experiment. And at the beginning of lockdown I was like, oh, well, it’s an opportunity. So for his age, I was like, well, what can we do from this that he can never have? So he spent more time playing with a hose and going to the water. And I think his natural science is at a Grade 4 level, but I don’t think his letter recognition is probably where it needs to be.

But I’m like, let’s embrace this. If he’s going to be stuck at home in this kind of environment, let’s make this a period of his life that he enjoys. So let’s milk it for what it’s worth, and so he’s just done a lot more play and a lot more of what he’s interested in. And I haven’t like, and I gave advice to other parents like I gave up on that kind of stuff a long time ago. You can catch that up and kids can catch up.

So the younger they are, you should do more of what they love and what your environment suits and they can catch up the other bits. So he’s done a lot more of that playing and we’re doing a lot of stuff on nature and dinosaurs. He knows every dinosaur out there and his numbers, he can understand numbers, but he’s not great at recognising the symbolic side of things and recognition. Because I haven’t really wanted to do that with him and he hasn’t really wanted to, so I haven’t forced the issue.

PvZ: Yeah, it’s a very interesting point and it makes complete sense. If it is something that they can catch up, this is a period in their life that they’re not going to get back and embrace it.

So with regards to screen time, screen time is obviously something that a lot of parents are concerned about. You’ve got negative screen time in the form of games and TV and things like that. How do you regulate screen time? Is that a problem for you, and how do you feel about it?

RH: So I’ve erred on the conservative side with my own kid. So I’m like, he’s going to at some stage get addicted to games and that stuff, which is great. So I’m holding it off so he can have some other enjoyable foundations for that in terms of sort of healthiness. And then it’s about, yea, I regulate it quite a lot.

I also regulate when in the day he gets his screen time. I’m also quite careful because I’ve slipped into a lot of time where screen time is the big reward of the day and I’m trying to don’t give it so much emphasis – now you get your special screen time, but it is like that, he loves it. And then I’ve changed decisions along the way, so my son essentially gets two bits of screen time a day.

One is the sort of gamey-type thing and he’s into Minecraft at the moment. I’m not sure what he’s doing, well, I actually sort of decreased that when he was super young and he was doing some scary Minecraft, and I thought that it was affecting his sleep a little bit. And then he gets more of some sort of documentary type thing where I get him to watch some sort of nature program.

So I’ve done it like that, and for me, I’d say no screen time before lunch because he loves it, he gets so stimulated by it. It is really positive if you do the right amounts. But I find when he does it first in the day, that thing dictates the rest of the day and I want the day to dictate it, not the screen time. So he gets his screen time after lunch and, yea, he gets those two different types of screen time.

PvZ: So the last question that we generally like to ask guests is and you can take time if you need to answer this, but what do you believe about the education system, or about how education is conducted or should be conducted, that most people may disagree with?

RH: So a couple of things and some of them are coming to the forefront now, so I’m not quite sure how many people still disagree with it. But in terms of, if I speak in terms of the education systems, so average professionals, I sometimes think that people are looking for some simple solution to this is what education is, or this is how people learn. And I think if you’re looking for that, then you’re doing the wrong thing.

I think you’ve got to always remember, and I love studying how the brain works. I love studying psychology, I love studying all of that. But I think if you trying to feel this is it, we’re like searching for this thing, and now we’ve got education. Then I think you’re searching for the wrong thing, you don’t understand education.

Education’s always going to be mysterious. I remember you talking about your career, and I started my career in Khayelitsha, so it was behind. I mean, you just can’t see it, but I’m very young and good-looking, so … But because of the situation, I started with chalk and I used to finish with chalk all over my arm. And I’d give some vigorous lesson jumping around, drawing. And at the end of the lesson, I wiped it all off when everyone went out to break. And you’re not making anything in education. You get all excited and then you wipe it all away.

And you can’t be too precious about it, it’s about the process. If you focus in on some sort of outcome, then you’ve missed the point. Education is a process and that can free you. And a lot of stuff has been debunked and I’m very glad. I mean, this whole like different types of learning and changing for the student, that has been royally debunked and a lot of people still think of that.

So another reason not to hold on to one thing too preciously, because it’s always, no matter how much we know about it, when we learn about the brain, which is important. I still believe that moment when I really understood fractions, I don’t know when that moment was, and we must remember that.

And so I think a lot of people are talking about a hybrid in terms of mixing up in technology with not. But I think a hybrid’s got to be bigger than that. It’s got to be hybrid in terms of learning theory and the whole approach. And I think we just can’t forget what to me is quite fundamental, that we are emotional beings with rational thought; I spoke about it earlier.

And so if we’re getting that mixed up, then we’re not meeting students’ emotional needs, and then we’re not also meeting their rational needs. And we’re doing the wrong thing with the wrong methods at the wrong time.  And so we’ve got to be, as much as we are driving technology, we’ve got to be driving equally the emotional and the growing-up part of education. And we’ve got to be doing both.

And we’ve got to know when we’re doing both and doing things differently because of what we do is. Yea, so I’m not quite sure if that’s contrary to what everyone believes.

PvZ: No, I mean it’s a very good point. I think it is contrary to what a lot of people believe, or at least it goes against the grain in the right way, I suppose. The question I’d like to ask following up on that, can you build a computer system that can provide an education the same way that an educator can provide an education?

RH: [laugh] No, I’m laughing because it all depends on the educator. I think there are a whole bunch of educators you probably can! I think kids can learn a lot from a system, and I think they’re realising they can learn more and more from a system. And so if your style of education is where the answer is yes, then you need to change your style of education.

RH: People are, like, oh, is technology taking the role from educators? I hope so, and I hope educators then redefine their role on being the things that the computer can’t do. Because we will more and more learn that kids can learn a lot through the computer. They can get new knowledge, they can interact with the knowledge, but the computer can’t coach them and they can’t mentor them.

And so, instead of being threatened by the computer doing a whole bunch of stuff that you used to do. If you can say, well, they’re doing all that better, let it do it better. Let me work out the mentoring and coaching and differentiating part. And then the computer can also adapt, it can also see you learn more of this, more of that. Let me get better at the things the computer can’t do.

And that question we ask ourselves every week, that’s the fundamental of our model. If you ask about our model and how we design our model. Right at the beginning and we continue asking ourselves, what can the computer do best and what can a person do best? And I think that’s the question that we’re all going to be asking ourselves the whole time. And we’ve got to be brave enough to answer that question as we learn.

Yea, even leading my group of schools, I’m even learning more and more what the computer can do that that I didn’t think it can do in terms of helping a kid learn.

The Future of Curro DigiEd

PvZ: And what would you like to see change, or what would you like to see both yourself and your group of schools achieve over the next couple of years?

RH: Yea, I hope that we keep adapting and we keep students focused, and I hope we don’t lose sight of it. At the moment we’re doing all the cool coding languages. And I told my brilliant leaders in that sphere, at some stage it’s not going to be cool and we’re going to be not cool. And as long as we’ve kept the focus, at the end of the day, we want these emotional beings leaving, and we want them to be critical thinking and creative thinking. And if we lose focus of that and we do innovation for the sake of innovation, then we’re missing.

People are, and we didn’t talk about metacognition very much. But one of the great equalizers, or what it’s forced us to do it, is that we’ve got to be talking about people’s learning. The students are going to be earning their learning. And if we moving towards where students are earning their learning, we’ve scaffolded their sort of release to self. Being little kids who can’t manage their own timetable, to be owners of their learning and us being coaches, then that’s where we want to go to.

We want our students to be earning their learning, to be critical thinking, to creative thinking as collaborators. And keep an eye on that prize and not get caught up in the fact, you know, at the moment we’re pretty cool. We’re doing all the cool things, and not to get caught up in that and still remain focused. Are the kids growing in the intellectual capacity and in their own ownership of learning?

And then it doesn’t matter, I don’t think it’s going to happen over 8 years’ time if we make a few bad and we’re doing like three outdated languages in coding. If they learn to code and think, then it’s still all right.

PvZ: Yea, and with regards to metacognition, the way that kids learn, is there anything that you feel strongly about?

RH: Yea, I feel very passionate about metacognition. What we’re doing is we’re building a foundation on reflection. So we’re doing a lot of reflection with our students at the end of every section, and we’re doing a lot of reflection with our educators. So it’s built on reflection.

And the second building block is creating the language. So having a language and the language in that part does change per subject. So the maths and sciences might have a whole language around problem-solving or that process. In the languages, you have a different [inaudible]. But first developing a language around the learning, build in a lot of reflection. And those are our two building blocks for building metacognition in a bit more detail from that.

PvZ: And is this something that kids are aware that you’re doing, or is it somewhere in the background?

RH: No, so it has to be aware. If it’s in the background, that’s been the problem traditionally. I think I was fortunate to have good schooling, and I think it happened to me in the background. But if you want to have a scalable solution, and you want it to be everyone gets a chance, it has to be explicit. So we’ve been very explicit about that. We put in posters about what to do when you get stuck in the class so that the kids don’t just ask the educator in the room. So we’re trying to make that more and more explicit because then it’s accessible to everyone. So that’s a journey that we are going on.

PvZ: No, and it makes sense and it’s quite exciting.

RH: I’m enjoying it and hopefully everybody else is also.

PvZ: Yea, great, and thank you so much for coming on.

RH: Cool.

PvZ: I really appreciate you taking the time, and it’s been a very, very interesting discussion.

RH: It has indeed.

The Future Minds podcast is brought to you by Smartick. Smartick is an award-winning, intelligent, online mathematics and coding program for kids ages 4 – 14. Powered by sophisticated, adaptive AI, Smartick teaches kids math and coding from the comfort of home in as little as 15 minutes per day. For more information, visit or download the app on tablet or iPad today.

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Sabrina graduated from the AAA School of Advertising with a B.A. in Integrated Marketing Communications and prior to joining the Smartick Team she started her own digital marketing agency in 2014.
She is the founder and producer of Smartick's podcast called Future Minds with Phil.
In her spare time, Sabrina enjoys horseback riding, reading, and going to the gym. She also loves to travel!
Sabrina Jansen van Vuuren

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