#7 Teresa Dennis – Pioneering Homeschooling in South Africa and a Passion for an Alternative Way of Learning
PODCAST: Episode 7
Teresa Dennis – Pioneering Homeschooling in South Africa and a Passion for an Alternative Way of Learning
An insightful homeschooling-focused episode with Teresa Dennis. Teresa took an unconventional educational journey with her children when homeschooling was basically non-existent in South Africa. We were so inspired after recording this episode, a mother and educator that is so passionate about personalized and customized education models for her students and her own children.
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About Our Guest: Teresa Dennis
Teresa is an Education Consultant, Tutor, and Advisor to both home and traditional schooling institutions in the Western Cape. Teresa is a homeschooling veteran who educated her own children for 15 years and established an innovative dual-curriculum high school division for Grades 10-12 while working as the High School Academic Head at Cape Town Torah High School.
She also acted as the self-study leader of the accreditation process for Grades K-12 that enabled the school to become properly accredited as an International School. Her personal philosophy of education is strongly based on the work of John Dewey, who believed that “if we teach today’s children as we taught yesterday’s, then we rob them of tomorrow.”
- Teresa’s educational ideals.
- What to consider when considering homeschooling or a blended learning system.
- Her decision to homeschool her kids.
- The future of education.
Full Episode Transcription
Philip von Ziegler: In this episode, I’ll be speaking with Teresa Dennis. Teresa is an education consultant, tutor, and advisor to both home and traditional schooling institutions in the Western Cape. Teresa is a homeschool veteran who educated her children for 15 years and started the high school division of Jewish International Schools Cape Town. Taking the K-12 grades to full accreditation as an international school through the Western Association of Schools and Colleges from 2014 to 2018.
Her personal philosophy of education is based strongly on the work of John Dewey, who believed that if we teach today’s children as we taught yesterday’s, then we rob them of tomorrow. In our conversation, we discuss topics such as Teresa’s education ideals, what to consider when migrating to a homeschool or blended learning system, her decision to homeschool her kids, the future of education, and a range of other topics. I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation with Teresa, and I’m sure you will, too. Without further ado, I give you Teresa Dennis.
Teresa Dennis: Hi, there thanks for having me.
PvZ: Thanks for joining us. Just to start off, maybe you can tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.
TD: Cool, so I’m a mother of three children, married happily, and my children are all grown up, 30 and 29 and 23. And I’m an educator from very many years back. I chose to go into teaching because of my own experience at school, which was not wonderful. And so I’ve been involved in that ever since.
So I went and studied a Bachelor of Primary Education, and then I worked two years in a traditional setting school, which didn’t suit me at all. I was then involved in my own preschool that I ran for a few years. I did environmental puppetry to educate children between the ages of 3 and 9 on the environment within specifically the flora and fauna of Cape Town. And then I chose to home school, my own children, we were about 15 years busy with that.
And then I was approached by the Jewish International Schools from Cape Town to set up their Grade 10, 11, and 12 on a totally different model of education, not one that’s normally seen in schools. And that’s what I finished, and now I tutor maths online.
Teresa’s Personal Education Journey
PvZ: Wow, well, we’ll get into that in a moment. But before we go down that road, I just want to know a little bit more about your personal education journey. I’m sure it informed quite a bit of what you do.
TD: Yes, I went to an all-girls school, a convent, taught by very scary nuns most of the time. And I had barriers to learning. I wasn’t an auditory learner, I was a visual learner. And everything they did when I was at school was linked to phonics, and phonics didn’t make any sense to me. So it took me a very long time to learn to read, a very long time to learn to spell. I was strong in maths always.
And then when I was in about Grade 7, I had an English teacher who read to us every single week, and the first book I ever read was her reading it to me, and it was called I Am David. And I realised then that you don’t have to read a book, to read a book. It’s actually harder to understand and comprehend a book when it’s being read to you, and that ignited my desire to learn to read.
So when I got into high school, there was a very different approach to how they treated us in high school and I suddenly took off. I was actually learning to type, which improved my spelling. So then I realized, ah, repetition is what’s important, do things over and over and you’ll eventually get it right. So I learned visually how to spell and my reading took off, my maths took off, and then you couldn’t hold me back. And when I finished school, although I’d studied in the performing arts, I decided that I actually wanted to be a teacher, that was my passion.
And so that’s when I went to Wits and studied for 4 years. And I chose Primary because my specialisation was how children learn maths, so I specialised in how do children actually work cognitively. How you actually learn maths? And then my final dissertation was computers in education. Because it was the late 1980s, and I believed that was the 20th century. IBM was producing computers. They were desktops that you could have at home. And I just felt that this was definitely going to be where education was going. And so my final fourth-year dissertation was computers in education is the future.
PvZ: Yea, I mean, technology has changed at such a rapid pace. And one of the things that you said that resonated with me is, when I was in grade 11, I had an English teacher, a Mrs. Dean. And she one day just, strange things that stick with you, but she just one day mentioned in class, she sort of pointed kids out in class and said, you’re an auditory learner; you’re a visual learner. And for the first time ever, it clicked for me that people learn in completely different ways.
I was sort of angry that we hadn’t been taught that earlier because you sort of want to play to your strengths when you’re studying and as you’re going through high school and university to a large degree.
I think it must have been super challenging for you to go the homeschooling route when you did. What are some of the things that motivated you to go down that route?
Making The Decision To Homeschool
TD: Well, when I started, there were very few of us. In total there were 11 families within the Western Cape. The mothers sort of discovered each other. But my eldest was at school and I was teaching her more in the afternoon than she was learning in her hours at school. So she would come home and I’d actually reteach her everything, and I realized, this is a waste of time.
So I met a family who was homeschooling. They were American, and I thought, well, that’s what Americans do because they’re traveling and they want to go back to America. And she said, no, it’s a very big thing in America, lots of people homeschool their children. And so I did more investigating, and the most more I investigated, the more I realized that this was the way to go.
So my daughter was then in Grade 4, my son was in Grade 2, and we had our youngest who wasn’t at school, who has never been to school. And so I gave notice to the schools, and then everyone we knew thought we were mad. They all said, you crazy fools, what are you doing?
But I had a desire for a different way of learning. The traditional format, to me, it didn’t fit with how people were. We were moving into a whole new world of thinking that was so very different. I was taught with an Edwardian style of teaching that goes back hundreds of years – the sage on the stage. The person stands up there who has all the knowledge, and they just spew it out and see how much gets caught by the kids in front of you. 30 kids in a class if you’re lucky; 20, 25 if you could be at private schools. And it’s let’s see how much I spew out and how much gets caught by the kids there. And generally, it’s very few, catch.
PvZ: Yea, it’s those few that sort of sit on the spectrum where they learn in the same style that the teacher teaches, and the rest of them sort of just fall away.
TD: Yea, exactly, and my own philosophy was very strongly influenced by John Dewey, the educational psychologist, who said if we teach today’s children as we taught yesterday’s children, we rob them of tomorrow. And that was right when I was just a student. And so I was watching, they’d been to preschool and they learned so much because it was a different way they could learn the way that suited them. Because preschool, it seems, as if educational bodies and places feel it’s safer when the children are younger. But the higher up you go, they’re wanting it to become more and more Edwardian.
So it’s fine, let’s be innovative, and let’s change the way things are in the preschools and even Grade 1 to maybe 4. But the minute you get a bit older in your schooling, then they start saying, right, we’ve got to get knowledge in, knowledge in. And that’s the smallest part of your pyramid of learning, knowledge is. Right at the bottom, you’ve got to go to understanding. You’ve got to show that you can analyze and that you can synthesize and that you can evaluate. And even then, apply, and above that, innovate.
And so that doesn’t happen in a standard schooling system where the kids are in rows, and sometimes they’re a bit more innovative and they put them in groups. But the teacher is still teaching the sage. Maybe not in lines, but she’s still standing at the top, teaching to the group of kids.
And that was so against everything that I felt students should learn, and so that’s when I investigated. I went and I found two families who were home-educating. And the way they did it was exactly the way I felt learning should be. It must be cross-curricular, not subject-driven. It must be thematically based so that everything makes sense. It makes sense that I’m writing about this because I learned about it as a history thing. Or I did a science experiment, right, now I want to actually learn more the maths behind that science. It must be definitely cross-curricular.
I used to get frustrated at school when it wasn’t that way. We would go somewhere; I’d be hugely interested in what we did and I would want to go and write. And then in my English class, I’d be given a silly concept that I had to write on. And I’d be, but I want to write about what we did.
PvZ: And it robs the kids of that understanding of why they’re doing what they’re doing.
PvZ: Which I think most people realise far too late. At least for myself, it’s something that I think it took me until matric or even university to really understand why I was doing what I was doing.
TD: So I wanted my children to be able to have cross-curricular; I wanted us to be learning as a lifestyle. I wanted us to learn because that’s what we do. We don’t go to school to learn, we just learn because we are living and make of the most.
There’s obviously the need for the basics, so you want children to have the three Rs and the basics of maths. But around that, there is so much that you can do that just creates wonderful memories and deep understanding that go beyond just knowledge. And they may be showing understanding in an exam because that’s where even the traditional way of everyone still writes exams 10, 11, and 12.
It’s parrot-fashion spewed out, so it’s what knowledge have I learned, and I sometimes can show my understanding of it. There’s very little beyond those at the bottom of the pyramid in standard exams. So that didn’t make any sense to me, I want to hear what you say. I don’t care how you show to it me, but I want to see what have you learned? How are you going to apply it? What are you evaluating? So that type of thing.
Teresa’s Advice To Families Considering Homeschooling
PvZ: Something that was very interesting to me is, I did a Google Trends search and it showed South Africa ranking second in the world for the search term, homeschooling, specifically during the coronavirus period. Online education also being right up there, and obviously, that shows you that South Africa’s got a need for homeschooling; for online education.
But for some of the parents that are out there, that are potentially considering the homeschooling route. What are some of the things that they need to do in order to be properly prepared to go down that road?
TD: Well, I think there’s two kinds, I could put it into two categories. You have the homeschooling where you join a group, so let’s say online homeschooling, there’s a few of them have really exploded in the last few years. Where the vested interest is the online teacher. It’s the mentor that’s attached to the student. It’s the teacher who comes and teaches the lessons. So that’s a form of homeschooling, very accessible to parents who are actually full-time working.
But to me, the key for homeschooling is a vested interest. A parent, an adult, someone who has got an emotional investment in the student. To take a child out of school and have them have a program where they’ve just got to make it on their own, is not going to be successful. That child has to have a vested interest, a parent or a tutor or a teacher online, or a mentor who comes and checks, how are you doing? What’s going on? Are you managing? Because that cannot ever be taken away, that’s the role of a teacher. People who are born to teach want to facilitate learning, and so it’s about doing that.
So if you as a parent are wanting to take your children out and you want to dedicate one parent to that, so you’re going to give up two salaries. The father or the mother say, right, we’re going to actually, I’ll have a side hustle that I’ll do to earn some money, but my main focus is to homeschool my children. There you have many options on what to do, and it can be a whole much more holistic experience.
But there are lots of schools now that are starting in Cape Town. I remember the first one 6 years ago when I was doing research, is now massive. Because there are lots of people where you actually access the teacher through video, through a Zoom portal, or whatever, and that’s how they learn. So there you obviously need to have someone making sure they get on. But sometimes if the student doesn’t come online, the parent gets a message, and they’re not even in the house. And they have to phone and say, get online, but there is still in that way-
PvZ: A bit of oversight.
TD: You want an emotionally invested adult. It will not be successful if you’re saying to a kid, get on with it.
PvZ: I mean, I don’t even think it works at varsity to some degree.
The Responsibility of Schools
PvZ: From the unique perspective of being both an educator and a mother, which is sort of a full-time job pulling you both ways. I’d be interested to know your thoughts on the extent to which schools are responsible for educating your child.
TD: Okay, well, that’s one of my favorite questions because when I went back into a system where kids arrived every day to the building, it was a very personalised system. So the students learned at their own pace, there was a big say in what they learned.
But I always spoke about the triangle, and it was the child at the top, parent, and school, and it’s a triangle of communication. Is that you can’t just drop your kid off and say, right, the responsibility is now yours, and I’ll catch them on the other end. I believe that for a student, a child, a pupil, to get a full education, not just schooling, there has to be an investment. If you are taking your child to a place of schooling, that you have to be involved, you need to be. Even as they go into teenagehood because I did the teenagers. And many parents went, yea, but now they’re 16, they must get on with it.
And I’d say, no, they need you emotionally invested in their education, not just me. I’m with them for 5 hours, and if they’re lucky, they get dedicated from me each an hour, because it was a small school, but mostly half an hour they get my undivided attention. But you’re with them most of the time – you drive with them to school, you go on holiday with them, you have them for the weekends. Be invested in their education.
Socialisation and Homeschooling
PvZ: Yea, that’s powerful. So as somebody that homeschooled your kids, I think one of the sort of default arguments against homeschooling, which a lot of people simply grab, is the lack of socialisation. And the soft skills that come with that, which is as important as many of the academic skills that you pick up. So what did you do in that homeschooling environment to develop those soft skills?
TD: It is the big question, what about socialisation? And actually, within homeschool circles, it’s like a trigger for many homeschooling parents, but it’s important. We can’t ignore our triggers, we can’t ignore the fact. Because there can be a situation where socialisation is a problem. So it is a focus for a homeschooling family. It’s not something they can just dismiss; it is something they need to look at.
So for us, it was very important. Our children were involved in youth groups. They played sport. Our daughters did dancing, they did music, they played in orchestras. So I purposed socialisation. The homeschoolers got together to do ice skating, they used to go to a woman who used to do fun outdoors activities linked to projects, linked to themes that we were doing. And so we purposed socialisation.
But one thing I’d really like to talk about on socialisation is that the natural socialisation does not happen within your own age group. So that’s actually a false precept that’s happened at school. There’s no way in the world that you walk into a room every single day and you are with the same-age people.
PvZ: Yea, the same maturity level, yea, that’s very interesting.
TD: That never ever happens. So actually, that’s a false socialisation setup, because I socialise with young people, with older people, with people my age. I don’t go into a space and go, sorry, can all the 55-year-olds please find me, because that’s who I want to socialise with. It doesn’t happen that way.
So again, with homeschoolers, the positive side they have is they’re actually socialising in a much more natural way, that would happen in natural life. But it is important for parents to know that you can’t just go, oh, well, it doesn’t matter. It’s just, whatever happens, they’ll fall to it and they’ll be fine. Because that is something you have to purpose, it’s not a moot question, it’s an important question.
PvZ: So with the rapid pace that technology is evolving the last 5 years, the last 10 years, the 21 century has been incredible, from the year 2000. 2020 we’ve made incredible advancements. What, in your mind, does the classroom of 2030 look like?
TD: Ooh, nice question, 2030. Well, hopefully, Edwardian education will have disappeared in 10 years. I’m a little bit cynical about that, I don’t really believe it will. So I think I must rephrase it and say what would I like it to look like because I don’t know if it will!
So what I would like is technology being used for teachers to be able to become guides by the side and not sages on the stage. So I see classrooms where teachers have used technology to bring the content material that they’re interested in. So, for example, you might have a teacher who’s going to be teaching on the idea of a play, let’s just say. And they don’t even have to themselves talk about it, so they will access the play on YouTube.
So, for example, at the moment Grade 9s in literature are doing The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. So they could then find that actually, some university had put this online, the actual play and that she can use that play for the students to look at. So she could do some input on a video herself and say introduce it. So it would be a bite-sized video that the students get to their own laptops. They can then look at that the evening before they get to school the next day.
And then the teacher becomes a guide by the side. They arrive in class and there’s a sense of, right, so did do you all watch it? Oh, you didn’t watch it, now you’re going to go watch it now; you’ll have some catch-up for homework. So what she does, she gets to a place where the students have agency over their learning. It’s not right, I’m arriving, I’m going to sit here and be a passive participant in what you’re telling me.
It’s you’ve got a responsibility. You look at the content of what I’ve given you on the video, and then we’ve got layered learning. So now we’re going to look and say, all right, so you’ve seen the video. How are you going to show your understanding? How are you going to go from knowledge to understanding, to assimilation, to application, to evaluation? And so she will have then set up a whole variety of options for the students to show.
Okay, so you guys want to get together, and you actually want to act out a portion of this as a play? Right, do a script for it. Prepare your script and act it. Okay, you want to do something different; you want to do a video where you talk about what you’ve learned. You want to write a research, great, go and write a research. So there’s a variety of ways for the students, so it’s not this passive acceptance of knowledge. Oh, dear, let me learn for the test at the end of the term and see how much I understood. It’s going far further than that.
And that’s what I’m hoping to see, is that technology will do that. Technology is being used beautifully in the classrooms now, but it’s technology for the teacher. It’s a SMART Board; it’s a PowerPoint presentation on her own laptop. But the students can now do that. So they going to use their phones; they going to use their devices. They’re going to have a whole variety of ways of doing it. You’re going to access teenagers and say to them, right, I want you to watch this tonight, make use of your evening. At 9 o’clock, watch this, there’s a 5-minute input about what we’re doing tomorrow.
And so the teachers are going to have to really upscale in their ability of videoing themselves, of not feeling that they’re going to stand up and now present. They’re actually going to give the content material and then the students are going to use that. And it’s going to come because people don’t want an hour’s lecture, students want 10 minutes. Give it to me quick, give it to me fast, and let me see what I can do with it. And that’s what I see, where they’re going to get to.
PvZ: So, the next thing for me is, if you look at the way that the world’s working right now, everybody’s operating online to a large degree. And it’s more than likely that the next generation of kids that are at school currently are going to be working online, using technology to either enable themselves or to perform the job that they did before. Now, with that said, countries are still very much religious about their curriculums.
Country-Specific Curriculums vs. Global Agnostic Curriculums
PvZ: What are your thoughts about country-specific curriculums versus a global agnostic curriculum?
TD: I would go with a global agnostic curriculum. So I think for the basics most countries teach the same things. But I mean, education for years has been about social engineering. And that was also one of the reasons I didn’t want, you know, my children were first, they started when South Africa was changing. But my biggest issue when I taught for only just two little years in an apartheid school system, it was too much for me. I was a liberal Witsie, so I couldn’t cope with what was required.
So to me, I think, to get countries not to use education for social engineering is going to be a massive problem. I don’t think it’s going to happen in a hurry unless there’s pushback from parents who now are part of the technological world. That will have to be a requirement from parents; schooling’s not going to change without parents demanding it. It’s just going to keep self-perpetuating itself.
PvZ: And I think that’s a very good point because I think a lot of parents, and I say this without the requisite data, but I think a lot of parents are not as involved as what they should be. And I think also a lot of parents don’t ask themselves that question of what a successful education looks like. And the involvement in mapping out their child’s academic roadmap is, for the most part, left up to the school to do. How do you determine or define a successful education?
TD: Okay, well, back onto what you’re saying, do parents and teachers get so involved? They are between a hard place and a rock, because young people, teenagers just by nature, often, are reticent. And I don’t know what to do and I don’t really care. And they’re in a phase of their lives that isn’t that amenable to wanting to look to the future and all that type of thing.
So it has for many years been left to parents to decide. And the noose around every educator and every parent’s neck is university acceptance requirements. That’s the noose that sits there and it makes it extremely hard for schooling to change. So actually, the big players in this are the universities.
So when a student gets to the end of Grade 9, parents and educators go, we want all doors to be opened, therefore, what does the university want? Okay, therefore, they want this, this and this, so that’s what you have to do, because of those requirements. And most universities say you cannot be accepted unless you sit a national exam where everyone’s writing the same maths paper at the same time, in the same cohort, so that we can really see if you’re worthy of going to university. So most education is happening to fulfil an opening of every door at university, that’s pretty much what’s happened. I wouldn’t see that as a successful education.
My three children all had their best year in their matric year. Most students have their worst year in their matric year – their most pressured, their most difficulties, their most unknown. So to me, a successful education would-be student who comes out, who is strong in the basics. You want children to finish schooling, before they go into university, able to do maths and to be highly literate writers. But that can all happen in a very creative way. It doesn’t have to be done the way the schools are doing it now. And then a system where students can be accepted into university showing their ability. So the whole thing needs a big revamp.
But to me, successful is a student who actually finishes their schooling years and goes, gosh, that was quite cool. I’m looking forward to what I’m going on to now. And whether it means gap years, whether it means travel, whether it means, right, I’m going to go and study straight away, and my three children did all of those. One went straight away, the other traveled.
PvZ: But they made that decision?
TD: They made the decision with our support. And what we said is we give you five years; you’re on our purse for five years. So you can travel before, you can travel after, you’re on our purse for five years. If you do a bachelor’s and you want to do Honours, then it becomes your purse if it’s past the five years, so that type of thing.
So to me, that would be a successful education – is students definitely coming out who are strong in a basis of knowledge. We’d be remiss to not allow that. But the thing is, it’s got to be more than that. They’ve got to be able to use that knowledge in so many other ways. And to demonstrate that is not going to be done by an exam written in November by a whole cohort of the same-age students. It’s not going to show that, not in my opinion.
PvZ: How important is maths at school?
TD: It’s very important. Maths is important because it’s not just for working out mathematics, it’s for training the brain. I always say to my maths students when they go, I just don’t understand what’s the point of trig! Really, what’s this sine of cosine of cotan, tan, all those! Because what you’re doing is you’re training the neural pathways; maths trains neural pathways in the brain.
And it takes you into if you want to be a musician, it takes you into artistic, it takes you into critical thinking. So if you want to actually go and study and actually write argumentative papers, you’re not going to write an argumentative paper without the logic of maths. You’re going to have spinning logic, it’s going to make absolutely no sense, your paper. So maths is absolutely vital, I would always say. I’m not saying that all students have to go into the higher high maths if that’s not their bent. But definitely, a strong grounding in maths is essential.
PvZ: Yea, I think at this point, something that I wouldn’t normally do, but Smartick is a sponsor of this podcast. And listening to your background and the things that you just mentioned, I think it’s important to tell you little bit more about Smartick. So it’s an online maths and coding program. It’s for kids ages 4 – 14. The idea was to take what Kumon did and put it online, improve it, and personalise the curriculum for each student.
So the way that it does that is through artificial intelligence built into the program. Kids do 15 minutes of maths every day. They’re incentivized to do their maths session through gamification. So they select an avatar, the avatar becomes their virtual personality. And in order to unlock their Virtual World, they have to complete their 15 minutes of maths or coding for that day. And in the Virtual World, they’ve got their little house, they’ve got a pet store, they got a little shopping mall. But then they’ve also got a virtual classroom where they can engage in virtual tutorials. They’ve got a little boxing gym where they can challenge other friends.
TD: Oh, how fantastic.
PvZ: And they challenge them academically. Then there’s a little brain game section, which is also very interesting because in the brain game section, it focuses on a couple of things. And that’s logic, reasoning, critical thinking, memory, and focus skills.
And this is all an online program. It’s either app-based or it’s Web-based. So for parents that want to educate their kids at home, or at least start that home-based learning journey, even if it is just a complement to their kids going to school. Do you think that online programs are in a space now where they’re becoming sort of a vital component to a kid’s academic journey?
TD: Yeah, absolutely. Any form of online, especially in maths and the same with spelling that’s actually able to drill. I homeschooled my kids, but they drilled their basics. They drilled their spelling. You have to know your facts, there are facts you have to know. You can’t just assume that you’re going to remember what 7 x 8 is. It has to be something that has to be learned.
So if there’s a tool; we had little books, it wasn’t online. To have something online where a student is engaged and able to do every single day certain practises, and a parent can say, right, have you done your Smartick today? Before you move, before you do anything, that’s what you’re doing; get on with it. When that’s done, we’ll move on with what we’re doing. That just would be such an amazing tool for a parent!
PvZ: Well, look, Smartick has got a dashboard for parents to log in. You can track each student’s performance. You can go into any data they’ve done in an activity, break that activity down into every single question. You can see what they got right, what they got wrong, whether they corrected their answers or not. And parents get a report of each session, which makes it really interesting because it almost forces the parent to remain engaged and interested in the student’s performance.
TD: I take it that their AI then sees gaps where a student is?
TD: That’s fantastic because that’s the biggest issue.
PvZ: The interesting thing about the way that each session is designed, is nothing is preprogrammed. So when a kid does their initial assessment, the algorithm determines a personal curriculum for that child. And then when every single daily session starts, nothing is preprogrammed. Every question is generated in real-time, taking into account a bunch of data points from the previous question that the student was asked. How long they took to answer it, whether they made a mistake or not, the type of mistake that they made.
And this allows the program to adapt to the student. It accounts for multiple learning difficulties from Aspergers to autism, ADHD, and so forth. And it works perfectly to sort of challenge students to the extent that they are not disinterested, but it’s also not easy. It doesn’t make it too easy for them.
TD: So you’re going to hit the sweet spot.
PvZ: You’ve got to hit the sweet spot, and the metaphor is again, that foundation of a house. You’ve got to find the gaps in the foundation, fill those gaps, and then you can build on the next level.
If you had a magic wand, what would you do immediately to change the main flaws that you see in today’s education system?
TD: I would have the universities sit down and rethink how they expect you to be accepted to study there. That’s where I would start because, for all these years, it’s been a noose, so that’s got to change because there are innovative, enthusiastic teachers in the school system. Parents at home, who have got such a desire, but there’s this big boogie man that says my child won’t get to university, and therefore won’t, and so it just …
I went to Warsaw last year to a teachers conference and I was listening to some of the top speakers and ‘thought’ people in the world on education. And we went into a massive lecture hall where this guy was talking. He was the superintendent of something like 11,000 schools in America. And he was talking about the future of education and the model that’s very, very different. And it’s a model that actually is happening right here in Gardens at a school that I helped start.
And he was going, and he was talking about it and he was saying his daughter’s in it, and they’re going away from standardised testing. And they ran away from all this, this, this, and wanting teachers to be able to be innovative. And there were lots of excited teachers in the hall and going, yes, this is what we want.
And then in the end he said, any questions? And I put up my hand in the hall and I said, can I ask you a question? And there was mostly heads of school and principals at this meeting. And I put up my hand and I said, how many schools in this auditorium right now have this model in Grade 10, 11, and 12? And 2 hands went up. Because they just default back to, right, let’s get your 5 subjects, 6 subjects, Cambridge is 6, South Africa’s 7. Whatever world country you’re in, it’s just get those exams done with a cohort at the end of the year so universities can just go blanket, right, here are all our, and we can just start doing this and this.
There’s no, and that’s why hopefully, private universities are much more open to people coming with a different way of having finished school because they see that there’s so much benefit in it. But it’s these big institutionalised academic universities that hold a noose around innovation and change, they do.
The Changing Classroom Environment
PvZ: Yea, I think one of the things that a lot of teachers or schools, society in general, thinks about how technology is going to change the classroom environment, is that teachers are under threat. And technology’s there to sort of replace the role of a teacher. How do you feel about that, and what do you think is the more likely outcome in the next couple of years?
TD: No, I think technology’s just going to enable innovation and huge help for a teacher. Teachers must never think that, because education has to come from an emotionally invested adult; it’s not going to come from a machine, ever. It can’t.
You can get your content off a machine; you can produce things and use technology. But you have to have that emotionally invested adult going, what’s happening? How are you doing? How’s it going? That person saying, what are you doing? And so teachers, technology is just going to expand their horizons. Where previously you would have had to do a trip somewhere, you can see it now on video format. I mean, if it goes into even virtual realities, it’s just going to completely make teaching so much more accessible to many, to the underprivileged. But also, for teachers to know that AI can only do so much, but AI can’t bring emotion to the party.
PvZ: And as you say, it can enable you to provide your skill at scale.
TD: Absolutely, at massive scale.
PvZ: Yea, and looking at Smartick on the parent, tutor, or teacher’s dashboard, you can load on multiple students, and the number of students you can load is infinite. And after every session, you can easily go and monitor which students have performed their sessions and which haven’t, and where students are finding trouble. So I agree with you. I think that technology is definitely an enabler that should be embraced.
TD: Definitely, it will be, it must be.
PvZ: What do you believe about the current education system, or education in general, that most people disagree with?
TD: I think a lot of people think that not all people can teach, which is not true. And that not all children or all students can learn because they all can. It’s finding how they learn best. Well, let’s go to the students, so people say they can’t all learn, and they’re not going to manage, and this child just has this problem.
But finding the ‘in’ to what ignites their learning is what’s the role of a teacher. And anyone can be a teacher if you’re passionate about finding that ‘in’ for a student. So I know many, many parents who are not teachers, who have been phenomenally successful homeschooling their children.
And when I used to meet with lots of these parents, they would go, but I’m not a teacher and I don’t know how to do this. And I’d say it’s easier for you than it was for me because I had to forget all the training I was given for herding groups of students. I had to forget all that stuff because that’s what it was about, it was herding. It was bring all the kids in the class, teach them what they have to, get them out, bring in the next group.
And so I had to forget all that. And what did you do when your child was born, till about 5? Were you not their key chief and primary educator? Why does that have to change, especially now we’re in a world where you don’t have to be the expert? In the old days, the only way for anyone to learn any kind of body of knowledge was either accessing a library or getting it from an expert daily.
Nowadays, you can find that body of knowledge anywhere. You just click on a phone, click on a computer. You’ve got to learn how to find the right one, and you’ve got to make sure it’s not nonsense, but that’s also part of it. So it’s not about giving the body of knowledge. So that’s where a lot of people will say they don’t believe that anyone can teach, but it depends on what are you defining as teaching?
Yes, I can’t go and teach Einstein’s theories in front of 30 students. No, I don’t have that body of knowledge to do that. But I can certainly access that for the students and ensure that they can access that and share it, and that’s the difference. So, yes, there are certain things, but it depends on your definition of teach. So when I say teach, I’m not talking about the sage on the stage. When I say anyone can teach, I’m saying anyone can be a guide at the side.
PvZ: That’s brilliant, brilliant. I’m going to ask you one more question because I’d love to hear your personal response on this. How do you get kids to read more?
TD: You read to them. I read every single day to my children right up until they were 18.
PvZ: Interesting, because I asked this question because on a personal level, growing up, my parents always encouraged us to read. And it wasn’t an encouragement as much as it was, read.
PvZ: And too late did I realise the value of reading in my opinion, but what I did realise was that it had to come intrinsically. That desire to read had to come intrinsically. But kids don’t always have the opportunity to simply discover that passion or discover the utility in reading. So that’s why I asked the question.
TD: If they see adults who read, love reading themselves, love reading to them, it is something that can be caught. Another very good tip is if they want to see a movie, you must make them read the books first, so that’s a big one. So you want to watch Lord of the Rings? Cool, read the books!
PvZ: Good luck, reading 1,000 pages!
TD: Yeah, well, that’s what they must do. You want to watch Harry Potter, read Harry Potter first. So that’s a way; there are lots of ways, and you make reading fun. And we used to go on nature walks, and they could draw, they could read, whatever, they could just go and play. But I read every single day. They did whatever art they wanted to do. They doodled, they painted, whatever they wanted, but every single day I read.
PvZ: How important is it to stay in tune with your child or student’s mental health during those difficult teenage years?
TD: It’s vital. It’s very important. I think it’s very hard for a traditional school, for teachers to be, for parents it’s even more important. But the best place to be in touch with your child or another is driving in the car. It’s the best spot because you’re both not looking at each other, but no one can get out of the car either. So that’s a very good place to see how you’re doing. It’s a very good checking spot, is driving in the car somewhere.
PvZ: It’s a very good tip.
TD: And then when I was a teacher, I would go for coffee. I would take students regularly, and say, right, how are you doing, checking what’s happening, how are you feeling? What’s going on? You’re looking stressed. So that again, it’s students for success need emotionally invested adults. So you have to, you’ve got to see how they are, and you’ve got to be very aware. But if you are emotionally invested, there will be a level of being tuned in to how they are. So parents, get in the car, and for teachers, find a spot that the student can talk, and just connect, say what’s happening?
PvZ: Thank you so much for your time. Really, really valuable, thought-provoking, and yea, practical advice, so thank you.
TD: Thank you for inviting me, Phil.
PvZ: Thank you, I look forward to the next time.
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 smartick.com or download the app on tablet or iPad today.
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