Elizabeth Henning is hooked on Finland and believes it can teach us a great deal about education.
Take a random peek at Elizabeth Henning’s Twitter timeline and, almost always, her tweets and her conversations have something to do with her professional interest, education.
It shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, the gogo (as she is affectionately known) is a professor of educational linguistics and the founding director of the Centre for Education Practice Research, an institute at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). She is such a thoroughgoing academic that, after explaining something, she will add "as a footnote" before giving you another mouthful.
Henning is prone to using abbreviations and I had to interrupt to ask her the meanings of the spoonfuls of alphabet soup that she dishes up with ease. She has the charming and endearing habit of describing her colleagues as "God’s gift to education" or "God’s gift to humanity".
Henning had invited me to watch Taxi Maths, an engaging film still in production about mathematics education that’s meant to be distributed as a teaching tool at universities. One of the first things she said during our interview, conducted in one of the auditoriums at UJ, was about restoring the dignity of the teaching profession.
"It’s really sad that too many people don’t take the teaching profession seriously, even though everyone knows that without good teachers we don’t have a chance," she said in soft but authoritative tones more befitting a foundation-phase primary schoolteacher. "If people look down on the foundation-phase teachers, they are looking down on their own children’s futures."
She doesn’t understand why the profession is stained with stigma in South Africa. Henning then made a fetching comparison with Finland, where teaching has more prestige than medicine and law. In fact, the entrance examination for the foundation-phase teaching programme is so competitive that only 8% of the 3 000 or so applicants make it.
Throughout the interview, the pedagogue makes constant references to the education systems of countries such as Finland, the United States, Singapore, Zimbabwe, South Korea and Sweden.
Perhaps the government should pay teachers more money to make the profession more respectable, I suggested.
"It’s not a question of more money, because people will be attracted for the wrong reasons," she said.
Then she goes into a short, intense criticism of the "mechanistic teacher" who goes through the motions of teaching but whose heart isn’t in what he or she is doing. Teaching is a complicated and tough profession that works at many levels, unlike working in an office and staring at a computer, she said.
Henning is based at the Soweto campus of UJ where, among other things, she is involved with the Funda Ujabule foundation-phase school. It was opened in 2010 and could be described as a laboratory to which the university dispatches students to gain practical experience.
What UJ and other universities are doing is attempting to fill the void left by the closure of more than 100 teacher training colleges between 1994 and 2000 – although, earlier this year, Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande said teacher training institutions are going to be reintroduced. In fact, the Ndebele College Campus in Siyabuswa, Mpumalanga, has just opened as a satellite institution of UJ. Next year, three more institutions will be opened in Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. This is what Henning means when she says that "there is a huge drive to improve teacher education. I think we are going to produce good teachers."
When Henning speaks about good teachers, you get the sense that she doesn’t mean educators whose only mission is to ensure their charges sail through examinations.
"Our teachers need to know why they are doing what they are doing. They have to be able to abstract and theorise their practices."
A teacher shouldn’t just be interested in issuing mathematical facts but should help pupils to understand mathematical cognition, Henning said, adding that a teacher shouldn’t just blindly "follow the curriculum". They should ask why a certain child is struggling, find out what is working and be prepared for each teaching day. "Teaching can’t be improvised."
Henning went on to place, side by side, the different education systems from around the world.
It’s easy to see that she doesn’t like the competitive model beloved in the Anglo-Saxon world in which labelling, grading and rewarding are integral. Although she acknowledged that there are merits in a system in which performance is the overarching goal, she pointed out how stressful it is for teachers and pupils.
At some point I mentioned that the intensely competitive education system espoused by the South Koreans shouldn’t be a model for Africans. Her face lit up and then, spicing her sermon with anecdotes, she said young pupils in Finland don’t get homework and that they go to school for only 180 days a year. She added that even the South Koreans have outlawed giving extra classes to young pupils after 10pm.
"Playing for kids isn’t just fooling around. That’s how they get to learn about the world. We have taken away the playing and we have put it on screens, but that’s not playing. There are people who think that the more tuition you get, the more you learn. [This isn’t the case] with little children."
This line of thought segued into how the assignment of homework for small children "isn’t equitable". She broke it down: some pupils have no parents and live with their grandparents, who have other grandchildren to take care of, and yet other kids have au pairs, computers and parents who can help them. Clearly a pupil from the former background can’t be expected to do as well as the latter.
Her timeline has shown her love for young pupils and how best to educate them. For instance, she tweeted: "Tiny breaks after 50 minutes of lesson are better for young children than one long break – for many reasons."
Her other love is for the whole of Finland. Here is the proof: "Even the way the teacher unions operate in that far-north country is admirable. Goodness, Finns, how do you do it?"
Follow her on @ElbieHenning
The essential lowdown on Elbie
Full name: Elizabeth Henning
Date of birth: "Somewhere in the middle of the 20th century"
Place of birth: Krugersdorp, but grew up mostly in Mayfair, Johannesburg
Favourite books: Tess of the d'Urbervilles (Thomas Hardy), Dido and Pa (Joan Aiken), Bart Nel (J van Melle), Sewe Dae (Deon Meyer)
Favourite poem: O wye en droewe land (NP van Wyk Louw)
Heroes/heroines: Anna Maria Standring (her mother)
Pastimes: Dreaming and stargazing in the Namib Desert
Profession: Researcher and teacher
Favourite drink: A certain South African sauvignon blanc (no ice)
Least favourite drink: Beer
Favourite movie star: Meryl Streep
Favourite music: Anything Mozartian
Favourite film: Still Babette's Feast
Favourite Twitter personae: Nomalanga Mkhize and Gillian Godsell
Favourite city: Johannesburg and New York, of course