The idea of “no school left behind” has become more apparent and urgent. The disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic has hit an already delicate education system, affecting the most vulnerable people in significant ways. To make matters worse, we are attempting to fix a dysfunctional system while introducing the 21st century skills development demanded by the fourth industrial revolution.
Playing with school principals — yes, that’s right — playing with school principals in what the National Education Collaboration Trust has called the Sandbox Project drew me and 10 Limpopo school principals into Eliyahu Goldratt’s theory of constraints over the past year. First proposed and implemented as a management theory for business and industrial systems (and here I can see Louise van Ryn from Partners for Possibilities South Africa light up), Goldratt’s theory has reported significant breakthroughs generated in performance of a magnitude unmatched by other improvement methodologies in many sectors, including education.
The theory of constraints attempts to identify “the constraints” impeding any system from achieving its goal, and asks three questions:
What to change?
What to change to?
How to cause change?
These three questions led the re-imagining of how to lead a culture of learning at the 10 Limpopo schools. The principals bared their vulnerabilities to Kathy Suerken’s remodelling of Goldratt’s theory of constraints: “Learn to learn, learn to think and learn to lead”.
In the “learn to learn” phase, the principals had a collage-making play date. Using pictures they collated, they reflected on their learning and brought to the fore the kinds of formal, informal and third-space learning they need to equip themselves with. An openness to learning struck a chord with most of them. Roslyn Tait, principal of Mmamakwa Primary School, created an alternative visual to a collage — a mind-map of her “learning to learn” orientation.
She reflected on the importance of a leader “adopting a learning mindset; an openness to learn even from learners and community members who may not have a high status”.
During the pandemic she, like many of her counterparts, focused on the constraint of access to homes and meaningful parent partnerships. “Being in a school with a learning community that has little to offer children by way of support or time or a conducive learning environment, my first point of departure was how can we as school learn from and with each other.”
She didn’t have all the answers, so she solicited advice from various stakeholders, including parents. Together they developed a pandemic strategy for learning, which was far from perfect, but one they could fine-tune and experiment with.
Today, Mmamakwa Primary School boasts a profile for every learner at the school. Using these profiles, the best, most responsive learning decisions are made to serve children with “the best learning the school can offer”.
In progressing towards learning to think, the principals went on another play date, this time harnessing photographs through a photovoice exercise from all school stakeholders. In this exercise, teachers, leaders and parents were invited into a thinking circle. Principal Klaas Mahlahlani of Dikubu Primary School provided a set of visuals that spoke to a “value-based culture of learning”.
“Maslow before Bloom” was evident as he perused the various photo submissions his stakeholders provided. The choice of photos was supplemented by a voice note (in a person’s mother tongue) to enable meaningful conversations.
“Maslow before Bloom” is the “idea that educators should meet a child’s basic needs for safety and belonging before turning to challenging academic tasks”, according to Tom Berger, writing for the George Lucas Educational Foundation’s Edutopia. It links to American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and psychologist Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy of learning, which involves knowledge, comprehension, evaluation, application, analysis and synthesis rather than rote learning
The submissions became a learning-to-think opportunity: meals were arranged for learners in their homes and a further series of food gardens set up to supplement the resources they were provided with from the government. In Mahlalani’s words: “The stomach must be full for the mind to be productive. We sent food with children to their homes and we made more space in our school grounds to expand the food gardens.”
He is emphatic that “this is not negotiable”.
Finally, in the learning to lead phase of our work together, we engaged principals into a metaphor drawing play date. A strong theme that emerged for how to lead a culture of learning was “people, community, family”.
The idea that “it takes a village to raise a child” became one of the strongest themes that principals reflected on through drawing their visions of a learning culture, despite the pandemic. For all these principals, relationships were at the heart of leadership. Learning to lead a culture of learning meant that they saw collaboration and “every voice counts” as a mechanism for decision-making.
In developing their leadership with the constraints imposed by the pandemic on their learning environments, they sought to invite all stakeholders so that learning could be made possible through strengthening relationships that affect the life of every child.
As Joyce Pilane, the deputy principal of Mmampatile Primary School, said: “Nothing happens here without a focus on the child … everyone is on board with that.”
For many, love centralised the biggest learning; how to love when it’s hard to; how to love those different to you; how to love dissenting voices, and what does it teach you; how to love when that’s all you have to give.
Through these engagements my postgraduate students and I went through our own theory of constraints, learning to learn, learning to think and learning to lead from a place that matters most — a place of unconditional love.
Suerken leaves us with the last word of wisdom: “[The theory of constraints] enables people to think for themselves, to solve their own problems and to use the knowledge they have acquired with the implementation of simple and effective solutions in their everyday lives.”