The impact of high expectations
Jonathan Jansen and his team have changed dozens of schools in this country. His approach is simple: expect the best and then empower people to deliver that.
Prof Jonathan Jansen was the last of the studio guests in our podcast series called Change in one generation. His story of his journey from Retreat on the Cape Flats to the highest levels of academia always includes two key interactions. The first was when he was in grade 8, playing soccer on the streets with his mates. His Latin teacher stopped him with a hand on his shoulder: “I have been watching you. You have potential.” He had to ask his mother what “potential” means. “It means you don’t have to play soccer all your life,” she said. “I never came second in anything ever again,” says Jonathan.
The second interaction happened when he arrived at Cornell University to start working on his master’s degree. He knocked on the door of Prof Joe Novak, at the time the world’s leading authority on concept maps and science education. He was nervous: “I had no great sense of myself. I was a high school teacher from District Six.” Prof Novak greeted him: “I’ve been waiting for you. This manuscript should have been with Harvard University Press already, but I kept it back because I wanted your feedback.” Jonathan remembers he “almost wet (himself). What was I going to say?! It took me a couple of years to realise that what he was actually saying was, ‘I believe you have something to say.’ It was earth-shattering.”
Earth-shattering, because it shifted his own view of what was possible. Just like that long-ago day on the streets of Retreat, the impact was profound, making him reach higher and further than he ever thought he could.
His understanding of the transformative power of high expectations and a teacher’s belief in the student’s ability, born from his own experience, lies at the root of his vision for change in our schools, captured in the book he put together with researcher Molly Blank in 2014 and simply called Lessons from schools that work – how to fix South African schools. He passionately believes that our school system expects too little from the students, delivering, among other problems, “bachelor pass” matriculants who are utterly unprepared for university.
He first had the opportunity to put his views to the test when the then-premier of the Free State and MEC for education approached him a month into his tenure as vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, asking him to help them improve their schools. He put together a team and they focused on the most disadvantaged schools in the province, the bottom 25%, introducing retired teachers and principals as mentors for the teachers in the classroom. The “political cover” his team had through the premier’s involvement, meant that teachers’ unions did not push back, something that was crucial to the project’s success. The other crucial element, though, was that there was no criticism involved. “We said, we are not bringing inspectors. The mentor is here to help you. They will work with you for the next twelve weeks. Nobody will know about this.”
His approach is quite simply to expect the best and then to make it possible for the person to deliver that. “There’s a misperception that says that teachers want our kids to fail, they want the schools to do poorly. That’s wrong. Every teacher, every principal, every parent wants the school to do well. The mechanism for doing that has to be respectful, has to be empowering, and has to show results. When the teachers saw the results improving, they did not want us to go away!”
We ended the conversation with a reflection on how universities can help to build towards a united vision for South Africa. Dr Frank Magwegwe, our change expert for this series, teaches at GIBS in Johannesburg. “What I realised,” he said, “is that our MBA students are the future leaders of the country. I need to pay attention not so much to the technical stuff like corporate finance, but to really interrogate them on what type of leaders they want to be; what legacy they want to leave. I try to touch them at a personal level so that they can make a bigger impact when they go back to (their corporate jobs).” Jonathan immediately picked up on that, remembering a lunch with the then-head of the JSE: “I was at Free State (University) at the time, and I told him we were doing a good job training students. He rebuked me. He said, ‘No, no, no. I will train them. You educate them.’” Jonathan explained his understanding of that idea: “Of course you must be a good engineer, but are you also empathetic? Are you also somebody who can embrace people who are not like you?
“We need to understand that, at a very deep level, we (the universities) are in the values business. One of the key goals of university in a country like this is to teach people the habits of democracy. If we understand that broader education and it matches the training, oh my goodness, we will change this country tomorrow morning.”
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