“I have always embraced technology in my educational work, not for the sake of it, but because I have always seen its potential for unlocking potential and empowering individuals and groups.” – Peter de Lisle, South Africa

Peter de Lisle is certain that education can be better than it currently is, and he’s working tirelessly to be a force for change. De Lisle believes that “the most important thing I can do for students is to nurture their passion for discovery, thinking and creativity by putting them at the center of their learning.” He’s done this by embracing technology, “not for the sake of it, but because I have always seen its potential for unlocking potential and empowering individuals and groups.”

De Lisle’s own passion for discovery resulted in his participation in the 2010 Partners in Learning Innovative Education Forum in Cape Town, where he was named 2nd runner up in the content category. His project used thinking and research tools to find out about biomes and involved the creation of a collaborative spreadsheet tool to evaluate the best biome to live in. Learners then used creativity tools to create a biome as a context for a computer game and to design a suitably adapted creature to live in it. Finally, they narrated an adventure in their biome.

About technology as a learning tool, de Lisle notes, “I like the way it makes flexibility and openness more possible, providing an almost limitless field in which students can find their unique voice.”  Here, de Lisle shares his thoughts on technology and the most promising trends in education innovation.


Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?

I suppose I have never been an ideal candidate for fitting comfortably into a traditional schooling environment! My desire to be involved in education has been marked by restlessness, by a passionate belief that schooling can be done so much better than most schools and many teachers expect and believe. Ever since I started training to become a teacher, I have tried to be creative and innovative in my work. Over many years of teaching in very varied contexts, I have attempted to devise meaningful learning experiences for my students by harnessing the available resources, whether advanced or limited. In general I have aimed not to be a “hero” teacher, trying not to be an entertaining figure who is a larger than life presence in the students’ lives.

In practice what I have done over and above my own teaching is to work with teachers, in my own school and others, sometimes through SchoolNet SA, to promote more innovative approaches to teaching. I have given workshops and talks, promoting the use of ICTs in education, but always with an emphasis on the pedagogical mission.

What has changed as a result of your efforts?

I hope that I have taught some students that the most important person in the learning equation is themselves, and that they have the capacity to think and be creative even without any teachers. I hope I have inspired some teachers to take the risk to work in a different way, and that I have helped them learn some skills which have given them the confidence to create learning experiences which put the student at the center of learning.

How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

I am very privileged to teach at a well-resourced school. The challenges that I face are more to do with acceptance of a need for change in the face of tradition and a fairly rigid examination-based curriculum. It is important to use the lower grades as a time to explore and build strong thinking skills, so that as students move up the school, the teachers can see the benefits of well-developed skills and thinking.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

In some ways it is not about the technology, so it is important first to have a strong instructional idea and plan before launching into a technological solution. This means that innovation can be quite simple technologically, it doesn’t have to be the latest whizz-bang gizmo. And I also think that innovation is contextual. If it is positively disruptive in a student or teacher’s world, because it takes them to a whole new space, then it is innovative.

So, for example, having a browser-based LMS is important because it makes it possible to do class in new ways which free the teacher and student from having to do all the education business in a certain time and place. Cloud-based collaboration software allows students to work together in ways which they have not been able to before, again free from time/place limitations. Mapping software allows students to see relationships between things in ways which give them deeper insight. Pivot charts can be used as a way of visualizing answers to research questions, of playing with data. There are so many ways of applying technology creatively.

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

My school is atypical, in that it is well-resourced and there are no real obstacles. Other schools really battle to even do the basics; they face huge issues with resources, attendance, parental involvement, connectivity, teacher morale… the list goes on and on.

What is your country doing right to support education?

It is hard to know what to do to solve a situation which is so damaged. There need to be high standards set, and teachers need to be well trained and carefully selected, so they can feel like empowered professionals. There are some instances where these kinds of initiatives are happening, most run by NGOs.

What conditions must change in your country to better support education?

We need a major overhaul of our teacher training and development, such that the profession can be seen as a desirable one, where teachers are well-qualified, respected leaders in society. We need to allocate resources so that class sizes are manageable. We need to realize as a country that this is a huge priority, and that without a major successful change, we are not going to make progress as a country.

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

Affordable tools (hardware and software), excellent connectivity, teachers with the skill and confidence to facilitate learning which does not have a teacher at the center.

What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?

Invest the time working out a pedagogy which is truly educational, then spend the time playing with various tools and activities so you feel comfortable not having to seem to be in control.

What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?

Project-based learning is the key to establishing truly exciting educational experiences. But the skill, confidence and resources needed to do that successfully are important pre-requisites. A flipped classroom is a good modification of the (sometimes necessary) direct instruction approach, but shouldn’t just be a whole lot of videos of the teacher. I think there are other more interesting resources one can flip with. Personalized learning, facilitated by online courses, is becoming more of a possibility, and holds lots of promise.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

When they become available, I think all kids should have a Microsoft Surface, or something like it. It should be light to carry, easy to use, have a long battery life, and be easy to connect to the Internet and school intranets. It should have powerful software which can unleash the creativity of students in artistic as well as analytical directions. It should be fun to use.

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About Peter de Lisle 

  • Birthplace: Grahamstown, South Africa
  • Current residence: Hilton (nr Pietermaritzburg), South Africa
  • Education:  Rhodes University (South Africa): BA (English & Psychology); Psych Honours; Psych Masters; Lancaster University (UK): Masters in Sociology of Religion; University of Cape Town (SA): Teaching Diploma; University of Pretoria (SA): MEd. (Computers in Education/Instructional Design).
  • Website I check every day: Various news sites; education/technology sites (eg Tech and Learning)
  • Person who inspires me most: Richard Rohr (spiritual); Seymour Papert (education)
  • Favorite childhood memory: beach holiday, visiting beautiful places
  • Next travel destination (work or pleasure): USA (Richmond – work; Mozambique – pleasure)
  • When was the last time you laughed? Why? I can’t remember the specifics, but it was a situation where my son and I could see the funny side of something which no one else could, and seeing each other’s sense of amusement made it all the funnier.
  • Favorite book: Fatherland by Robert Harris
  • Favorite music: Indie (e.g. Iron and Wine); Baroque (Bach)
  • Your favorite quote or motto:Leadership through command and control is doomed to fail.” – Margaret J. Wheatley
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