A brief history by Chair of the TSSA Board, Anita Worrall

The history of Thinking Schools South Africa (TSSA) could be said to be traced to Professor Emeritus, Bob Burden, an applied educational psychologist of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Exeter, who came to tell us about the thinking schools organisation being established in the UK. I was president of IACESA at the time, and we were planning our July 2011 conference in Cape Town. Our primary goal was to advance cognitive education, teaching and learning in South Africa. 

But the history of TSSA goes much further than that. In the course of the mid 1980s, academics and educators were interested in improving the quality of education for all children in South Africa. Among those academics were Professor Willy Rautenbach, a renowned South African nuclear physicist from the University of Stellenbosch, and Professor Mervyn Skuy of the Department of Education of the University of Witwatersrand. They were impressed with the work of Professor Reuven Feurstein in Jerusalem. Professor Feurstein, having worked with children who had survived the horrors of the Holocaust, advanced a belief that all children can learn. He developed the theory of structural cognitive modifiability, where he maintained that structures of the brain can be modified as a result of deliberate intervention from a skilled mediator, a parent, a teacher or members of the community. In fact, Reuven Feurstein predicted what we know today as neuro- plasticity.

Influenced by Professors Rautenbach and Skuy, South Africans began attending courses and workshops in Israel. These courses were also attended by educators from around the world. 

In 1988 the International Association of Cognitive  Education ( IACE) was established in Canada. Many of these educators and academics had attended workshops addressed by Reuven Feurstein. In South Africa, we decided to be part of the international body, and we therefore became affiliates of IACE. Thus IACESA was born with the goal of advancing cognitive education in Southern Africa. 

Reuven Feurstein had proposed the program of instrumental enrichment to stimulate thinking skills in children. In the United States, academics such as Professor Carl Haywood of Vanderbilt University, developed Bright Start, a cognitive program for 4 to 6 years old. Professor Cathy Greenberg of the University of Tennessee proposed Cognet, made up of mini-lessons to introduce cognitive skills to classes. IACESA conferences brought them and many others to South Africa. Many of us attended IACE conferences in Israel, United States, Finland and Belgium.  

But trained teachers attempted to use the various programs found that without the support of the principal or of the other teachers in the school, the programs were not sustainable.

In 2004, Gill Hubble, principal of St Cuthbert College in Melbourne, Australia, decided to encourage whole school training. She selected two programs, David Hyerle’s Thinking Maps and Art Costa and Bena Kallicks’ Habits of Mind. With Gill’s encouragement, her whole school adopted the programs. It was very successful and this persuaded other educators that whole school training was the answer. 

That was what Bob Burden had come to tell us in 2011. A number of educators at the University of Exeter and surrounds had decided to develop thinking schools with its whole school approach. Subsequently, conferences in the UK were attended by educators far and wide. We visited schools that had adopted thinking as part of the curriculum. Bob Burden developed and wrote the definition of a Thinking  School.

For the conference in July 2011, we invited David Hyerle, Bob Burden and, as Art  Costa could not travel, he recommended James Anderson, from Australia. It was the largest conference IACESA had ever organised, and, amidst much excitement, a proposal that Thinking Schools South Africa (TSSA) should be established was accepted. It was to be an applied organisation, as opposed to IACESA, which was to continue to be a research organisation. We had as our goal 100 thinking schools and 200000 thinking children. TSSA was born, and, in the last ten years, thanks to the dedicated team at TSSA and the enthusiasm of principals and teachers, we have more than met our goal. 


Dr Anita Worrall

Chairperson/ Co-founder TSSA