9 ways to blend tradition with innovation

Ben Thompson

Ben Thompson is vice principal of academics at Wynberg Boys’ High School, Cape Town - the second oldest school in South Africa. He joined in January 2007 as head of Physical Sciences, and following a one-year placement at the American International School in Cape Town teaching Physics and Mathematics, returned to Wynberg in January 2015. Ben also spent eight years as a volunteer outdoor pursuits instructor for disadvantaged and disabled children. The school uses the management information system (MIS) from SIMS Independent.

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Images courtesy of author. Images courtesy of author.

With a history as long as ours, it won’t come as a surprise that we’ve learnt a thing or two about teaching boys along the way. The past 175 years has taught us much about understanding boys and how to motivate them to perform to the best of their ability. We greatly value our heritage and traditions, and our school motto - ‘Supera Moras’, or ‘Never Give Up’ - still inspires our way of thinking.

However, we’ve grown and changed a lot since we first opened our doors to just sixteen students in 1841. Innovative ways to help students achieve their full potential are always embraced, and we’re enthusiastic about exploiting the latest technology to help us meet our aims.

The Wynberg Way is to mix the old and new to keep expectations of both behaviour and achievement high, and a central focus on striving for excellence in all we do. This blend of both time-honoured and more modern methods helps us to support, challenge and boost every boy’s performance.

1. Exceeding benchmarks

In South Africa, the government sets a pass level of 30% or 40%, depending on the subject, before a child can progress to the next grade of school. Instead of encouraging the boys to aim for these marks, we have introduced a ‘Wynberg Pass’ of 55%. This is the minimum target level on any test, examination, project or assignment, and exceeds what is expected as a baseline to apply to university too so the boys are encouraged to aim high.

2. Student accountability

We recognise that all young men are different, with a variety of abilities and potential routes to follow after school. So, we have a unique approach to target setting. At the start of his High School career, each student selects his individual Minimum Performance Level (MPL).

The boys are then held to account for this as they move through the school, although it can be raised or lowered at set points during the year. Certain privileges are awarded for consistently achieving an MPL, which are based on the willingness to risk setting a high enough standard, as well as achievement of the necessary level to encourage the students not to set their sights too low.

3. Sharing information

Teachers have always talked to each other about their students, and these conversations can often be hugely beneficial. A quick chat in the staff room about a boy who is falling behind in Maths might reveal that the same student is having difficulties in other subjects, for instance. Teachers can then work together to put interventions in place that help to boost the child’s achievement across the curriculum.

4. The importance of accurate data

It’s not enough for key information such as details of a student’s attendance, homework marks or test scores to be recorded then simply sit in a filing cabinet or on the school’s computer system. Our staff have an electronic dashboard of information, such as details of students’ attendance and achievement, that is pushed out to them from our SIMS management information system. They don’t need to seek information out for themselves – if they are authorised to see it, it goes straight into their hands.

With the latest information in front of them on the progress a child is making – or not, as the case may be – issues are uncovered that a teacher otherwise might not be aware of. Staff across the schools can then work more effectively together to address them.

5. Celebrating academic attainment

We want to encourage academic success, so the moment a teacher awards a merit to a boy in the class, other staff members are automatically notified in real-time. For example, we have eight house heads, whose primary role is to manage the wellbeing of our students. From the dashboards on their computer screens, they can see which of their students have been awarded merits or demerits, and how each student has performed in their academic studies.

So, a head of house could walk down the corridor and say to one of his boys, “You had a bad History lesson, everything alright?” Or “Great improvement on your Maths exam, up 22% from last term!” The look on a student’s face when we praise them for a piece of work, or offer encouragement after a difficult lesson, says it all.

6. Recognising accomplishments beyond the classroom

Extracurricular activities, including Drama and Music, play a huge part in school life at Wynberg. We are also very serious about competitive sport. Our boys love to be active, and we consider that the lessons learnt from sport and competition – such as teamwork, the correct etiquette and sportsmanship – are lessons for life.

Service to others is prioritised at our school, too. From undertaking quarterly collections of food, blankets and books for orphanages, to caring for abused animals, boys are encouraged to be of assistance wherever possible. It’s always wonderful to see students give their time willingly and generously, and we are now monitoring these achievements alongside their academic ones to make sure everyone does their bit.

7. Communicating with parents

Parents play a critical role in supporting their child’s progress, and we regularly send home student reports to keep them informed. However, we want our reports to have a real impact, so we represent each boy’s achievements and academic potential visually. Graphs are created from the information recorded and stored in our SIMS MIS, which charts students’ progress towards learning targets throughout their time with us.

This way, the boys and their parents can see at a glance how they have performed in the past and what they are capable of achieving in the future – the information we provide also includes potential attainment for academic terms that are yet to be completed. It means the widely referred to and intangible concept of a student’s ‘potential’ is framed in a very effective way for parents and the boys themselves.

8. Involving parents daily

Increasingly, families expect to be kept informed on a much more frequent basis of how their child is faring at school. With this in mind, we’ve launched an online parent portal to support this, and parents love it.

Linked to our main computer system, all the relevant information a parent might like to see about their child can be accessed online, so if they are wondering how their son performed in his English test, they will be able to log on and see the result for themselves.

With details of achievements and behavioural incidents uploaded as they happen, it’s so straightforward – two clicks from the teacher and every boy in the school with a merit or demerit that day will be having a conversation with their parents over dinner. That’s a very powerful motivator.

9. Keeping our focus on students – always

In our experience, if a subject is proving difficult, or a student is struggling to keep up with their homework, knowing that the subject teacher, department leader or head of house is aware of the situation helps.

It means students are much more inclined to open up about any concerns, and are more willing to work with us to identify what support is needed. We’ve found they are more engaged when we provide it, too. Discussions about what the boys need to do to reach the next level will, more often than not, also happen naturally.

Seeing our boys develop a mature sense of accountability towards their learning is extremely gratifying. The values we instil in them during their time with us comprehensively prepares them for life after school. That is when friendliness, manners, grit and perseverance – as well as the confidence that comes with high achievement, both inside and outside of the classroom – will serve them especially well.

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