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Transformative Learning

Personal transformation can and does have global effects. As we go, so goes the world, for the world is us. The revolution that will save the world is ultimately a personal one.

Marianne Williamson

It’s a Thursday in November 2011 – time for Grade 9 life orientation class. Twenty-three thirteen- and fourteen-year-old students and their young teacher, Royston, sit in a circle – a space where everyone is equal and where there are no desks or books to hide behind. It has other less obvious connotations too: of safety and wholeness. Today, as usual, Royston, begins the lesson with a five-minute guided breathing and awareness exercise during which his students sit upright with feet flat on the floor, eyes closed and hands on laps. His eyes move from student to student as he talks, reminding them to focus on the moment – noting those who are fidgety, who can’t keep their eyes closed or whose bodies are becoming calmer and more grounded.

When eyes are opened again, Royston makes a comment about body language: how people revert to habitual postures after the exercise. He demonstrates his own – chin in hand and arm across stomach – and points out a couple of others. There’s laughter of recognition and agreement. He asks what students think his posture means. There’s discussion in isiXhosa before “Nervous,” says one, “Uncomfortable,” says another. Royston admits that he does it to protect himself, especially when he’s the focus of attention.

Some students have noticed from the body language of one of their classmates, Zintle, that she’s suppressing strong feelings. After encouragement from Thomas and her peers (she struggles to express herself in English and is often silent in class) she reveals concern regarding the relationship between her boyfriend and another girl – also a class member. This is a common theme and there is a lot of opinion, discussion and some confrontation. Students are frequently reminded by Royston (and each other) to speak loudly enough so that everyone can hear, to respect each other by listening and raising their hands when they have something to say, to address any person they are speaking about directly,  to be open and honest, and to reflect for each other rather than judge.

Royston models this behaviour as he joins in the conversation. He uses his own experiences and feelings to illustrate that people often test each other: “and we have to take responsibility for our own self-respect, and we need to decide for ourselves where we draw the line. It has to be right for you, not everyone else,” he says, bringing the lesson to a close.

Life orientation classes at the six LEAP Science and Maths schools provide the main space for the kind of truthful and open communication –  called at LEAP “difficult conversations” – that is intended to trigger emotional self-awareness and reflective insight as enablers to self-empowerment and positive personal  transformation and growth.

A nine hour school day and an education year that extends to 240 days (including  Saturday school and holiday programmes) is clear evidence of LEAP’s commitment to teaching and learning. However, at the heart of this dedication is a real vision for personal transformation that extends beyond the daily double periods for maths, science and English. At LEAP the development of the whole person is the centre or beginning of a spiral of influence that uncoils to include the whole school, the whole community and the whole country.

For this reason the allocation to life orientation is more than double the prescribed time. While the national curriculum is used as a guide to subject content, the values that are taught, dissected, and, ultimately, internalised during LO consistently emphasise the schools’ code of conduct. It is the goal at LEAP to embed the values in all subject curricula and to ensure that all LEAP lessons have an end in mind that is values based. So the values  are supported by general classroom culture and teaching practice in all subjects, and aligned within the whole-school life.

During an accounting lesson, for example, an exercise on income statements may incorporate a conversation about honesty, using a real example of LEAP statements to funders and the importance of proper accountability. The maths teacher may use an unusually challenging problem as an opportunity to talk about courage and risk-taking. A language teacher may set a comprehension exercise on the difference between being kind and being nice. Teachers try never to miss an opportunity to explore the relevance of these concepts to their students’ lives outside class. Weekly school “community meetings” allow time for any student or staff member to raise important issues around school values, and students are especially encouraged to express themselves openly in all forums.

LEAP values focus on affirming self-respect, relationships, family, community, aspiration, leadership, positive peer influence, culture and collaboration, and all are supported by adherence to a set of behaviours and expectations described in the LEAP Code of Conduct. But the core value is identified as transformation. At LEAP transformation implies the development of the whole person as the centre or beginning of a spiral of influence that uncoils to include the whole school, the whole community and the whole country.

“South Africans are still suffering from the wounds caused by the enforced segregation of the past and the significant inequality of the present; still caught in a vicious cycle of apathy, dependency and self-sabotage,” says John Gilmour, founder and Director of LEAP. “In order to break out of it and enter a new cycle of dignity, initiative, self sufficiency and accountability[1], it is necessary for every one of us to personally transform. We intend to facilitate this as much as possible through the kind of education we offer at LEAP.”

A LEAP education stresses the importance of honest engagement with others as the basis for building meaningful relationships. Leaders, teachers and staff at LEAP work through these relationships to intervene intentionally and carefully in the emotional, intellectual, physical and spiritual lives of their students. The key aim at LEAP is the development of  students, not only as academic achievers  (and the overall LEAP schools’ pass rate for matric since the first graduating class in 2005 until 2011 is 94%, with 75% of graduates up until 2010 continuing with tertiary education), but as whole people – socially accountable adults who have the courage, direction and tools to pursue their dreams, realise their potential and become caring and responsible citizens. Teachers’ responsibility to their students extends to preparing them adequately for tertiary education and their future adult lives, illustrated by one of the frequently expressed LEAP maxims: “To, through and beyond tertiary study.”

Transformation is often an uncomfortable, sometimes painful, but inevitable process for all at LEAP. Staff and teachers are not exempt from the intense self-examination entailed in the process. “The responsibility that sits on our shoulders as teachers, is to go about our daily engagements with students in such a way that it clearly illustrates for them what a healthy lifestyle entails,” says one teacher. “Part of this, though, is making mistakes like all human beings do, but being open and honest enough to own up to them and learn from them.”

Forming an integral part of a LEAP education for transformation is the process of building relationships with the communities in which the students live. All students and staff commit to playing an active and ongoing role in the LEAP Social Development Programme. Practices outlined in the LEAP code of conduct – such as confronting issues, working together and sharing as much as possible – support regular interactions with local community development organisations. The principle of human interdependence as expressed in the African philosophy of ‘ubuntu’ which implies “…walking a path of service which harnesses our collective potential”[2] is an important part of the broader LEAP transformation initiative.

LEAP also works closely with many other schools and organisations which form part of the wider social movement towards transformation in South Africa. Rather than operating in traditionally separate ‘silos’ those at LEAP and their partner organisations form networks in order to share and integrate their collective learning around what makes effective education. The belief at LEAP is that through a process of ‘walking together’[3] with others they will ultimately reach the optimum tipping point to influence collective consciousness in ways that increasingly mobilise civic action towards large-scale positive change in the education and lives of all young South Africans.

“One of the challenges I had was changing from the greedy, selfish young girl I was, to the honest, strong and helpful young woman I have become, but I am still struggling and growing,” writes Yanela, a 2009 LEAP graduate. “I have learned that in order to be helped you must also help others and share whatever you have with other people. I must never forget where I come from and one day, when I am successful I should plough back…I must stay real at school, home or wherever I am.”

“Perhaps the gift that we at LEAP can give to others is the platform we provide for honest discourse,” says John Gilmour.

This article appeared in The Business of Teaching Magazine, First Term 2012

[1] This process of changing mindsets has been effectively described by Dr Mamphela Ramphele through her Letsema Circle initiative. See

[2] Part of a definition by Barbara Nussbaum on

[3] A phrase coined by the Dinokeng scenario-planning exercise, held in 2008, to understand possible alternative futures for South Africa. For more information go to



Values - Everyone at LEAP commits to:

  • Being kind, honest and healthy
  • Being punctual and looking good
  • Working hard and never giving up
  • Admitting and learning from mistakes
  • Confronting issues and being open to change
  • Working together and sharing