Algebra on the Serengeti

Algebra on the Serengeti. History at the Taj Mahal. Geography? A journey from Sydney to Ayers Rock and back.

Trained as a teacher, I was lucky enough early on in my career to meet a family of travelers who were prepared to approach education creatively. The parents were required to travel all over Africa (and sometimes beyond) for their work, but their approach was: “this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, let’s bring our children on the adventure with us.”

As you can imagine, I was thrilled to become Boyd and Bronwyn’s full-time tutor. The incredibly rich and wonder-filled (and at times perilous) experiences that we had during those years shaped many of my views on learning and on life and, in fact, much of what we do at Good Work Foundation, is steered by the concept of “algebra on the Serengeti”.

Boyd and Bronwyn

Algebra on the Serengeti with Boyd and Bronwyn

Here are three lessons that I have learnt about learning:

#1: Connect children with wonder

Wake up to watch the sunrise. Spend an hour watching the activities of an ant’s nest. Follow a butterfly. Have a midnight picnic.


On a recent trip with my daughter, Maya, we entered a room that simulated the conditions on a “chilly” day in Antarctica. And that night, thanks to jet-lag, we had a midnight picnic while we practiced the alphabet

We need to get individuals of all ages to love the experience of life and learning. And that’s why my mother (who is also an educator) and I believe so strongly in “an ecology of learning” that is more than just English, maths, science and computers.

We believe in creating theatre and opportunities, from the most entertaining educational apps on an iPad, to taking rural learners to a 3D movie in the city. A Grinch jumps out of a giant screen, and kids jump in their seats as they sip on their first ever strawberry milkshake. That’s wonder. That’s excitement. And in everything I do in learning, my number one goal is to create a wonder-filled space.

Blowing bubbles

Blowing bubbles in the Karoo

An iPad lesson at Londolozi Preschool

An iPad lesson at Londolozi Preschool

#2: Allow children to be wrong

As a teacher, what bothered me most about “conventional” schooling was that it conditioned students away from risk, away from exploring different answers, away from trying new things.

In a way, the family I was traveling with were taking a risk and so was I. Bronwyn and Boyd were out of “school” and landing in a new country every couple of weeks. We didn’t have a strict timetable and if something interesting was happening (like a trip to a local village, or an excursion into the bush) then that day’s “formal” lessons were put on hold and life’s lessons were pursued. It was a very different way of teaching and of learning. But the experience pushed us towards an incredibly creative space. As an example, we would study the history and English literature of the country that we were in at the time. What a privilege.

We all knew this was an experiment and that we should make the most of it, and today, that’s how Boyd and Bronwyn approach life. They are not afraid of being wrong. And if someone says that something can’t be done, they’ll find a way.


A special kind of history lesson. With the Masai in Kenya


Boyd filming in the bush

#3: Allow children to live up to your expectations

I always say that children will either live up or down to our expectations. On our trip to Australia, it was Boyd and Bronwyn, both still young teenagers, who planned the entire itinerary, booked tickets, budgeted and read the maps. I was just the driver. We were a team and Boyd and Bronwyn were expected to contribute, to explore and to find new things.

In Philippolis, every year we bring teenagers from overseas to a rural town in South Africa to be involved in building projects. On the first ever trip, over ten years ago, we expected 14 and 15 year old kids to build a preschool with us, and they did. They rose to the expectations that we had of them and left believing in their own abilities.


Teenagers on a building site in Philippolis

Children are incredibly adaptable and – as long as we expose them to wonder and allow them to make mistakes – then we are creating the space for them to be curious and push the boundaries of what they know and what they can do.

Algebra on the Serengeti is a picture of what can be. It is learning with a wonder-filled window. It is looking beyond the classroom at the possibilities of a world of Maths and Science certainly, but also all kinds of natural wonders, histories, technologies, opportunities and excitement.

Sir Ken Robinson and “How schools kills creativity

Much of what I am sharing in that article, is shared – in a slightly different way – by Sir Ken Robinson, whose talk on creativity and education is the most popular TED talk of all time. It is also one of my favourites. I have included it here and urge you to watch it:

I would love to know what “lessons about learning” you would add to my list.

Yours in wonder,

Kate Groch