Agency, resilience and innovation in overcoming educational failure

  • Crispin Hemson Durban University of Technology, South Africa
Keywords: Resilience, Agency, Strategies, Appropriation, African context


This study seeks to understand how a group of boys in a Durban township achieved exceptional educational results despite the severe financial, social and educational constraints they faced. Their high school typified the worst failings of the South African educational system, but they achieved academic success in the matriculation and at university. Using resilience theory as a framework, it seeks to explore the strategies employed by the group and assesses the nature of their resilience. The group formed from a recognition that they were failing in their education. They responded by developing both individual and collective strategies to guide their learning. The strategies consisted of individual study, the debating of problems in their group, using whatever extra classes were available, locating material resources and taking on tutoring and teaching roles. The study draws on a series of interviews, focus group discussion and documentary evidence over the period 2011 to 2018. A thematic analysis of the data identifies four key themes: (1) Education and society have failed us (2) Responding to failure, we develop strategies and we appropriate resources (3) “Learning is within our blood” and (4) Our success. The only possible advantage the group enjoyed over their peers was that their families valued their education. In the process they developed confidence in their deep understanding of the subjects they studied and in their own intellectual capacity. It is argued that the principles they developed hold within them the potential for ongoing transformation of the systems that disadvantaged them. The significance of this study is that it demonstrates the need for officials, principals and teachers to value and support the capacity of young people in African contexts to achieve the fullest grasp of disciplinary knowledge.


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How to Cite
Hemson, C. (2019). Agency, resilience and innovation in overcoming educational failure. Perspectives in Education, 36(2), 61-74.