Maths skills under the spotlight

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Two education-focused Research Chairs based at Wits are addressing the critical issue of the country’s mathematics skills.

Maths skills. (Supplied)

While the two Chairs are inter-related, they are focused on the opposite ends of the schooling system spectrum.

Professor Hamsa Venkatakrish–nan’s work is dedicated to the foundation and intermediate phase of children’s schooling, spanning grades R to 7, with a particular focus on numeracy skills.

The  Chair in Numeracy Education is actively working with 10 schools to explore how teaching innovations and interventions can make an impact at this early stage to improve children’s grasp of basic mathematical concepts. 

She says the Research and Development Education Chairs are slightly different from the other Chairs, which are primarily research based, in that their mandate has both research and development components, with the latter intended to introduce new classroom practices that improve numeracy skills.

Apart from testing new teaching methods, Venkatakrishnan’s postgraduate students also work with teachers to improve their mathematical knowledge to better convey concepts to their learners. This includes using diagrams and actions to help learners make sense of mathematical ideas and relationships.

She says two pilot projects to assess the effectiveness of the technical content knowledge interventions have yielded data that show these have a positive impact on the delivery of mathematics classes.

She plans to apply for an extension of her Chair for another five-year cycle in which she aims to assess the impact on students’ learning and comprehension due to the teachers’ improved technical proficiency. A second element of this expanded work will investigate ways to offer the teacher training to district advisors.

Her colleague Professor Jill Adler’s work is also centred on the teachers, but at high school level, particularly grades 8 to 12. 

She says the research was originally to be from grades 10 to 12, but that problems in these grades stemmed from the quality of mathematics being taught in earlier years.

Adler’s Chair has therefore introduced year-long courses for teachers at Wits that focus on strengthening their own mathematics and this is complemented by on site support in schools. 

This programme involves 10 Gauteng schools and the most critical impact has been the ability to strengthen teachers’ orientation to the subject matter. 

She says these interventions have allowed her Chair to work in greater depth on concept areas that are pivotal to developing the teachers’ maths skills. 

Positive results have already been achieved over a fairly short period, although she acknowledges this is off a low base.

Both academics acknowledge the value of their Chairs to make a positive impact on the quality of teaching being delivered to learners in public schools. At the same time they recognise that results will not be seen overnight, but a start has to be made to address these critical skills and conceptual shortfalls.

The two education Chairs together with four other Research and Development Chairs also focusing on education are all funded through joint funding between the Department of Science and Technology and private partners; FirstRand Foundation, Anglo American Chairman’s Fund and Rand Merchant Bank.

This supplement has been paid for by Department of Science and Technology and its contents signed off by the DST and the National Research Foundation.

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