/ 2 March 2012

Postive about numbers

Thirty-five is a fairly young age at which to obtain your PhD. But Mamokgethi Setati is still disappointed that she did not receive hers at an even younger age.

Late last year the mathematics education academic was awarded the National Research Foundation’s B2 rating for researchers who its reviewers assess to be internationally recognised because of the “high quality and impact” of their research.

The chic and spirited Setati, vice-principal of research and innovation at the Unisa and honorary professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, spoke recently to the Mail & Guardian at the offices of investment group Shanduka, where she is one of 74 female shareholders.

She believes she could have received her PhD much earlier if she had enrolled for it right after her master’s degree, instead of opting to work first.

But she was heartened that it took her only five years after receiving her PhD in maths education from the University of the Witwatersrand to score her first rating from the National Research Foundation — a C1 in 2006, given to established researchers who some, but not all, reviewers assess as enjoying considerable international recognition through their recent work.

“Some researchers die without getting rated”
“It was very unusual to have a National Research Foundation rating within five years of obtaining a PhD,” Setati said. “It was quite an achievement. Some researchers die without getting rated.”

Now her B2 rating, announced in November last year, fills her with pride. “I’m counted among the best researchers in South Africa and recognised internationally,” Setati said.

The award made her only the third black woman to achieve a B-rating, after the Lesotho-born Tebello Nyokong of Rhodes University and the University of Pretoria’s Stella Nkomo.

Setati has 45 peer-reviewed articles to her name and 14 master’s and doctoral students have graduated under her supervision — six of whom were women, she was happy to confirm.

Setati is now gunning for an A-rating, the National Research Foundation’s highest research recognition. “Ratings are about a researcher’s standing. You have to submit your credentials to be evaluated by experts in your field of study,” she said.

As the titles of many of her journal articles attest, she has strong views on the language mediums in which teaching and testing mathematics and other subjects take place, or rather, should take place.

Multilingual teaching
“I advocate multilingual teaching, not mother-tongue teaching.”
The title of her 1998 report, “Innovative Language Practices in Multilingual Mathematics Classrooms”, is one of many on her CV that indicates her belief that ­language diversity in mathematics education is the key to improving learning and teaching.

“My PhD thesis also focused on language use in multilingual classrooms,” she said. “I wanted to understand the practices of teachers in multilingual maths classrooms.”

School textbooks and exam papers should be published in English and another indigenous language, she recommended, observing that Afrikaans-speaking pupils already got papers in their home language and English.

“Why can’t they put Tshivenda in the place of Afrikaans for children who speak Tshivenda and Setswana for those who speak Setswana?” she asked.

Her assessment of schools in black communities is that “teachers mix languages when teaching, they don’t just use English”. However, schools were confused when choosing a language of instruction, which is why they opted for English even though national policy allowed multiple ­languages, she said.

“Policy doesn’t make it explicit for schools on how to implement multilingualism as a support mechanism. It encourages multilingualism, but it’s unclear how you could do that in a country where English
is dominant.”

Accessing the economy
Bilingual instruction is one solution because, although children need to learn in a language they understand, they also need English to “gain access” to the economy. “You don’t want to move English out ­completely,” Setati said.

She also recommended the introduction of specialist mathematics teachers in all primary school grades. “That’s where the building blocks for maths are. The subject is like a chain: if you missed it in grade five, it becomes difficult in grade six.”

Setati said the “propagated fear of mathematics” was another trend she had identified as a persistent problem in teaching mathematics.

Society perpetuated this fear through “subtle messages” that suggested only a few, distinctive people could excel in the subject.

She finds it unfortunate that “everyone feels it’s okay to declare in public how bad they were in maths. People talk freely about maths as being difficult. But nobody should stand up and tell us how bad they were at it. If you have nothing good to say about it, it’s better not to say anything.”

Atitude matters
As things are, pupils develop negative attitudes towards the subject — and “attitude matters in maths”, she said. “My view is that it’s about the love of the subject and the time you put into it.”

One of the reasons she has progressed so far with maths is that, while growing up, she was never discouraged from developing an optimistic attitude towards it.

Setati was born in Eastwood, one of Pretoria’s oldest suburbs, and grew up in Marapyane, a village now in Mpumalanga, and Ga-Rankuwa, a township outside Pretoria. She attended various schools, matriculating with a university exemption in 1983 at the now defunct Hebron College of Education.

The “idea to love maths” started for her while she was in primary school. By the time she was in grade 10 she was “very much hooked on maths”, she said.

Setati feels lucky that she was not encouraged to fear maths.
“At home we never talked about maths as being difficult or special,” she said, adding that instead she was “taught to be excellent in what I do”.

Another “stroke of luck” in her formative years was being taught mathematics by a mentoring teacher. “There was a teacher who was always challenging me to do better. He had complete confidence in me.
“He got to a stage when, if his daughter got 95% in maths, he would say I had better beat that,” Setati said. And that is how she became an A-grade student in the subject.

Much later she met another mentor who left an indelible mark in her memory. Researcher Jill Adler, rated an A by the National Research Foundation, was her PhD supervisor and became her mentor in her ­subsequent academic work “and she still is”.

“When I got my rating, I wrote to her to say my success is your success,” said Setati.

Setati is determined not to fail in her work, partly because she is “carrying a burden” of social expectations on her shoulders.

“If I fail it’s not just about me. It would be about black people, women and young people,” she said. “If I mess up, people will say all black women are useless.”

So does she regard herself as a role model? Academics are not as popular as kwaito stars, she said, so it is not easy to gauge. But she does see herself as “an example of what’s possible if you work hard”.

“I hope young people look at me and say: ‘Wow, I can also become a professor,'” she said.