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Teaching the teachers

In 2015, the World Economic Forum ranked South Africa’s maths and science education 138th out of 140 countries. Frances Aron finds out how one organisation is addressing the issue.

You don’t have to be a maths expert to understand the numbers: nearly 80% of South Africa’s Grade 6 teachers are unable to do the work they’re supposed to be teaching, according to a 2014 study conducted by researchers at Stellenbosch and Wits universities.

Mpumelelo Kolisile isn’t one of those teachers. But he could have been. Like scores of other maths educators countrywide, he studied for three years at college level to attain a below-mediocre qualification in teaching. Describing his first years of teaching, he recalls how, “Maths was just another subject needed by these learners to pass. The only hope I had was my textbook, chalk, chalkboard and my passion for the subject.”

Then he heard about The African Institute for Mathematical Sciences School Enrichment Centre (AIMSSEC), a non-profit organisation that provides professional development courses for maths teachers, subject advisors and field trainers in South Africa.

It was only after three applications – once a year for three years – that Kolisile was accepted. In June 2008, at the age of 30, Kolisile enrolled at AIMSSEC for the Mathematical Thinking (MT) course. After this, he completed the more comprehensive two-year Advanced Certificate in Education (ACE) course, then became a part-time lecturer with the organisation.

Today Kolisile is not only a successful maths teacher, but also the headmaster of a township school with 30 teachers and 1 200 learners, in the heart of East London.

“My journey [with AIMSSEC] has changed my attitude [towards] teaching maths completely,” he says. “I now teach with enthusiasm, with interested learners. We use games, drama, imagination and problem-solving in our lessons.”

Located in Cape Town, AIMSSEC targets teachers who want to change from the traditional ‘chalk and talk’ approach to a more learner-centred one, as well as those who are newly qualified or under-qualified and want to be part of a mathematics community that shares new ideas and good practices.

The organisation is driven by founder Toni Beardon and her highly capable team. Beardon became interested in creating a maths outreach programme in South Africa when she first visited the country in 2002. She and her husband came here to work with the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), a Muizenberg-based centre of excellence for postgraduate education, research and outreach.

With 15 years of experience setting up mathematics outreach from Cambridge University, Beardon was keen to discover which aspects of the programme – if any –could be applicable in South Africa.

“I read everything I could about recent South African history and conditions, and about the education system, and asked hundreds of people what they thought would be the most useful contribution that AIMS could make to school mathematics education in South Africa and why,” she says.

Beardon discovered that the greatest need was teacher professional development. Determined more than ever to contribute to effective teacher training, she established AIMSSEC, the Schools Enrichment Centre, as a branch of AIMS South Africa. She firmly believed – and still does – that “for equality of opportunity, there first needs to be equality of educational opportunity”.

Beardon doesn’t claim any credit for the enquiry-based learning approach taken by AIMSSEC. She simply saw it yield significant results during her many teaching years in the UK. In the early ’70s, enquiry-based learning was new to UK secondary schools. “We rearranged classrooms, got rid of desks and, for the first time, tried lots of practical mathematical activities in our lessons,” she recalls.

The transition wasn’t easy, but Beardon saw phenomenal changes in British society at the time due to the changes in teaching.

AIMSSEC encourages teachers to plan lessons that involve learners in mathematical activities, thinking for themselves and lively group discussions. The organisation offers tried-and-tested classroom activities designed to develop mathematical thinking and problem-solving skills, which have been modified to suit the conditions in South African schools.

Because this style of teaching is so unlike their previous experience, the teachers require a lot of support and a more-than-comprehensive understanding of all the mathematical concepts involved.

Over the 12 years since the birth of AIMSSEC, a total of 1 573 students have completed the three-month MT course, while 215 students have completed the two-year ACE course. Some of the former students are now lecturing for AIMSSEC, like Kolisile, while others are working as teaching assistants or lecturing in South Africa and Kenya.

“After completion of the ACE course, the subject advisor got me involved in district programmes aimed at filling content gaps in mathematics,” says AIMSSEC alumnus Andiswa Mpuhlu. “Due to the improved performance of my learners, I have since been promoted to head the mathematics department at my school and this opportunity allows me to share the knowledge I gained with other teachers in my school.”

From the start, Beardon planned a two-year modular course (now the ACE course); as quality control, she had it approved back in Cambridge. Joined by Kosie Smit and the Institute for Mathematics and Science Teaching of the Stellenbosch University, she worked to align the course to the South African Qualifications Authority requirements and to acquire funds for the startup.

It was then that she independently started the MT course, which was meant as a first step for students prior to enrolling on the two-year programme.

The main objective was to offer a series of professional development courses over a period of four years.

To date, AIMSSEC has had a positive response across provincial education departments, from the National Skills Fund to corporate companies that sponsor bursaries for applicants. The teachers who are selected travel from far and wide, enduring long journeys by bus to attend training during their school holidays. This commitment is more than encouraging and serves as both proof of the desire for learning and a symbol of hope for our country’s future.

While Beardon is thrilled with the team and their progress, she knows that the journey is far from over. AIMSSEC recently partnered with North West University to jointly develop and offer the new Advanced Certificate in Mathematics Teaching course, as well as an Advanced Diploma in Education.

“Teaching and learning for the 21st century must be different from the past,” she says, “because different skills are needed today in this radically changed and rapidly changing society.”

From Issue 243, 24 June – 24 July 2016. Available on Magzter