Educational interventions should aim at foundation phase

By the time learners are in high school it is often “too late” to intervene. Therefore, educational interventions should be aimed at foundation phase learners (Grades 1-3). This is according to Professor Mellony Graven, the South African Chair of Numeracy Education at Rhodes University.

Hosted by the National Research Foundation (NRF), Prof Graven was addressing an audience of thousands via live broadcast on SAfm as part of its ‘Science for Society’ lecture series. Her talk, entitled ‘Addressing Challenges in Primary Mathematics Education’ addressed some of the successes and challenges experienced during her three year involvement with the South African Numeracy Chair project.

Drawing on Wenger’s social theory of learning and work on communities of practice, Prof Graven shared how the notions of learning and identity are considered inseparable and guide the initiative’s research and project work, “since learning changes who we are.”

According to Prof Graven, “We see identity as particularly important in our work as many foundation phase teachers have negative relationships with mathematics and so our initial research showed that they tended to shy away from teaching it, spending most of their time on literacy or life skills. Also many learners define themselves from a very early age with statements like ‘I am mathematically stupid’. We believe such identities must be changed.”

In an effort to facilitate this change Prof Graven has joined a group of colleagues, researchers and postgraduate students in forming the Numeracy Inquiry Community of Leader Educators (NICLE), based on a partnership between in-service teachers, staff in the Chair and key partners of the Chair.

Viewing teachers, researchers, families and learners as interconnected communities NICLE has partnered with 13 primary schools and 43 numeracy and mathematics teachers in local schools to “search for ways to improve mathematics education” Prof Graven said.

“Through a regular workshop and seminar series we have met regularly over the past three years and have developed a strong committed and passionate community.” To date NICLE has focused on key priority areas including mental fluency, progress from the concrete, encouraging homework and establishing other sites of learning, focusing on sense making and the development of productive learning dispositions, and using key resources and multilingualism as a resource in the classroom.

The initiative also includes a programme of after school clubs. Established in 2011, the clubs focus on “pushing for more active participatory sense making dispositions” and encouraging shifting of dispositions out of the classroom.

Prof Graven suggested it is vital that learners “own” their education out of the classroom, and this can be encouraged by “working regularly on maths homework and persisting even if it’s tough”, playing mathematical games at home with others and solving puzzles and challenges together.

“The key aim here is to dispel the assumption that learning maths can only happen in the maths classroom if the teacher is present. Learners hold the agency to learn at home if they have good resources to support this,” she said. The project provides such resources for learners to use at home.

Research evaluating the impact of the clubs in schools has noted that the initiative is meeting an urgent need in Eastern Cape schools, for the community and government, and making a difference to educators’ teaching abilities and habits which, in turn, is improving learner performance. Evaluations show that the Chair’s partnership with schools is “improving the relationship between Rhodes University and the schools”.

Professor Hamsa Venkatakrishnan, the South African Numeracy Chair at the University of the Witwatersrand also spoke during the broadcast. She said poor performance in primary maths, gaps in teachers’ content knowledge, problems with coverage, pacing and progression, and the overly negative public opinion of teachers comprise the five main challenges facing education in South Africa.

Prof Venkatakrishnan said, re-testing teachers is not the answer to these problems, as has been widely suggested. Instead, in order to fix the problem, “there must be opportunities for in-service teachers to do mathematics,” she said, emphasising the lack of skill of transferring maths information.

In response to these needs she has helped establish a Primary Maths Knowledge for Teaching course aimed at teachers in Gauteng to assist in improving teachers’ knowledge of their subjects and to teach them new methods of teaching.

By Sarah-Jane Bradfield

Photo: Professor Mellony Graven, the South African Chair of Numeracy Education at Rhodes University

Photo by Sophie Smith


Source:  Communications and Marketing

Please help us to raise funds so that we can give all our students a chance to access online teaching and learning. Covid-19 has disrupted our students' education.  Don't let the digital divide put their future at risk. Visit to donate