Teacher competency and passion in mathematics are vital for nurturing mathematical talent and love in students

Published On: 25 April 2024|

Appropriate levels of mathematics competency and passion in the subject can bring out the best in students, raising their competency in and love for the subject. This was the central message of two senior scholars and guest speakers at the first meeting of Universities South Africa’s USAf Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of Mathematics (TLM CoP) on Friday 19 April 2024, online.  Mathematicians and academics from South African public universities participated in this meeting, that was also attended by scholars from other African universities.

Professor Karen-Therese Howell, Academic Director of the African Institute for Mathematical Science (AIMS), addressed the group on the topic, Empowering Women in Mathematics: A Journey of Mentorship and Leadership, which reflected her personal growth and journey in the mathematics discipline.   She said in her formative years, the idea that she would one day become a mathematician was unimaginable.

“I did enjoy mathematics when I went to university, but I did not have a love for it yet. That changed in the first year when we had a marvellous lecturer at the University of the Free State, who made everyone excited about mathematics, even the students who were struggling. She was always available and broke things down into steps that made it easier to understand. I really started enjoying the subject.”

Professor Howell emphasised the uniqueness of each individual’s journey, and the need “to stop comparing ourselves to others.” She then she narrated her own career trajectory, explaining how her undergraduate lecturers encouraged her to proceed to honours, and how she worked through self-doubt and fear to rise through the ranks of post-graduate study until she completed her PhD.

She said women ought to celebrate one another and work together as a community, further advising young female academics of the importance of connecting with strong female mentors.

“I’ve had very significant male mentors but there is something to be said when you connect to a strong female mentor in and outside your area of expertise. You only need a few supporters to drive change.

Self-branding is vital

Sharing further insights, this scholar said that “some of the most useful sessions I’ve attended as a mathematician have not been mathematics sessions.  They have been sessions like how to market your work, how to brand yourself, which is something I never thought I would need to do as a mathematician. Being able to brand what you’ve done, where you are, what you’d like to do so that you connect with the right people, because it’s all part of building your network for whatever is next, is vital.” Professor Howell also emphasised the importance of developing soft skills.

TLM CoP Meet the Speakers

Teacher competency is key

The second guest speaker was Dr Batseba Molofo-Mbokane, Mathematics Educator at the University of the Witwatersrand, who spoke on Comparing the Curriculum for National Certificate Vocational NC(V)) Level 3 & 4 Mathematics and the International Baccalaureate Career-Related Certificate (IBCC) Mathematics Curriculum.

She explained that the IBCC curriculum was developed in Switzerland and is aimed at preparing students aged 16 to 19 for university entrance. Having undertaken a comparative analysis of the two qualifications and assessments, Dr Mofolo-Mbokane surmised that the NC(V) curriculum, offered at the Further Education and Training level in South Africa, is more rigorous than that of the IBCC, adding that it requires sound conceptual reasoning and understanding. The challenge, however, lies in ensuring that there are sufficiently trained lecturers to unpack this curriculum.

Teaching mathematics in African Languages

Professor Nobuhle Hlongwa, Chairperson of the Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (CoPAL), who is also the Dean and Head of the School of Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, reflected on the first Joint Colloquium between the TLM CoP, CoPAL and the Education Deans’ Forum (EDF) that explored Multilingualism in the Teaching of Learning of Mathematics in Higher Education for Success on 17 August 2023.  Her highlights on the colloquium sparked a vigorous debate led by Professor Alfred Msomi, Senior Mathematics Lecturer at the Mangosuthu University of Technology, on incorporating African Languages in mathematics teaching. It was however decided to continue this debate at other joint platforms with the CoPAL.

The TLM CoP is chaired by Professor Pragashni Padayachee, a Mathematics Professor at  the University of Cape Town. Professor Padayachee also represents USAf as the Deputy Chairperson of Mathematical Sciences Strategic Alliance (MSSA) which is being driven by Professor Loyiso Nongxa, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand.

The MSSA is dedicated to elevating the status and quality of the mathematical sciences in South Africa through strategic planning and collaborative engagement. Its main objective is to shine a spotlight on the need to build a robust mathematical sciences infrastructure to best address the challenges of underperformance of the educational system in a unified manner. MSSA also fosters coordination and collaboration amongst the various players concerned with ensuring that South Africa effectively unleashes the power of mathematical sciences in responding to contemporary challenges.

Those interested in joining the TLM CoP may send an email to Ntswalo@usaf.ac.za

Janet Van Rhyn, the writer, is Universities South Africa’s Project Manager in the Directorate: Operations and Sector Support. She is also the convenor of the TLM CoP, CoPAL as well as USAf’s Teaching and Learning and the Research and Innovation Strategy Groups.