USAf’s Teaching and Learning of Mathematics Community of Practice must innovate in collaboration with other groups 

Published On: 24 April 2023|

The first meeting in 2023, of the Community of Practice (CoP) for the Teaching and Learning of Mathematics (TLM CoP), underscored the urgent need to share best practices in the ever-evolving discipline.

Welcoming delegates to the gathering on Thursday, 19 April, Professor Pragashni Padayachee (right), TLM CoP Chairperson and Senior Lecturer: Mathematics; Academic Support Programme for Engineering (ASPECT) at the University of Cape Town, told members: “As we begin our meeting today, I want to remind us that “our goal is to share knowledge, best practices, and innovative ideas that can help improve mathematics education in South Africa. By working together, we can make a real difference in the lives of our students and contribute to a brighter future for our country.”

Dr Phethiwe Matutu, CEO of Universities South Africa (USAf) – herself a mathematician, agreed: “As we are all aware, mathematics is a gateway subject in the National School Certificate. Without it, it is difficult to access a number of careers including scarce skills careers. This teaches us that the shift from matric to university is an area of focus that we should be paying attention to, if we are to succeed in transforming the higher education system.”

She added that it was a well-known fact that, during SA’s political past, some careers were not available to certain groups of people. It was time to level the playing fields, she said. She also underlined the importance of retaining mathematics lecturers to maintain the talent pipeline.

“As a former mathematics teacher, myself, I have noticed the tendency to transition mathematicians to management and leadership positions. That creates gaps in mathematics education. It is very important to keep developing and replenishing the talent in this discipline.” To that end, she underscored the significance of focusing on post-graduate mathematics as a viable development pipeline.

Dr Matutu explained that now that USAf had acquired a new Director: Operations and Sector Support, Mr Mahlubi Mabizela, he would, henceforth, take over the oversight role of all engagements of USAf’s communities of practice, including those of the TLM CoP.

Cross pollination across USAf groups

Dr Matutu (left) said that the work being undertaken by USAf through its CoPs and strategy groups warranted cross-pollination among these groups.

“For instance, the Teaching and Learning Strategy Group is looking at the effects of automation, 4IR and changing technologies in teaching and learning. These are some of the areas of focus of the TLM CoP. It therefore makes sense that we all talk to one another, in a way that will feed into technology-mediated teaching and learning, both broadly and within mathematics.” She said this was pertinent, especially where mathematics teaching necessitates exceptional approaches when compared to other subjects.

To facilitate that approach to stakeholder engagement, she said USAf had identified cost-cutting focus areas of CoPs and strategy groups. USAf was organising joint engagements to facilitate an exchange of ideas across these groups.

Joint dialogues for bigger impact

“We want to organise big dialogues and workshops. What we need is for all of us to feed into a particular theme, to achieve much bigger impact.”

Dr Matutu said she had asked the USAf team to look again at studies that have been conducted in higher education over the years, “to identify which to re-visit, and to find how best to take them forward – whether in the form of programmes, policies or guidelines at institutional level, so as to maximise their impact.”

Professor Padayachee said she was pleased with the focus of this TLM CoP on students’ transition from high school to higher education, and on research and transformation in higher education from a maths teaching perspective. Dr Matutu’s request would be considered in this broader context.

Symposium 2022 feedback

The CoP chairperson then gave feedback on the symposium held in September 2022, on Diagnostic Mathematics Information for Students’ Retention and Success Project (DMISRS)

The symposium explored the theme: What does it take to teach mathematics for and in higher education? Professor Padayacheesaid what emerged from that gathering was “a growing shift towards a student-centred approach that emphasises the challenges and experiences of first-year students.” This was a concern of both the TLM CoP and the DMISRS group, hence the suggestion to convene that joint symposium.

What is DMISR?

Conceived in 2018, DMISRS aims to devise mechanisms to improve students’ first-year mathematics experience across the board. It is a national collaborative project that aims to analyse the curricula of first-year mathematics in Higher Education in order to establish how best to address students’ needs through curriculum integrated support initiatives, including blended learning.

Staying current and relevant

Referring to the keynote address delivered at the symposium by South African mathematician Professor Loyiso Nongxa, titled South African Mathematical Sciences in 2040, Professor Padayachee said: “He centred his address on university mathematics, arguing that we teach those that will teach students coming through the mathematical sciences. He mentioned an obligation to keep up with new developments in the mathematical sciences and adapt our curricula accordingly.

“It was a very valid point. Over the two days of the symposium, insightful presentations were made and I’m proud to say that the USAf TLM CoP was well represented with seven presentations.”

She then shared participants’ summarised feedback on what they had valued the most at the symposium:

  1. The symposium was an opportunity to unpack common shared challenges.
  2. The symposium facilitated the sharing of solutions to these challenges.
  3. Opportunities for networking and collaboration among attendees was appreciated.

Professor Padayachee said: “We’d like to extend our gratitude to the DMISRS project for graciously hosting the USAf TLM CoP over two days, and for the sponsorship of transport and accommodation for our members. It was a successful symposium with lots of sharing, engaging, and participation.”

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.