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DEEPENING THE QUALITY OF MATHEMATICS TEACHING AND LEARNING

A Talk by Mosibudi Mangena at an AMESA Dinner to Honour Dr

Mathume Bopape, 02/07/2015, University of Limpopo

Programme Director

The President of AMESA and the leadership team

The Bopape family

Delegates

Ladies and Gentlemen

It is indeed a fabulous idea that AMESA has decided to honour Dr

Mathume Bopape, its founding president, in this fashion. While this act

achieves its intended goal for AMESA, it also gives the nation a

welcome opportunity to fix its gaze on the enormous contributions

Bopape made to the science, technology, engineering and mathematics

(STEM) education in our country.

But it is particularly in his role as a mathematics boffin that Bopape

needs to be celebrated from roof tops and in loud voices. This because

mathematics is the most critical element within STEM, the other

elements being almost impossible to handle without it. Technology,

engineering and science can only be “midwifed” through the mastery of

mathematics. Not to acknowledge this, and therefore the role of

Bopape in this regard, would be like our treatment of wi-fi. Although

we know wi-fi is there and enables us to do so much, we seldom give it

the recognition and respect it so richly deserves.

It is only through the beautiful and universal language of mathematics

that humanity is able to access the worlds of medicine, astronomy,

aviation, engineering, computing, broadcasting, earth observation and

so on. Without mathematics we would not have doctors, pharmacists,

dentists, engineers of every description, pilots, chartered accountants,

actuaries, scientists to do research, development and innovation. It

stands to reason that the technological advancements that we enjoy

today would not have been possible without mathematics.

It also follows from this that it is only those countries with a developed

STEM education that would produce technologically advanced goods

and services for the world. You need only to look at our cars, cell

phones, computers, microwaves and other such niceties of life and the

countries producing them, and the standard of STEM education in

those countries to fully appreciate this fact.

South Africa is not doing well in STEM education for a variety of

reasons. First, it was the racist and sexist policies of the oppressive

regime that did not promote the STEM education for blacks and

females. Black people are about ninety percent of the population whilst

females are fifty two percent. Not harnessing the talents and potential

of such huge majorities in our society for STEM education impoverished

our country enormously. The result was that we had excellent scientists

and engineers in the country, but they were too few to make the

country sufficiently competitive.

Secondly, the majority of teachers of mathematics and science are

either unqualified or under qualified to teach these subjects, and

consequently, attainment by our young in these subjects is woeful, to

say the least. The result is a narrow pipeline of youngsters who are able

to enter universities to pursue studies in the sciences or technology

related professions.

Thirdly, there are enormous deficits in the provision of educational

infrastructure to facilitate the learning of STEM. The lack of

laboratories, libraries, adequate numbers of classrooms or classrooms

of acceptable standard, school furniture, electricity and running water,

all of which conspire to give us poor STEM outcomes in South Africa.

Fourthly, there is the rather unfortunate notion in our society to the

effect that mathematics is difficult, and therefore the preserve of only

the most gifted among our youngsters. This is just as untrue as it is a

disservice to our youngsters of every race and gender in our country. It

has erected formidable barriers in the path of their learning experience

and opportunities to explore the wonderful fields offered by the natural

sciences and related technologies.

The above factors combine to create a vicious cycle of

underachievement in science and technology at every level of

scholarship. Our children are perennial underdogs in international tests,

remaining at the bottom even when compared to our neighbouring

countries with much smaller GDP’s and therefore much more modest

resources than we have. We produce much fewer masters and doctoral

graduates per million of the population when compared to countries at

the same level of development.

When I was Deputy Minister of Education with a responsibility for

mathematics and science education, we set out to do something about

the distressing situation we have just described. We were convinced,

just as we continue to be of that mind right now, that there is

absolutely nothing wrong with our children; that the problem lies with

us, the adults, who are responsible for the teaching of the sciences, the

design of the curriculum, the provision of learning materials, libraries

and laboratories, as well as the building and maintenance of the

schools; that our children do fly when we give them opportunities to do

so.

In this regard, we drafted the “National Strategy for Mathematics,

Science and Technology Education in General and Further Education

and Training,” got it adopted by the Department of Education and later

by the Council of Education Ministers in 2001. It was under this strategy

that the Dinaledi schools were born.

The implementation of this strategy required a team of dedicated and

knowledgeable people to power it forward. We went on a search for

such people and the name of Dr Mathume Bopape loomed large among

those that were identified. We requested the Limpopo education

department to release him to the national department, which they did.

This is how I came to work with Mathume Bopape. His joining of the

team was a huge shot in the arm for the strategy.

In pursuance of the strategy, we selected, through the provincial

departments of education, an initial hundred schools to constitute the

Dinaledi schools. These were scattered across the length and breath of

the nine provinces, some in far flung and inaccessible areas. Reaching

some of the schools to assess their ability to participate meaningfully,

required lots of travelling by air and road and really tested our

endurance as a team. We had to divide up and share the travelling and

assessing load.

To our disappointment, some of the provinces included deficient

schools in the lot they chose: schools without laboratories, electricity,

running water or libraries. Some were beset by massive overcrowding

and lack of school furniture for the learners. In others either the

teachers were unqualified or under qualified or non-existent. Such

schools could neither assist the strategy nor benefit sufficiently from

the programmes. They were apparently selected to satisfy regional

dynamics or incorrect hopes that the strategy would take them out of

the doldrums.

The truth is that the strategy did not have a big budget for capital

expenditure on things like the construction of classrooms, laboratories

or the employment of teachers. These fall within the mandate of the

provinces together with the relevant budgets. The role of the strategy

was to assist the teachers with content knowledge of the science

subjects, enrich their teaching abilities and provide limited relevant

equipment to the schools, such as computer laboratories and science

kits. Obviously, the buildings had to be in place for this to occur. But in

some instances, where the teachers were either under qualified or

unqualified, the equipment delivered would be stored to gather dust

while the children struggled to understand the subject matter. Our

dismay under those circumstances was always tempered by the

sympathy we felt for the teachers who found themselves teaching

subjects for which they did not train.

Indeed, a lot was done to improve teacher content knowledge. Autumn

and summer schools were organized for teachers where they

interacted with experts in the relevant fields from universities, shared

experiences with their more successful peers from different parts of the

country, as well as motivational talks by legends in the teaching of such

subjects, such as Thamsanqa Kambule, and others. In this regard,

Mathume Bopape, as a seasoned practitioner and a former principal of

a mathematics and science teacher training college, was particularly

useful.

In this sense, Bopape’s expertise and service to STEM gained a national

footprint. I am aware of the fact that his other responsibilities and

activities, including his presidency of AMESA, gave him a national

geographic spread. However, I am less confident to talk about those

since I did not experience them first hand. I believe there are some

among us who might shed more light on those and therefore give us a

fuller appreciation of Mathume Bopape.

I wish to congratulate and thank AMESA for this noble gesture you have

shown towards this great son of the soil. I hope you will continue to

honour him by pursuing the causes that are close to his heart, among

other things, by ensuring that his organization, AMESA, grows from

strength to strength. Secondly, by ensuring that the education of our

children, especially mathematics and science education, is given top

priority.

We will know that it is the case when school infrastructure is up to

scratch in our townships and villages; when our schools have

laboratories and libraries; when learning materials are delivered in

correct quantities and on time; when we are no longer beaten hands

down by beer and fizzy drinks companies that deliver their merchandize

to every corner of the country all year round and we are unable to

deliver books for our children just once a year; when we are no longer

taken to court to compel us to give our own children books and we

defend the matter; when enough teachers are trained and deployed in

our schools to effectively deliver the curriculum, and when our children

achieve respectable results in their studies, and are no longer the

laughing stock of the world.

Then our human resources would grow sufficiently to transport our

economy in new and exciting directions. We would be able to build an

economy based on knowledge, no longer only on raw materials, and

our children and grandchildren would have a great future. And that is

what deepening the quality of mathematics teaching and learning

means. And that is the essence of Dr Mathume Bopape.

Mosibudi Mangena

02/07/2015

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