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Notes From the Field

… is how we like to refer to our Friday and Saturday mathematics programs.  What does this mean, and what does the non-ordinariness of our approach have to offer in terms of learning impact?  

To answer this, let’s begin with a look as what is ordinary for maths classrooms in township schools across South Africa.  Among other things, overcrowding is ordinary, with student teacher ratios of 50-1 not at all uncommon.  Second, when a skilled educator is present  --  and this, in itself, is often not the case  --  teaching and learning commonly transpire through a top-down, lecture format.   Further, there is little variation in how classroom time is spent.

A visit to one of our maths classes reveals quite a different scene.  Learners in our Friday afternoon session for Grade 12’s and our Saturday morning program for Grade 11’s spend this time in small groups of six learners, each with one dedicated maths mentor.  Groups are comprised of learners from all five of our partner schools, and our mentors are a trained team of students from the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal. Rather than lecturing at the chalkboard, our mentors engage closely with their small groups as they work together to solve maths problems.   The room is full of a palpable energy, as learners sit huddled together around their tables, doing problem sets, asking questions of their mentors and each other, and striving to understand the concepts underpinning their assignments.

In designing the learning experience we offer, we are especially conscious of three things:

  1. The typical lecture style by which our learners are typically taught is not working well, and to offer more of the same would not be effective;
  2. 1. Because we have relatively little time in the week with which to effect change in learning outcomes, our approach must be targeted at something we believe can make signifcant change even in small doses;  and
  3. 2. Finally, it is important to select and engage mentors in a way that maximizes their enthusiasm for teaching and their investment in learner success.  

3. So what is that One Thing we are focused on, in an effort to have meaningful impact despite relatively limited time with the learners?  Simply put, our not-so-ordinary classes are aimed at changing the way learners relate to the subject of mathematics.  While other worthwhile interventions may focus on teacher training, in a needed effort to enhance teacher knowledge and skills in township and rural schools, our classes aim to create a new kind of learner.  We want to instill curiosity, build confidence, and most importantly of all, develop a sense of agency in the learners, so that they take an active role in driving their own learning success.

To the extent that our learners have already acquired a sense of agency in their learning, many come into our lessons approaching maths as a subject to be memorised, instead of as a process for developing a diverse set of applied problem-solving skills.   In the usual setting of an overcrowded classroom with a teacher who may or may not be well-equipped to teach the material, learners have scant opportunity to ask questions, receive focused attention, and engage in an active way with mathematics.  Our aim is to foster in learners a capacity to think, to apply, to teach and learn from their peers, and to develop condifidence in themselves as active problem-solvers.   

Changing the learning approach of learners in higher grades is not easy, as old habits of passive, rote learning can be firmly entrenched by this stage.  Our rationale is that if these learners are to have a chance at success in this phase of their schooling, giving them this new outlook on how to learn is critical.   And we think this is within the scope of our influence, even with relatively little teaching time each week.

We are currently working on an analysis of  the 2016 final exam results among our Grade 10 and 11 learners, to measure correlations between participation in our classes and performance in school.  Our first look has supported our interest in teaching in small groups each with a dedicated mentor.  Look for future blog posts detailing what we find from a more complete analysis.  We hope to tell a story that clearly shows how our Not Your Ordinary Maths Classes can bring Not So Ordinary Success!


Martha Fitzpatrick Bishai

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