The Mathematics Teaching & Learning CoP gets off to a busy start

18-09-16 USAf 0 comment

The newly-established Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of Mathematics came to a consensus on 31 August, that that there is a mismatch between the academic preparedness of first-year entrants to Mathematics programmes and what they are expected to absorb in university, leading to increasing numbers of students abandoning Mathematics within the first quarter of study for other programmes.

Hence, at the launch of this CoP on 31 August 2016, delegates agreed that the articulation gap between school and the first year of university study should be addressed. They ascribed the under-readiness of students to poor or no teaching in the schooling system.  Acknowledging that school reform was out of their reach (also recognising that this problem goes back many years), the delegates proposed a diagnostic tool for assessing 1st year student readiness, and to inform appropriate placement options in the form of extended, foundation or bridging programmes for enhanced success.

These points emerged from three working groups’ deliberations on Diagnostics, Mathematics Education and Extended Programmes in Mathematics Teaching. These three focus areas were drawn from a 10-point action list identified during regional transformation workshops of 2015, which collectively recommended the formation of this CoP to facilitate and support the transformation of Mathematics teaching and learning within the university sector. The 10 action areas included  a) Exploring the development of a diagnostic instrument to identify deficiencies in beginner students’ Mathematics ability and understanding, in order to plan individual remediation; b) Expediting extended Mathematics programmes and advocating for extended/foundation/bridging degree programmes; c) Benchmarking, developing, advocating and sharing good practices and relevant information to advance the pedagogy of Mathematics teaching, and, to advance teacher education in Mathematics.

Recognising that effective diagnostic tools already exist in the system, the group tasked with looking into Diagnostics decided to first run a survey to identify institutions with diagnostic tests; how these are used; for what programmes and to what results, and also to gauge the appetite for sharing proven solutions. To that end, this group is working on a questionnaire that will be finalised and fielded by end of September, anticipating results by the end of October, and a report early in 2017.  

The group that deliberated on Mathematics Teaching established that the people responsible for Mathematics teaching are not always adequately and appropriately equipped for teaching the subject.  Towards remedial action in this regard the group identified a need to combine teaching methodology with discipline knowledge in the training of Mathematics teachers.  To that end, a qualification would need to be developed, which would equip student teachers with both teaching methodology as well as discipline knowledge.  For their plan of action, the delegates working on Mathematics Teaching resolved to ask all universities to indicate how they approach mathematics teaching and what model(s) they use. The idea is to assess suitability of tried and tested models for adaptation and replication throughout the system. The group would also investigate the adequacy of the schooling system’s preparation of prospective students, and explore the use of bridging courses in addressing identified gaps.

The third group, which explored the area of Extended Programmes in Mathematics Teaching,   noted that the terms ‘foundation’ and ‘bridging’ programmes tended to be used interchangeably at various institutions. It was not clear how individual universities approached foundation or extended programmes. To get to the bottom of this issue, this group decided to field a survey to various institutions by end of September 2016, to find out what types of foundation programmes are being offered; how they are organised; and how successful they are. The survey would also seek to determine how individual universities interpret terms like ‘foundation’ and ‘extended’ programmes, and how these programmes are being capacitated and resourced. In addition, it would be necessary to clarify different teaching modes; who has responsibility for teaching these courses; and where they are located in the Faculty.  The group envisages receiving feedback from their survey by November; compiling a summary of findings to share with CoP peers during January 2017, and sharing the final report by February 2017. All this information, it was envisioned, would lay the groundwork for future discussions in this regard.

By the end of this inaugural sitting, the CoP for the Teaching and Learning of Mathematics had nominated Professor Sarah-Jane Johnston of UNISA as Interim Chairperson, and Dr Kabelo Chuene, of the University of Limpopo, as Interim Deputy Chairperson. The two will work with the USAf Secretariat to arrange the next meeting, at which a formal election of office bearers will take place. Twenty-two delegates attended the launch workshop. They included Heads of Mathematics Departments, Professors and Associate Professors, Senior and Junior lecturers as well as Mathematics Programme co-ordinators. In accordance with how Maths departments are configured within different institutions, some delegates represented Mathematics Education, others Applied Mathematics, Mathematics and Statistics as well as Environmental Science Education.  Ultimately, 17 universities from eight provinces nominated representatives to this CoP. It is envisaged that the next meeting will be hosted at Stellenbosch University in the first quarter of 2017.  

Commenting on what was achieved at this CoP’s inaugural workshop, USAf’s Director: Operations and Sector Support, Dr Berene Kramer, said “The Mathematics CoP has hit the road running! With consensus reached on the priorities to be focused on and an action plan for each of the priorities, this CoP is set to make a significant contribution to the teaching and learning of Mathematics in our public universities.”

How the TLM Cop and TLAL CoPs were born

At the joint meeting of the then Higher Education South Africa (HESA)’s Transformation Strategy Group (TSG) and the Transformation Managers’ Forum (TMF) in February 2014, a decision was made to hold regional transformation workshops to tackle two of key areas of concern to the university sector, namely, the need to transform the teaching and learning of Mathematics and African Languages.

The main purpose of the workshops was to explore the key challenges identified in the teaching and learning of African Languages, and Mathematics.  One of the key questions posed for the regional workshops tackling the teaching of Mathematics was: Does the mismatch between high school and higher education Mathematics facilitate or hinder mathematical proficiency?  Apart from exploring remedial mechanisms for Mathematics teaching and learning, the regional workshops were designed to share best practices and innovative solutions devised to counter wanting preparedness among first-year university entrants as a result of the complex problems plaguing the schooling system; to support academics with proven solutions for curriculum, classroom and community challenges; and to equip lecturers with skills for integrated, inclusive teaching methods, including methodologies for delivering the subject matter to culturally and linguistically diverse groups.    

Out of these regional workshops, noteworthy outcomes were the opportunity to network and share information about existing initiatives in the system; to identify duplication resulting from working in silos.  Having crystallised the key issues, the participants then saw the need for a national, coordinated response to the challenges identified in the teaching and learning of both Mathematics and African Languages. A proposal was thereafter assembled with terms of reference for the two CoPs. At its final seating in October 2015, the Board of Directors of Universities SA approved these proposals. Thus the idea of forming the two communities of practice became a reality.  The delegates attending this inaugural workshop were nominated by their respective institutions in response to a USAf invitation. According to Dr Berene Kramer, the inaugural workshops were just a beginning of long process of hard work of identifying top priority focus areas and formulating action plans with clear deliverables for 2017 and beyond.

Essentially, CoPs form an integral part of USAf’s devolved governance structures.  At the apex, USAf is headed by a 26-member Board comprising Vice-Chancellors of all public universities.  Five committees oversee the governance and running of the USAF Executive Office. Namely, these are the Executive Committee; Audit and Risk Committee; Finance and Investment Committee; Human Resources and Remuneration Committee; Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board Committee and Legal Advisory Committee. Alongside these are five strategy groups which set the strategic direction of the organisation, based on four focus areas of Funding, Risk and Innovation, Teaching and Learning, Transformation and HIV & AIDS.  Communities of Practice, of which there are now nine in total-   including the TLM CoP and TLAL CoP – were established to facilitate information-sharing, solution-seeking for common problems and collaboration amongst universities. Active other CoPs are the Finance Executives’ Forum; the Education Deans’ Forum; the Transformation Managers’ Forum, Skills Development Facilitators’ Forum; Quality Assurance Managers’ Forum; Registrars’ Imbizo; Human Resources Directors’ Forum and the HIV & AIDS Educators’ Forum. For the purpose of reporting strategic matters relating to the work of strategy groups, CoPs form close working relationships with their corresponding strategy groups.  It is in this context that the TLM Cop and TLAL CoP form a natural feeder into the Teaching and Learning Strategy Group (TLSG), hence the Chairs of both groups are required to report to the TLSG, which, when appropriate, will present recommendations of these CoPs to USAf’s Executive Committee and Board.

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