My Research in Mathematics Education
I will be making a series of posts on ‘My Research in Mathematics Education’ from now on. This is an introduction.
Teachers ask all sorts of retrospective questions when they find, their learners’ performance does not match with their teaching input; if you are facing such a situation you may understand what I am talking about. It may give you sleepless nights while pondering over new teaching strategies, methods, methodologies etc. Even after implementing them, if you fail to make breakthroughs, then you wonder whether the problem is under your control or are there other contributing factors and how can you address them.
The ‘other’ factors include learners, curriculum, learning methodologies, etc, each of this in turn depends on a lot other factors.
For example, ‘a learner’ is not simply an individual who acts in vacuum, he or she is the product of a myriad of factors like his/her community, parents, family, economy, society, politics etc. Methodology is pivotal on teaching, learning, curriculum, politics, government etc.
I was teaching in an African country; so my learners were African children; be more precise the ‘Black’ (not a degrading term, but chosen by the Black population themselves as their racial identity) children in South Africa and that too in a Homeland. Homeland was an old apartheid discriminative practice of assigning people an area to live in according to their ethnic identity. There were ten such Homelands in the geographical area known as South Africa; four among them granted independence; Ciskei was one among them, and I was teaching in one of the high schools there; I was teaching mathematics at +2 level. The majority of the population in the HLs were Blacks, the rest were from all other races; there were also a considerable number of expatriates employed mainly in schools and hospitals. Its rulers were Black, for the majority of whom homelands’ administration was an extension of African chiefdom; they were appointed by the White apartheid government of South Africa, which comprised of the remaining parts of the geographical South Africa.
Education was considered key to the development of people and there was pressure internationally on the White apartheid government to take some interest in the education of the Black children in the homelands, and there was acute shortages in teachers in the ‘critical subjects’ such as the Sciences and Mathematics and hence people like I were recruited.
Also it was a time in which apartheid was crumbling down. Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid struggle veteran was just released from his 27 years of imprisonment in the notorious Robin Island prison. When the liberation struggle was at its heights the popular call among the liberators was ‘liberation first and education second’. The starting spark came from the 1976 Soweto uprising, there after the student communities had joined the national liberation struggles and were virtually on the street. Needless to say that the White youths attended the White only schools diligently.
When the situation changed and the problems were getting sorted politically, the drive for education took a priority; youths were called back from the streets, some had even lost touch with schools and education by then. Some had lost their families and in some cases families were not able to take care of their children due to various reasons including financial.
So that was the context. I was teaching both mathematics and physical sciences, at various grades. Mathematics being the key to the learning of Physical science, its poor performance was a great factor in determining its performance. Also it is a subject that depends very much on the intuitive and logical intelligence and spatial sense of the learners. Of all the sections in Mathematics, Geometry, I found was a section the learners had dreaded..
So I felt it appropriate to have a research study into the learning difficulties in Geometry. There was one more need for me to do the research; I had done my teacher training from the University of Kerala a few years back, it had helped me to be a teacher; but time had changed, certainly a lot of new developments had happened in the education fraternity; so I wanted to keep abreast with those new developments..
So the best way I could fulfill both my needs was to do a Masters in mathematics education. But I had to consider both the positive and the negative aspects of it.
To start with the negative, we- myself and my husband- though employed in the HL, stayed in South Africa, commuting 120 Km every day, one-way; that we worked in the same school made things a bit easier. Our children were schooling, in need of my support and help and the travel was very exhausting. But one positive point was that there was a university -Rhodes University-in the town where we lived in, Grahamstown, we are still living in here. So after measuring the positives and the negatives finally I decided to take it on.
My plan was to do it part-time, in two years; I learned that the University had stretched its part-time course to accommodate the working teachers; that was good news.
So what remained for me to do was to submit my application, motivation, CV and a research plan to the University and wait for the outcome; and I did it.