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Aspirations for Freirian Classrooms

Aspirations for Freirian classrooms – lessons for teaching and learning

Paulo Freire’s ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ of the mid-nineteen seventies espoused an emancipatory philosophy which he conceived in the nineteen-fifties and -sixties. He recognised the academically ‘unfranchised’ Brazilian proletariat as being cognitively disempowered and hence rendered mute and by an education system that was dialogically deprived. The unidirectional deposition of knowledge by teachers resulted in the cognitive alienation of learners that resided in their muteness. Reflective practice was anathema for learners and teachers alike. Freire diagnosed that his people would remain forever critically voiceless within their poverty if teaching was not replaced by education. He deemed the engagement of teachers with learners, and learners with teachers through

Freire diagnosed that his people would remain forever critically voiceless within their poverty if teaching was not replaced by education. He deemed the engagement of teachers with learners, and learners with teachers through dialogic exchange as the remedy for liberating minds and for developing conscientised learners. Freire’s educational philosophy of emancipatory education through dialogic praxis, and his unintentionally semiotic literary methodology for eliciting classroom dialogue, resulted in the self-actualisation of many of his students, and their cognitive and social emancipation. Freire’s philosopy and methodology is more relevant in South Africa today than it has ever been in terms of its value for transforming education – for envisioning classrooms of the future. As South Africans we should strive for an education system that promotes the conscientisation of all our people, teachers and learners.

Freire diagnosed that his people would remain forever critically voiceless within their poverty if teaching was not replaced by education. He deemed the engagement of teachers with learners, and learners with teachers through dialogic exchange as the remedy for liberating minds and for developing conscientised learners. Freire’s educational philosophy of emancipatory education through dialogic praxis, and his unintentionally semiotic literary methodology for eliciting classroom dialogue, resulted in the self-actualisation of many of his students, and their cognitive and social emancipation. Freire’s philosopy and methodology is more relevant in South Africa today than it has ever been in terms of its value for transforming education – for envisioning classrooms of the future. As South Africans we should strive for an education system that promotes the conscientisation of all our people, teachers and learners.

Freire’s philosopy and methodology is more relevant in South Africa today than it has ever been in terms of its value for transforming education – for envisioning classrooms of the future. As South Africans we should strive for an education system that promotes the conscientisation of all our people, teachers and learners.

Conscientisation presupposes thought which presupposes language, and its vocabulary. Without the words that constitute concepts we have no capacity to engage at any meaningful cognitive level to enquire, critique or contest what we are taught. And this largely, from my mathematics vantage point, is where our learners find themselves. Our pedagogies are procedural and our expectations of our learners, therefore, cannot exceed a rote reproduction of fallible knowledge. As teachers, if we cannot expound a concept with an appropriate and exact language peculiar to the content then we indulge, sometimes inadvertently, in deceiving our learners. It results in a depositional pedagogy that is responsible for muting learners because they do not have the words with which to think or the language with which to become engaged in the process of education. Our charges trustingly receive contaminated knowledge that finds little cognitive resonance that ultimately renders them mute. Education requires of teachers their devotion and dedication to firstly emancipate themselves from their traditional perceptions of what teaching is about and secondly to relinquish the impoverished models of teaching which they witnessed and inherited while seated and facing their own youthful chalkboards. The reciprocity of the teaching-learning interchange stimulates engagement and conversation, and opportunities for learners to ponder content and question meaningfully.

Ours is a vocation – a service to humanity that requires the growing of a rapport that facilitates mutual trust between teacher and learner to ask questions that provoke thought and debate meaning. Our learners so often have the answers to the most searching of questions. We need to ensure that what we say means to our learners exactly what it means to us. Teachers and learners are equal participants in the educative process – we learn and teach each other. The implications are that we need as teachers to cultivate a humane mood of caring in our classrooms. We need to grapple with our subject content to the extent that nothing about what we teach is mysterious or intimidating. We need to learn how to ask questions that even challenge us. We need to develop our agency – and in critical realist terms challenge the status quo as revolutionised change agents.

So it is the imbibing of knowledge, internalising it and making it the cognitive threads of our corporeal fabric that moves us towards our self-realisation. Our classrooms need the invigorating contributions of its singular and collective minds. And the responsibility falls to our teachers to strive for cataclysmic metamorphoses.  Students in initial teacher education programmes need to be nurtured in the development of their potential agency and their subject prowess – ingredients that will breathe life into learning. And as classrooms become crucibles of teaching and learning so our teachers and learners will find their lost voices – and a confident identity. There will be time for questions, and time for answers. Life will take on new meaning where poverty will be one stepping stone closer to heaven, closer to the dream each one has for realising the freedom of knowing who they are and the aspirations they hold.

We need to hold dear the Freirian philosophy of education where dialogic classrooms provide for authentic conversations about who and what we are, teachers and learners alike. To be free to experience what it means to be heard and understood, and free to question until our minds are satisfied. We should never underestimate our charges, never be afraid of their questions. We must challenge them beyond the height of their potential. And to achieve this we must always remember that our expectations of our learners are directly proportional to our understanding of what we teach.


Dr Pete van Jaarsveld

Lecturer in the Wits School of Education

University of the Witwatersrand

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Honouring OR Tambo’s Legacy

In 1980, as the African National Congress (ANC) celebrated its 68th anniversary, Oliver Reginald Tambo addressed the congregation:

“The need for the unity of the patriotic and democratic forces of our country has never been greater than it is today… Our unity has to be based on honesty among ourselves, the courage to face reality, adherence to what has been agreed upon, to principle.”

OR Tambo’s words are just as relevant as they were then and are applicable to Kagiso Trust and South Africa as a whole. Unity speaks to a group’s shared vision and mission and a strong leader with unwavering integrity at the helm. As Kagiso Trust we entrust our Board of Trustees with the responsibility to lead us to the realisation of our vision of a prosperous, peaceful, equitable and just society. Equally, we entrust our employees with the responsibility to deliver on our mission and contribute to development through sustainable funding, with like-minded partnerships and innovative scalable development models. Integral to these responsibilities is what OR Tambo stood for: unity and integrity. He urged us to be honest among ourselves, no matter how difficult; courageous as we face the realities of our context and purpose; and adhere to our mandates to principle, which for Kagiso Trust is overcoming poverty while upholding our values.

Kagiso Trust has long realised that unity is power. This is why, 31 years since our inception, we are still proactively forging and encouraging partnerships and collaborations. As a united organisation, Kagiso Trust is confident that our vision will be realised and South Africa will see poverty become a thing of the past.

As South Africa and the world celebrate what would have been OR Tambo’s 100th birthday this year, let us hold fast to the values he passed down to us and dedicated his life to fulfilling.


UbunguMkhonto weSizwe, iQhawe lama Qhawe.

Kagiso Trust salutes you, Oliver Reginald Kaizana Tambo.


Mankodi Moitse

Kagiso Trust Chief Executive Officer


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Social Innovation

Amandla Kwinana explores social enterprises as a possible solution to the sustainability of NGOs in the ever-decreasing access to funding.  

The long-term sustainability of any organisation is not child’s play, more so when it comes to non-profit organisations such as non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Most NGOs attribute their lack of sustainability to lack of funding. Where this challenge has been perceived as a hindrance to growth and longevity by some NGOs, social enterprises have turned it into an opportunity.

According to social entrepreneur Shrey Goyal, few non-profits such as Kagiso Trust have created robust earned income streams, though there is an increasing trend to do so. NGOs cannot continue to rely primarily on charitable contributions, public funding and foundation grants to support their programs and cover their administrative overhead. If, due to a bad economy, donations, grants, and public sector subsidies dried up, they may even have to shut down, says Goyal.

While NGOs and social enterprises both focus on building the social good, social enterprises differ in that they are first and foremost a business. Social enterprises run like any other company and the nature of their work allow for them to constitute the social sector.

NGOs however, despite their representation of 93% of the total number of organisations registered in terms of the Nonprofit Organisations Act (with trusts at 1% and social enterprises at 6%), often do not yield the expected returns. This could be attributed to the mismanagement of funds, inadequate or lack of governance, irregular reporting and accountability structures, and other factors which are mandatory for businesses. After all, the main goal of an NGO is to create social value, without much regard for the business bottom-line, while the social enterprise aims for sustainability in the financial, social and environmental sense. While there are numerous NGOs who prescribe to sound business practices, there are just as many who simply seek to carry out their social prerogative and strictly focus their resources on executing their projects and fundraising.

Fundraising is crucial for NGOs and social enterprises alike. However, whereas funds given to NGOs carry little or no consequential clauses, funds directed to social enterprises are in the form of loans and contractual obligations. Furthermore, social enterprises create self-sustaining social programmes. For example, a social enterprise can use funds to build a market place to address the unemployment of youth in a disadvantaged community and charge a minimal fee of R10 a day for the vendors. The market would provide vendors with access to a larger market such as tourists and surrounding businesses while making the facilities affordable enough for the vendors. The minimal fee would, in turn, cover the costs of maintaining the market. In the long-term, more youth would be employed, addressing the community’s unemployment challenges.

Self-sustainability is therefore at the heart of social enterprises. Without a solid sustainability strategy and revenue generation projects, the social enterprise will not embark on its social endeavours.

This emergent ‘social innovation’ is perhaps what is needed to ensure the sustainability of NGOs. The sector has seen increased allocation of capital due to the rise of impact investing, among other factors (refer to table below).

Some concerns have emerged based on the propriety and feasibility of the possibility of an organisation to serve two bottom lines simultaneously, reaping both financial and societal rewards. Unless the organisation’s social objectives and impact are compromised to some degree in pursuit of profit maximization, such debates hold no water. Nevertheless, there is a need to scrutinise organisations which could possibly be masquerading as social enterprises in hopes of greater financial gain.

As stated by Yoyo Sibisi, Kagiso Trust’s Head of Institutional Capacity Building, the environment in which NGOs find themselves today is not as it used to be in the past decade or two, so naturally there would be a need for innovation in the sector.

Sibisi highlights two important factors for NGOs to continue servicing their purpose. “NGOs should remain as independent as they possibly can otherwise they run the risk of being pulled in all directions by funders who may have a different agenda. Secondly, it is critical to remain relevant to the needs of the communities they serve in order to reclaim their space and make an impact” he says.

“Kagiso Trust views social enterprises as one of the avenues of self-sustainability for non-governmental organisations” Sibisi adds. “But it is important to note that this route is effective when the services provided by such entities are in line with their key mission; projects are self-sustainable, and the organisation retains what they purport to stand for.

As citizens and business look to more long-term solutions to the country’s social challenges, social enterprises may just be the kind of innovation NGOs should pursue.


Factors driving growth in the number of social enterprises and capital allocated to the sector


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Managing Your Money

Managing your money and finances in a sub-investment grade economy

In light of the recent local economy’s downgrade, finance expert Samke Mhlongo-Ngwenya gives invaluable advice on how to make your money work for you.

The month of April saw South Africa’s sovereign credit rating downgraded to sub-investment grade by ratings agencies Standard & Poor’s and Fitch. This sub-investment rating, or junk status as it is known colloquially, resulted in many South Africans going into a state of panic as evidenced by the nationwide public demonstrations following the ratings announcements.

There are several technicalities surrounding the current credit ratings that explain why the Rand has not depreciated as much as one would expect with a “full blown” junk status rating, or as much as it did with the removal of Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene in December 2015. However, with South Africa being placed on negative watch by all three ratings agencies, it would be prudent for individuals to start making financial decisions that anticipate the full adverse effects that could result from us being in true junk status.

A typical junk status economy is subject to rising interest rates; rising inflation as food, petrol and electricity prices increase; increased unemployment as companies retrench and the retrenched struggle to find new employment as companies are not hiring; rising cost of imported goods due to a lower local currency; and decreasing government expenditure as tax revenues decline and the cost of borrowing increases. The golden investment principle to remember even in the face of such grim circumstances is that one should not panic. Instead, the following steps can be taken to minimize the adverse effects of a junk status economy, and create the necessary buffer to allow one to navigate the different financial permutations one could find themselves in:

  1. Increase cashflow capacity

The easiest way to increase cashflow capacity is to review current expenditure and take up more affordable options that still meet your changing needs. An example is a review of your current medical aid and insurance plans.

  1. Stress-test your finances for changing interest-rate levels

One way to stress-test your finances is to set your prime-linked instalments at 1% higher than the current interest rate and assess how your cashflow and lifestyle are impacted. Conducting this exercise ahead of time allows one to make the necessary lifestyle adjustments without risking default. If your outflows still exceed your inflows even after stripping out luxuries and minimizing optional expenses, then approach your financial services provider in advance to discuss available options.

  1. Create an additional income stream

There are simple ways of supplementing your income such as taking up a board position, selling your skills on a consultancy basis after-hours, or embarking on a capital-light entrepreneurial venture. This may seem counter-intuitive but a junk status economy does present opportunities that can be leveraged for personal gain.

  1. Rand-hedge your investments

One of the major knocks that personal wealth takes in a junk status economy is brought about by the depreciation of the local currency. Investors can take proactive steps to build in a Rand-hedge into their investment portfolio and this can be done without necessarily transferring monies out the country. Some options include buying shares in companies that have foreign revenues, or in companies that trade commodities that are foreign currency denominated, or buying Gold ETFs. It is strongly suggested that this is done with the assistance of an investment professional to avoid risking losses.

  1. Have 9-12m salary equivalent available (outside of your pension)

Financial advisors typically advocate that one should have access to cash that is your 6-month salary equivalent. I would advocate that this provision be increased to at least 9-12months’ salary equivalent (excluding the proceeds of your pension) in an economy that is retrenching. There are a number of options in which this funding can be made available by a finance professional that would be an optimal mix of debt (given rising interest rates), and investments (given that some investments may currently be sitting at a loss).

The worst may not be over for South African consumers and the best stance individuals can take is to be proactive in structuring their finances to minimize loss and create liquidity. All this is best done with the assistance of a finance or investment professional remembering that even during what looks like a very difficult economic climate, there will still be opportunities to preserve, and maybe even create, personal wealth.

Samke Mhlongo-Ngwenya is an ex-private banker and founder of The Next Chapter (“TNC”) Wealth Partners.


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#HireAGraduate Campaign

Graduates question the value of their degrees amidst high unemployment rate among graduates. Chulekazi Charlie explores their frustration.

In February this year, unemployed graduates from several Eastern Cape universities took part in a #HireAGraduate campaign, in an effort to draw the attention of government and private sectors to the sad reality of unemployed graduates. The disgruntled youth made it clear that they are fed up with the high unemployment rate of graduates.

Graduates from universities and TVET institutions alike, gathered to make their voices heard about the lack of job opportunities that are available to them, despite their qualifications. Siphamandla Khasag, the chairperson of the #HireAGraduate campaign, speaking to Jacaranda FM, said the graduates’ main motive is to bring back the dignity of education. High school pupils are no longer motivated to pursue tertiary education, he said, due to the astounding number of unemployed graduates.

The echoing statement of the whole campaign was “there is great frustration and discouragement regarding the value of having a degree when it doesn’t result in economic upliftment.”


The protesting graduates do not want preferential treatment from the government, but rather, to raise awareness about the unemployment issues, and encourage discussions around the severity of this matter in our country.

The #HireAGraduate campaign gained huge traction on Twitter in South Africa. Kagiso Trust’s Head of Human Resources, Isabella Liba, supports the campaign’s sentiments, “I honestly understand their frustration. I was excited in 1998 when the Skills Development Act (the Act)was approved, I thought it would eliminate and address the high rate of unemployed graduates.  Sadly it did not… mainly because the said law is not imposing on the employers to do so but merely encouraging.”

The Act, as outlined is Section 2, encourages employers to provide opportunities for new entrants to the labour market to gain work experience; and to employ persons who find it difficult to be employed.  20 years down the line employers are still being encouraged to do so.  The reason that most employers do adhere to this is because there is no penalty for employers who choose not to afford employment opportunities to new entrants.

“I am of the view that the Act needs to be amended so as to include consequences for employers who do not employ graduates, similarly to what we have with businesses who do not pay tax.” Liba continued, “In the meantime, I am of the view that discussions around the severity of this matter must be encouraged, not only by students, but our tripartite; government, business and labour must be part of these discussions.  To all employers who are hiring graduates, I commend you. Continue to make a difference in our country.’’


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Translating SA’s Vision for Education into Reality

The Department of Basic Education schooling vision 2030 captures how government would like to see South Africa’s education by 2030.

According to the National Development Plan “By 2030, the schooling system is characterised by learners and teachers who are highly motivated; principals are effective managers  who provide administrative and curriculum leadership; parents are involved in the schools their children attend; where schools are accountable to parents; committed and professional teachers have good knowledge of the subjects they teach; schools and teachers are supported by knowledgeable district officials; the administration of education (including appointment and disciplining of teachers) is the preserve of government with the unions  ensuring that proper procedures are followed; learning materials are readily available; basic infrastructure requirements are met across the board, and high speed broadband is available to support learning.”

South Africa’s education has come a long way since 1994 bringing access to schooling to all children. However, 23 years into our democracy there are still many challenges that still face the education system. These include mud schools and farm schools in rural areas, late delivery of textbooks and learning material, rural area teacher migration to urban areas, basic infrastructure backlog, low learner motivation, minimal parental or guardian involvement and other socioeconomic dynamics such as affordability of sanitary towels for the girl child, teenage pregnancy, nutrition and food.  Government alone cannot overcome these challenges and there needs to be a collaborative approach developed where government provides an enabling environment through policy and legislation where all sectors of society partner to achieve Vision 2030.

These are some of the challenges that will be discussed at the Kagiso Trust Education Conversations in partnership with the University of Johannesburg’s Faculty of Education.  The primary objective of these conversations is to engage in debate and knowledge exchange by providing practical solutions to challenges in education which can be tabled to the Department of Basic Education for consideration as well as integration into Kagiso Trust’s Education Development Programmes.

University of Johannesburg (UJ) students, together with the public at large, have submitted their visions for South African education which will be published in a limited edition booklet available at the event.

Television and radio presenter, Masechaba Ndlovu will facilitate the conversation which will include the Deputy Minister of the Department of Basic Education Mr Enver Surty as the keynote speaker.

Event details

Date: 25th July 2017

Time: 15:00 to 17:00

Venue:  University of Johannesburg, Soweto Campus Library

Keynote speaker: Mr Enver Surty, Department of Basic Education Deputy Minister

Facilitated by:  Masechaba Ndlovu

RSVP:  Chulekazi Charlie ccharlie@kagiso.co.za


Kagiso Trust





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Invitation to Education Conversations

Topic: Our vision for South African education
Date: Tuesday 25 July 2017
Speaker: Deputy Minister of the Basic Department of Education Mr. Enver Surty
Venue: University of Johannesburg, Soweto Campus Library
Facilitated by: Masechaba Ndlovu
To RSVP, please send an email to Chulekazi Charlie on ccharlie@kagiso.co.za
We look forward to hosting you!
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KCDF 20th Anniversary and Conference 2017: Durable Development

22-23 June 2017, Kenya Nairobi

Are you a passionate development practitioner working in your space to end poverty?

Have you ever considered the impact of a donor dependency mindset among communities you work with?

Do you struggle to build a sustainable local organization with a solid asset base that supports your agenda?

If the answer to these questions is YES! then you cannot afford to miss this conference!

This conference will give you an opportunity to meet passionate and inspiring local and international leaders who share their stories and experiences in dealing with these issues.

As part of celebrating its 20th Anniversary, KCDF in partnership with Africa Philanthropy Network (APN) and Global Fund for Community Foundations (GFCF), cordially invites you to participate in a conference themed “Durable Development – Shifting the Power, Building Community Resilience” where this kind of questions will form the basis for the deliberations. The conference will bring together a rich and diverse group of practitioners (national and international) to deliberate and foster conversations on people-led durable approaches to development #shiftthepower.

The two-day conference will be an opportunity for participants to network and meet other like-minded thought leaders, who share similar concerns and are working towards contextualizing development from an African perspective, such that it becomes sustainable including building a strong financial base for it. The conference will provide an opportunity to explore the following:

  1. Bring together a diverse set of development practitioners from Kenya and beyond, to explore effective interventions in implementing sustainable development programmes.
  2. Work towards shifting the field of development to a new paradigm of people based development that enhances building local assets, capacities, and trust among communities.
  3. Share case studies and working models on emerging community development practices that are building on local community philanthropy and help communities break away from a dependency mindset.
  4. Present innovative development practices in areas such as devolved decision making, local asset mobilization and multi-stakeholder partnerships among others.
  5. Explore the implications of the above conversations on the state and nature of civil society sector and its ability to deliver on their mandate towards achieving durable development.

Speakers: http://www.kcdf.or.ke/index.php/20th-anniversary-conference#speakers

Kagiso Trust’s relationship with Kenya Community Development Fund (KCDF) is part of Kagiso Trust’s vision for more African non-profit organisations to become and remain self-funded and sustainable. Founded by the two entities, KCDF Investment Holdings is an investment holding company incorporated and based in Nairobi, Kenya.



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Mind your [Maths] Language

It is no secret that South Africa has a notorious track record when it comes to mathematics education. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) places South Africa virtually at the bottom of the pile of participating countries. South Africa’s own Annual National Assessment (ANA) reports show that of the national cohort of Grade 9 learners between 2012 and 2014, at most three percent achieved 50% or more on the assessment with the highest national average being 14% for this period. The National Senior Certificate (NSC) school exit level examinations annually report very poor results. For the nine-year period 2008 – 2016, an average of 33,5% percent of the learners who sat the examination passed with 40 percent or more, so 66,5% of candidates scored less than 40%.

In its reports on both the ANAs and NSC results the Department of Basic Education acknowledges that learners are ‘unfamiliar with mathematical terminology and properties and use them incorrectly’ and that they have poor algebraic skills. The reports further recognise that learners do not engage successfully with mathematical problems that require conceptual understanding. The perennial and lingering unsatisfactory mathematics performance by a vast majority of learners across all grades in South Africa’s classrooms is indicative of a systemic crisis. Add to this that teachers of mathematics are under- or unqualified, that their mathematics competence has been shown to be wanting, and by implication, their ability to teach the subject content is therefore also questionable, we have a dismal picture of mathematics education.

Mathematics education in South Africa is in crisis, has been for decades and the endemic must surely beg the question ‘For how long?’ An elusive answer must lie somewhere. Research identifies what is wrong, but seems not to have the power to ameliorate or remediate a serious problem. Annual reports of the Department of Basic Education (DBE) similarly diagnose in ritual fashion what leads learners to fail but they provide no prognosis or treatment of the symptoms. No amount of hard or soft technology thrown at mathematics classrooms, or malignant diagnoses, has produced a change to national mathematics performances.

The perpetuation of the status quo has several implications. Mathematics literacy compared to mathematics over the past four years alone has on average had 16% more candidates of the total enrolment for the NSC examinations. The reason for this difference is perhaps told by the comparison of the subjects’ pass rates. For the four-year period 2013 – 2016, mathematical literacy has an average of 53,2% of learners who wrote the exam achieving 40% or more, whilst for mathematics, the equivalent statistic is 35,2%. Schools’ pass rates are also increased by diverting learners toward mathematical literacy. There is the other push factor toward mathematical literacy – a paucity of teachers with the requisite subject knowledge to teach mathematics. Consequently, more learners opt for mathematical literacy because it offers a better chance of obtaining a matric certificate but the downside is that mathematical literacy has less buying power in terms of accessing science-related fields of study, or access to university.

Mathematics is important whether it be deemed elitist or not. It is a prerequisite for key vocational and occupational drivers of the economy, mathematics teachers among these. The sad thing is that mathematics is feared, and its elitist maligning comes as a result of those who speak about it, for it, or on its behalf – teachers – who do not know it or understand its language. They, therefore, misrepresent it.  At a level of personal justice, the biggest injustice is toward those who have an innate mathematical acuity but are denied a chance of being a champion of the subject. From perspectives of social justice mathematics in its current crisis cannot impact the economy and begin to relieve poverty.  Constitutionally education is called to free the potential of each person, and mathematics as part of that education fails horribly. There is no justice in mathematics education.

I allude to language in the previous paragraph and it is language that I wish to make the central issue of this article since I believe that language has the potential of realising personal and social justice in mathematics education. Being South African since 1994 means that we are familiar with eleven official languages. Of these English is the language of teaching and learning in most of South Africa’s classrooms, and according to students under my tutelage, the preferred language of teaching in initial teacher education courses. This means of course that most of South Africa’s learners are not taught in their mother tongue.  And in mathematics classrooms, mathematics, the universal language of the sciences is a language within the language of instruction. The compounded effects of the complexities of English as a second language, and the sophistication of mathematics as a scientific language causes me to posit that South Africa is not measuring up in mathematics because it is doubly, and possibly triply, misunderstood in the case of English as the language of teaching, an African language as mother tongue, and mathematics the universal language of science being in the discourse of any single classroom.

Language has been the focus of much research both nationally and internationally over the past decades. In the context of multilingual South African classrooms, the languages of learning and teaching are seen as resources where shared languages enable learners and teacher to revoice their understanding of mathematical content for the purpose of agreed meaning. Code-switching, the alternating of languages while in dialogue, for example, may use the term ‘idenominator’ and refer to its position in the fraction as ‘phansi’ meaning ‘down’ or ‘under’. In this case, the alternating languages would be English and isiXhosa. As useful as code-switching may be theoretically, language as a resource in its broadest application has the potential of creating confusion amongst learners in instances where the language of mathematics is tarnished by incorrect vocabulary.

For dialogue to be meaningful, there is the subliminal presumption that the object of the conversation has the same meaning for its participants. What one communicant accepts and understands as the object under discussion must be exactly the same as the other’s acceptance and understanding. I illustrate this point by an example of what transpires frequently in initial teacher education courses that aim at helping prospective mathematics teachers develop sound pedagogical practices. In mathematics, an expression and an equation are fundamentally different constructs, the former associated with a process of simplification and the other with a process of solution. One, therefore ‘simplifies expressions’ and ‘solves equations’. The terms, however, are used synonymously by a majority of my student teachers, with a leaning toward all mathematical objects needing to be solved, or a hybrid concoction of ‘solve the expression’. This shows that there is no agreed meaning of the words ‘equation’ and ‘expression’ when I am in dialogue with students. Transfer this scenario to an episode of teaching where a teacher does not distinguish between an equation and an expression and an entire class is then placed at risk of cognitive dissonance.

The language ‘of’ and ‘in’ mathematics is in sharp contrast to the resourcefulness of multiple languages used in the classroom. If the former is wanting then the authenticity of the latter is questionable. If one considers the language of the entire mathematics curriculum becoming progressively more sophisticated with increasingly advanced concepts, then the consequences and implications for understanding mathematics are far reaching. A fine-grained vocabular[1] knowledge is core and integral to understanding mathematics.

The Department of Basic Education recognises that learners in the NSC examinations (Matric) are not able to engage successfully with mathematical problems that require conceptual understanding. I suggest strongly, that for teachers and learners, an insufficient and inaccurate vocabulary store with which to assimilate and accommodate concepts is the root cause. We think in words, and construct concepts with them. And it is with these vocabularies that we are able to reason about mathematical objects and their relationships. That we think and reason with words and construct concepts with them are well respected Vygotskian notions on thought and language and we seem as mathematics educators not to have imbibed them.

The Department of Basic Education’s national annual diagnostic reports also acknowledge that the correct use of mathematical language in classrooms is problematic. Acknowledgment is insufficient though – it needs a strategy for implementation.

Paulo Freire’s work champions dialogic education. He emancipated the Brazilian proletariat from their muteness through transforming an education system from one characterised by the deposition of knowledge to one of authentic dialogical engagement between teachers and learners. What he achieved in the nineteen seventies is what needs to be achieved in South Africa in the sense that we need to liberate learners from their muteness, whether that muteness has its roots in oppressive practices, or deficient language with which to engage with one’s critical consciousness and contribute in communicative episodes. To realise this in mathematics classrooms congruent vocabularies of teacher and learner is an essential prerequisite. The practice of using exact mathematical language for teaching will empower learners to ask critical questions that are clearly understood.

The congruency of teacher and learner vocabularies is not only important for meaningful conversation. It carries responsibilities of ethical practices and moral obligation. As teachers, we cannot speak carelessly or sloppily about the mathematics we teach. Learners are dependent on us as being the more informed. They trust us to teach with intellectual integrity. We need to know the difference between and an equation and an expression and be able to explain it. It is incumbent on us to grapple with the essence of the words and language of mathematics we use as teachers to ensure meaningful discourse.

So how does South Africa measure up in mathematics? By current statistics on learner performance, and the capacity and competence of our teachers we do not measure up nationally or internationally in all grades across the school system. The hypothesis proposed here is that a broad focus on language without attention to precise use of terms, and understanding, will not make a substantial difference. By contrast, specific focus on concepts, and the associated terms, and the expression of these concepts verbally and in writing will provide the groundwork for more advanced mathematics.

Indeed, our studies into how language impacts the classroom, without the detailed attention to the precise use of mathematical terms, over the past two decades have not made a difference to the national landscape. The perennially poor outcomes in terms of the quantity and quality of our matric results are evidence of that. It may be time to lift a magnifying glass to scrutinise the exact language that teachers use in their classrooms. We also need to review textbooks with this precise use in mind. We may find that we are inadvertently involved with mathematical deception instead of nurturing mathematical conception.


Dr. Pete van Jaarsveld
Mathematics Education Lecturer, University of the Witwatersrand

Image credit: Lawrence University (lawrence.edu)

[1]  ‘Vocabular’ is coined as an adjective to qualify knowledge.



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Education Conversations sheds a spotlight on mathematics in South African schools

Why do South African learners perform so poorly in mathematics? What can we do to improve performance? Is maths still relevant in our current context?

These are some of the questions that Kagiso Trust attempted to answer at the latest instalment of Education Conversations, hosted in conjunction with the University of Johannesburg. Together with panellists Dr. Linda Zuze of the Human Sciences Research Council, Dario Fanucchi, technical director at Isazi Consulting, and consultant Nontobeko Mabude, the event – themed around ‘Mathematics: How does South Africa measure up?’ – examined findings from the recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Studies (TIMSS), and their implications.

Kagiso Trust

For Zuze, some of the most interesting data revealed by the study pertains to gender differences in terms of performance in mathematics, particularly as STEM subjects’ apparent lack of appeal for female learners has been well publicised. In fact, says Zuze, by the time learners reach Grade 9, there is relatively little difference in their performance; although in general, female learners tend to perform better in Grade 5. There is, however, a major difference to be discerned between the achievement of children at fee-paying, independent schools, who tend to perform better than those at non-fee paying schools. Added to this, boys were more likely to outperform girls amongst high achievers at fee-paying schools.

Zuze also commented on the fact that boys at non-fee paying schools were seen to have the lowest career aspirations (although this may be because they are open to less formal career paths). Girls are generally more ambitious in terms of their career goals; they are also more likely to discuss their concerns with a parent or other adult, and to benefit from parental involvement in their homework. A final observation is that although the incidence of bullying has decreased at South African schools, male learners still regularly experience bullying across all school settings.

The TIMSS findings were based on a sample of 12 514 learners, 334 mathematics teachers and 331 science teachers at 292 schools.

Kagiso Trust

Fanucchi’s answer to the question of whether South African learners measure up in mathematics is that we should not be looking at whether mathematics is considered difficult, but if it can be thought of as relevant in our current context. He maintains that the answer is yes, particularly as almost every action or item we encounter in our daily lives involves an element of mathematic calculation. The solution, therefore, is helping learners see this relevance for themselves. It may also help to strengthen the relationship between learners and teachers, so that learners are inspired to try their hardest while receiving the teaching support they require. Technology can also be employed to help foster understanding amongst students; even in schools where connectivity is an issue, cell phones may become a useful teaching aid, said Fanucchi.

Kagiso Trust

For Mabude, the challenge lies in addressing teacher challenges; the major obstacle being the fact that – at primary school level especially – teachers are not required to be subject specialists and are, in fact, rotated through various subjects on an annual basis. This inhibits their ability to foster the deep understanding of mathematics that is required in order to help learners address their concerns.

Although the question of how to address poor performance in mathematics is a complex and multi-faceted one, the panellists were in agreement that the perception of mathematics as a subject that is impossible to master urgently needs to be disproved. Learners should be made to understand that it is simply an extension of their innate logic, and therefore is within everyone’s reach. It is the responsibility of all involved in the education sphere to bring this to their attention, and to use their creativity to make mathematics more accessible.

Education Conversations is an attempt by Kagiso Trust and the University of Johannesburg to encourage greater stakeholder engagement in the creation of an effective public education sector; the goal being to move away from focusing on the pathology of the sector and instead foster debate about the initiatives that have proved fruitful.

Kagiso Trust Kagiso Trust

Kagiso Trust Kagiso Trust


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