Wits Maths Connect-Primary Project

The Wits Maths Connect-Primary Project encompasses a suite of numeracy focused interventions. In designing our projects, we took into account the National Research Foundation’s aims in establishing the Numeracy Chairs. These aims are to:

  • improve mathematics, numeracy and literacy learner performance (pass rates and quality of passes) in public schools especially in previously disadvantaged areas;
  • research sustainable and practical solutions to the challenges of improving mathematics, numeracy and literacy education in schools; and
  • provide leadership in mathematics, numeracy and literacy education and increase the dialogue around solutions for the crisis in South Africa.

Our belief was (and continues to be) that primary school teachers and their mathematics teaching are central to the achievement of these aims, and teachers and teaching were therefore central to our research activities. We wanted to focus on changing teachers’ ways of working with mathematics towards a connection based on competence, confidence and enthusiasm for mathematics and its teaching. The projects were designed by trialing interventions drawing from a research base, monitoring experiences and outcomes, and then adapting interventions. The projects from Phase 1 (2011-2015) are discussed briefly below:

The Lesson Starters Project is focused on improving childrens’ number sense, sophistication and efficiency of their strategies when working with numbers in the Foundation Phase. Grade 2 and Grade 3 learners were selected from ten partner schools.  The intervention model consisted of 3 workshops, with follow-up in-class observation and coaching. Quasi-longitudinal learner assessments showed gains in early number performance for the Grade 2 and Grade 3 learners, with broad increases towards more efficient counting strategies.

There is extensive evidence of gaps in teachers’ mathematical knowledge, and the ways in which this knowledge is manifested in teaching. In addition, South African and international evidence shows a fear and hate/dislike of mathematics among primary school teachers. The 20-Day Primary Mathematics Knowledge for Teaching Course aimed to address this through creating in-service opportunities for primary school teachers to work with mathematics and its teaching. The course was structured in 2-day blocks across the academic year and focused on improving teachers’ mathematical discourse in instruction. Tasks and activities focused on connecting representations and examples, sharing reasons for actions, rather than stating rules. Over three iterations, results indicated robust gains (approximately, a mean 14% point gain between pre- and post-tests). While pre-test results indicated that later cohorts were weaker than earlier cohorts, the numbers of teachers participating in the course from the ten partner schools increased year on year, as did the mean pre-to post-test gain. Two iterations of an abridged 10-day version of this course run with teacher cohorts in Free State districts showed smaller, but similarly robust, gains.

The Big Books Project consisted of carefully planned series of intervention lessons, carried out across a range of post-graduate studies with selected classes using a pre- and post-test methodology. The studies, involving a focus on word problems based on the four mathematical operations, have shown that a relatively short, and carefully designed and planned sequence of lessons, can improve learner performance on word problems and on number calculations related to additive/multiplicative relations.

The I Hate Maths project was a development initiative focused on public writing and platforms for primary teachers to meet and engage with primary mathematics. The high numbers participating in Professor Mike Askew’s public I Hate Maths seminars, and the positive responses to them, indicate the usefulness of building platforms for primary school teachers focused on engagement with the content, the practices and the norms of mathematics. A series of articles written in The Teacher magazine for primary teachers are currently being collated into an open source booklet. The evidence continues to point to an unwillingness by in-service primary school teachers to engage with mathematics. Our models, and our findings, tend to contradict this. We have found that teachers will engage with mathematics given the right openings to do so i.e.  platforms where mathematics is worked on in an environment that embodies integrity, honesty and respect towards teachers.

Going forward…

Late in 2015, the National Research Foundation (NRF) agreed to extend the Wits Numeracy Chair to a second term. Our Phase 2 interventions are rolling out in 2017. Phase 2 plans involve key central projects involving, once again, ten partner schools, some overlapping with schools that we worked with in the first phase, but including four schools in a new district. Phase 2 also involves a broadening into the provincial terrain with a ‘Coaching for development’ course for all primary school mathematics subject advisers, and the national primary mathematics landscape, with the setting up of projects aimed at feeding into national policy on numeracy assessment in the Foundation Phase and pre-service teacher education.

Author: Prof Hamsa Venkat, SA Numeracy Chair – Wits