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Engaging learners in STEM education

At Education Week (organised by Spintelligent), which was held at the Sandton Convention Centre, in June, this year, a STEM Panel was set up to elaborate on how to engage learners in STEM education. Members of the panel presented interesting projects, and described different approaches, that could be used to promote learners’ engagement in STEM education in South Africa.

The STEM subjects of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math are not very popular and are perceived as difficult, by most of our students and many of our teachers.  This poor perception and negative attitude towards these important subjects is part of a vicious cycle that is reflected in the poor performance of our students when they participate in National and International Benchmarking Tests, in both Math and Science.

Where does South Africa stand when it comes to creating a pool of STEM qualified professionals? Not in a good position at all!
In 2012, statistic of the Grade 12 Cohort showed that 66% of these learners were ‘lost’ somewhere along the way, during the planned 12 year period of their schooling. Only 27% of the cohort, who completed matric, qualified to study for a degree, at a university. In addition to this, if we took 1000 children who started Grade 1 in 2001, only SIX of them would choose to pursue a STEM Qualification at a tertiary level, and of these SIX, only THREE would complete the qualification. (SASOL Inzalo Foundation Report).

There are many factors contributing to this state of affairs. One of the crucial ones is the poor delivery of the STEM subjects, by our teaching force.

Members of the panel presented the following:

The Robotics Project, run by ORT SA CAPE, presented by Dr Lydia Able.  Robotic activities are offered to both boys and girls, from townships schools, in the Western Cape.  The use of Technology for learning and development is done through the use of Lego WeDo and Mindstorm NXT Robotics kits. The children use the kits to design and build robots which, besides developing critical thinking and auditory listening skills, encourage the development of fine motor skills and hand eye co-ordination. If one is to succeed in Mathematics and Science it is essential that one becomes a critical thinker, and this skill is the major skill developed when one participates in Robotics.

The Bloodhound Foundation, presented by Chirstopher Maxwell also shared their exciting project which is to be launched in 2014. The Foundation will bring the first Super Sonic Car in the world to Kimberly!!  When they work in schools, the Foundation aims to get learners to be enthusiastic and interested in science-based subjects.

The above presentation was followed by an interesting presentation, by Olatunde Osiyemi, from the University of Fort Hare, on Mathematical Literacy, and its potential impact on the state of STEM. This in turn, was followed by an inspiring presentation by Seliki Tlhabane, CEO of the Sangari Institute.  He shared his successful approach to the teaching of Mathematics.  Using his approach, he puts pupils into mixed ability groups and all members of the group take responsibility to ensure that all members of their group perform at an acceptable level.  When it comes to informal assessments, the group is allowed to peruse the question paper prior to writing it, to discuss the questions and what is required from them, in order to answer them correctly.  This really caused consternation and much discussion from members of the the audience, and it was eventually agreed that’ if we always did what we have always done, we will always get what we’ve always got. Therefore to improve our Maths and Science results we need to be open to using new and different approaches, especially those where the learners are achieving positive results.

South Africa can overcome its educational challenges with the persistent implementation of strategies, positive thinking and action, working in collaboration and partnership, and by working towards one goal – the child. We have to always keep in mind that investing in our children is investing in our future.  The most important contributing factor to this investment is first and foremost education, so we have to deliver high quality education, to ensure that our children will grow up to be responsible, contributing, independent citizens of South Africa.

Cherish Math with your children

What connotation does the word mathematics brings to your mind?

Many dread the word in any form – Math, Mathematics, Arithmetic, Numeracy and so on. For me the word mathematics brings memories of my Grade 9 High School Math teacher, Angela.  She was a rigid, dogmatic lady who spoke with a heavy Russian accent.  When she peered at you, over her reading glasses, one’s heart froze, and one’s hands and legs started shaking uncontrollably.  This was when my own fear and negative attitude towards the learning of Mathematics began – a fear that I only managed to overcome when I got to university.

Well, thankfully those days are over and I am now a parent of three beautiful daughters, who themselves have had varied experiences of learning mathematics.  Fortunately for them none of their teachers have ever invoked anywhere near the terror levels of teacher Angela, but I do, however, wonder if subconsciously, and through non-verbal cues, I have transferred to them some of my earlier fears and negative attitude towards the learning of mathematics.

What is Mathematics? Mathematics is the abstract science of space, number and quantity. It is a vehicle to cultivate the mind and to get us to think; therefore it is very important when teaching mathematics, to ensure that children have grasped the concept being taught. Well structured questions such as:  ‘Explain it.’  ‘How did you get your answer?’ are a very important means to achieve this end.   It is the process rather than the answer that is important. We need to get away from teaching procedural routines, and encourage our children to think about their thinking (Meta cognition) and get them to appreciate that, just like most things in life; there is usually more than one way to solve a problem.

Dr Yeap Ben Har, a World Renown Math expert from Singapore, visited South Africa recently and gave workshops on the unique approach Singapore take when teaching mathematics, elaborating on the model method they use when problem solving. He believes that to ensure that a child achieves, and develops a positive attitude towards Mathematics the most important contributing factor is adult support and reassurance. According to Dr Yeap Ben Har, when a child is fearful and anxious about learning  Math it originates from the adult interacting with the child (teacher, parent, care giver), and not from the child himself.

Now that we know that the adult’s behaviour and attitude towards Maths is key, we need to ask ourselves as parents, what we can do to help our children master mathematics.  When your child comes home from school with a mathematical problem he can’t solve, be patient, but don’t do it for him.  Begin by asking him:

‘What did you learn about this at school?’

If the answer he gives doesn’t enlighten you, you could then refer to his textbook, workbook or exercise book.  Give your child time to think and explore.  Don’t rush him.  Remember the quality of the practice is more important than the quantity, and never sacrifice your child’s attitude towards mathematics, for the sake of getting good results.

How can we, as parents contribute towards developing a love for Maths in our children?   Make learning fun. For example, when shopping, you can give your child an imaginary budget of X amount, and ask him to work out what items he could purchase, without going over budget.  By incorporating Mathematics into daily life our children will come to appreciate that it is an important life skill.  Playing well known games with your children, such as Snakes and Ladders, Monopoly etc will also develop sound Mathematical concepts, while at the same time ensuring you spend quality time together.   One can also download suitable mathematical games for your child onto their phones, tablets or computers.

We, as parents, also need to be role models for our children, and set an example of being lifelong learners. As Rene Descartes, a French philosopher and mathematician said:   “It is not enough to have a good mind. The main thing is to use it well”.

(Thanks to Jane Horner for Proof Reading and Contribution)

HWEmail

How will technology impact the future of education?

Reflections from a Study Tour to Israel, MOFET 2013

Technology is progressing so fast that we never seem to be able to keep up to date with it.

As teachers, we sometimes feel that we, the “Desert Generation’s” main objective is to lead our students into the “Promised Land,” and by doing so we ourselves may be left behind, just observing the technological miracles envisaged by this new generation.

There is no question about whether or not technology has an impact on education.  Technology has, and always will, have power on shaping education. The real issue is the approach that we take when handling the changes and challenges that technology conveys.

Rabbi Kook, a significant thinker of the 19th Century said “In every era, you need to learn how to use the elements that influence the generation”. Adapting this to the 21st Century, the approach seems to be to learn what the future holds technologically, so that we can prepare this generation to cope with it.  When examining new and futuristic technologies, one needs to keep in mind the definition of Technology, as given by Allan Kay, an American Computer Scientist.  He said: “Technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born”. With the constant and endless changes in technologies today, we need to keep this definition in mind.   Think about the new upgraded cell phone that you have just purchased.  How long will it be before a new version comes onto the market?

In the past 30 years, research on education and technology has shown that since computers were introduced to schools, no change has occurred (Prof Hannan Yaniv, 2013).  There is, however, a need to change the way we think about technology and education. These life changing technologies challenge the digital pedagogy and the approach we take to these changes.  Instead of using new tools to change the way and what we learn we are doing what we have always done, but more efficiently (Jay Hurvitz, 2013).

Prof Sheizaf Refaeli from the Haifa University claims that disruptive technology can lead to disruptive change. The more established the organisation the more resistant it is to change e.g. Education.
Thornburg’s definition of disruptive technology is as follows: “an impossible-to-predict game changer that will fundamentally alter the conventional landscape”. The technology which he predicts will create the third education revolution is the always-connected mobile device.

Research shows how Africa is leapfrogging from an unwired, non-existent e-learning infrastructure to a wireless e-learning infrastructure with whole integration of online and wireless technologies and learning management systems (Brown, 2003). As a result, the potential of using mobile technology in Africa to bridge the digital divide is being re-examined and researched.

In this regard many questions are being posed to researchers and policy makers in the Educational field.  For example:

  1. “Do we understand technology enough to develop policies about it in education?”
  2. “When is learning effective?”

The leading answer seems to be that children need to become “designers for learning” and not the “consumers of learning”.  To achieve this end, there is a need for cultural change, and then one has to ask what the role of the teacher is?   The teacher will then be accountable for the quality of the content being learnt.

How can Technology be the catalyst for change? Examples from the Technion

  1. Use of mobile technology, such as laptops, in crowded classrooms to create active learning
  2. YouTube – used as a platform for assignments
  3. Cloud Pedagogy – learning can take place everywhere, no classroom boundaries

Virtual realities, simulations, mobile technology, virtual platform, cloud pedagogy and digital pedagogy, need to be examined to create lifelong learning.   This will equip our students for a future that we ourselves can’t even envisage.

From tablets to tablets

Reflections on visit to a school in Singapore

The following video was taken at Holy Innocents Primary school in Singapore. This visit was one of the highlights of the Global Math Forum held in Singapore in September. Marshall and Cavendish organised a most valuable and professional forum as  discussed in my previous posts. Enjoy the video and feel free to comment.

Singapore Math roll out in township schools in South Africa by ORT SA

At the recent Global Math Forum organised by Marshall and Cavendish in Singapore, I presented the following Prezi on the Singapore Math roll out in township schools in South Africa by ORT SA.

Notes for the Prezi:

My presentation started with a general background on South Africa, followed by a rather gloomy and most depressing picture of the state of
education in the country.

In a previous post , I portrayed the “Ticking bomb” as described by the Ministry of Higher Education; the distressing situation of the high unemployment rate of a young cohort group, this data being  of Government concern as it has huge implications on the future, as well as the present crime rate and poverty.

When discussing the state of education, it is important to take note of the past, and though 17 years have passed since Apartheid and “the past can no longer serves us as an excuse” as many critics may state, it is interesting to note that 96% of the current teachers were trained during the pre 1994 period with its deep inequalities, leaving them under-prepared for the new system and curriculum.

Therefore the Need-
South Africa is producing too few teachers, especially in key subjects such as Maths and Science.  Moreover,, existing teachers spend too little time in the classroom and many teach poorly when they are in the classroom. With research overwhelmingly showing that good teaching is vital
for better student results, this is a worrying situation. (CDE Recent research).

Government has taken many measures post 1994, and the Curriculum reforms in the form of Curriculum 2005, RNCS and NCS were all based
on “Outcomes Based Education” approach. What is known as OBE is based on Student Centre Learning, with focus on empirically measuring students’ performance (called outcomes). This approach does not specify nor require any particular style of teaching or learning and is based on constructivist methods, discouraging traditional education based direct instruction.

Professor Gopinathan from the NIE Singapore noted in his speech that the Singapore Government when designing its policy, some 30 years ago, based its strategy on building strong fundamentals before introducing flexibility, choice and diversity.

In 2010, the DOE of SA introduced the CAPS Curriculum and “kicked OBE approach out of the door”…some may argue, 16 years too late.

ORT SA Math Programme incorporates three critical factors that contribute to its success as shown in learners’ performance and teachers increased competence, confidence and motivation:

1. The use of high quality materials (the Singapore Math books published by Marshall and Cavendish). These materials have the MCK (Math
Content Knowledge) and MPCK (Math Pedagogical Content Knowledge) both embedded in them. And its structure and focus approach compensate a lack of strong Curriculum.

2.  Intensive teachers training, coaching and on-site support to upgrade teachers’ skills and knowledge and support them in implementation.

3. Assessment of learners and teachers to measure impact of project on their performance and bridge the gaps where necessary.

Lessons learnt

  • ORT’s model of high quality books, PD and Assessment proves to improve teaching and learning of Math in township schools in SA
  • Phase Approach (Starting from Grade 1) is recommended to introduce the Singapore methodologies progressively and build strong foundations
  • Show case success via functions, awards ceremonies, visits to schools. These show cases are a source of motivation and pride to teachers and schools
  • Importance of partnerships with DOE, Corporates, other NGOs all sharing the same aims and goals

Challenges

  • Parents’ involvement is a big challenge. Not only in encouraging and supporting children’s work and instill in them the values in education, but also  ensuring the safety of the school
  • Language – not enough research has been conducted to evaluate the implications of using English written textbooks in the Foundation Phase level, when policy requires the use of home language (there are 11 official languages in SA)
  • Minimal influence on policy and reforms in education. (accountability, compensation of teachers, shared data with DOE on pupils assessment)

Prezi

Reflections from Education Week SA July 2011

Education Week, a conference held at the Sandton Convention Centre recently, convened some important stakeholders in education, raising concerns regards the state of education in South Africa and sharing possible solutions and case studies. The state of education in SA has been exposed over the media and in academic articles, so the issues that arose in both morning panels on the 7th and 8th of July, were not new discoveries to most delegates. Both Ministries for Basic Education and Higher Education are openly disclosing information and strategies to the problem. For example, statistic shown by Mabizela Nathledi, who represented the Minister of Higher Education, revealed the numbers behind what he called the “Ticking Time Bomb”. Numbers of unemployed, not in education and not severely disabled at the 18-24 age cohort. This staggering statistic shows 2.8M unemployed between the age of 18-24, out of which about 2M – TWO MILLION have less than Grade 12 qualification (0.5M Primary education and less, 0.5M less than Grade 10, 1M less than Grade 12). In South Africa where the rate of unemployment is min 28% this statistic is of huge concern (compared to Tunisia where unemployment rate is 5%). Mazibela noted that the SA economy requires a pool of artisans and technicians as well as academic, teaching staff and researchers. Another concern raised is that the quality of students seems to be going down. He also added that poor education in primary level is the concern of DHE as well since the need to strengthen the basics; Math, Science and Literacy are fundamentals when getting to higher education.

I  enjoyed Brian O’Connell’s talk that conveyed some hope by mentioning that we will succeed as we did before. The 2005 Curriculum was wrong, but it’s not the end of it, since early civilisation, we have tried to make sense of things but we’re not always right. The Aztec, ethic group in central Mexico who sacrificed humans is an example that civilisation don’t always get it right first time. Lets’ just hope that it won’t take too long for our country to get it right.

Using Gapminder – world map, scaled by different variables of education, Brian demonstrated the huge challenges SA faces. When scaled by number of patents, tertiary enrolment and books borrowed – you can hardly see Africa on the World map, but when it comes to TB, Malaria and HIV/AIDS, Africa seems to be the biggest continent in the world. Brian O’Connell presented benchmarking and TIMSS results that demonstrates the poor performance of our learners.

Brian’s outreach to SADTU regarding this challenge in education is an important call for the shift needed in education achievement. I strongly believe that in order to succeed in our efforts to elevate the state of education – it is the call of the communities to take proactive measures to eradicate poverty and hunger that impacts our learners achieve better.

Credit: Zapiro

Purpose of education

“Upon the education of the people of this country, the fate of this country depends” Benjamin Disraeli

The purpose of education is to nurture, grow and upgrade the skills of the younger generation to generate functioning, skilled individuals who are able to contribute back to society the investment put in to them.

Education for all, Special education, Equity in education, Inclusion and other reforms in education, nationally and internationally, are all efforts to improve on the deliverables set up by governments. Success of these efforts are measured by economic means (GDP growth, income averages etc)

Using these measures, schooling has failed most of developed and developing countries in providing an education that will drive economic success. World Bank’s report on education quality and economic growth (Eric A. Hanushek and Ludger Wofmann, 2007) show that what has been missing in the education agenda is attention to the quality of education rather than focusing on schools’ attainment and enrolment.

How do we measure “quality education”? In the World Bank Report Eric and Ludges suggest, quite convincingly, that the measure for education quality should be the level of cognitive skills of the population. And this, they suggest can be done by looking at international benchmarking in Math and Science, such as  TIMSS and PISA. They also propose that Developing Countries should look at designing their own benchmark testing.

According to Hanusek and Kimko (2000) , economic growth is affected positively by quality education. Their estimate suggests that one country-level standard deviation (equivalent to 47 test-score points in PISA 2000 mathematics) higher test performance would yield about one percentage point higher annual growth.

“Education is more than luxury; it is a responsibility that society owes to itself” Robin Cook.

Knowledge is power and having a skilled and knowledgeable population places a nation ahead of others. But this can be achieved not by measures of time spent at school but by the quality of what is achieved in this time. As research shows the quality of teachers is the key ingredient to ensure quality education and student performance.

This is why I think the campaign of “Purpose of Education” is so important, as I hope that partly it will answer the question of “What is a good teacher?”, as well as opening debate for the policies needed at schools to ensure quality education.

“Education would be more effective if its purpose was to ensure that by the time they leave school, each boy and girl should know how much they do not know and be imbued with a lifelong desire to know it” William Haley