Q&A with Hamsa Venkat

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The aim of the Q&A series is to get an inside look into some of South Africa’s leading education academics, policy-makers and activists. This is the tenth interview in the series.  Hamsa Venkatakrishnan is an Associate Professor at Wits and holds the position of SA Numeracy Chair

1)   Why did you decide to go into education?

Had decided by the time I was 10 or 11 that I wanted to be a teacher, and probably, a maths teacher. I had no thoughts, at the point at which I started teaching, that I would become an academic working in a university – that came quite a lot later. I’m not sure what prompted wanting to teach – but my mum had been a teacher and her father had been a lecturer – so they were probably both influences.

2)   What does your average week look like?

I don’t really have an ‘average’ week – which is part of what I like about the job I currently do. Some days (and some weeks), I am in schools for most of the time, I teach undergraduate seminars and postgraduate courses, and do a lot of postgraduate supervision.  I also go to conferences, nationally and internationally, and sit in meetings – at my university, with teachers and with policy makers. I love the fact that my current role as SA Numeracy Chair, leading a 5 year research and development project aimed at improving primary maths teaching and learning, allows me to teach everything from Grade 1 classes to PhD students. That range is unusual – and great fun!

3)   While I’m sure you’ve read many books and articles in your career, if you had to pick one or two that have been especially influential for you which one or two would they be and why?

I love reading, and all kinds of reading – from mathematics education, to classic literature, to Cosmopolitan! In education, I read a range of work, both theoretical and empirical, but really admire the people who write in thoughtful and accessible ways about how we might re-think teaching and learning. In mathematics education, I think Professor Anne Watson at Oxford University does this really well, as does Professor Mike Askew at Monash University.

More broadly, I like classic literature – the girly stuff like Jane Austen and George Eliot, and lots of modern world literature. I also loved reading Sunday papers all day when I lived in London. And yes, Cosmopolitan is good fun too!

4)   Who do you think are the current two or three most influential/eminent thinkers in your field and why?

It’s quite hard to narrow down two or three ‘most influential’ thinkers in mathematics education, or in education more broadly, because the church is a broad one with diverse interests and multiple sub-fields. While there are ‘eminent’ thinkers in maths education, what counts as ‘influential’ is eclectic and subjective and shifts over time. So, influential for me at the moment, George Lakoff’s work on human understanding of concepts through embodied cognition. And lots of people working in the field of mathematics teacher knowledge and maths teaching development – Deborah Ball, Brent Davis and Jill Adler amongst these.

5)   What do you think is the most under-researched area in South African education?

I am increasingly interested in understanding what people think children should be able to do mathematically at various stages of schooling, and then thinking about what teachers need to do to develop these competences. I don’t think we have sufficiently shared understandings – even within mathematics education – about what children should be able to do, and we seem reluctant to build the platforms and networks and engage in the hard conversations that might allow us to develop more shared perspectives across a terrain that is as riven with an inequitable history of access to education as South Africa is. Differences of opinion relate to both the type of mathematics children should be able to do, and the extent of the mathematics that schools should offer. For example, look at these two questions:

  • 4/5  +  1/3  equals  ____
  • How many fractions lie between 1/4 and 1/2?

Learner performance is usually higher on the first question than the second. I get mixed responses when I ask teachers and teacher educators whether they think that children should be able to answer both of these questions. Some say ‘Yes, children should be able to answer both’. Most say they have taught children how to work out the answer to the first question, but have not dealt with the idea underlying the second question. Underlying these differences in what gets taught are different views about what school mathematics is actually about.

I think it is critically important that children are able to answer both of the questions above, but I would go further. I think being able to do the first question without having any idea about how to answer the second is pretty useless. But we need to be able to understand what underlies these different positions, and then start building agreement over what we want children to be able to do and what we put in the school curriculum. If we don’t, I can’t see how we will move towards closing the gaps in performance that are so widespread on the ground. So that is my under-researched priority (for now!).

6)   What is the best academic advice you’ve been given?

‘Do it for as long as you enjoy it – and resign if it gets to the point that you don’t enjoy it any more’.

I’m still enjoying it enough to stay in!

7)   If you ended up sitting next to the Minister of Education on a plane and she asked you what you think are the three biggest challenges facing South African education today, what would you say?

  1. Teacher content knowledge – and openings for developing this in ways that are useful for teaching. This might mean more conversations around the kinds of understandings underlying the second question above, rather than more practice of the first question – which is what many of us did more of in school
  2. Lack of shared understandings of what mathematics we teach in school and why.
  3. Access to good quality primary level education

8)   If you weren’t in education what do you think you would be doing?

I think I would have liked to be a scriptwriter – for film or television. Or a travel writer like Bill Bryson. But I think I am quite a vocational teacher – so would not want to lose being able to do that!

9)   Technology in education going forward – are you a fan or a sceptic?

            A fan, although a bit of a Luddite one in some ways!

10) If you were given a R5million research grant what would you use it for?

            Longitudinal studies that tracked through from developing teacher content knowledge from a teaching perspective, into supporting teachers to make mathematics more coherently and interestingly and purposively accessible to learn in classrooms. Research would aim to understand the conditions, constraints and development trajectories within these processes.

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A list of Hamsa’s publications can be found here. We are currently working on a joint paper (or two) analysing the SACMEQ III (2007) Grade 6 Mathematics teacher test data, and *hopefully* they’ll be finished in the next few months.

Some of the other academics/policy-makers on my “to-interview” list include Servaas van der Berg, Thabo Mabogoane, Veronica McKay, Jon Clark, Volker Wedekind, John Kruger, Linda Biersteker, Jonathan Jansen, Khulekani Mathe, Percy Moleke, and Joy Oliver. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.

2 responses to “Q&A with Hamsa Venkat

  1. A fascinating interview with a fascinating academic. I was particularly pleased to see George Lakoff’s name being mentioned under influential thinker. His work on metaphor written with Johnson is seminal. It will be interesting to see how his work affects they way we think about maths education in South Africa from grade R onward. I look forward to reading more of Hamsa’s research and I will be looking out for Lakoff. Maths education in SA is in safe hands.

  2. I loved this interview and support the emphasis on conceptual thinking alongside problem-solving. My son was introduced to maths in an American school district that focused solely on conceptual thinking but has lagged behind his peers in South Africa on the basics of times tables, etc. The ideal would be to teach both. I think maths classes can be so much more engaging when they stimulate curiosity and even teamwork (“Work in your group to think of how many fractions there are between 1/4 and 1/4.”). There are so many exciting possibilities and it’s great to see someone like Hamsa putting her mind to them.

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