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 twenty first interview in the series. Jill Adler is a professor in the education faculty at Wits and Chair of Mathematics Education.
1) Why did you decide to go into education?
I always loved mathematics, and was inspired by particular teachers in both primary and secondary schools, and so I went to University to study mathematics. I gave “extra mathematics lessons” while I was doing my degree and enjoyed this (as well as earning quite well from it) and so went on from a B Sc to do my professional teaching diploma. Psychology was my second major – this also wasn’t in my original plan – I had thought I would do Applied Maths, but I enjoyed Psychology in first year and so continued, and then enjoyed work on child development, learning and so on. So I moved into teaching – rather than set out to teach, or work in education. When I began my working career as a secondary mathematics teacher, I had no intention of becoming an academic and researcher in education. My first post was in a so-called ‘coloured’ school in Cape Town, a school with a strong political identity tied to the Unity Movement. This strengthened my concerns with and interest in educational inequality. My work turned in that direction, and in 1977 I went to work at the SACHED trust. I wrote mathematics materials for Weekend World Newspaper (which was banned in 1977) and then Sunday Post, and found in the early 1980s that the materials were being used by adults working in various sectors including the mines. This stimulated research that led to my Masters degree which focused on “Adults learning mathematics through the newspaper”. I tracked down and interviewed a group of these aduts and learned a great deal about what it meant for many to return to study – and do this through a written mass medium; of course I also learned about how mathematics can be communicated in that medium. And as they say, the rest is history. After completing my Masters, and my children were a little older, I decided to re-enter formal teaching and the university sector, and was fortunate to get a lecturing position first in primary mathematics at what was then JCE and then in the Department of Education, at Wits.
2) What does your average week look like?
It’s busy! I don’t have an ‘average’ week – my work spreads across all components of research, teaching both post graduate courses and professional development, lots of post graduate supervision, reviewing journal papers, writing references, assisting others with papers they are working on, and running a large project (managing staff, finances, reporting) and so on. This is my current work and a function of the position of Chair of Mathematics Education, and director of a large research and development project – my work spread is not the same as it was five years ago before I took on this chair. Broadly my time is shared between supporting the professional development work we do in schools, and doing and supporting the research that is linked to this work, with a large proportion of time supporting full time doctoral students in the project. I teach less than I did before. I travel internationally a fair amount, to conferences and for other international work I do. Also, until July 2014, I held a joint part time Professorship at Kings College London, and so spent time there each year … I am now a visiting professor, and only continue with some doctoral supervision. I will still spend some time there, but not as much and with less commitment and work demands.
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?
Interesting as I think about this, Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation had an immense effect on me. I happened to read this while I was working on my PhD, and it provided a different gaze on what it meant to learn and live in a language that was not your mother tongue, or as she called it, the language of her heart and emotions. I have since read much of her work, the most powerful of which was After Such Knowledge: Meditations on the Holocaust. The latter, a philosophical and social commentary rather than an academic text, has contributed significantly to my understanding of the social world, as well as some of my own location in history.
Most influential at the start of my academic career was Lev Vygotsky’s work: Mind in Society and Thought and Language. As a mathematics education researcher I am always working between educational theory and literature in mathematics education. With my early work on teaching mathematics in multilingual classrooms, David Pimm’s book Speaking Mathematically was pivotal in turning my attention to mathematical language more generally. More recently, with my interest in mathematical knowledge in and for teaching and particularly what is produced as mathematics in teacher education practice, influential resources are Basil Bernstein’s Pedagogy, Symbolic Control and Identity, and Anna Sfard’s Thinking as Communicating and then the extensive work done by Deborah Ball in the past decade. I could go on, as I enjoy reading, and spend time relaxing with whodunnits …
4) Who do you think are the current two or three most influential/eminent thinkers in your field and why?
Three people come to mind: Anna Sfard and Luis Radford are both influential and eminent thinkers in mathematics education today. Each has and continue to develop a theory of mathematics learning, Anna through a quite radical discursive turn, and Luis also with semiotics, with a stronger cultural activity orientation. Both have produced rigorous and conceptually complex frames with which to engage (describe and explain) mathematics teaching and learning. And then Steve Lerman, long time collaborator and friend, for his breadth of knowledge and wisdom in our field and his continuing work related to the social turn as he named it many years ago.
5) What do you think is the most under-researched area in South African education?
I think our whole field of educational research in South Africa is relatively young. There is so much we need to know more about, and from the empirical base of our schools, classrooms and learners. I think the transition years from primary into secondary mathematics what teachers need to know and do to teach across subjects at that level are very poorly understood. This is critical in mathematics where the move to greater abstraction and working with symbolic forms emerges. It is also a critical point where we need to know more about what it means to learn and teach mathematics in a dominant minority but extremely powerful language (English).
6) What is the best academic advice you’ve been given?
To be a learner … a good researcher has to be willing to be a learner … to be in a position of ‘not knowing’, and then learning through and from research.
7) You have been involved in mathematics teacher education at WITS for a long time – in your experience what are the two or three areas that students struggle with most when they become teachers and start teaching in schools?
Just coping with the demands of a full time teaching job in the first year is difficult enough for anyone. Teaching is very hard work. Those entering first year on the job are lucky if they come into a school where there is a depth and range of experience and so can support you in the first year. Just keeping up with the work to be done is challenge enough. For mathematics teachers going into many of our secondary schools, a real struggle is dealing with the backlog in learner knowledge – this compounds the difficulties of teaching “all your learners” and moving on at a pace demanded by the curriculum.
8) There is widespread agreement in the mathematics education literature in South Africa that a large proportion of mathematics teachers do not have the content knowledge and pedagogical skill to teach mathematics effectively. What do you think are the most promising models or interventions that deserve further investigation or evaluation?
Given our history, and the way in which apartheid education ravaged both sense of self, and of knowledge and learning, I think the models that require support NOW, are those that provide practicing teachers sufficient TIME to (re)learn mathematics, more specifically what the field calls ‘mathematics for teaching’. The model we have developed in the Wits Maths Connect Project is promising – it is grounded in a conception of mathematics for teaching, and takes place over 16 – 20 days, spread over an academic year. We have shown that when teachers have opportunity AND TIME to strengthen their relationship with mathematics (and by this I mean relearn mathematics they teach in greater depth, and learn new mathematics, while becoming more mathematical in how they think when doing mathematics) this impacts on the learning gains of their students. The model includes a version of lesson study – and so work on teaching and thus pedagogical skill. But even in our lesson study model, the focus is on what we call the object of learning – what learners are to know and be able to do mathematically, and how this is or is not brought into focus with learners in a lesson.
9) 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?
Hmm, an interesting question. Building respect for the profession, and the work of teaching is a huge challenge, and it requires engaging the organisation of the profession where at a public level, employment conditions and mainly salary is the issue. Changing that conversation to be one that is equally concerned about learners and learning is first and foremost. Second, I would focus on the challenges of time and knowledge in our education. We have systemic problems, underpinned by weak orientations to knowledge (whatever the discipline. Becoming knowledgeable – and that is what is needed for teaching – takes time, no matter what your discipline is; and it requires deep respect for the learning/teaching process.
10) If you weren’t in education what do you think you would be doing?
I suppose I would be in social service of some kind, or perhaps child psychology?
11) Technology in education going forward – are you a fan or a sceptic?
Neither – any tool only takes on power in use. We can make more productive use of a range of technologies … if and only if we understand their use is never separate from the user and their context and conditions.
12) If you were given a R5million research grant what would you use it for?
This could sound like a lot of money – depending on what it has to pay for, it could also do very little. The short of it is that I am doing the research I want to do, and think is important – studying the inter-relation between mathematics teaching in secondary school, mathematics teacher education and professional development, and student learning.
Some of the others on my “to-interview” list include Veronica McKay, Thabo Mabogoane, Andrew Einhorn, Maurita-Glynn Weissenberg, Shelley O’Carroll, Carole Bloch, Yael Shalem, Linda Richter and Volker Wedekind. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.
Previous participants (with links to their Q&A’s) include, Johan Muller, Ursula Hoadley, Stephen Taylor, Servaas van der Berg, Elizabeth Henning, Brahm Fleisch, Mary Metcalfe, Martin Gustafsson, Eric Atmore, Doron Isaacs, Joy Oliver, Hamsa Venkat, Linda Biersteker, Jonathan Clarke, Michael Myburgh, Percy Moleke , Wayne Hugo, Lilli Pretorius, Paula Ensor and Carol Macdonald.