Extending, deepening the village concept

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By SHEILA WOOD

Educational statistics are always a frightening, negative impact scenario, yet, as your editorial of 16 March 2018 suggests, there are many forces out there seeking to make a difference in the lives of our children.

One of them, RUMEP (Rhodes University Mathematics Education Project), has been running now since its inception in 1993 and celebrates 25 years of continuous involvement in supporting the school mathematics education community in this country.

Started to focus on providing support for primary school educators, RUMEP has undergone many changes in its structure, but in all of these has been a commitment to support and stimulate, to develop and to affirm the efforts of mathematics teachers, in often trying and isolated circumstances, in far-flung communities.

What changes have our education communities experienced?

In 1994, optimism was so strong that it felt that ‘if the resources are provided, miracles of learning would occur’.

Many schools were flooded with books, materials, equipment, building programmes… but as resources slowly fell into disuse and neglect, ideas and thinking were forced to change.

To many teachers in the school environments themselves, it would seem that the curriculum was blamed, as system after system was implemented and failed – new books written, distributed, abandoned… and children continued to sit in ignorance and crowded classrooms, pushed up, dropping out, generally seeing little connection between what they deem as ‘education’ and what their lives actually entail.

We are way past the mark of 20 years of democracy, and people shake their heads with despondency, crying, “We still haven’t got it!”

But if you have been around long enough and are prepared to look past the doom and gloom, there are definitely changes – not just passing fads and experiments, but changes that indicate a growing awareness of what may work, what is needed to be done, and just how hard the work and commitment is that is needed to make something happen, and then keep it going.

It takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a people to raise a village!

Education is a deeply intense cultural process! It is not about putting a child into uniform, and sending them off to school – especially if the commitment to ‘schooling’ in that school is itself foundering and divided! Education is not about grabbing and squabbling over the ‘best resources’ …

Education is about exposing our children to morals and standards, to a system of values and skills that enable them to learn how to function responsibly and with commitment in a fast-changing social and economic environment. Education is about finding a core set of principles that we wish our children to carry with them … that no matter the demands of the situation they are exposed to, they will have a sense of identity and purpose on which they can rely.

Mathematical principles can be taught with the materials we have to hand, a couple of toys, containers from the kitchen, a stick in the open dirt outside …

But to teach these principles involves thinking deeply about what these principles are, identifying them in the rush and crush of exercises and syllabi, and using those principles to shape and select our use of examples and exercises in the ‘classroom’. To teach mathematical principles involves learning to enunciate them in such a way that they can create meaningful order and structure in the child’s way of thinking.

If we, as adults, do not recognise those principles ourselves, how will we identify them and focus our work around them in our guidance of the ‘village child’?

Interaction to solve problems

And this is where RUMEP comes into play: in all our work, whether in direct contact with the children themselves, or through our vast interaction with their mathematics educators, RUMEP seeks to unveil the principles of numeracy and mathematical thinking, to instill these ideas in our educators, and to explore with those educators the myriads of ways in which they can expose their pupils to these ideas in a structured and sensible manner.

Mathematics is not about ‘covering a syllabus’. It is to seek and explore the structure and meaning of quantity, to give depth to our understanding and use of the number system, to explore order and pattern, to find predictability, to find confidence in action – in a world that is not chaotic, but is certainly vast and ever-expanding.

Every time one feels overwhelmed by insurmountable work-load and crushing volumes of syllabus, there is a question that guides us. “What is the core focus?”

RUMEP, in its coursework, is in a unique position to develop such ways of thinking within mathematics teachers attending our courses. Educators of a variety of grades are brought together and offered a rare opportunity of exposure to mathematical thinking that is not based on ‘directing them through next week’s work in the syllabus.’ Instead, educators are directed to explore the structure of mathematics as it stands in its own right. They have opportunity to see their specific grade work within the bigger development process that pupils themselves go through as they move through the schooling system.

The confidence to carry on

By exposure to the work and thinking of mathematics structure, teachers have opportunity to think about and identify what their particular grade role may be – what core bridging concepts and development processes are vital for them to pass their pupils on, bearing skills and knowledge that provide the confidence to carry on and move forward effectively.

Instead of returning to their schools with an insurmountable load of ‘compulsory coursework’ and blindly led ‘catch-up’ sessions, we hope to instill in our educators the power of discernment – to identify the truly necessary concepts and structures we need to impart, and to allow their creative confidence to build exercises and examples appropriately to that end.

I have heard it said that a good teacher will be surpassed by the work of their pupil – is this not what we should be seeking within our village? Will the village remain a village, or become a place founded on a great legacy?

As our education system moves slowly from snatching and grabbing at straws toward building concrete and dedicated points of growth and focus, may every small voice in the seeming wilderness come to be heard and become part of a focused and definitive identity. “We long to teach our children well.”

From RUMEP, we salute you.

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