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Seminar on Mathematics Education: Context, Challenges and Innovations in Japan and South Africa

Author: Daniel Bugan

Stellenbosch University Japan Centre (SUJC), in association with the Embassy of Japan in South Africa, recently presented a seminar entitled “Mathematics education, innovation and practice in varied contexts: Insights from Japan and South Africa”.

The seminar, which took place on 6 March 2024, featured mathematics teaching practitioners and educators from primary, secondary and tertiary education systems in South Africa and Japan. In all, the seminar showcased the manifold innovative ways in which the teaching and training of mathematics in school and university contexts are approached. It also highlighted how structural challenges such as lack of resources or infrastructure can be addressed.

Japan’s Ambassador to South Africa, Mr Ushio Shigeru said in his opening remarks: “I am honoured that the government of Japan is supporting this seminar focusing on mathematics. I would like to express my gratitude to the Stellenbosch University Japan Centre for the many activities (it has facilitated) since its launch in 2022.”

Prof Scarlett Cornelissen, director of SUJC, said: “It is widely understood that investment in education is necessary for social and economic development. Basically, human capital development is important for progress and more so in today’s context where scientific and technological innovation drive economic growth. If you want to be competitive globally, you need to be competitive in science and technology, or more broadly the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. This is the context for the seminar, where we explore the challenges, but also innovations and best practice towards STEM, and in particular, mathematics education and training.”

The first speakers were from Kumon Institute of Education, a Japanese company known for the Kumon Method of Learning. Through worksheet study and instruction, students work at “just the right level” to build ability and fluency in small manageable steps. The home-based education system aims to develop students’ academic ability in order for them to become capable members of society. At the same time, it also aims to enable students to become independent by fostering in them the mindset and skills for self-learning.

Kumon currently has centres in more than 60 countries and regions. The centre in South Africa opened in 1991.

Maurice Mullins from Kumon South Africa said: “We honestly believe that because maths is so logical and so linear that it is actually a great way to develop learning skills that will help students in any subject that they study in school.”

According to Mullins, 55% of Kumon students in Japan are six months ahead of their school grade level and eight percent are three years ahead. In the United Kingdom and Ireland, 43% of students are six months ahead and 4.7% three years ahead. In South Africa, 20.4% are six months ahead and 1.2% three years ahead.

Mariko Suzuki of Kumon Global said: “By discovering the potential of each individual and developing their ability to the maximum, we want to foster sound, capable people that can contribute to the global community. We are now trying to spread our method over the world.”

The Kusasa Academy
Ilze Meiring, a teacher at The Kusasa Academy, an independent primary school in the Franschhoek region that serves learners from disadvantaged backgrounds, shared her perspective on primary school mathematics in South Africa.

“One of the major challenges we face are overfilled classrooms with unqualified or unmotivated teachers. It is understandable because there is often a lack of support and resources at these schools,” she said. “Learners’ needs are also not met holistically and therefore learning cannot take place effectively. If a child is hungry, or has hearing loss or any learning barrier or sickness, there is no way that mathematics learning can take place effectively. Mathematics programmes also lack consistency and continuity across grades.”

Meiring said they try to address these challenges by integrating four integral parameters in their approach to education.

“We want to have full control over our curriculum. We are completely independent and that gives us the freedom to think innovatively and to implement international approaches into our teaching. Secondly, we believe that intervention needs to take place at a very young age and that is why we are currently starting with learners who are four years old. We also pay attention to the basic health needs of our learners. As such, we provide all learners with three healthy meals a day, yearly hearing and vision screening, access to dental health and social and emotional health assessments. Lastly, all parents of our learners are required to be involved in the learning process by volunteering 15 hours of their time each year.”

The Quintile 2 school, which takes learners from Grade 0 to Grade 4, achieved a mathematics pass rate of 91.7% in 2023, compared to the Quintile 2 school average of 48.4% and the provincial school average of 51.6%.

Stellenbosch University Centre for Pedagogy (SUNCEP)
Clifton Ayford, a facilitator in mathematics with SU’s SciMathUS programme, elaborated on mathematics innovation in the higher education sector.

Since 2001, SciMathUS, which falls under SUNCEP, has been offering students from educationally disadvantaged communities who did not perform well enough in mathematics and other STEM subjects, the opportunity to gain access to higher education. The year-long programme provides students with a choice between mathematics and physical science or mathematics and accounting and equips them with the skills to achieve success in their university studies.

Ayford said they follow the CAPS curriculum, but are not restricted by it and “add a lot of other things which we think is necessary for the development of these learners”.

“The minimum improvement we get over the year is a 15% average increase in results, but there are many of our students that improve by far more,” he said.

Reflecting on her experiences as a facilitator for the Advanced Diploma in Education at SUNCEP in the Faculty of Education at SU, and as facilitator of the national Family Math programme, Marionette Maart emphasised the importance of parent and community involvement in mathematics education.

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