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Sue Grant-Mar­shall

en­tion math­e­mat­ics – a sub­ject that many peo­ple in the world strug­gle with, whether they are learn­ing it or teach­ing it – and Pro­fes­sor Mamokgethi Phak­eng’s lively face sparkles with joy.

She’s had a life­long ro­mance with it, grad­u­at­ing with her PhD in math­e­mat­ics ed­u­ca­tion from Wits Univer­sity in 2002.

But she frowns when she dis­cusses the sad state of maths in South African class­rooms to­day.

“We’re in cri­sis and, although his­tory has played a role, it’s a cop-out to blame apartheid.

“In 1994, we had the op­por­tu­nity to undo its dam­age, but six cur­ricu­lum changes in 22 years have re­sulted in many teach­ers strug­gling, par­tic­u­larly in poor schools,” she says forthrightly.

This sig­nals both dan­ger and op­por­tu­nity for the vi­va­cious Phak­eng, as her dy­namic mind ex­am­ines prob­lems from many per­spec­tives.

“Fail­ing math­e­mat­ics stu­dents mean dire con­se­quences for our democ­racy be­cause we need sci­en­tists, en­gi­neers and tech­nol­o­gists to grow.”

The op­por­tu­nity lies in South Africa’s abil­ity to find a so­lu­tion “that will show the world what can be achieved. We’ll be highly re­garded,” she says pas­sion­ately.

She is the vice-prin­ci­pal of re­search and in­no­va­tion at Unisa, and she be­came the first black South African re­searcher ap­pointed to co-chair a study for the In­ter­na­tional Com­mis­sion on Math­e­mat­i­cal In­struc­tion.

This launched Phak­eng into her cur­rent re­search – in Gaut­eng, Lim­popo and North West – on teach­ing maths in mul­ti­lin­gual class­rooms.

She speaks nine lan­guages, which makes her work pow­er­ful and rel­e­vant.

“I can an­a­lyse my data from source – I do not need to have it trans­lated – which re­sults in more nu­anced lan­guage.”

Teach­ing a dif­fi­cult sub­ject and its con­cepts in a lan­guage for­eign to stu­dents is a topic oc­cu­py­ing teach­ers’ minds in many coun­tries to­day.

“In­dige­nous peo­ple through­out the world are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a cul­tural re­nais­sance.

“The Cana­dian Cree, New Zealand Maoris and na­tive Aus­tralians are just some of the peo­ple who want to learn in their own lan­guages,” ex­plains Phak­eng.

The ef­fects emi­gra­tion and floods of refugees also add to the de­mands made on teach­ers. It’s no won­der that Phak­eng speaks, and is vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor, at in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ences and uni­ver­si­ties in 20 coun­tries rang­ing from Aus­tralia and Le­banon to In­dia and the US. It is Phak­eng’s cu­ri­ous, re­cep­tive and open mind that saw her head the re­search and in­no­va­tion depart­ment at Unisa. “My boss would de­scribe me as ‘re­bel­lious,’” she says with a laugh. “Blind com­pli­ance is a prob­lem for the in­no­va­tive be­cause new ideas push boundaries.” The pro­fes­sor whose nu­mer­ous awards, pa­pers and ci­ta­tions are too many to list here is an amaz­ingly gen­er­ous per­son­al­ity, and she has founded sev­eral ini­tia­tives over the years. One is the Marang Cen­tre for Math­e­mat­ics and Sci­ence Ed­u­ca­tion at Wits. She founded the Adopt-a-learner trust to pro­vide fi­nan­cial and ed­u­ca­tional sup­port for pupils from ru­ral ar­eas and town­ships, en­abling them to ac­quire univer­sity and other higher ed­u­ca­tion qual­i­fi­ca­tions. “You get bright kids who are dumped by their spon­sors if they fail the first year or are not se­lected be­cause they don’t get enough A’s. But many of them, due to dis­rupted school­ing, teach them­selves, which is amaz­ing. We need to give them op­por­tu­ni­ties and not let them be­come ‘smart thugs’ who de­sign new ways of jam­ming our car-lock­ing sys­tems.” Phak­eng, who has five chil­dren, is in her of­fice by 5am daily. “But we play as hard as we work. We love hik­ing and ‘is­land-trot­ting’ around the world,” she says. Her hus­band is a com­mer­cial at­tor­ney. The bub­bly pro­fes­sor takes up her new post at the Univer­sity of Cape Town next month. “Af­ter eight years at Unisa, I need a new chal­lenge.”


Get­ting a qual­i­fi­ca­tion is im­por­tant, but it’s what you do with it that counts.


My mother, who loved ed­u­ca­tion, and Wits Univer­sity Pro­fes­sor Jill Adler, who su­per­vised my PhD in math­e­mat­ics ed­u­ca­tion. Any by best­selling au­thor and busi­ness con­sul­tant Mar­cus Buck­ing­ham.

Books: In­spi­ra­tion:

Young peo­ple, with their ex­u­ber­ance and dif­fer­ent way of look­ing at life. Grad­u­at­ing with my PhD in math­e­mat­ics. It gave me vi­sion, con­fi­dence, courage and cred­i­bil­ity.

Wow! mo­ment: Life les­son:

Our ac­tions, right or wrong, have con­se­quences. You can’t blame oth­ers for what you have done.


Mamokgethi Phak­eng

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