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.”
LITTLE BLACK BOOK
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.
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.