Have you ever noticed how nobody ever talks about the quality of teaching and learning mathematics (or any other subject) at University level. We only talk about the quality of teaching and learning school mathematics. In fact, the discourse on mathematics teaching at school level is aggressive and somewhat confrontational. We talk about a crisis in the teaching and learning of mathematics at school level. And perhaps we are correct. But is there no crisis in the teaching and learning of mathematics at University level? Let me ask the following questions to those in the audience who are teaching mathematics at university level:

How different are the mathematics modules currently taught at university from the ones that were taught 20 or 30 years ago? How different are the teaching and learning practices that used today from the ones that were used 20 to 30 years ago? School curricula all over the world has changed in the last 20 to 30 years; assessment practices have transformed; technology has advanced, the kind of university students we have today are very different from university students of 20 to 30 years ago and the demands of the world that we live in today are very different from those of 20 to 30 years ago yet many of the mathematics modules/courses/programs in South African Universities and the way they are taught largely remains the same! The question is WHY?


The dominant discourse in South Africa today is that our matric learners are not adequately prepared for University. School mathematics teachers are often lumped into one category and sometimes labelled incompetent, underprepared or even lazy. This discourse is of course perpetuated by the matric results that are on a consistent decline. At the same time we as University academics are very enthusiastic, not ashamed at all, about sharing failure rates in our Departments with the entire country. And of course when we do this, we get sympathy from many people! What I find most interesting is that while we are so eager to blame school mathematics teachers for producing high failure rates, nobody challenges us university academics about our high failure rates.

Why is it that when matric students fail or cannot perform at the level we expect we find it so easy to blame the teachers BUT when a university student fails or cannot perform at the level that society expects, university academics are not blamed? Why is this? Why is it that we are all so eager to offer our critique of the limitations of our school mathematics curricula and nobody ever offers a public critique of university mathematics curricula or a critique of our pedagogies and learner support practices!?


Does this mean all is well with mathematics teaching and learning at University level and all we need to do is deal with the mathematics crisis at school level? From where I stand, all is not well. All is not well with the teaching and learning of mathematics at University level! So in my view the crisis in education that we talk about only when we refer to school education, also extends to university level. In particular, I want to argue that we have a crisis in the teaching and learning of mathematics at university level. What I often say to my university colleagues is that we have to teach the students that we have and not the students that we wish to have or the students we wished we had or the students that we had many years ago. We are here to teach the students that we have. This is a challenge for all of us in higher education. What is the point of finding fault with a student who obtained a symbol A in matric mathematics and is struggling to cope with the mathematics we teach at University? If they have gone through matric and we accept them into our programmes then it should be our challenge to ensure that they succeed. The challenge to ensure success in mathematics is for all of us educators and not just mathematics teachers at school level.


As a mathematician and a mathematics education researcher, I can confidently say today – there is nothing wrong with the mathematics content in our curriculum. In fact we probably have one of the best school mathematics curricula in the world! It has all the mathematics topics that form important background knowledge for science study in higher education. Our challenge as a country is the ability to implement this curriculum. Our other big challenge is ensuring that learners recognise the importance of mathematics, get interested in studying it and succeed in it. This is a challenge for all of – not just school mathematics teachers. Advocating for mathematics is something that each one of us can and must do. We owe this to our country, our students, our disciplines, and ourselves.

2 Responses to “Reflections of a FaAcademic on Mathematics teaching and learning”

  1. dithomo richard matebane

    PHAMBILI KA MATHEMATHICS PHAMBILI.thank you prof we thank you for the wonderful words of encouragement on the 30 May 2015 in Soweto at Emmanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church in DIEPKLOOF DURING CAREER DAY.

    • Kgethi Setati Phakeng

      Thank you very much Dithomo. I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with the youth at Lutheran church in Diepkloof.

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