My research focuses on mathematics in multilingual contexts. My journey in this area of study started in 1998 with a concern about the low mathematics performance of a majority of learners in multilingual classrooms in South Africa who learn in a language that is not their home language. At the core of this concern was a need to address the uneven distribution of mathematical knowledge and success. In the period 1994 – 2008 I have worked with 16 mathematics teachers in Gauteng, North West and Limpopo provinces and observed, video recorded, transcribed and analysed 60 primary and 70 secondary mathematics lessons in multilingual classrooms in which both teachers and learners are multilingual and none has the language of learning and teaching as their home language.
This journey started with a need to understand the problem and thus in the initial years my research focused on researching what mathematics teachers do in their multilingual classrooms. In 1994/5 I undertook a small research project focusing on how a Grade 5 teacher in a multilingual class of second language learners used code-switching as a pedagogic resource to make mathematical meaning accessible to learners. This study revealed that mathematical talk and negotiation of mathematical meaning occurs and is encouraged in a situation where all of the learners’ linguistic resources are utilised. Apart from being an educational resource the learners’ first language is also a key to the world and culture that the teacher shares with the learners. It enables the teacher to make relevant connections with the pupils’ experiences outside school. Knowledge is then constructed by the interplay between the mathematics that is learnt, how it is learnt and the language used to learn it. My first publication in an accredited international journal came out of work from this study. Through this work I also got an international invitation to be a speaker at two national conferences in New Zealand and give a guest lecture at the University of Auckland.
From 1996 to 1999 I was part of a research team, directed by Prof Jill Adler, which tracked the learning of Mathematics, Science and English language teachers registered in the Wits Further Diplomas in Education programme. We tracked 25 teachers over three years in order to describe and explain their ‘take-up’ from various aspects of the development programme, and included a focus on ‘take-up’ of language practices like code-switching. The project culminated in a book entitled “Challenges of teacher development: An investigation of take-up from formalised in-service in South Africa”. I co-authored two chapters in the book, one of which I was the first author.
The studies I describe above both pointed to the benefits of multilingual practices and code-switching as important pedagogic resources in multilingual mathematics classrooms. These practices are also encouraged by policy, however, they are not taken up by practice even though research shows that the results of the South African learners in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) were very low in comparison with other countries because a majority of them were working in a second language. This called for further research and consideration of different theoretical perspectives into why practice in multilingual mathematics classrooms in South Africa seems to be ignoring multilingual practices that both policy and research are encouraging.
From 1998 – 2001, I undertook a major study focusing on language practices of mathematics teachers in intermediate phase multilingual classrooms. Until this point in time my research had been framed by an understanding of language as a tool for communication and thinking, and thus as a pedagogic and cognitive resource in the learning and teaching of mathematics. Language, however, is much more than a pedagogic and cognitive resource, it is always political. This study thus considered the political role of language in the teaching and learning of mathematics. The fact that decisions about which language to use in the teaching of mathematics in multilingual classrooms, how and for what purposes, are not just pedagogic but also political. Therefore to describe and explain language practices in a coherent and comprehensive way it is important to go beyond the cognitive and pedagogic aspects and explore the socio-political aspects of language use in a multilingual mathematics classroom.
Until this time, research on the use of language(s) in the teaching and learning of mathematics did not capture this complexity. A key “finding” of the study was that in a context like South Africa, where mathematics and English both have symbolic power and where procedural discourse dominates over conceptual discourse in school mathematics teaching and assessment, a practice is forged wherein it is difficult to move mathematics beyond procedural discourse, and multilingualism beyond solidarity and support.
From 2003 to 2005 I focused on developing an understanding of the language choices of mathematics teachers and learners. Of interest to me here was the fact that while the South African Language-in-education Policy encourages multilingualism and research shows that the learners’ main languages are a resource in the teaching and learning of mathematics, anecdotal evidence showed that parents, teachers and learners preferred to have English as the language of learning and teaching. I therefore explored why this is the case. My findings showed that their language choices are more about gaining access to social goods rather than epistemological access.
From 2006 to date I have been focusing on developing relevant/appropriate pedagogies for multilingual mathematics classrooms. So far I have developed what I refer to as the deliberate, proactive and strategic use of the learners’ home language in the teaching of mathematics. In this work I specifically focus on algebra as an area of study that is used to communicate most of mathematics. Through my collaborations I am now extending this work to also focus on multilingual mathematics classrooms of immigrant learners and also undergraduate students.
I have a group of Doctoral students who I am mentoring and working with in this research project. Three of these students have already presented research papers at conferences in South Africa, the SADC region and internationally.