Even the 'Best' Teachers May Need Adequate Subject Knowledge: An Illustrative Mathematics Case Study

By Modiba, Maropeng | Research in Education, May 2011 | Go to article overview

Even the 'Best' Teachers May Need Adequate Subject Knowledge: An Illustrative Mathematics Case Study


Modiba, Maropeng, Research in Education


After 1 994 the South African government formulated an anti-apartheid education policy that took issue with the abstract decontextualisation of learning wherein the methods of teaching assumed a separation between knowing and doing, treating knowledge as an integral self-sufficient substance, theoretically independent of the situations in which it was learned and used. A new curriculum policy for schools expressed through the Revised National Curriculum Statement (RNCS) was introduced, generally referred to now as the NCS. Through this policy, 'learning areas' have replaced what used to be called subjects. A learning area is described as 'a field of knowledge, skills and values which has unique features as well as connections with other fields of knowledge and Learning Areas' (DoE, RNCS Grades R-9 [Schools], Overview, 2002).

Each learning area has its own Outcomes and Assessment Standards for each grade. A learning outcome describes what learners should know (knowledge, skills and values) and what they should be able to do (competence) in each grade. Assessment standards describe the minimum level of what learners should know and demonstrate in order to achieve the learning outcomes in each grade. The grades are divided into Foundation Phase (Grades 1-3), Intermediate Phase (Grades 4-6), General Education and Training Band (Grades 7-9) and Further Education and Training Band (Grades 10-12), Each learning area has to develop programmes that define clearly the set of activities that learners will do to achieve specific outcomes. The process has to clarify how the outcomes and assessment standards are sequenced across a phase to:

1 Ensure coherent teaching, learning, assessment and the core knowledge and concepts that will be used to fulfil the outcomes.

2 Generate a context that will ensure teaching and learning that is responsive to the needs identified in a community, school and classroom.

3 Indicate the time and weighting given to the different learning outcomes and assessment standards in a phase.

The policy promotes what government sees as innovative ways of teaching that can enable meaningful curriculum practices.

This article has been triggered by an interest in finding out how teachers who had been awarded first prize in the National Teachers' Awards (NTA) were translating the outcomes in the NCS into practice at classroom level. In the article I report how one of the teachers recognised as the best Foundation Phase teacher in the country communicated the concepts she had to teach as expected by NCS. Her teaching had to be understood against the background of the discipline from which the prescribed content was derived (Bernstein, 2000). Whilst I acknowledged that the NCS provided what needed to be 'relayed* and to orient communication during lessons, it could not be relayed without being confined to what was considered appropriate within the discipline. The article draws on this theory to look at a mathematics lesson offered at the Foundation Phase to highlight the importance of adequate content knowledge to meaningful teaching.

Knowing, in general, that the teacher whose mathematics lesson I report on herein had received first prize in the National Teachers' Awards, I assumed that she would know the organising principle underlying the NCS outcomes relevant to this learning area. More specifically, I thought she would know what teaching mathematics at the Foundation Phase was intended to achieve and she would use a teaching approach aligned to those outcomes. In this phase three learning areas have been identified as important, namely mathematics, languages and life orientation. The other learning areas are arts and culture, economic and management sciences, technology and natural sciences, and social sciences.

Mathematics for Grades R-3 emphasises the development of interrelated knowledge and skills. This knowledge development has to involve the teaching of numbers, operations and relationships, patterns, functions and algebra, space and shape, measurement and data handling. …

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