Mathematics teachers in South Africa: Getting the recipe right
Teachers’ content knowledge, practices and attitudes are key aspects of educational processes. They are linked to the way in which teachers cope with work-related challenges and they play a role in shaping classroom learning environments. How teachers approach their profession also influences student motivation and achievement. Teacher practices and content knowledge are related to their level of education, their experience and their involvement in professional development; while their attitudes are related to their levels of confidence, how well prepared they feel and their career satisfaction.
The results of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2011 showed that for the first time since 1995 the national average mathematics score of Grade 9 learners has improved in South African schools. The TIMSS 2011 Report argued that higher mathematics achievement could be related to teachers’ having more teaching experience, being confident in their mathematics teaching, and being satisfied with their careers. We need to understand these characteristics in the South African context in order to identify how we can help teachers and learners.
The recipe for a good teacher and the impacts on learner performance
Many studies have described teacher characteristics which are related to classroom learning and student performance. Teachers’ level of education and their experience have important implications for learner achievement, as learners that are taught by teachers that have higher qualifications and more experience, perform better. Pedagogy training (the science and art of teaching) is important for teachers’ classroom and teaching practices which contributes to improved learner performance. In addition, involvement in teacher professional development has also been found to be an important ingredient for teaching and learning.
Beyond the knowledge and skills which teachers possess, the way they view their profession and how they perceive their competence is important. Research has shown that self-confidence in their teaching skills is not only associated with their professional behaviour, but also with learners’ performance and motivation. Teachers with a strong sense of personal ability to organise and execute teaching were more open to new ideas and less likely to experience emotional burnout. The extent to which teachers are motivated and satisfied with their career also has implications for their teaching practices and learner performance. Teachers who are satisfied with their profession and the working conditions at their schools are more motivated to teach and to prepare their instructions. Teachers’ high levels of job satisfaction and confidence are reflected in their perception of teaching preparedness.
In order to understand the characteristics of mathematics teachers in South Africa, and how these influence learner achievement, teachers were asked a set of questions related to their professional background as well as their attitudes towards teaching. The responses in the questionnaires are not representative of all South African mathematics teachers. Although the sample of TIMSS learners was representative of the Grade 9 learners in South Africa, teachers were selected based on whether their learners were participating in TIMSS. The findings should then be thought of as indicative of, rather than representative of, South African mathematics teachers. They do however give us an idea of who South Africa’s grade 9 mathematics teachers are and how their characteristics affect learner performance in mathematics.
Gender, age and experience
In 2011 most mathematics learners in grade 9 (58%) were taught by male teachers. The proportion of mathematics learners taught by female teachers increased from 2002 to 2011 and mathematics achievement was on average higher among learners taught by female teachers.
The South African TIMSS 2011 mathematics teachers were older, than their peers were in 2002. Within the South African context the results do not show a relationship between learner performance and the age of teachers, or learner performance and teachers years of experience. This is in contrast with the international experience where performance and teachers’ experience have a positive correlation. The question is then why a higher level of teacher experience is not translating into better performance from learners.
The percentage of mathematics teachers with an initial and postgraduate degree increased from 23% and 8% in 2002 respectively to 43% and 17% in 2011 respectively. On average across the ninth grade, 98% of the TIMSS learners had mathematics teachers with a post-secondary qualification. Mathematics learners taught by teachers with an initial and post-graduate degree scored on average higher than learners taught by teachers with a diploma.
Further analysis of teachers’ formal education qualifications confirms the importance that pedagogy training (the science and art of teaching) seems to play in learner achievement. Over half of grade 9 mathematics learners were taught by teachers who specialised in mathematics but did not have any pedagogy training, and over a quarter were taught by teachers who specialised in both mathematics and pedagogy. Learners in the latter group scored higher than learners taught by teachers who only specialised in either mathematics or pedagogy.
In terms of their education levels, South African mathematics teachers could be classified as qualified and knowledgeable in their subject areas. However, in relation to the TIMSS international cadre of teachers, the South African mathematics teachers appear among the group having the lowest qualifications.
In addition to the formal training for teaching mathematics, teachers have to update their knowledge continually. More than half the mathematics learners were taught by teachers who indicated that they participated in professional development activities in the two years prior to the administration of TIMSS 2011. The type of professional development activities that most mathematics teachers participated in related to mathematics content, curriculum, and assessment. South African teachers attended a higher number of professional development activities than the international average for activities related to mathematics content, curriculum, improving critical thinking, and assessment.
In relation to the high numbers of teachers participating in the professional activities mentioned above, a relatively low percentage of learners were taught by mathematics teachers who had participated in professional development in mathematics pedagogy or instruction. This is not an encouraging statistic specifically in the light of the importance of pedagogy in teachers’ classroom and teaching practices which contributes to improved learner performance.
Although South African teachers attended a higher number of professional development activities than the international average for activities related to mathematics content, curriculum, improving critical thinking, and assessment, again this involvement has not been as beneficial as expected for learners.
The role of motivation and career satisfaction
Teachers who are satisfied with their profession and the working conditions at their schools are more motivated to teach and to prepare their instructions. Overall, almost all teachers who taught grade 9 mathematics, 90%, reported that they were ‘satisfied’ or ‘somewhat satisfied’ with their careers, with the remaining 10% reporting that they were “less than satisfied”.
As noted, research has highlighted that teachers’ self-confidence in their teaching skills is associated with their professional behaviour, as well as learners’ performance and motivation. Internationally approximately three-quarters of learners were taught by mathematics teachers who were very confident in teaching mathematics to their respective classes, while in South Africa more than 80% of learners were taught by teachers who were very confident in teaching their mathematics classes.
Teachers’ high levels of job satisfaction and confidence are reflected in their perception of teaching preparedness. We found that in South Africa about 80% of learners were taught by mathematics teachers who felt very well prepared to teach the mathematics topics. Across the mathematics content domains most learners had teachers who felt very well prepared to teach algebra (96%) with relatively fewer well prepared in numbers (86%), geometry (82%), and data and chance (80%). These findings must be viewed with caution as the use of self-reported questionnaires may result in teachers overstating their abilities or providing what they believe are desirable answers
The South African TIMSS 2011 mathematics teachers were older, more experienced, and better qualified than they were in 2002. In addition, they were confident in their teaching practices, satisfied with their profession, and considered themselves to be well prepared to teach all of the mathematics topics. While all the teacher ingredients that are needed for good learner outcomes are present in South African TIMSS schools, it is not translating fully to the outcomes for students. While teacher qualifications have improved over the last 20 years and there are higher levels of professional development activities, we would have liked to see higher levels of academic achievement.
The Department of Basic Education (DBE) has introduced special initiatives to improve the quality of mathematics and science education. The Maths, Science, and Technology (MST) Strategy and Implementation Plan seeks to improve enrolment and success rates in mathematics, science, and technical subjects, and improve teacher content knowledge; address teacher demand, supply, utilization, development and support. The Literacy and Numeracy strategy seeks to develop reading and writing, and the issue of numbers (mathematics) in the General Education and Training band.
These types of initiatives should be expanded in order to translate these “teacher ingredients” into enhanced learner performance, and teacher training programmes should ensure more emphasis on teachers’ mathematics pedagogy/instruction.
Author: Fabian Arends (Senior Research Manager)
With contributions from Dr Andrea Juan (Post Doc Fellow) and Sylvia Hannan (Researcher)
Education and Skills Development research programme of the HSRC