South Africa needs to pursue a highly focused and coordinated strategy to improve the quality of our education system, especially in science and mathematics learning in the early years of schooling.
In a search for ways to capture foundation phase children’s competence in mathematics, research findings in the University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) Centre of Education Practice Research (CEPR) and its Department of Childhood Education showed that science learning needed as much attention as mathematics. The research team embarked on a long-term study that places emphasis on science learning from Grade R to Grade 6.
Says Prof Elizabeth Henning, Director of the CEPR at UJ: “Although there has been a reawakening of the important role of primary school education in South Africa, for many years the emphasis has been on matric and the preceding grades of the high school. This perspective is now slowly changing as the focus is more on the foundation phase and the intermediate phase of school education.”
Prof Henning pointed out that the UJ researchers are investigating these ‘phases’ of schooling. “UJ has already developed its primary education research substantially. Our focus is not so much on teachers, but on learners – on the children and their developing minds. We believe that such knowledge can be used by teachers to inform their practice and that most primary school teachers have not studied child development in depth,” says Prof Henning.
The research so far indicates that science learning is neglected in primary schools, that there is little research on science learning, and that children’s development of mathematics concepts has also not been researched widely. Little is known about how children form science concepts and how they learn from the curriculum. Generally, the South African educational research community has not been producing evidence-based research on how children learn science and mathematics in different contexts and what the children have in common with their peers in other countries.
There is simply too little knowledge about the ‘developing mind of the child’. The team at UJ’s Soweto Campus produced results of in-depth maths testing of 3000 grade 1 learners in Gauteng, shedding some light of what children already know when they enter school. Final results of this test will be available in August 2015, by which the test would have been normed for local children. It originated in Germany.
According to Prof Henning various schools where children were observed, the children’s science learning was mostly through memorising definitions and recalling some loosely connected facts. To find out how they process the factual information and their experience of the natural, physical world, children have to be studied longitudinally, or large numbers of learners have to be studied cross-sectionally and in some depth.
To this end, the research centre at the Department of Childhood Education, based at the UJ’s Soweto Campus, together with collaborating researchers from Helsinki University (Finland) are conducting both longitudinal and cross-sectional studies. Prof Jari Lavonen, Head of the Department of Teacher Education at the University of Helsinki accompanied by colleagues Dr Anni Loukomies and Ari Mÿllÿviita, will present a public lecture on 3 February 2015, discussing primary school science learning in Finland. The lecture, at the Auditorium, School of Hospitality and Tourism, Auckland Park Bunting Road, UJ, is scheduled to start at 18:30.