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Young minds are a priority – Prof Elizabeth Henning, UJ

Prof Elizabeth Henning has long been advocating mathematics and science interventions in primary schools. She has also emphasised that language and literacy are key to learning across the curriculum.

The National Research Chair (NRF) awarded an international research chair to Prof Henning, Faculty of Education at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), which testifies to the status of the University’s research on science and mathematics learning in primary schools.
Under the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI), the Chair in Integrated Studies of Learning Language, Mathematics and Science in the Primary School, aims to shed light on children’s development of mathematics and science concepts, using English as language of the discourse of texts in the later grades of the primary school.
Says Prof Henning: “In terms of language and reading literacy, the research community needs to know much more about how the English language is learned and used as medium of study in school. Research on science learning is somewhat neglected in primary schools. There is also little research on children’s development of mathematics concepts and it’s intersect with language. Generally, we know far too little about the developing mind of the child that enters school. How children form science concepts and how they learn from the curriculum – these need to be examined, thoroughly. Generally, the South African educational research community has not been producing evidence-based research on how early grade children learn science and maths in different contexts and what the children have in common with their peers in other countries. At a current European conference on science education I note that the topic of different languages in the same class is becoming an important issue with immigrant, and now refugee children. We have to investigate, systematically, how learning happens in multilingual classrooms.”
As the Director of UJ’s Centre of Education Practice Research (CEPR), Prof Henning is involved in research that includes projects on mathematics competence and mathematical concept development, mathematical learning difficulties, science concept development and language development for academic purposes in the primary school.
Do we know what our children in this country do when the learn science and maths in the primary school and when they do so in at least two languages? This question needs attention says Prof Henning. “The Chair’s research will address this knowledge gap.”
The Childhood Education Flagship at UJ: studying children’s learning and their language
Prof Henning points out that the University’s Department of Childhood Education, and the Centre for Education Practice Research, work together with collaborating researchers from the University of Duisburg-Essen, the University of Helsinki and Harvard University.
In various projects a central theme has emerged: children need clear and precise communication in a classroom in a language, or languages, that they understand. This means that they all have to, at some point, come to grips with English, which is currently the main classroom language for the upper grades of the primary school for the majority of young learners. One example of a project over five years stands out: The competence of Grade 1 children, when tested on a standardised mathematics test that was administered as an interview, showed that language is a primary tool for learning in the early years and that English terms are often better known to children than home language terms in maths.
Where children were observed in classrooms during science lessons, it was noted that they learned words and phrases, but seldom linked them conceptually into an understanding of some aspect of the science curriculum. “The children can write definitions but they struggle to grasp concepts, or to explain definitions they have memorised. What we try to do is find out how they process the factual information and their experience of the natural, physical world. Children are studied longitudinally, or large numbers of learners have to be studied cross-sectionally and in some depth.”
The Orange Farm experience of the 1990s
On methods for studying early learning of maths, science and language, Prof Henning says that in the informal settlement schools where she conducted research in the 1990s for many years, she first noted interesting, competent practices of young children as they played – using mathematical knowledge and ideas about science. “The first research in community schools heralded a rewarding time for me as emergent scholar of teacher development, for which I was awarded the US postdoctoral fellowship. I had the privilege of two years of programmes and workshops with esteemed scholars such as Lee Shulman, who helped me to further my knowledge of qualitative methods, specifically ethnography, which I utilised for many years.
Since being awarded the Fellowship, Prof Henning highlighted that the new wave of research on child cognition and learning in the UJ Flagship Programme of Childhood Education, for which the bulk of the methods are now quantitative, including Item Response Theory methods, required a methodological learning curve for her.
Journal Editorship
She founded an educational research journal in 1997. This started her off on a path of educational journal publishing that is ongoing. The journal, Education as Change (, was later taken up in the Social Sciences Citation Index of Thomsen Reuters (previously ISI). After a break from 2001, Prof Henning returned as editor in 2009. In 2010 the SA Journal of Childhood Education ( was founded in UJ’s CEPR, which was awarded accreditation in the SA system of journals in 2014 and is listed in the IBSS, with uptake into SciELO SA – an open access platform for journals.
She believes the Fellow award is for this lifelong capacity development of new researchers more than for publication output.
Prof Henning is a founding member of the SA Research Association for Early Childhood Education (SARAECE), a field in which she spend the bulk of her work time. She writes regularly for the education comment section of The Mail & Guardian, has regular radio and television interviews and is consistently consulted by journalists about early maths learning and language.
She reviews and serves on more than one panel per year for the NRF.
The Chair in Integrated Studies of Learning Language, Mathematics and Science in the Primary School is one of five new distinguished research chairs awarded to the University in 2015. The new chairs take the number of chairs that UJ now hold to 12.
The other new chairs are Laser Applications in Health: Prof Heidi Abrahamse (Faculty of Health Sciences);
South African Art and Visual Culture: Prof Brenda Schmahmann (Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture);
Welfare and Social Development: Prof Leila Patel (Faculty of Humanities);
and Industrial Development: Prof Fiona Tregenna (Faculty of Economic and Financial Sciences).
The five new chairs augment the following chairs at UJ:
African Diplomacy and Foreign Policy: Prof. Chris Landsberg (Faculty of Humanities);
Education and Care in Childhood: Prof. Jace Pillay (Faculty of Education);
Geometallurgy: Prof. Fanus Viljoen (Faculty of Science);
Indigenous Plant Use: Prof. Ben Erik van Wyk (Faculty of Science);
International Law: Prof. Hennie Strydom (Faculty of Law);
Social Change: Prof. Peter Alexander (Faculty of Humanities); and
Nanotechnology for Water: Prof. Vinod Gupta (Faculty of Science).​
These research chairs provide a meaningful learning experience to the nation’s brightest young minds, and it will contribute significantly to UJ’s own efforts to nurture next generation scholars and will, with no doubt, further elevate the University’s research capabilities, output and global impact.
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