The Role of Gender in Fighting Poverty

gender-saSouth Africa has made great strides towards achieving gender equality in education. According to the 2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDG) report, gender parity on all education indicators has been achieved. In terms of access to primary education, gender gaps on educational accessibility are closed.  Proportionally more females are enrolled in secondary and tertiary level education than males.  Females are also more likely to have higher levels of educational attainment than males.

This progress towards gender equality has contributed to poverty reduction in various ways:

  • Increased levels of education have empowered females as they get equipped with the self-confidence, knowledge and skills to participate fully in their communities.
  • Education of girls has resulted in higher family incomes and increased productivity.
  • Health benefits of education with an impact on poverty reduction include delayed marriages, reduced fertility rates and improved maternal and child health.

Despite the achievements, the latest Gender Series report on Education (2004-2014) from Statistics SA reveals many remaining challenges:

  1. There are large gaps in subject preferences and performance, which often result in varying social and economic gender inequalities. For example, there is a significant gap in South Africa in favour of males qualified in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, resulting in male dominance in STEM-related occupations such as engineers and architects.  More females are enrolled for Business and Commerce, Education and Other Humanities study fields. Education has the highest gender disparities, followed by Other Humanities (3/1 and 1,77/1 ratios respectively).  Male-dominated professions are often those that command higher pay.  Gender prejudice within the education system about maths and science abilities of females remain widespread.
  2. Males are more likely than females to enrol in Masters and Doctorate studies.  Females enrol more frequently in lower tertiary qualifications.
  3. Employment absorption rates for females are significantly lower than for males, leaving them more at risk of poverty despite their education levels.  Moreover, South African women remain disadvantaged in terms of pay, promotion, job stability and status.
  4. There are persistent gender inequalities in performing unpaid care or house work.  Women spend more time on unpaid work, having a negative impact on their careers in the labour market, impacting their work status and pay, regardless of levels of education obtained.
  5. Boys’ performance in literacy is significantly lower than that of girls. Boys are also more likely to leave school early. Some of the negative social impacts associated with boys dropping out of school include crime and gender-based violence. This confirms the need for a growing focus within the gender rights movement on the construction of masculinity.
  6. Girls are more likely to stay at home due to family commitments such as child minding, which seems to have a bigger impact on girls living in urban areas as opposed to rural areas. Pregnancy and marriage also act as social gender-specific obstacles that hinder access to education for girls, particularly those from rural areas.

The most fundamental impact of education and gender equality on poverty reduction may lie in its impact on slowly changing norms in a society:

“In particular, the education of boys and girls—beyond its role in building human capital—is crucial in shaping norms. In multiple discussions, adolescent boys and girls described how education exposed them to new ideas and knowledge, enlarging their capacity to analyse and encouraging critical scrutiny of established gender relations and the status quo. These discussions reaffirmed what is already known about the intergenerational transfer and reproduction of norms within households. Education fosters learning away from the household environment where gender roles are played out in every interaction and action. The research team realised the importance of ensuring that school curricula offer gender-neutral learning opportunities.”  (World Bank, 2012)


These results confirm some of the findings from the World Bank Report which I wrote about earlier.

“One of the more consistent findings across the 97 research sites is the universality and resilience of the norms that underpin gender roles.  In every research location, women and men of all generations identified the dominance of women’s domestic role and men’s bread winning role as absolutely core to female and male identities. Some of the focus groups gave evidence of gender norms changing, albeit slowly and incrementally, with new economic opportunity, markets, and urbanization.”

This blog post is a contribution to the IIEP Course “Monitoring and Evaluating Gender Equality in Education’, edition 2016.


Taylor, S. & Spaull, N. 2015. Measuring access to learning over a period of increased access to schooling: The case of Southern and Eastern Africa since 2000, International Journal of Educational Development, 41, 47-59.

Statistics SA, 2015, Gender Series Volume II, Education, Report No. 03-10-12 (2004–2014)

World Bank, 2012, On Norms and Agency Conversations about Gender Equality with Women and Men in 20 Countries (link)


Piketty and Inequality in South Africa

Every month, hundreds of children are fleeing abject poverty in Zimbabwe and heading to South Africa. It’s a dangerous journey, but many take the risk in the hope of a better life. But once on the other side, there is help. With the support of UKaid from the Department for International Development, there is food, shelter and the chance to go to school. Find out more in our feature: Africa is a very unequal country.  It has one of the highest Gini coefficients in the world, in particularly since various Latin American countries managed to bring their coefficients down in recent years.  It should be noted that the Gini coefficient is an indicator of inequality in income, not in wealth.  However, given South Africa’s history of Apartheid and colonialism, including wealth into the equation is not likely to reduce inequality.  Conceded, the Gini coefficient also ignores progress that has been made in the provision of basic services to the poor in housing, electricity provision, healthcare delivery and education infrastructure.

Why does inequality matter? A certain degree of inequality may well be positive for society.  It stimulates people to find their talents and get the best out of them.  However, too much inequality poses various problems.   It’s morally indefensible that some people earn orders of magnitude more than others, whatever their skills. There’s also research that points to negative political effects of high inequality.  In unequal societies democracy tends to be hollowed out as decision processes are captured by a tiny elite, the masses are powerless and become disentangled and the social state is dismantled.  No longer “having skin in the game”, they vote for extremists.  Economically, high inequality reduces consumption, compared to a more even distribution of means.  High inequality also reduces social mobility, wasting talent.

Economists disagree on the evolution of inequality.  Kuznets argued that in the initial stages of development, a country becomes more unequal.  Some people move from poor to rich and compared to (almost) everyone being poor, this constitutes more inequality.  As more people grow rich, inequality would drop.  This view was challenged by Piketty in his book Capital.  Piketty’s central thesis is that inequality naturally rises within a capitalist system, because the rate of return on wealth exceeds that of income (or economic growth).  Rather than focusing only on equality of opportunity, Piketty shows that we should also worry about the inequality of outcomes.  Piketty’s thesis has drawn both praise and criticism.  Most critics acknowledge that inequality is rising, but dispute whether it’s an inherent characteristics of capitalism or whether they are other factors at play, such as globalisation and its tendency for delocalisation and winner-takes-all markets and automation, threatening many low-skilled and medium-skilled jobs.  Piketty favours the ‘utopian’ solution of a global, progressive wealth tax. Awaiting utopia, progressively taxing income and property may help.  Piketty argues that insufficiently progressive tax rates are at the basis of skyrocketing top wages.

How relevant is Piketty’s analysis of inequality for developing countries?  South Africa, with 1% of the population earning 15% of total labour income and with two thirds of the population living in poverty, seems like a good illustration of Piketty’s thesis.  Economic growth has been anaemic for years, whereas income from property and assets have been rising.  High youth unemployment and lack of unemployment benefits are one driver of inequality.  A second is the high wage gap within the workplace.  The low quality education system churns out too many unqualified people and too few qualified ones. For maths, only 3% of Grade 9 learners achieve a score higher than 50% at the latest Annual National Assessments (ANAs) and 90% remain stuck in the lowest category, which indicates a total lack of basic numeracy.  As a result, skilled people can command a premium and the former remain stuck in menial, poorly-paid jobs.  High inequality gradually erodes democratic institutions and public services are steadily privatized.

In other developing countries the situation is opposite. High inequality in countries such as Cambodia is rather the result than the cause of weak public institutions.  An effective administration to collect taxes, regulators to deal with monopolies and anti-corruption watchdogs, an impartial justice system are absent favouring a corrupt elite.  In this case, taxing the rich more will not help. Only building more effective institutions can address this.  This extends beyond nation states.

Solutions need to be found on a global scale.  Unfortunately, global governance institutions such as the WTO, WHO and the IMF provide global public goods, but suffer from a lack of democratic legitimacy, especially in developing countries.  Strengthening legitimate and global governance may help to address global inequalities.

Piketty’s book focuses on advanced countries, but the wealth of discussion it has triggered includes plenty of analysis of its relevance for developing countries.  Rising inequality within and between states is one of the defining themes of our times, partly causing and caused by Piketty’s work.

More information on the relevance of Piketty’s book for resp. developing countries and South Africa in particular can be found here and here.  Both articles are well recommended.

The picture at the top of this post is courtesy of DFID and is released under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Insider Accounts on South African Education

IMG_1696When it comes to education, South Africa is a hard nut to crack.  Inequalities in the system are enormous. Socio-economic status remains the most important determinant of educational outcomes in South Africa.  Educational quality in historically black schools – constituting 80% of enrolment – has not improved since political transition, despite large resource transfers to such schools.  A recent study found that when comparing 27 factors affecting school performance in dysfunctional and functional schools, only 5 were overlapping between the two groups, confirming the notion of two education systems within one country.

This also corresponds with an urban-rural divide.  Most ‘well-performing’ schools are located in towns. Long ago, these used to be “whites only” schools. Most underperforming schools are located in townships and rural areas. These schools have to deal with many issues. The division between the town and township schools is one of the legacies of Apartheid.

Two internship students spent their internship in two of the notoriously ill-equipped and poorly performing township schools and regularly wrote down their impressions.   Their impressions resonate well with the findings of the recently published report from the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit (NEEDU).  This (allegedly withheld) report provides an outspoken analysis of the education system, based on numerous visits and interviews.  We have linked the two sources, quoting from the students’ writings and linking them to findings of the NEEDU study.

First, no resource is more poorly used in South African schools than time.  The NEEDU report highlights high levels of teacher absenteeism and late coming in schools.  A fifth of teachers are absent on Fridays, rising to a third at the end of the month.  In many schools, principal and staff fail to build systems which drive the work of teaching and learning:

Our students wrote:

“We had the impression the principal does not check which teachers are present at what time at school. There is a register which teachers should sign upon arrival and departure. However, this is not a good indication since teachers can sign it the day after or when they didn’t arrive (in time).  Many teachers in our schools are quite relaxed about getting to class in time. They go to their classes 5 minutes late, 15 minutes late or sometimes not at all, it doesn’t seem to make any difference.”

Moreover, schools face extracurricular disruptions. According to NEEDU, 28% of teachers and principals face these disruptions frequently and another 38% occasionally, in particularly in large rural schools.  Late coming by teachers sets a bad example for learners and learner late-coming is a serious problem in 40% of schools and a moderate one in a further 35%.  Lessons are also often interrupted:

“Staff meetings often take place during school hours, whilst the teachers should be teaching. Learners are just left in the classroom without any form of guidance, tasks or supervision. In our schools, we haven’t seen any systematic plan in place to cover for absent teachers.”

The NEEDU report also refers to the fact that teachers consider the generous allocation of sick leave for cases of prolonged sickness as a right to be taken in full.  Ample time for system-wide assessment, including the Annual National Assessments (ANAs) in September further reduce time for teaching.  Additionally, time in classroom is often not used effectively, resulting in low ‘time on task’.  As the students recall:

“While a teacher is writing exercises on the blackboard, learners are idling, and they are only allowed to start copying once the teacher is finished. If learners finish their exercise before others are ready, they wait until everyone is finished. Again they sit idle until the correct answers are written on the blackboard, after which they copy.”

This shows the potential for small, incremental interventions with potentially huge impact on learning, much as what Doug lemov advocates for in ‘Teach Like a Champion’.

Under the Integrated Food Security Strategy, 9 million learners from grade R to grade 7 receive a daily meal at school.  For many it’s their only meal per day.  Unfortunately, the delivery and management has been a hit-and-miss affair in recent years.

“Many learners only get their first meal for the day at school after half past 10. When you are hungry it is difficult to focus.  And why distribute the food during periods teaching time? Why not distribute food for all learners during the long break?”

Another challenge the students observed was the lack of content knowledge and teaching skills in many teachers.

“The lack of content knowledge leads to teaching mistakes. We have seen this happen. We saw bright learners ask some questions about these mistakes, but teachers reacted angrily and ignored the mistake made. Teachers seem to be confident despite their lack of content knowledge.  The HOD for mathematics had very little mathematics understanding. It must be extremely difficult in such a position to motivate, oversee, guide and improve the other teachers.”

This lack of content and pedagogical knowledge with teachers has been extensively documented in recent years.  Grade 6 math teachers in rural schools scored second from the bottom for their content knowledge in a study of 14 African countries, outperforming only their Zambian counterparts.  The World Economic Forum ranks South Africa’s primary education system 132nd out of 144 countries—and last in mathematics and science (some reservations on the ranking here. I don’t agree with them, mainly because the quality of an education system includes the cost efficiency.)  The reasons for this lack of competence are diverse.  The NEEDU report dedicates a lot of attention to post provisioning within the education system:

“HODs and principals…are promoted to positions…without necessarily exhibiting superior subject knowledge, pedagogical skills or management capacity.”  “A very large part of the problem is that there is pressure to appoint officials to promotion posts using considerations other than merit. Criteria for evaluating teacher performance do not include measures identified in the research literature as constituting effective teaching, such as time on task, effective use of textbooks and materials, good communication, motivation and giving positive feedback.”

South Africa spends 6,2% of its GDP on education, more than any other country on the continent.  Principals get monthly sums for every student in their school. The money is intended to improve the school and get resources for the learners.  However, the students had many questions with how funds were spent:

“During our stay there was a problem with the water supply. Both of our schools couldn’t pay the water bills and because of this, water was disconnected. Food could not be cooked, toilets could not be flushed … How is this possible?”

The NEEDU report highlights the high ratio of personnel vs non-personnel costs.  On average, 86% of funds are spent on personnel, reaching ratios of higher than 90% in some provinces, leaving little room for expenditures on infrastructure, books and other learning materials.   The problem is old and the NEEDU reports cites rising salary costs, excess teachers as a result of urban migration, pressure from organized interest groups, policy ambiguity and inadequate information management as culprits.

Despite a long list of challenges, the students thoroughly enjoyed their time at their respective schools.  One element they appreciated was the sense of camaraderie and involvement among staff:

“Every morning all school staff gathers in the staff room to sing a hymn together and pray together. We found that this habit created a good team feeling. Thereafter the principal makes some announcements, mostly about administrative and logistical issues such as due dates for handing in documents, but sometimes also about issues that directly relate to the quality of teaching and learning. Other staff members can also make announcements. It is actually a nice way of giving everyone a chance to share information.”

The principal once raised the issue of corporal punishment which was still used by many teachers in the school. Most classes in a township school have 50 or more learners. The teachers have limited skills for classroom management. Teachers seldom differentiate their approaches. One of the reason being that there are too many learners to adapt to, but it also shows a lack of teaching skills. Many learners have problems to concentrate, especially in the morning.

Corporal punishment in schools was prohibited by Law in 1996.  However, statistics from the General Household Surveys 2012 indicate that 2.2 million learners (15.8%) experienced some kind of corporal punishment in schools.  Our students encountered the practice as well, deeply unsettling them and confirming the sense of disempowerment that many teachers feel, seeing corporate punishment as the only way to discipline learners:

“Methods of punishment we saw were being hit by a wooden stick on the hands or with the back of a blackboard wiper on the fingers, standing up with hands in the air for the whole lesson, or kneel down on the floor while making exercises in their workbook. The worst thing about this is learners seem to be used to this, and don’t care that much. They even laugh when other students are being hit. When we tried to discuss this with the teachers, they tried to avoid the conversation in every possible way. Alternatively, they said that corporal punishment is the only intervention that helps to discipline learners. There was no real openness to alternatives to reinforcement and punishment.”

After spending months in a township school it is easy to despair.  After all, media are filled with tales of South Africa’s education crisis.  Nevertheless, not all is gloom.  Many more black and coloured children are getting at least some formal education.  Around three-quarters of those aged 4-6 and 98% of those aged 7-15 are in full-time schooling.  Heavy investment in system-wide assessment has jolted districts and provinces into action.  Recent ANA results for numeracy and literacy hint that learning outcomes might be slightly improving.

Overall, these observations confirm our focus on improving learning outcomes through strengthening systems for professional development such as Professional Learning Communities, enhancing instructional leadership and improving subject advisors’ maths content knowledge.

Xenophobic Attacks in South Africa

Our rainbow nation that so filled the world with hope is being reduced to a grubby shadow of itself.
(Desmond Tutu)

South Africa has been in the grip recently of xenophobic violence, notably against Mozambicans, Somalis and Pakistanis, fuelled by remarks from the traditional leader of the Zulus and the son of President Zuma. The army and massive publication campaigns are being rolled out to quell the unrest.  However, the experience after the previous xenophobic attacks, in 2008, show that the underlying smoldering fire is unlikely to be extinguished soon.

The attacks show South African people’s frustration with perennial shortfalls of services, dwellings and jobs.  Moreover, they illustrate the failure of the South African education system to equip its citizens with the skills to function in society.  Dramatic learning outcomes leave South Africans unable to compete with people from poorer nations in Southern Africa.  Additionally, foreigners and the past are used as a scapegoat to hide their own failing.   The Economist writes:

The government’s response has often been to describe incidents as “criminality” rather than admit to a specific problem with violence against foreigners. Recent policies have, moreover, fostered a negative view of foreigners, such as the debate over proposals to prevent them from buying land. South Africa’s Institute of Race Relations, a liberal think-tank, points to the “absolute failure” of government policy to deal with unemployment and with deficiencies in the education system. It warns that xenophobic attacks may well increase as the economy weakens.

What It Means to Have a High Quality of Learning

Quality Measuring the quality of learning is a notably tricky endeavour.  Before engaging in a course, you make a decision based on available information and alleged proxies for its quality.  Things like the reputation of the institution, the fame of the instructors, the garishness of the conference hall and the size of the sports centre. When pressed, many of us will agree that these don’t necessarily say much about the amount of learning that takes place, but what else have we got?

Test results are often used to measure amounts of learning taking place.  Standardized tests would be needed though to compare the quality across institutions. Even then, local contexts differ and students’ socio-economic status and initial knowledge should be controlled for.  Is a school that selects for strong learners and, as a result, produces stellar pass rates, a better school than a school that accepts and works with all learners, but achieving a lower pass rate?  Tests also risk reducing what we see as quality to what can be easily measured.  Good primary schools in South Africa are those with good ANA results in maths and literacy. Nothing about other subjects such as science, let alone hard to measure skills such as motivation, curiosity and working together.  Motivation, passion in and a desire for lifelong learning is not captured in traditional tests, but are often better predictors of good achievement in the future workplace. Learning may not be suitable to be expressed in amounts.

With the South African Council for Educators (SACE) we have been working on a framework to measure quality in teacher professional development. One way is to let the free market play.  The reasoning is that, in time, teachers will automatically gravitate towards those courses that offer good value for money. Information and recommendation systems like used in Uber and other systems, can speed up the proces.  SACE has chosen to take a more centralist approach, requiring every provider and course to be respectively approved and endorsed by evaluators. Information submitted by course providers on the relevance, learning materials, credentials of the facilitators, attention for equity, assessment etc. arguably offers some kind of clue to distinguish good from bad programmes.  But is it a good-enough way to measure quality?  Some recent reflections in the blogosphere offer excellent ideas:

Dave Cormier writes that learning’s first principle should be getting learners to care, because they’re interested in what they learn.

Learners who care can be taught almost anything.  Learners that only have acquired knowledge to pass the test will have forgotten 95% of it after a few months.  Moreover, It turns out that learning a passion to learn is more important for your practical success than learning any particular facts or skills.  Our job, as educators, is to convince students who don’t care to start caring, and to encourage those who currently care, to continue caring.

Cormier detects a tension between education and learning in this.  Education is an institutionalized form of learning, requiring standardized curricula, assessment and accreditation. When learning becomes education, accountability takes control to the expense of learner engagement.  Education systems are not designed to get people engaged. It’s designed to get people to a ‘standard of knowing’, which not necessarily equals getting them engaged with it.  Education is much harder to change than learning. Learning can be done anywhere and anytime.  Reforming education requires a whole range of stakeholders to agree.  A problem arises when there is a total disconnect between education and learning.  When education equals ‘covering’ the curriculum. When a degree is a way of signalling that you passed a strong selection mechanism rather than a proof of learning, as The Economist argued is the case in some prestigious American universities.

SACE’s system for teacher professional development wisely includes informal, individual learning like engaging with books or articles.  However, the system distrusts this kind of learning and has been conceived in such a way that also formal, third-party organized professional development in required. Perhaps justifiably so. Professional standards may be insufficient with many teachers to expect them to engage in professional development without external pressure. However, as Cormier writes:

The problem with threatening people is that in order for it to continue to work, you have to continue to threaten them (well… there are other problems, but this is the relevant one for this discussion). And, as has happened, students no longer care about grades, or their parents believe their low grades are the fault of the teacher, then the whole system falls apart. You can only threaten people with things they care about. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t hold learners accountable, but if we’re trying to encourage people to care about their work, about their world, is it practical to have it only work when someone is threatening them?

That is the Achilles’ heel of the whole professional development system. If people don’t care about professional development, about being good at what they’re doing, then no monitoring system or amount of pressure will help. It’s not possible.  People will comply and sit out whatever training is good value for points and dishes out beefy food, but they will not be in it for real.  It won’t have any effect at all:

We have not built an education system that encourages people to be engaged. The system is not designed to do it. It’s designed to get people to a ‘standard of knowing.’ Knowing a thing, in the sense of being able to repeat it back or demonstrate it, has no direct relationship to ‘engagement’. There are certainly some teachers that create spaces where engagement occurs, but they are swimming upstream, constantly battling the dreaded assessment and the need to cover the curriculum.

What can be done?  Teacher professional development should be encouraged, but not as a top-down imposed tick-box exercise.  School-based communities of teachers working together can help, as long as they’re not hijacked by bureaucrats.  Accountability should be bottom-up, from learners and parents, rather than a top-down exercise.  More attention  in teacher training should go to instilling the love of learning and truly expanding one’s knowledge for the subject rather than acquiring knowledge (which is forgotten soon afterwards) and passing a hurdle.

There is actually some evidence about what elements in an education make people successful and happy later in life. Gallup, a large polling company, investigated relations between people’s education and their success and wellbeing a few years after graduation.  Martin Feldstein writes:

Again, the institution type didn’t matter. It really comes down to feeling connected to your school work and your teachers, which does not correlate well with the various traditional criteria people use for evaluating the quality of an educational institution. If you buy Gallup’s chain of argument and evidence this, in turn, suggests that being a hippy-dippy earthy-crunchy touchy-feely constructivy-connectivy commie pinko guide on the side will produce more productive workers and a more robust economy (not to mention healthier, happier human beings who get sick less and therefore keep healthcare costs lower) than being a hard-bitten Taylorite-Skinnerite practical this-is-the-real-world-kid type career coach.

Factors in people’s education that moved the needle in Gallup’s ‘Wellbeing Index’ were:

1.7 times higher if “I had a mentor who encouraged me to pursue my goals and dreams”
1.5 times higher if “I had at least one professor at [College] who made me excited about learning”
1.7 times higher if “My professors at [College] cared about me as a person”
1.5 times higher if “I had an internship or job that allowed me to apply what I was learning in the classroom”
1.1 times higher if “I worked on a project that took a semester or more to complete”
1.4 times higher if “I was extremely active in extracurricular activities and organizations while attending [College]”

The positive thing in all this, is, as Feldstein writes:

You don’t have to have every teacher make you feel excited about learning in order to have a better chance at a better life. You just need one.

13 Lessons to Take Away from the National Colloquium on PLCs

pic2On 18 and 19 September the Ministry of Basic Education organized a nation-wide colloquium on Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). The Integrated Strategic Framework for Teacher Professional Development (ISPFTED) foresees the nation-wide implementation of PLCs by 2017. This colloquium was a first step towards that implementation. During the first day a wide range of speakers from academia, government, unions and subject associations provided input on international and local research, local experiences and various initiatives on PLCs.  On the second day, participants were invited to provide feedback on two draft documents: a policy document on subject committees and PLCs and a practical guideline on implementing PLCs.

Here are 13 lessons from the two days:

  1. Hardly anyone doubted the useful role PLCs could play in the South African education system.  However, it became clear that more conceptual and practical work needs to be done before PLCs can be rolled out nationwide.
  2. Any guideline on PLCs should clearly describe the concept. The prominent place of PLCs in DBE’s Strategic Framework 2011-2025 (ISPFTED) and the excitement on the ‘new’ concept make that all types of professional development are dubbed PLCs.  A clear definition of what they are, is needed to avoid losing the power of the concept. Prof. Brodie stressed that PLCs are more than sharing resources over tea. They require intensive collaboration to develop resources and prepare and evaluate classroom practice together.
  3. We should be realistic in our expectations for PLCs, both in terms of numbers and outcomes and conceptual purity.  Much depends on what kind of PLCs we want.  Do we only count PLCs that are truly teacher-led, data-driven and collaborative in nature?  Or do we include all kinds of regular teaching meetings, in order to reach ambitious quantitative targets?  As such, stating (unrealistically) high targets might water down what are considered PLCs and reduce the process-oriented and collaborative character of PLCs.
  4. Implementation of PLCs should also take into account the existing education system and school culture. Can we expect PLCs to become beacons of a collaborative, data-driven and self-driven view on professional development, if the education system in which they operate is prescriptive and bureaucratic? Could we hope for PLCs to become a Trojan horse for change of the education system? How far should we be prepared to compromise? Criteria such as teacher-driven, school-based, continuous and collaborative surfaced as key criteria without which a PLC is not a PLC any more.
  5. PLCs are as much about changes in school culture as they are about individual teacher development.  A successful PLC manages to instil a culture of ‘us-ness’.  Teaching and learning become a collective responsibility for the school rather than an individual responsibility for the teacher. pic1
  6. PLCs are inherently connected to the concept of teacher agency. Implementing PLCs raises therefore wider questions. How do we see the role of the teachers, as implementers of policy and curriculum or as education professionals? This raises the question whether the current climate in South Africa is conducive to teacher agency?
  7. Imposing PLCs on teachers and schools will result in command and control, compliance and resistance, nipping any potential of PLCs in the bud. Participation in PLCs should be voluntary, based on teachers’ assessment of what constitutes valuable professional development for them.
  8. However, PLCs are unlikely to grow spontaneously. An important role for the Department of Basic Education lies in scaffolding and providing initial support to starting PLCs. Results from the Data-informed practice improvement project (DIPIP) Project indicated that this initial support may well be needed during several years. The challenge lies in finding a good balance between prescription and support.  An important role in providing this support lies with the provincial and district administrations.  Subject advisors should focus on their pedagogical rather than judgemental role and provide the necessary resources and capacity building.  Provinces should equip them with the skills to construct knowledge and be part of PLCs themselves.
  9. Time is most prominent on everyone’s list of challenges for PLCs. Arguments whether time should be provided to work in PLCs went both ways. Professional development and preparing lessons can be considered core parts of a teacher’s job description. PLCs intend to facilitate a shift from teaching as an isolated activity to a social approach to teaching. Secondly, if teachers find PLCs a valuable activity, they will invest time in it. However, if PLCs are to make headway beyond the very motivated, it was estimated that at least 2 consecutive hours per week should be dedicated to it. The 80 hours that are currently earmarked for professional development in teachers’ schedules could form the backbone of such a system.
  10. Conceptions of what constitutes valuable knowledge are changing. Rather than providing people with a bag of facts, it becomes more important to equip learners with 21st century skills such as information fluency, creativity fluency, collaborative skills and media fluency. New conceptions of knowledge also require new forms of CPD.
  11. We should be patient and be careful not to expect immediate effects of PLCs. Moreover, defining outcomes for successful PLCs is hard. PLCs are not going to change the ANA results in one year. First, PLCs are a slow and ongoing process, as much about the process of creating trust and developing a culture of systematic enquiry, as about tangible outputs. Reporting on the activities in PLCs and the products that come out of them is only a first step. More relevant outcomes of PLCs lie in bridging the gap between educational research and practice, promoting data-informed practice, instilling an attitude of lifelong learning and creating safe spaces for addressing practical issues. Most importantly however, but also hardest to measure, are the impact PLCs have on learning outcomes, equity, teacher identity and school culture.
  12. The distinction between PLCs and Subject Committees should be made very clear. Subject committees are structures at district, provincial and national level, organized per subject and aimed at providing advice on policy and curriculum issues. PLCs are primarily school-based structures to facilitate teaching and learning. However, this does not mean there is no learning, no professional development taking place in Subject Committees. There is also a clear link between PLCs and Subject Committees, as they feed each other with information and ideas. Moreover, PLCs that are supported by a broader network have turned out to be more successful. Ideally, PLCs engage in a process of moving out of the local and back in to access and bring in external expertise in PLCs.
  13. Principals play a crucial role in supporting PLCs. They should be more than enablers, providing time and space for PLCs. Their role extends to instructional leaders within PLCs, motivating teachers to engage in them, providing guidance to resources and facilitating conditions for a culture of collaboration across grades and subjects by for example promoting team teaching, lesson observations and seminars. Hence, DBE and PED’s support to PLC should for a big part lie in capacity development of school leaders, school management teams (SMTs) and Heads of Department (HoDs).

My keynote presentation is available on Slideshare.

What knowledge do teachers need to teach? Pedagogical Content Knowledge for Mathematics

What knowledge do mathematics teachers need in order to teach successfully?   In a series of four blog posts I want to summarize some of the research on the topic. The first blog post looks at the concept of pedagogical content knowledge of mathematics.  The second will discuss research attempts to measure teachers’ knowledge and link it to students’ learning outcomes.  In the third one, I write about the implications for teachers’ professional development.  In the final blog post, I will relate the first three blog posts to the South African context.

 Many intuitively feel that a thorough understanding of content is necessary to be a good teacher. However, accurately describing what and how much knowledge a teacher should have to teach successfully, has eluded researchers and policy makers.  Nevertheless, the question matters. Ball et al. (1991) argue that insufficient insight in the knowledge it takes to teach well contributes to low numeracy levels and a lack of interest in maths with many people.  Questions such as “What is the probability that in a class of 25, two people will share a birthday? Or Is a square a rectangle? leave many baffled.

This is due to an excessive focus on procedures, rules of thumb and ‘drill and kill’ kinds of practice, instilled by a dated, but tenacious view of mathematics as a fixed body of knowledge rather than an system of human thought (Ball et al., 1991).  This view is reinforced by textbooks that list ‘hints’ instead of developing conceptual understanding and a wide but shallow curriculum. A similar diagnosis, in my opinion, can be made for other sciences.  Many feel that what makes a good teacher is tacit and consider teaching as an art, based n common sense with little need for professional learning.

Research on the relation between teacher knowledge and student learning took off in the 1960s. Quantitative studies used the number of certificates or mathematics courses taken as proxy variables for teachers’ knowledge.  These studies rejected a straightforward relation between more teacher mathematical knowledge and more student learning.  A (weak) positive relation for undergraduate courses was found, but with non-linear relations and threshold effects complicating matters (Ball et al., 1991).  For more advanced graduate courses the relation was absent and in some cases even negative (e.g. Belge, 1979; Monk, 1994).  This may be due to the increasing compression of knowledge in advanced courses, which can complicate the ‘unpacking’ of content necessary in teaching and with higher exposure to conventional teaching approaches in advanced courses (Ball et al., 1991).

In the 1980s, researchers set upon closer probing of mathematical knowledge, rather than using second-order indicators.   Lee Schulman (1986) conceptualized pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) as a unique domain of teacher knowledge covering various aspects of subject knowledge of mathematics that are relevant for teaching including:

  • Knowledge what concepts students develop in various stages of their development
  • Knowledge of common student misconceptions on mathematical concepts
  • Knowledge of curriculum, threshold concepts and in what order they are best taught.

With PCK Shulman intended to vindicate the central role of subject content knowledge in teaching quality, in addition to generic pedagogical knowledge. It offers a fine-grained conceptualization of the kind of content knowledge a teacher requires for teaching successfully. PCK relates to the ability of not only knowing the content, but the ability to enable others to know it.  A powerful example of PCK is given by Deborah Ball and colleagues on multiplication of decimals, worth quoting in full:

‘The teacher had to know more than how to multiply decimals correctly herself.  She had to understand why the algorithm for multiplying decimals works and what might be confusing about it for students.  She had to understand multiplication as iterated addition and as area, and she had to know representations for multiplication.  She had to be familiar with base-ten blocks and to know how to use them to make such ideas more visible to her students. Place value and the meaning of the places in a number were at play here as well.  She needed to see the connections between multiplication of whole numbers and multiplication of decimals in ways that enabled her to help her students make this extension.  She also needed to recognize where the children’s knowledge of multiplication of whole numbers might interfere with or obscure important aspects of multiplication of decimals.  And she needed to clearly understand and articulate why the rule for placing the decimal point in the answer – that one counts the number of decimals places in the numbers being multiplied and counts over that number of places from the right – works.   In addition, she needed an understanding of linear and area measurement and of how they could be used to model multiplication.  She even needed to anticipate that a fourth-grade students might ask why one does not do this magic when adding or subtracting decimals and to have in mind what she might say.’ (Ball et al., 1991, p.448)

Since Shulman introduced PCK, the concept has been refined.  Krauss et al. (2008) distinguish three dimensions of PCK: knowledge of mathematical tasks as instructional tools, knowledge and interpretation of students’ thinking, and knowledge of multiple representations and explanations of mathematical problems.  Ball et al. (1991) include a component of subject knowledge, called ‘horizon knowledge’, that includes insight in curriculum structure and how concepts are gradually introduced over grades. Hill et al. (2008) use the terms ‘common content knowledge’ and ‘specialised content knowledge’.  The former relates to mathematical knowledge that numerically literate non-teachers are likely to know.  The latter refers to specific knowledge for teaching, such as what kind of mistakes are typically made at what age, or what representations create powerful learning.


Shulman’s conceptualisation of PCK (from Depaepe et al., 2013) and Ball’s refinement

Not everyone finds Shulman’s PCK concept helpful . Margaret Eisenhart (1993) dismisses the distinction between subject and pedagogical content knowledge as fuzzy and prefers to use procedural and conceptual knowledge as components of teacher knowledge.  Cochran et al. (1993) coined the term pedagogical content knowing (PCKg) to stress PCK as a dynamic knowing-to-act’ that is inherently linked to and situated in the act of teaching within a particular context.  Shulman’s concept was a theoretical construct, which proved difficult to confirm with empirical data.  Tim Rowland  (et al., 2005) used grounded theory to develop an empirically based classification, the ‘knowledge quartet’ that distinguishes between foundation, transformation, connection and contingency.

Foundation consists of the teacher’s theoretical knowledge and understanding of mathematics and beliefs about the nature of mathematics, including why and how it should be learned.  It’s called foundation because it determines the potential for the three other categories. These describe how foundation knowledge informs teaching decisions. Transformation refers to the capacity to transform it into powerful pedagogical forms, enabling others to learn.  Connection describes teachers’ ability to convey mathematics’ inherent coherence through well-chosen sequencing of topics, tasks and exercises within and between lessons.  Finally, contingency is the preparedness of the teacher to listen to student responses and readiness to suitably respond and even deviate from the set lesson agenda.

Foundation Awareness of purpose; identifying errors; overt subject knowledge; theoretical underpinning of pedagogy; use of terminology; use of textbook; reliance on procedures.
Transformation Choice of representations and explanations; choice of examples, teacher demonstrations
Connection Making connections between procedures; making connections between concepts; anticipation of complexity; decisions about sequencing; recognition about conceptual appropriateness.
Contingency Responding to children’s ideas; use of opportunities; deviation from agenda; swift and correct analysis of student errors and difficulties

Recent research efforts tend to focus more on the practice of teaching rather than teachers’ knowledge.  Strong content knowledge, or even strong PCK does not always translate into strong teaching, due to both teacher factors as environmental constraints.  In her case study of Ms. Daniels, Eisenhart (1993) splendidly describes the tensions between the focus on conceptual understanding in policy documents and the teacher training courses and elements at the personal level (limited conceptual understanding of students) and the school level (beliefs cooperating teachers, wide curriculum) that push teachers towards more procedural approaches.  Deborah Ball hits the nail on the head:

 ‘The pull toward neat, routinized instruction is very strong.  Teaching measurement by giving out formulas – l x w = some number of square units and l x w x h = some number of cubic units – may seem more efficient than hauling out containers, blocks and rulers and having students explore the different ways to answer questions of ‘how big’ or ‘how much’. With focused, bounded tasks, students get the right answers, and everyone can think they are successful.  The fact that these bounded tasks sometimes results in sixth graders who think that you measure water with rulers may, unfortunately go unnoticed’ (Ball et al., 1991).

In the next post I’ll discuss some of the approaches that have been used to measure teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge.  Comments and suggestions welcome!

Selected references:

Ball, D.L. (1990) ‘The mathematical understandings that prospective teachers bring to teacher education’, The elementary school journal, 90(4), pp. 449–466.

Ball, D.L., Lubienski, S.T. and Mewborn, D.S. (2001) ‘Research on teaching mathematics: The unsolved problem of teachers’ mathematical knowledge’, 4th ed. In Richardson, V. (ed.), Handbook of research on teaching, Washington, DC, American Educational Research Association, pp. 433–456, [online] Available from: (Accessed 12 September 2013).

Baumert, J., Kunter, M., Blum, W., Brunner, M., et al. (2010) ‘Teachers’ Mathematical Knowledge, Cognitive Activation in the Classroom, and Student Progress’, American Educational Research Journal, (1), p. 133.

Cochran, K. F., DeRuiter, J. A., & King, R. A. (1993) ‘Pedagogical content knowing: an integrative model for teacher preparation’, Journal of Teacher Education, 44, pp.263-272.

Depaepe, F., Verschaffel, L. and Kelchtermans, G. (2013) ‘Pedagogical content knowledge: A systematic review of the way in which the concept has pervaded mathematics educational research’, Teaching and Teacher Education, 34, pp. 12–25.

Eisenhart, M., Borko, H., Underhill, R., Brown, C., et al. (1993) ‘Conceptual knowledge falls through the cracks: Complexities of learning to teach mathematics for understanding’, Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 24(1), pp. 8–40.

Hill, H.C., Ball, D.L. and Schilling, S.G. (2008) ‘Unpacking Pedagogical Content Knowledge: Conceptualizing and Measuring Teachers’ Topic-Specific Knowledge of Students’, Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, (4), p. 372.

Rowland, T., Huckstep, P. and Thwaites, A. (2005) ‘Elementary Teachers’ Mathematics Subject Knowledge: The Knowledge Quartet and the Case of Naomi’, Journal of Mathematics Teacher Education, 8(3), pp. 255–281.

Shulman, L. S. (1986) ‘Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching’, Educational Researcher, 15(2), pp.4- 31.