Professor Simon Mukwembi


Rationale for Approach to Education

My 14 years of teaching, in which I have instructed as a teaching assistant, tutor, demonstrator, lecturer and as a senior lecturer at diff erent universities (University of Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe Open University, Masvingo State University and currently the University of KwaZulu-Natal), have provided for a number of strands from which I approach education.

First, an understanding of the context in which one is operating serves as a bedrock for sound teaching. To illustrate, an important component of the South African context is that my students come from dissimilar educational backgrounds. Consequently, the students differ in their abilities to acquire knowledge, especially at the beginning of the programme, depending on their previous learning styles and their previous institutions' capacity to support educational settings. Admittedly, it is a complex task as a mathematics lecturer to design an environment that is essential for all students whose needs are varied in a class of 212 students or so, and to be able to achieve not only the course objectives, but also to inspire the students into becoming independent thinkers equipped with necessary skills, knowledge and background to meet the requirements of society. Thus I endeavour to contextualise my teaching and to identify my students' di fferent understanding levels early on in each course that I teach.

Second, the demands of the times characterized by the emergence of complex problems such as epidemics, dictate that society becomes knowledge-driven in search for solutions to make informed decisions arising from research. To contend with this thinking, my approach to education is that the notion of research should not only be theoretical in nature, but should also encompass applications centered at tackling more practical current problems. Therefore, an inter-disciplinary culture of research, which links the material to other areas, needs to be developed in students. Mathematical models have been used in other complex real-world problems to make predictions which help understand the dynamics of change and thereby assist researchers and policy makers to prepare for, detect, and respond to potential threats. In my journey as an academic, whose research expertise is in the area of mathematical modelling, among others, I have embarked on research to devise new mathematical models that can be used in the decision making process, both in the classroom and outside of the classroom, to reasonably predict consequences of choosing certain alternative strategies aimed at solving some of the complex systemic problems in education (Annexure 1A).

The third thread that informs my approach to education relates to my conviction that outcomes should drive teaching. In post-apartheid South Africa, outcomes-based education (OBE) forms the foundation for the curriculum. OBE is driven by the outcomes, i.e., the skills or knowledge expected of the students. For instance, students are expected to become independent problem-solvers who can communicate e ectively, logically, clearly and concisely. In view of this, all my course information sheets clearly defi ne the outcomes and goals (Annexure 1B). I make all attempts to employ instructional strategies which ensure that the desired goals are met. It is my belief that the success of the students is not only the responsibility of the institution, but is also my obligation.

The forth strand emanates from my belief that learning and student development is facilitated, among other factors, by the existence of a supportive environment. In line with this thinking, I adopted an open-door policy, avail myself to o er guidance and support to students when needed and in class create a friendly attitude and an atmosphere that stimulate co-operation and quest by students to try harder; I celebrate even the smallest achievements made by students. Such conduct with students is a mainstay of my approach to education.

Fifth, feedback informs, in part, my approach to education. Feedback comes in di fferent forms; it can be obtained from formal or informal student evaluation, observing student performance through various assessment methods and in the class- room situation by observing the behaviour of students and by interacting with them. Thus the proposition is that feedback exposes areas which require remedy and improvement for both the taught and the teacher. I believe that such feedback should inform my teaching.

The sixth strand, which informs my approach to education, is that optimal solutions to problems are obtained by first identifying their root cause. To demonstrate, over the years our pass rates have declined to unacceptable levels despite all the intervention measures, such as Supplemental Instruction, Academic Development initiatives and weekend classes, to mention a few. A study of the fi rst tests for first year students (see, Section 5) reveals that most students join the university under-prepared; the root cause of this being deductively that more than half of South Africa's mathematics and science educators are not quali fied to teach as their content levels are very low. I am taking a leading role in a long term project that runs mathematics content development workshops for High School teachers in the KwaZulu-Natal region (see, for example Annexure 1C).

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