training vital for teachers to deliver

Martin Carnoy, Linda Chisholm and Hlengani Baloyi

Martin Carnoy, Linda Chisholm and Hlengani Baloyi

Some reasons for poor mathematics and language performance in schools may be evident.

Yet there is little empirical analysis that helps policy-makers understand the reason for the low level of student performance in our schools or how to improve it.

As a first step toward unpacking the factors contributing to low levels of learning, we engaged in a small scale pilot study that focuses on the role that teacher skills and practice play in South African students' learning within the socioeconomic and administrative conditions in those schools.

The main purpose of the pilot study was to test the instruments and assess the viability of our models.

The study was conducted on a sample of Grade6 mathematics lessons in 40 primary schools in Gauteng. Students, teachers and principals filled in questionnaires, students took tests at two points in the year to measure gains, and teachers' Grade6 mathematics classes were video-taped and analysed.

The teacher questionnaire included questions about mathematics teaching, specifically content and pedagogical content knowledge questions. There are a number of familiar and strikingly new findings.

The data revealed a primary school system characterised both by well-known low average levels of pupil and teacher mathematical knowledge and by considerable inequality in the distribution of mathematical knowledge among those who teach students of lower and higher socioeconomic background.

Not surprisingly, results showed a high correlation between the average socio-economic level of students in the school, the total mathematical content knowledge of teachers and the average student's mathematics test score in the school.

Classes generally revolve around a considerable amount of teacher-led presentation, with the teacher asking the students to reply individually or in chorus to questions while making his or her presentation. This is usually followed by seat work, in which the teacher circulates, checking students' work. Sometimes this is followed or preceded by students coming to the board and doing problems at the board.

In other classes it is followed by more individual and chorus recitation in response to questions from the teacher.

A typical mathematics class in Gauteng's Grade 6 is about one-third teacher-led, in which the teacher talks to the class, about 25 percent of class time is spent by the teacher asking questions, which are answered by individuals or in chorus, and about one-third of the time is dedicated to seat work.

In the poorer classrooms, students are more likely to be seated in groups of four or six facing each other, but when the students are doing seat work, it is almost entirely individual.

An important observation was the lack of coherence in a large percentage of the lessons.

Teachers tend not to have a clear goal for the lesson. Some of the lessons started with a short mini-lesson on some topic and ended with an "activity" related to the topic, but unrelated to the mini-lesson.

The other pattern observed was the lack of whole-class discussion on the activities or worksheets.

The "discussion" is often just a chorus of agreement to given answers - or the completion of comments-prompted answers, that really give no indication of whether or not pupils were actually able to give the answer themselves.

Our study supports empirically the claim that pedagogical content knowledge is important in improving student achievement, and that the mechanism by which this occurs is through the improved teaching of a subject by teachers who know more about the subject and how to teach it.

This was a pilot study, so the empirical results, while important, are meant to provide direction for further research, but we are confident that our model goes far to explain why Grade 6 students in other African countries seem to know so much more mathematics than our students.

Therefore the quality of teachers' training is probably a key variable.

lThis article is based on a report, Towards understanding student academic performance in South Africa: A pilot study of Grade 6 mathematics lessons in Gauteng. The full report is available on request from