Gundo Mmbi, 27-years-old, is the principal at SPARK Soweto. Photo: Provided
Gundo Mmbi is a Wits BEd graduate and former Wits Education School Council transformation officer. She is a human rights activist and a proud member of the LGBTQIA+ community. She played an active role in the #FeesMustFall movement. In 2017, she became an assistant principal at SPARK Turffontein and is currently the founding principal of SPARK Soweto.
How did a young woman from Limpopo find herself at Wits?
I was told that the child of a cashier will never make it to one of the country’s most distinguished universities. I wanted to break barriers by securing a bursary. I studied hard to achieve acceptance to Wits University and secured a bursary from the housing department to study. That’s how my Wits story began!
You majored in mathematics and English. What factors motivated you to study BEd?
Growing up, I have always been curious about who was setting my exam papers and why the quality of the questions was the way it was. The standard of mathematics in South Africa has been lowered for scholars. Each year, I have watched as the pass mark declines, gradually dropping from 50% to 30%. I don’t think it is the teachers or the scholars, but our country’s curriculum leaders and education officials who may lack faith in our abilities.
Have you always been active in student politics and issues of social justice?
Wits is a world on its own, and you learn a lot there about who you are and what type of person you would like to be. Student politics exposed me to a world of leadership and holding people accountable for what they Wits is a world on its own, and you learn a lot there about who you are and what type of person you would like to be. Student politics exposed me to a world of leadership and holding people accountable for what they are responsible for. I was a shy village girl when I got to Wits until I stood up against my English lecturer when he questioned my gender identity: the activist in me was born.
How did your experiences at Wits lead you to where you are now?
A degree from Wits University enables you to proudly embrace your diversity while being proud of your unique individualism. Wits taught me it is okay to come from Limpopo and be raised by a single mother while fighting for free education.
At 27 you are the principal at SPARK Soweto. To what do you owe your success?
I owe my success to the freedom that was fought for by the people of South Africa. Knowing that their fight for my freedom opened doors to higher learning, I was able to go after what I want with no restrictions or prejudice. I owe it to all the teachers that shaped my life, who ensured that I became the best version of myself and not forgetting “my mother and father” (the National Student Financial Aid Scheme) for the financial support when I needed it.
What led to the move from Turffontein to Soweto?
I applied to be a tutor at SPARK Maboneng in 2015 while completing my degree in education. I then became a maths teacher at SPARK Maboneng and taught for two years. An opportunity to grow into school leadership was offered, and I applied for it. I became an assistant principal at SPARK Turffontein and now founding principal of SPARK Soweto. SPARK Schools has 21 schools across South Africa, and I am part of a group of young people who are changing the face of education.
FEATURED IMAGE: Gundo Mmbi, 27-years-old, is the principal at SPARK Soweto. Photo: Provided
This week’s episode looks at whether the youth is prepared to study science at university level, and investigates a model of maths and science education from a high school in Limpopo that shows South African children can success with the right approach, no matter what the circumstances.
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There have been mixed reactions to a report released this week which suggests that the quality of South Africa’s maths and science education is extremely poor by global standards.
Academics and students at Wits University are split between those that believe there are firm reasons for the poor quality of education and others who reject the report itself, known as the “Global Information Technology Report 2014.”
Released by the World Economic Forum (WEF), the report ranked South Africa’s quality of maths and science education last out of 148 countries including Kenya, Chad, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Lesotho.
Reacting to the report Professor Eunice Mphako-Banda, a mathematics lecturer at Wits, believes that a key problem is the introduction of calculators in maths education. “The biggest problem I see is this introduction of calculators in primary school,” says Mphako-Banda. “You don’t learn anything by using calculators.”
Students must “think and use [their] brain,” said Mphako-Banda.
Professor Gillian Drennan, assistant dean of undergraduate affairs in the faculty of sciences at Wits, agrees that students battle to apply what they have learnt, saying that pupils in high school have been taught “how not to think”.
“We [South Africa] need students who know how to think.”
Dr Gideon Fareo, a computational and applied mathematics (CAM) lecturer, questions the validity and authenticity of the report, claiming that the report is “not a scientific comment … based on scientific deductions.”
Fareo does, however, believe that the results of these findings should not be de-bunked.
“In light of the facilities available in [South Africa], we shouldn’t be having this problem,” stated Fareo. “Why are [countries like] Nigeria and Haiti ahead [of us]?”
Both Mphako-Banda and Fareo believe that the problem lies in the lack of attention paid to primary schools.
“[Government] spends so much money on tertiary education but what about the foundations?” asked Fareo. “[Without basic education], how are [students] supposed to cope in high school and university?”
Mphako-Banda, who hails from Malawi, says she doesn’t “trust this system [of South African education]”, and believes that the “political will,” to improve South Africa’s education is non-existent.
“We are not looking at the standard [of education], [just at] how do we make people pass.”
“This whole system makes me angry,” she says.
Fareo, however, believes that the government “has a good ambition”, but just does not apply its policies well enough.
“I believe we can do better than we are now.”
Inadequately prepared for university
An honours student in CAM, who has asked not to be named, is currently doing her research on matric pass rates for mathematics, dealing with Model C public schools in particular.
Her preliminary results show that pass rates are “quite bad” and believes this is due to “bad teaching facilities and bad teachers”. She also said that she felt under-prepared for her tertiary education.
A PhD student in CAM, who spoke to Wits Vuvuzela on condition of anonymity, believes that maths in high school “has been made a joke”, and students are “inadequately prepared for university”.
He also said that “language is [one of the] main issues” he has to deal with when teaching CAM students, stating that they understand the maths but reading textbooks and notes in English presents a challenge.
Solutions at Wits
Mphako-Banda also believes that students are “very, very unprepared” for tertiary-level education, but adds that Wits has had to offer a two-week pre-university course to registered engineering students, because lecturers “know [the students] are not prepared” to cope with the level of maths and science at the university.
According to Brennan, Wits has received a government grant and specialists will be employed in the faculty of sciences to help students who are struggling with the curriculum.
Brennan believes that the decline in educational standards is “not just a South African problem.”
“The decline in education is a global phenomenon … and at a global level, [we need to] tackle head-on these challenges.”
An exciting new online teaching initiative is taking Wits by storm.
Students can now get help online, with IQMate.com. Third year applied maths student, Houston Muzamhindo created the teaching website.
“Students can watch video tutorials online that are relevant to their courses. They can post questions and get answers,” enthused Zandi Keebine, Computational Applied Maths Masters student. She is one of the students who contributed to the site.
www.IQmates.com is targeted towards any student who is struggling with maths, accounting, physics and engineering.
“We are specifically trying to get first years and undergrads involved as we feel it will be a great help to their studies.”
In fact, “Any person, from any school, in any country can access the website and get help,” said Keebine.
The tutorials are structured according to the syllabus, so it stays relevant and up to date.
The website can also be a useful way for students to get in touch with tutors who could give them extra lessons or one-on-one guidance.
There are group discussions on the site where anyone can contribute by providing useful information.
This space provides a free market of ideas where students get access to various sources.
“Sometimes notes given in class aren’t enough and students need more practice and explanation in order to understand,” said Keebine.
By getting a variety of opinion, students can grasp ideas better and receive information that is more comprehendible.
Gone are the days of having to search Google or YouTube for hours, trying to get answers. Now a quick and easy portal gives students access to help any time of day.
The Science Teaching and Learning Centre’s, Dr Ann Cameron, had been involved in researching innovative education methods and helped to connect students to other lecturers.
Head of Schools for Computational and Applied Maths, Prof Ebrahim Momoniat supports the initiative. He helped the students set up the online teaching tool. There are plans to expand the website to include more subjects from other faculties.
The website IQmates.com is up and running and ready to help. For online tutoring go to www.IQmates.com and sign up.
WITS has taken a huge leap towards improving the teaching of science and technology. The Wits Science Stadium has been created to foster excellence in learning, research and teaching.
The facility will also accommodate school pupils as well as professional practitioners such as researchers, teachers and scientists.
“This structure will bring together schools, science and mathematics teachers, lecturers, students and scholars, to make use of the skills that will be brought together by this building and its facilities,” says Prof. Andrew Crouch, dean of the faculty of science.
The stadium is situated on West Campus on the grounds of the old Charles Skeen Stadium. It is part of a programme that incorporates a world-class laboratory and teaching and tutoring facilities.
It is also the new home for mathematical sciences – incorporating the schools of mathematics, computational and applied mathematics, computer science, statistics and actuarial science, as well as the National Centre of Mathematical Science. It will also include the renewal and alteration of existing science facilities to accommodate and encourage the growth of post-graduate research.
Vusi Sikwambane, fourth year mathematics student, says, “This sounds like a brilliant place. I am going to be one of the first people to use it. I hope it does not get too crowded though.”
The stadium will increase the university’s capacity for science, engineering and technology graduates and researchers, by accommodating as many as 3400 students.
“The students will find their way easier because they will have a precinct with large lecture halls and we can group and teach them according to their interests and abilities and have smaller groups for better quality teaching,” says Crouch.
“I like the idea of allowing high school kids to come to the stadium. It means I can bring my brother when it is done. I hope I can do some of my lab practices there,” says Felicity Brauckman, a third year science student.