Jill Adler
University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa


In this presentation I will discuss part of an ongoing research project with teachers studying a Further Diploma in Education (FDE) in Mathematics Teaching at the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS). The aim of the research is to investigate the relationship between formalised INSET and the quality of teachers’ classroom practices. Its value for MEAS proceedings is that it illuminates the pervasive development-democracy tension in South Africa, particularly as regards the provision and redistribution of educational resources.

In the South African context, educational resources are not only seriously limited, but also differentially distributed. A central educational challenge in South Africa is thus the provisioning and redistribution of human and material resources for learning and teaching in schools. At the start of the 1998 school year, the Sunday Times newspaper (January 18, p.9) interviewed pupils from four different secondary schools. Two pupils from historically advantaged schools described how books were distributed, classes organised and formal work begun on the first or second day. In contrast, pupils from historically disadvantaged black township schools said that at the end of the first week, they were still waiting for textbooks and stationery, and formal classes had barely begun. In the word of one pupil: ‘They blame pupils when we fail but they (government) forget that they fail to give us resources early enough’.

Behind common and prevalent laments on the ‘lack of resources’ across many schools is firstly, the history of inequity in provision in South Africa. There are numerous schools that still do not have basic resources like water and electricity, let alone sufficient classrooms and learning materials. More generally, is the assumption that the quality of learning and teaching in school is related to availability and use of learning resources. Recent studies of ‘effective’ or ‘successful’ schools - schools with good matriculation results (Christie, P. et al, 1997; Naidoo, 1998) have attempted to identify elements of school and classroom practice that could account for their effectiveness or success. The interesting point is that effectiveness does not seem to correlate directly with human and material resources available in the schools. There are rural and/or under-resourced schools that manage to achieve good results. A controversial point is that the practices in some of these schools are not all to be valorised - authoritarianism, narrow, theoretical orientations to scientific knowledge and rote learning were in evidence. What these studies nevertheless confirm is that learning occurs in a range of contexts. Effectiveness is not simply a function of availability of resources.

With a commitment to contributing to the democratisation of education in South Africa, the Wits FDE programme has (among other aspects) paid attention in most of its courses to accessing and using resources. A key question for the research project has thus been what resources teachers recruit into their practices, whether and how these change over time and with what effects. Elsewhere I have argued for an elaborated view of resources (Adler, 1998a, 1998b). In this project, resources include cultural and social resources like language and languaging.

The unit of study in the project is the ‘teacher-in-context’. A purposive sample of 11 primary and secondary math teachers in the FDE programme was drawn from three different resource-based contexts: urban or semi-urban township schools in that have basic resources, and rural and under-resourced schools, some of which have a close supportive relationship with a local education NGO. In the presentation I will draw on cases from these diverse and unequal resource-based contexts in which teachers work to illustrate the argument that, in general, and in relation to resource use in particular, change in classroom practice is always partial. Moreover, it is neither linear, nor uniform, but uneven, personal and contextual. This is in contrast to a great deal of research and development work in teacher education that has tended to homogenise and decontextualise teachers.

Briefly, in secondary schools, textbooks and use of chalkboard remained strong, but incorporated new uses to support elements of learner-centred practice. At the primary level, where knowledge boundaries and legitimators (like the matriculation examination) are more remote, there were more disruptions, greater inclusion of additional material resources and more risk-taking by teachers trying out new ideas with additional resources. The potential effects of these were uneven and sometimes worrying as attention focussed more on form - on the resource itself - than on supporting subject learning. A critical theoretical point to emerge interactively from data analysis dialectical recontextualisation. Simply, resources shape and are shaped by their contexts of use. Resources that are brought into the classroom do not necessarily have educational meanings built into them. Nor do educational meanings shine through them. The meanings of the resources emerge in their use in the context of classroom practices and the subject knowledge being learnt. There is a dialectical interaction between the bringing in of a new resource or using an existing resource in a new way (like the chalkboard) and the shaping of classroom practices. Contrary to taken for granted assumptions, more resources make greater demands on teachers.

The point for discussion at this conference is that it appears that in contexts of greatest need the effects of recontextualisation were most worrying, perhaps exacerbating inequality. There are teachers whose context and/ or personal disposition seriously mitigatea against pedagogic innovations. And so the question: (re)distribution of resources = equity? Elsewhere (Adler, 1998b) I have argued for a reconceptualisation of resources as a verb - where in the context of mathematics teacher education, the resourceful teacher needs to be understood as one acting with resources-in-practice-in-context. More resources is not a quantitative issue, nor a decontextualised panacea for improvement.


Adler, J. (1998a) Resources as a verb: recontextualising resources in and for school mathematics practice. In Proceedings of PME22 (forthcoming)

Adler, J. (1998b) Mixed-mode FDEs and their Effects: a study of the classroom practices of primary and secondary mathematics, science and English language teachers in the University of the Witwatersrand FDE programme. Interim Research Report. University of the Witwatersrand. Johannesburg.

Christie, P., Potterton, M., French, A. et al (1997) School development in South Africa: A research project to investigate strategic interventions for quality improvement in South African schools. Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand.

Naidoo, P (1998) Developing indicators of quality for science education. Paper presented to the Joint Forum on Systemic Educational Reform. Pretoria, FRD. January. Unpublished.