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Academic excellence on-campus and beyond the school gates

| November 7, 2014 | 0 Comments

By Karen Hulme

On 5 November 2013, Roedean School (SA) officially opened the Rene and Fred England Centre for Mathematical Excellence.1

The centre is a further significant step on the road on which Roedean embarked a number of years ago when the school adopted the strategic imperative of pursuing excellence in mathematics education, both internally for the girls and teachers of Roedean, as well as externally in the broader context of mathematics education in the South African community.

Puzzle it out: different learning styles

Remember the infamous Rubik’s Cube? For some, childhood memories of the challenge to be the first to complete the puzzle will be pleasant. For others, frustration will linger painfully. Natalie Meerholz, our junior school deputy head of curriculum, is a mother of two primary school boys, and is a teacher of girls. She is intrigued by the different learning styles that each gender displays.

Meerholz has noted that young boys master the Rubik’s Cube with ease, as opposed to many young girls.

Meerholz says we need to acknowledge that there is a definite gender difference when it comes to the development of spatial perception. In A Framework of Intelligence,2 Robert Kamp defines spatial intelligence (or spatial IQ) as relating to “mental rotation, mirroring, translation, comparing shapes, estimation of angles and relative distances and searching”. In other words, spatial intelligence relates to your ability to recognise objects and shapes, and see how they relate to one another. If you can look at pieces of a puzzle and see how they fit together or look at a Rubik’s Cube and determine how to solve it before you have touched it, you are using spatial IQ.

While women tend to have stronger verbal skills than men, many studies have shown that adult men have an advantage in their ability to imagine complex objects visually and to rotate them mentally.3 The nature and magnitude of these spatial differences may be debated, but what really causes this difference?

Research on gender differences in spatial ability or the ability to perceive the horizontal dimension of objects has not yet reached a satisfying conclusion.4 One explanation put forward is the effect of socialisation, which encourages male children to undertake tasks such as sports, model-building and sciencerelated subjects, all of which enhance spatial abilities.5 According to an article cited on the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) website, entitled ‘Sex ID: spatial ability’,6 testosterone levels in males may also explain gender differences with regards to spatial ability.

Meerholz admits that she might be making generalised statements, but she believes that these mathematical ‘spatial’ skills need to be developed in girls from a tender age. Why not rise to Meerholz’s challenge by increasing girls’ expertise in this area in your own classroom? Encourage them to build more puzzles, play more strategy games (like chess), or play a musical instrument (also theorised to improve spatial IQ) and present them with the challenge of solving the Rubik’s Cube!

Other teaching approaches and methodologies

New approaches in Roedean’s senior school classes include the increasing use of mathematics education support software such as Autograph,7 Geometer’s Sketchpad,8 Geogebra,9 MyMaths10 and Siyavula.11 All these serve to make mathematical concepts come alive in the classroom through technology, assisting the integration of technology in mathematics education. Teachers continually investigate the growing market of educational software to see what is appropriate and what is merely gimmicky. All grades in 2014 have been, or will be, using one of these forms of technology.

Across the school, teachers are exploring modern educational learning methodologies, such as the ‘flipped classroom’, in which learners can collaboratively teach one another new concepts under the guidance of the teacher. Such methods provide quick and efficient feedback to the teacher about learners’ understanding as lessons progress. What joy to see the interaction and comprehension that take place among the girls as they leap up to explain a concept to their classmates! Roedean has also adopted the principle of engaging in whole-school mathematics teachers’ workshops. These are held once a term and provide an opportunity for teachers from Grade 0 to matric to learn about and discuss issues related to mathematics education, rather than simply mathematical content. Teachers work together, planning lessons incorporating the mathematical Habits of Mind12 and the Five Strands of Mathematical Proficiency.13

Extending maths teaching beyond the school gates

An integral aspect of the maths initiative at Roedean is to extend excellence in the teaching of the subject to communities beyond its school gates. Roedean and Wits Maths Connect Secondary (WMCS) (an initiative run by the University of the Witwatersrand School of Education in Johannesburg)14 have been working together over the past few years, developing courses aimed at both improving teacher knowledge of mathematical content in the school curriculum and engaging in the examination of different pedagogies and teaching methodologies. The WMCS project works with a wide variety of state schools from impoverished townships areas around Johannesburg, such as Alexandra and Ivory Park, to suburban schools in the city, in Kensington and Malvern. Two groups of teachers are targeted: those who work with grades 9-10 students beginning their senior school studies (known as TM1 students), as well as those who work with Grade 11 and Grade 12 learners (TM2s), preparing them for tertiary study.

The Rene and Fred England Centre for Mathematical Excellence at Roedean to host pilot Roedean will become the major operational manager of the TM2 course from 2015, and the Rene and Fred England Centre for Mathematical Excellence will be used for this purpose. The WMCS pilot project will be rolled out with eight two-day or three-day workshops held during the course of the year. Roedean has already established relationships with a number of the schools involved in the WMCS project, and will continue to pursue the development of relationships with others. A further plan is to provide training for teachers in an advanced mathematics content programme to grow the subject beyond only well-resourced schools. Teachers from existing partner schools have expressed a substantial interest in both empowering themselves and exposing their learners to new ways of thinking and acquiring new skills.

A resource for the broader community

Roedean is proud of its new centre and is looking forward to becoming a leader in the development of mathematics within the school, and beyond the school gates. When Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s deputy president, officially opened the centre, he declared in his address: “We hope to see emerging from this centre for mathematics excellence some of the best practice methodologies that we can put to use in other places and in different circumstances. In devising the role of this centre, Roedean has made it plain that the South African education system is composed of different parts that are interconnected and interdependent. There is both a need and an opportunity for resources, knowledge and capabilities to be exchanged between the private and public schooling sectors, and between schools and universities. It is particularly gratifying to know that the Rene and Fred England Centre for Mathematics Excellence will benefit not only the teachers and learners of Roedean, but will be a resource for teachers and learners from schools with far less capacity. It is also gratifying to know that it will be a resource for the broader community and that it will bring benefit to society as a whole.

“This centre will not only contribute much to the teaching and learning of mathematics. It will contribute to changing South Africa. For that, I applaud all those involved in giving form to such an extraordinary idea. This centre will change lives.”


1. Says Roedean’s executive principal, Mary Williams: “[Some years ago, Rene Williams] informed me… that she felt it was time to do something for girls as she and her late husband had contributed so much to the education of boys (for example, to St John’s College in Houghton, Johannesburg). She wanted to know about Roedean’s special projects, and I told her about the strategic imperatives across the whole school… amongst which was our aim to enhance the school’s maths capacity. “The late Mr Fred England was an actuary and for Rene, there clearly was a resonance with mathematics. She indicated to me that she would make a generous donation towards our capital development project. Sadly, Rene England died on 2 February 2012 at age 99, and is not with us today to see the result of her generosity and vision, but the portraits of her and Fred England hanging in the foyer are forever a reminder of this remarkable couple.”

2. See, for example: Kamp, R. (2014) “A framework for human intelligence.” Available at: HumanIntelligence.pdf. See also: html and

3. Wolpert, S. (2008) “Psychologists report that a gender gap in spatial skills starts in infancy.” Available at: a-gender-72612.

4. See, for example: Bayram, H. (2009) “On the development and measurement of spatial ability.” Available at:

5. See, for example: University of California – Los Angeles (2008) “Gender gap in spatial skills starts in infancy, psychologists report.” Available at:

6. See, for example: spatial_tests.shtml.

7. See:

8. See:

9. See:

10. See:

11. See:

12. See, for example: Cuoco, A.L., Goldenberg, E.P. and Mark, J. (1996) “Habits of mind: an organizing principle for mathematics curricula.” Available at: Mind.pdf.

13. See, for example:

14. See, for example:

Category: Featured Articles, Summer 2014

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