Searching for solutions to Tanzania’s math problem

CIDA grant facilitates UAlberta project to improve training of 430 mathematics teachers in Tanzania, benefiting 13,000 students.

By Bryan Alary

(Edmonton) A team from the University of Alberta will aim to solve Tanzania’s ongoing mathematics problem, where most of the country’s students finish primary school lacking basic math skills.

Researchers from the Faculty of Education received $3.2 million in funding over five years from the Canadian International Development Agency to improve mathematics education and skills among 430 teachers—enhanced training that will ultimately benefit more than 13,000 students.

“After seven years of schooling, some 75 per cent of learners fail the mathematics component of the Tanzanian national examinations,” says Elaine Simmt, principal investigator and professor of mathematics education at the U of A. “There are students who finish school and are unable to do even the most elementary mathematics.”

The problem, Simmt says, stems from the fact that primary education was not compulsory in Tanzania until recently. When that changed in 2002 with the advent of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, a large number of teachers had to be trained—but math was always a challenge, Simmt adds.

“Teaching mathematics has been difficult for these teachers because, as learners themselves, they were not very successful in mathematics,” she says. “This is especially relevant in rural communities where teachers need to develop their own mathematics proficiency and strategies for teaching mathematics.”

Simmt’s previous work with Florence Glanfield, interim chair of the Department of Secondary Education, and Joyce Mgombelo from Brock University, involved studying how universities can work with non-governmental organizations, government, schools and communities to enhance mathematics teaching.

Elaine Simmt

For the CIDA project, the trio—all former classmates during their graduate days at the U of A—will work with John Parkins from the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences and Andrew Binde of the University of Dodoma to enhance the learning of educators who train teachers in the regions of Dodoma, Iringa and Morogoro.

One of their main goals is to improve the number of Tanzanians with graduate degrees in mathematics education. In fact, half the learners involved in the project will receive degrees from the U of A through a combination of hands-on and distance learning, Simmt says.

“This is the Faculty of Education taking its master of education studies into an international context, which is new for us.”

The project team will address training disparities by ensuring local teacher educators are able to improve the mathematics skills of rural teachers. The team will also work with community leaders on understanding statistics and government reporting to enhance decision-making in local schools.

Simmt says the research will not only help improve education in Tanzania, but should also translate to enhanced mathematics skills around the globe.

“We will be learning lessons about how to work and provide support for mathematics teachers and learners in rural and remote communities, and I think there are some lessons for Canadians, too.”