Pioneering maths educator to receive NMMU’s first Chancellor’s Medal

APRIL 4, 2016

Mathematics educator Sharanjeet Shan – the recipient of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s inaugural Chancellor’s Medal – says her role as a “disruptive educational social entrepreneur” is necessary if South Africa is to advance its citizenry via education.

She believes that there is still insufficient urgency to meet the education crisis that faces the country, regardless of the numerous development debates that constantly take place.

A staunch Paulo Freirian (a teaching pedagogy in which learners are viewed as co-creators of knowledge, and not empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge by teachers), Shan believes in promoting transformative education in a system that she sees as being framed by “conforming, informing and deforming education delivery”.

In recognition of her contribution to pioneering work in Mathematics Education in South Africa, and for tirelessly championing poor and marginalised communities, she will receive the Chancellor’s Medal in the discipline of Mathematics Education during one of NMMU’s graduation ceremonies, on April 13.

Shan was born and brought up in a deeply patriarchal Sikh society in the Punjab, India. At an early age, she registered to study medicine at Delhi University but, after falling in love with a student of another religion, her family arranged for her to be immediately married to a Sikh man in Britain.

After her “deportation” to the United Kingdom, she completed a basic qualification in mathematics education, followed by an Open University course in developing mathematical thinking. Her interest in the role of pseudoscience in the enactment of slavery and colonialism then led her to complete a Master’s degree in Social Science.

During her married life, she was subjected to physical and mental abuse by her arranged husband, which only ceased when he died from diabetes. Soon thereafter, at the age of 39, she assumed a new name (the one she has now) and wrote an autobiography In My Own Name, which was published byThe Women’s Press in 1985 and used as a school text in the United Kingdom for many years. On publication she was declared a pariah in Sikh communities, both in England and India.

While at a Mathematics Education conference in South Africa in 1995, she was encouraged to apply for the position of Director of the Maths Centre for Professional Teachers – at that stage a small project based in Johannesburg. On being offered the position she made a brief tour of the country and, as she believed she could make a difference, she accepted.

In the 1990s, there were few exciting and interesting books on teaching mathematics that involved primary school children in problem solving. Shan used her nights and weekends to produce Grades 1 to 6 teacher and learner text books as a contribution to the transformation of mathematics education in the country.

As these books generated revenue in excess of R30 million, sufficient income became available to Maths Centre satellite units in the North-West province, Mpumalanga, the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo. The opening of the Maths Centre in King William’s Town proved to be the catalyst for shared activities with the then University of Port Elizabeth’s Department of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education (SMATE).

A window of funding opportunity offered by the Business Trust and the Zenex Foundation in 2000 enabled the Maths Centre, in partnership with NMMU, to facilitate accredited programmes for thousands of teachers around South Africa. The programmes offered were the Advanced Certificate in Education (ACE) in Mathematical Literacy, the ACE in Language in Learning and Teaching, and the Bachelor’s degree in Science, Mathematics and Technology Education. Through this process, more than 2000 advanced certificates and bachelor degrees were awarded by the University of Port Elizabeth and then NMMU.

Shan says this was a “most brilliant” partnership model and that it is still relevant and scalable today.