Change the world



This speech was delivered by maths education specialist, Sharanjeet Shan, on the occasion of being awarded NMMU's first ever Chancellor's Medal. This new award has been introduced in recognitioon of individuals who make a substantial contribution to both academic scholarship and society nationally. 

Magic of maths and science can bring about transformative education moving us closer to closing the skills gap in South Africa

I stand before you absolutely humbled by this award in the 50th year of my work life, firstly on my own behalf – as the song says: If my friends could see me now. In the absence of a family, friends were family, chosen and appreciated.

Here's to them!

When I left England in 1995 to come to SA, I was studying for Ph.D with Dr. Leoni Burton.  She remained angry with me till her last moments for choosing this work over a Ph.D. Perhaps as per Quantum Physics,  all our atoms exchange regularly, if she could see me now she would be proud. Here is a salute to her.

Saluations to my NMMU colleagues – Prof. Webb, Dr. Webb, Hugh Glover, Geoff Illsley and Viv England who were my best mentors ever, held my hands for 9 years and made me believe that a tiny NGO can organise university courses, spread great learning.

Most importantly on behalf of my staff without whose unstinting faith in me, putting up with me in some utterly crazy moments when I had to meet donor requirements (colouring between the bloody lines as I often call it)  and the work they have done, the journey they have travelled with me – Melanie, Pedro and Martie are here today; donors who believe in us, how the name became synonym with quality and trust to impact, teachers who participate and learners who engage to shape their own destiny free of enslavement of a conformist system of education. They will be so proud. A flyer with a photo will be sent to as many in the data base as I can find.

And lastly my very own learner, my grand-daughter whose smiles and hugs inspire me daily to keep me going, never losing faith and hope.

For Maths Centre to receive such an award gives my staff an incredible pride, gives us a huge opportunity to market our model to many different role players throughout the country including all departments of education.

For the general public and those struggling to set up an NGO, I believe that if the story reaches the media, everyone can see why social entrepreneurs are disrupters of a kind, big time dreamers. Their life story is woven into their dream even when there may be deep tears in the fabric of their journey the dreamers believe in their cause to a level of madness. At the Maths Centre, this commitment pushes us towards truly transformative solutions for all our learners and not just the privileged few. The massive skills gap can be reduced through integrated Maths, Science, Technology solutions woven into entrepreneurship education in the very heart of the school curriculum every classroom moment of every day. I am hoping that this wonderful, so very prestigious award will give us an opportunity to reach many more learners and teachers.

My belief that all children should have access to equal education in STEM subjects and my absolute hatred of inequalities has pushed me all my life to wake up and chink the mountain.  Learners are not valued and honoured by our country, our universities, our TVET colleges and other higher education places. The massive skills gap in South Africa can be reduced only through integrated Maths, Science, Technology solutions woven into entrepreneurship education in the very heart of the school curriculum in every classroom moment of every day. This very special award will be used to spread the word. Somewhere I read:  Awards are bound to inspire participants into a journey that fathoms the nature of man in unseen details and explores the subtleties of our daily lives, to capture unique and outstanding moments in time.

Maths Centre draws all role players into our advocacy campaigns, an experience inclusive of all communities for our learners and their potential journey and not just the push towards university education. Mathematics, a tough discipline, does not come easy to anyone. But if we engage with this discipline with love, respect and honour for the subject and the children it becomes a world of opportunities for our 21st century learners. Last year a hearing impaired learner showed me how he was determined to become an actuarial scientist, another who has learnt welding on crutches is studying engineering.

I am hoping that the award will help the department to resuscitate our relationship with NMMU. From 2000 – 2009, Maths Centre worked with NMMU and added over 1200 qualified teachers to the national pool.  Were it not for funding constraints, a ball and chain story, Maths Centre and NMMU partnership has the capacity to go to scale. Unfortunately, despite proving solid returns on investment, it takes a lot of time and energy to convince partners to invest in us. I have been a professional beggar all my life – the title CEO is just a cover up. Perhaps the University would set up an outreach project again. I was sad to see SMATE go.

In the middle of the chaos of societal issues erupting like volcanoes, diluted, anachronistic learning for future potential and usage, children’s rights are being trampled upon every day.  Transformation in education, a very fashionable and politically correct word can hide informing, conforming, or even deforming education.

Talk of an education crisis in Africa is not unreasonable. The opportunities for progress presented by young populations seem less plausible when contrasted to the reality that large numbers of students are leaving schools without the necessary knowledge and skills to enter the global economy. Anticipated improvements in education over the last 21 years have failed to materialise, compounded by socio-economic, legislative and infrastructural challenges. Today's youth have to address a multitude of other socio-economic predicaments. The question should be whether current approaches to STEM subjects simply pass on what we already know, or actually equip and empower students to find solutions to the bigger problems.

While higher order abilities like critical thinking and problem solving are difficult to pin down and measure, their presence or absence will translate into tangible effects. Corporates and governments alike are looking to schools, colleges and universities for the next generation of innovators and leaders. Creating them will require transformative approaches to teaching maths and science which move beyond simply transferring the curriculum from textbooks into children's minds. The Numbers are horrific. 7 million plus young people, either unemployed or on “going nowhere” employment or worse still unemployable.

Maths Centre has impacted on at least a million learners over the past 20 years. While mathematical and scientific understanding are still essential outcomes of the education process, significant opportunities will be lost if these vital subjects are not taught in a manner that develops the ability to generate solutions to the complex problems faced in local communities and beyond, along with the belief that students are capable of doing so. Our transformative approach has seen 100s of children gain up to 60% improvement in their final pass mark in one year given appropriate support and resources.

Growing young populations in Africa should be a source of optimism, but benefits can only be realised if students and the teachers responsible for their development are taught how to think beyond what we already know. What we already know is not enough to solve the problems we already have.     

Only Transformative Education can make a dent in the mountain of loss of human potential. Einstein said humans do not use even 10% of their brain - here is a different take on 10%, a challenge to NMMU and all universities. Can you imagine how closer we would be to closing the skills gap if just 10% more learners were to realise their full potential in entrepreneurial, engineering, ICT, and artisanal skills.  Can you imagine the state of our nation if that was to happen? Energy of the youth can equal the energy of gravity, light, water, fire. Let us harness just 10% of that energy and make that energy work for all us now and for all our tomorrows.

I thank you.         

Contact information
Mrs Debbie Derry
Deputy Director: Communication
Tel: 041 504 3057