Posted on April 6, 2010 · Posted in SF Fellow

AMESA is the Association for Mathematics Education of South Africa, making mathematics the only school subject for which there is a national association in South Africa. I think that educators in all subject areas should have a national body that organises an annual conference to help drive their subject area as well as the professional development of educators.

I was invited to participate on a panel at the AMESA Congress this year on a panel on professional development. One of my colleagues, upon hearing this, immediately said to me “What do you know about that?”. Formally, nothing. Given the Siyavula roll-out plan, my time with the community facilitators, the research the Foundation did into teaching teachers and my time working on a big physics experiment I thought I could find something to contribute.

I went to talk about a less formal approach to professional development; more a process and environment that ensures that professional development is happening continuously rather than a paper chase for formal qualifications. A process built on things that you already know, that have already proven themselves and that harnesses the latent knowledge and experience of teachers in the field (at the chalk-face if you like). A process that will also create a sense of belonging and inclusion.


Education is evolving continuously, perhaps slowly, but continuously. Need for change is becoming more urgent all the time, especially with South Africa wanting to migrate to a knowledge-based economy which will require entirely different skills from a resource-based economy.

Needs, methodologies, resources and tools are all changing as well as the circumstances in which they need to be applied. This is further complicated by the fact that a variety of circumstances need to be addressed, often simultaneously.

Not to forget the fact that at the moment, in South Africa, we are struggling to address basic numeracy and literacy needs, irrespective of your preferred economy! Taking this into account and the fact that the perfect education system is something many more developed countries are still in search of, makes a lot of educators feel like nobody has the answer and that little progress is being made.


Modern science has many of the same challenges:

  • constantly shifting goals,
  • constantly changing methodologies, and
  • no knowledge of final solution.

Yet progress is made continuously despite these obstacles – impressive and often astounding progress – everything from expanding our understanding of fundamental particles to the devices you have in your pockets that connect wirelessly through 3G, bluetooth, wifi, and more with GPS’s, cameras and radios.

How is this achieved?

All participants work tirelessly towards the goal without a well defined roadmap but rather a well-defined process of layered peer-review, continuously doing their best, testing the results and comparing methodologies etc., providing each other with constraints, ideas and challenges to continuously make progress.

In science the critical assessment of ideas is conducted in ever expanding circles of review – first local groups or departments – then workshops – then local conferences – then international conferences and then international peer-reviewed journals. It is important to not that the the informal peer review, which takes place long before formal journals, results in significant benefit and progress through critical assessment.


Professional organisations/people continuously assess how effective they are at their core duties, continuously adapting their methodologies to be better, faster, more effective, more efficient, and more sensitive to the ever changing needs of their clients and the broader environment in which they work.

This typically happens through continuous review at all levels, personal review with a sense of personal accountability, local peer-review within their current group, department etc., institutional peer-review within their broader organisation, national peer-review at local conferences and international or global peer-review at international conferences. Then, of course, we also have peer-reviewed journals.

The many layers of review also ensure that information flows globally as well.

Groups that are effective at defining their purpose, sharing effectively and creating a communal knowledge-base of resources, ideas, methodologies and technologies are called communities of practice (COP). Scientists and other professionals typically form many layers of communities of practice.

Communities of Practice

We need to create an enabling environment for educators to form the same layered structures of communities of practice. AMESA has got half of the problem solved, they have a national congress, and have chapters in each province. What would take things to the next level would be many small grass-roots communities of practice that are affiliated with the provincial structures.

If teachers come together in an environment of trust they would be able to discuss what works and share ideas, if they consider the environment informal with no punitive measures for performance, then they can also share what doesn’t work, what they don’t understand and be more transparent about their weaknesses. This is essential if these weaknesses are to be addressed effectively, or at all.

In the current environment a lot of trust is lacking with things like classroom observation being hated because they can lead to punitive measures against under-performing teachers. It is precisely this information that needs to be shared so that we can support those teachers to overcome their weaknesses. This sort of trust is typical of a true community. The environment where teachers can receive in-classroom review, without fear, needs to be created from the policy side, or done informally by the teaching body themselves.

There really is no need to make a case for communities of practice as the benefits are well documented in many peer-reviewed journals across many disciplines. What is important to emphasise is the voluntary nature of the communities and that it is impossible to enforce their formation.

Seeds for Communities of Practice

In my work to support teachers and curriculum advisors to be more effective, I adopt an approach that focuses on the use of Open Educational Resources (OERs), which immediately allows for the re-packaging, contextualisation and improvement of educational resources, by communities of practice, which supports load-sharing, professional development, empowerment and the development of a sense of belonging for the participants.

To do this effectively we need to support the communities in ways that are reinforcing and this is done by providing a suite of complementary projects that support the essence of the full teaching value chain:

Wrapping communities of practice around an open, collaborative approach to sharing content, knowledge, ideas, techniques and challenges will have benefits for all the participants and provide opportunities for development. Using technology appropriately will allow processes and communities of practice to co-exist at many levels. For example, teachers could participate in the local community of practice for their geographical area, as well as a provincial community of practice and then also a national one.

The bottom-line is that participation in a community of practice is an incredibly powerful driver for continuous professional development.

About the Author

Mark Horner is the CEO of Siyavula Education, a social enterprise working in the school sector in South Africa. While working as the Shuttleworth Foundation Fellow for Open and Collaborative Resources, Mark was able to transform the Free High School Science Texts (FHSST) project, which he co-founded, into Siyavula Education. In this process, openly-licensed, collaboratively authored textbooks have been printed and distributed nationally in South Africa. Working at the intersection of community, openness and technology; Mark intends to leverage this success to make Siyavula an innovative, technology provider in education that works effectively as part of the education community to ensure better learning opportunities for all. A recent notable event being the delivery of Siyavula's textbooks over Mxit, the most popular mobile chat solution in South Africa. Mark has a PhD in physics from the University of Cape Town and conducted his research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California on the results from the STAR experiment at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. His work is carried out in the belief that the liberation of information and support of education in South Africa will lead to a peaceful and prosperous future for all South Africans.