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Erin McGuigan Kim Rygas Catherine Turner Dr. Jean Mistele

Radford University

A group of pre-service teachers and faculty from Radford University (RU) traveled to Malawi, Africa. During their time in a rural, impoverished Malawian primary school, the pre-service teachers used the framework of noticing (Goodwin, 1994) to conduct their mathematics education research in several different grades. Each pre-service teacher's research was focused on a different theme using the noticing framework; discourse, manipulatives, and struggling students. In this presentation, we share out general observations about the school and some of the findings from our research topics when we share out experiences.


Malemia Primary School in Zomba, Malawi includes grades, called standards, one through eight. The school is located in a rural, impoverished village just outside Zomba located in the far southern part of Malawi on the eastern side. We learned that in Standard Four, teachers were required to teach all subjects in English and devote some time to teaching students their native language, Chichewa. However, we noticed the teachers in the upper standards continued teaching most of the subjects in Chichewa rather than English. In Malawi, there is no social promotion. Students must pass a test at the end of each school year to advance to the next standard. The limited use of English in the higher standards hinders the Standard Eight students when they take their year-end exams in order to advance to secondary school. We learned that none of the Standard Eight Malemia Primary School students passed the year end exam for the 2016-2017 school year.

Initially, the American pre-service teachers noticed that students were given frequent breaks to play outside. They noticed a lack of behavior issues requiring management strategies. Attendance in each standard varies from day to day due to children's responsibilities to help their families on market days or within their homes.


The American pre-service teachers noticed a few teaching challenges during their time in the school: language, limited amount of school materials, limited number of certified teachers, and access to school could be sporadic. There were language challenges for the Malawi students and teachers in the higher standards as the teachers struggled to teach in English and the students struggled to learn in English. The American pre-service teachers experienced challenges at times speaking with the Malawi teachers due to their dialect, their use of colonial terms, and their limited fluency with English. The greater challenge existed between the American pre-service teachers and the Malawi students because the younger students did not know English, the older students struggled with Basic English, and the American pre-service teachers did not know Chichewa.

A lack of classroom materials was a challenge. In particular, many students lacked writing paper and a pen or pencil to engage in classroom activities. Since we focused on mathematics teaching, this challenge impacts mathematics learning since doing mathematics promotes learning. In addition, the Malawi teachers lacked tools to support their mathematics teacher, which promoted traditional lecture practices that was noted in one of the American pre-service teacher's research projects focused on discourse. The discourse in the classroom was predominately vertical, from the teacher to the students. Another American teacher's project focused on manipulative use and she found some Malawi teachers were innovative. They used rocks, dirt, sticks, bottle caps, and other items they found in the environment to use as mathematics manipulatives to enhance conceptual understanding.

A major challenge for student learning was an insufficient number of certified teachers. Standard Six and one of the Standard Three classrooms had two Malawi pre-service teachers. Other classrooms, such as the second Standard Three classroom, were taught by two Malawi certified teachers. Other classrooms had one Malawi certified teacher and one Malawi pre-service teacher. Overall, we found each classroom had two Malawi teachers. This is due to the potential for a large number of students in the classroom. It was common to have over 100 children in Standards One and Two. The higher standards would have 30 or more students. On the other hand, it was interesting that the two did not team teach. They alternated teaching the different courses during the day. For example, one teacher would teach math, technology, and science, and the other would teach English, Chichewa, Bibile, and history.

Access to learning could be sporadic due to nation-wide teacher strikes. Such a strike ended the day before our arrival. Likewise, school would be cancelled for nation-wide professional development mandated by the government. In addition, teaching would be interrupted if one of the Malawi pre-service teachers were being evaluated that day.


Each American pre-service teacher focused on a different perspective while using the noticing framework when observing a mathematics classroom. The perspectives included: types of manipulatives used, cultural and developmental responsive teaching, discourse in the classroom, and struggling mathematics learners. In this presentation, we focused on the overarching theme that emerged from all of the observational data and some of the American pre-service teachers' individual projects as cited above. Overall, we found that manipulative use may be the largest impact to promote Malawi student learning. In all of the classrooms in which the teachers used a manipualtive, it appeared the students more easily grasped the mathematical concepts when compared to the classrooms that did not use manipulatives. For example, one of the American student's projects focused on manipulative use. She noticed that students easily grasped the concept of patterns in a Standard Two class when the teacher had them take off their shoes and create different patterns with them. This same teacher used a homemade abacus constructed of a wire hanger and bottle caps to help her students conceptually understand addition and subtraction.


This was an informative presentation. The American pre-service teachers shared their experiences working with children in a rural Malawian school and some of their research based on the noticing framework. These experiences allowed RU pre-service teachers to embrace a global perspective in mathematics education and education in general.


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Virginia Council of Teachers of Mathematics
PO Box 73593
Richmond, VA 23235 

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