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Perceptions of the notion of mathematical literacy as a competence and as a subject.

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Given the controversy surrounding the theoretical concept of mathematical literacy within mathematics education community around the world and, in particular, its introduction as a new subject of study in the South Africa’s FET curriculum as part of a social transformation process, it seemed necessary and appropriate that a study of this nature had to be undertaken. Thus the study explored perceptions of the notion of ‘mathematical literacy’ as a competence and as a subject of study. It focused on a group of first-year in-service teachers who were part-time students in the faculty of education at Edgewood Campus in the University of KwaZulu-Natal, as well as the documentary analysis of some of the South African curriculum policy documents. The guiding research questions for this study were: (a) what understandings or notions of mathematical literacy are evident in the South African curriculum documents? (b) What are mathematics educators’ perceptions of the competencies of a mathematically literate person? (c) What are their perceptions of, beliefs and views, and initial experiences about mathematical literacy as a subject of study? (d) How do these perceptions and/or understandings play out in the implementation of the new Mathematical Literacy curriculum? In an attempt to answer these questions, I began by, first, exploring the wider theoretical perspectives (both locally and internationally) in extant literature within the domain of mathematics education, and which underpins the debate about mathematical literacy and its related terms as well as informing the recent curriculum change, particularly in South Africa. In the process I discussed the different connotations that were used to describe mathematical literacy and its related terms, as well as the arguments in favour of and against its introduction as a subject of study. Secondly, I explored teachers’ understandings of the concept of mathematical literacy both as a competence and as a subject of study in relation to the NCS documents, as well as the problems associated with its implementation and the importance of understanding the interplay between content and context used for its development. It is argued, however, that re-framing of ‘mathematical literacy’ as a subject of study rather than a competence proves to be problematic in terms of the distinction that could be drawn between epistemology and pedagogy. Finally I have discussed the implications which the findings of this study have for policy and practice, and for further research. Data on the understandings and teachers’ perceptions about mathematical literacy as a competence and a subject of study were obtained using both qualitative and quantitative styles of research as a mixed-mode approach. The major findings of this study are that (1) teachers generally perceived mathematical literacy as a subject of study (2) the South African curriculum documents portray ML as a subject, and therefore framed as such; (3) teachers generally consider a person mathematically literate if that person could do basic arithmetical calculations in everyday life (4) from the international perspective, there are variations on the interpretation of ML, and finally (5) the study has revealed that teachers had difficulties pertaining to their own pedagogical content knowledge of the new subject. Based on these findings it can be concluded that there is need for a sustained monitoring of the implementation process, reviewing of policy documents, and professional development of teachers involved with the teaching of mathematical literacy.


Thesis (M.Ed.)-University of Kwazulu-Natal, 2007.


Mathematics--Study and teaching--South Africa., Theses--Education.