Going the extra mile for mathematics education

Three educators from Tanzania are earning PhDs at UAlberta—and learning lessons that will improve math education in their country.


(Edmonton) There are 14,052 kilometres between the University of Alberta and the University of Dodoma—or, in a truly Canadian way to calculate distance, 18-plus hours of air travel. It’s a long way to Tanzania. But an innovative project in the U of A’s Faculty of Education is going the extra mile to bring the two university communities closer together.

The project, named “Hisabati ni Maisha” (Swahili for “Mathematics Is Life”) was started in 2012 by the Department of Secondary Education in partnership with Brock University and the University of Dodoma to improve mathematics education for students and teachers in Tanzania. As part of the project, three mathematics educators from Tanzania are in Edmonton to complete their PhDs at the U of A.

Ratera Mayar, Emmanuel Deogratias and Calvin Swai were already well acquainted through their work as instructors at the University of Dodoma (Deogratias and Swai), and mathematics curriculum developer (Mayar) at the Tanzania Institute of Education. After hearing about the project through academic connections, they decided to embark on a new adventure that would take them to the other side of the world, and back to school.

The project is focused on educating math educators in Tanzania, and these participants are key to improving local expertise in the long term. Education professors Elaine Simmt and Florence Glanfield, along with their colleagues Joyce Mgombelo (Brock University) and Andrew Binde (University of Dodoma), have designed and conducted workshops with teacher educators, school inspectors, education officers and math teachers in Tanzania over the past two years; the next phase of the project is to reach out to remote communities to build local capacity.

The students will do coursework and write dissertations that will focus on the big picture of education in Tanzania: What is education in Tanzania all about? What professional development can they provide to mathematics teachers there? How can they build capacity for mathematics teachers in education?

“The University of Alberta is one of the best universities in the world,” Swai notes. “It has a vibrant intellectual atmosphere, excellent teaching and learning facilities, and experienced and distinguished teaching faculty and supporting staff. It has students from different countries with diverse experiences. We are learning about education all over the world. I feel I am in the right place for graduate studies.”

Looking at education from different perspectives

“Coming here, having access to all the knowledge here, has been very valuable,” said Deogratias, who shared a story about how analyzing an Alberta high-school math textbook helped him gain insight into a new approach to mathematics education. “I noticed that the equations allowed students to explore the question; they were trying to allow for multiple responses to a question. That is good; it is more applicable to real life when students can look at a problem in different ways.”

As teacher educators in Tanzania, the three will return with new tools to share with their students. “When I go back to my position teaching at the University of Dodoma, I will have different perspectives to share with my colleagues and students,” remarked Deogratias. “I am learning different ways of teaching and assessing. Instead of just lecturing, we can teach mathematics using stories, games, songs and poems.”

Mayar, who will return to her position at the Institute of Education after earning her degree, says she is looking forward to sharing her experiences and insights with her colleagues. She will also be training mathematics teachers through capacity-building workshops incorporating the different perspectives she gained in Alberta. She notes that the chance to come to Alberta is very helpful to her, and to her country in general, for improving mathematics teaching and learning.

The PhD students consider themselves lucky to have been chosen for the project, despite the weather in Edmonton. “The first day we were here, it was 25 degrees in Tanzania and it was only 10 degrees here,” said Deogratias. “It was cold! I thought, how will I survive in -40? But you know, a few weeks ago it was -27 and I was surviving, so I am pretty happy.”

Mayar, with her mathematical mind, was pleasantly surprised by the municipal infrastructure of Edmonton. “I really like how the city is designed. It is organized so well, it is easy to know how to get places when you are a newcomer. It is also very nice to know that when the bus is supposed to come, it comes!”

Swai said he appreciates the diversity he has experienced, both on campus and in Canada. “The multiculturalism is very helpful—we are learning from so many different countries. We know people who are from China, from Brazil, from Ghana, from everywhere. We are always learning, on the LRT, even in the mall, not just at the education faculty.”