Childhood Education

In South Africa, we need people who can grow the economy and create employment for others: people who start and manage businesses, design and build infrastructure and factories, provide healthcare and come up with innovative products.

To do that, these people need to deeply absorb concepts in language, maths and science at a young age. Which means that their primary school teachers need to teach them well.

However, research into the maths skills of young people studying to become teachers in South Africa reveal two disturbing gaps. Firstly, many have completely inadequate maths skills themselves. Secondly, they generally are not aware of how maths, language and science concepts are learnt by young children. As a result, many teachers are woefully unprepared to guide their school learners towards the required language, maths and science literacy.

Head of Institute

Prof Elizabeth Henning

Professor Elizabeth Henning

  • South Africa Research Chair: Integrated Studies of Learning
  • Language, Science and Mathematics in the Primary School
  • Soweto Campus, University of Johannesburg.
  • Editor: South African Journal of Childhood Education (SAJCE)

Director, Centre for Education Practice Research (CEPR), Soweto Campus, University of Johannesburg.South Africa Research Chair (SARChI): Integrated Studies of Learning Language, Science and Mathematics in the Primary School.

Professor Henning is professor of Educational Linguistics and the founding director of the CEPR on the Soweto campus of the University of Johannesburg. She was awarded a Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship by the National Academy of Education in the USA for her research on teacher development in informal settlement communities in Gauteng in the 1990’s She is a Fellow of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and is a B-rated researcher in the National Research Foundation (NRF) system of researcher evaluation in South Africa. She leads studies of teacher education programmes and mathematical cognition of children in the early grades well as reading as learning of children in the upper primary school. She is the founding editor of the journal, Education as Change, and the current editor of the South African Journal of Childhood Education. She was awarded a South Africa Research Chair by the National Research Foundation and the Department of Science and Technology in 2015.

What If?


All children are born ready to learn…but what happens next?

From the time of conception to the first day in Grade 1, development happens at a pace exceeding that of any subsequent stage of life. Are we tapping into this unique phase of child development? Do we really understand how much these early years matter in the larger scheme of lifelong learning – specifically how their experiences in these years prepare them for the life of learning in school?

What do we know about learning in school as children transition from home to the classroom? How do children engage with their peers and teachers when they learn to learn. What do South African educationists address the challenges young children face?

These are some of the questions we ask when we consider that over one million children are born in South Africa each year (Stats SA, 2015) and if economic growth continues to expand at the current rate, and fertility rates continue to drop, the local population will grow from  50,6 million to 58,5 million by 2030. Children born in 2017 will enter high school by then. We need to prepare them and to do that, we need to know much more about their developing minds, their social and emotional adaptation to early 21st century life, and how best we can prepare them in the primary school, when they are learning to live in the knowledge society.

The primary school as meeting place of young minds

All over the world governments recognise  early learning and development as a  political priority; at the University of Johannesburg’s Department of Childhood Education  and the Centre for Education Practice Research(CEPR) on the university’s Soweto campus are at the forefront of changing the educational landscape for early school learning and for the teachers of young children. In this research centre, the South Africa Research Chair of the National Research Foundation has the specific brief of researching children’s reading and writing of science and mathematics in English. The Department of Childhood Education has the brief of educating a new generation of primary school teachers as enablers of learning for young children, most of whom learn through the medium of English as a second or third language in the upper primary school.

Through key research projects, international collaboration and ongoing development of ground-breaking programmes in teacher education, UJ is making a significant impact in the field of childhood education. This is especially evidenced by the founding of the Funda UJabule Primary School on the university’s Soweto campus. As the first of its kind in South Africa, this school serves as a teacher education model endorsed by the Department of Higher Education and Training. Known as a ‘teaching school,’ populated by children from Soweto, student teachers learn the profession by observing mentor teachers and by  practicing teaching in isiZulu, Sesotho and English over four years. This public school is also a research laboratory where pilot studies are conducted.

Children’s future imagined

UJ is imagining a brighter future for the children of not only Soweto, but for children on the sub-continent of Africa, developing research- and teacher education models suited to the realities of our time and place. Students form the SADC region study in the postgraduate programmes in Childhood Education and bring richness from Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi to. With them, our collaborators at the University of Helsinki, Harvard University and the University of Duisburg-Essen bring richness of experience and in the production of new knowledge, while asking, with us, “what if?” For instance, “what if we can find out why so few children understand mathematics conceptually?” Or, “why do some teachers adhere to ‘curriculum coverage’ more than to child learning?”

What if we could intervene successfully in children’s’ (and teachers’) lives and increase the odds of favourable development outcomes where it matters most? What if we could develop programmes that incorporate options based on children’s’ interest and motivate them in new ways? What if we could take cognisance of the fact that each individual is unique and that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ education system is not ideal. What if we can infuse high tech with low tech in custom-designed programmes?

What if children can develop language, science, technology and engineering skills by examining the natural world around them? What if we could go back to basics and utilise what is given to us by nature to teach our children? What if we can design learning to help children cross the bridge from the natural world to AI (and beyond)? What if we can create safe spaces where social media can be harnessed to children’s advantage as young critical thinkers who can judge well? What if we can improve young children’s wellbeing?

Teachers and parent community

Along with that – what if we can draw parents into school communities to work along with teachers to share care.  What if teachers across the different school subjects can all work together, and not in silos, combining resources, knowledge and expertise to create learning experiences that connect traditional subject disciplines. Is it far fetched to think that a mathematics lesson can by a lesson in the grammar of a language and that a history lesson can explore physics phenomena and vocabulary?  What if we could teach our students, parents, caregivers and teachers how children think, how they operate and how they use language to respond to mathematical and scientific concepts?

What if we could bridge the gap between teaching in a home language and teaching in a non-familiar language? How can we ensure children make the connection conceptually in order to understanding the subject?

What if we can provide all our children with a safe, healthy and stimulating environment in which they can learn and grow? What if we could create and maintain early childhood stimulation programmes that will enable our country’s future generations to have a real impact on our economy for the better?

Just imagine a place in time where all children have equal opportunities to learn to learn successfully in the primary school? What if we can attract top young minds to be their teachers? What if Soweto can grow from an education hub on the UJ campus to a whole  community hub? It is happening.