Activist Jill Adler on top of the maths heap
She was recently elected as the first African president of the International Commission of Mathematics Instruction (ICMI) for a four-year term and was awarded the commission’s Hans Freudenthal Medal. The ICMI, devoted to mathematics education on all levels in most countries, works in collaboration with international bodies, including Unesco. It is actively involved in several major worldwide projects
The ICMI awards medals, of which Adler was a recipient, for outstanding achievement in mathematics education research in the form of a major cumulative research programme. It is named after Hans Freudenthal (September 17, 1905 – October 13, 1990) who was a German-born Dutch mathematician.
This was, in Adler’s words, “the recognition of my quality of research on the teaching of mathematics in a multilingual classroom and research into maths teacher education.”
Adler is reticent to talk about her achievements. In keeping with her academic image, she would only venture “that I was good at maths from an early age”.
She has a long and distinguished academic career, which was endangered in 1986 when, as part of her anti-apartheid activism, she refused to teach on June 16 at the Johannesburg College of Education on the 10th anniversary of the Soweto riots, in sympathy with a United Democratic Front call for a stayaway.
The Transvaal Education Department (at the time) convened a commission of inquiry to consider charges against her, namely that she and seven others absented themselves from their posts without valid cause and disobeyed a lawful order to report for service on that day.
In her defence she said: “I regard June 16 as a day of particular symbolic importance. It represents the disruption and inequality of schooling in South Africa… I mourned for the children who died and continue to die in South Arica.”
She was found guilty on the first charge and cautioned.
Adler began her teaching career in the 1970s after obtaining a BSc in mathematics and psychology and a secondary teachers’ diploma.
She became a fulltime academic after receiving an M Ed in 1985. Her ground-breaking thesis was: “Mathematics by newspaper in South Africa: Junior secondary mathematics for adults through the medium of a newspaper”.
Her 1996 doctoral thesis formed the basis of her work and teaching over the next period – “Secondary teachers’ knowledge of the dynamics of teaching and learning mathematics in multilingual classrooms”.
She now holds the SARChI Chair of Mathematics Education at the University of the Witwatersrand and is also visiting professor of mathematics education at Kings College, London.
She told SA Jewish Report that her election as ICMI president and getting the medal were two of three recent defining moments in her life.
The third was a book dedicated to her and the role she played in growing maths education research in South Africa. “Mathematics education in a context of inequity, poverty and language diversity” was launched last year by colleagues and students, edited by Mamokgethi Phakeng and Stephen Lerman and published by Springer in Switzerland.
Adler is described in the foreword as “a grande dame” of the field of mathematics education “and a model for all of us”.
In their introduction, the editors pay tribute to “the remarkable career of Jill Adler and the role she has played in growing mathematics education research in South Africa, Africa and beyond.
“Her work epitomises what is referred to as the ‘engaged scholar’ – doing rigorous and theoretically rich research at the cutting edge of international work in the field which at the same time contributes to critical areas of local and regional need in education.”
Adler was the first educational researcher to be awarded an “A” rating from the National Research Foundation of South Africa, recognition usually reserved for scientists.
She has been married to anti-apartheid activist Taffy Adler for close on 40 years. They have a son and daughter and two grandchildren, all living in Johannesburg.
“I have been blessed,” she said.