Distinguished Professor Jill Adler receives the Lifetime Achiever Award at the NRF Awards

Distinguished Professor Jill Adler receives the Lifetime Achiever Award at the NRF Awards

The National Research Foundation (NRF) has awarded Witwatersrand University’s Distinguished Professor Jill Adler the Lifetime Achiever Award at the 2023 NRF Awards ceremony held last night in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. Introduced to the NRF Awards in 2004, the Lifetime Achiever Award recognises an individual who has demonstrably made extraordinary contributions to the development of science in and for South Africa over an extended period of time. These contributions must be of international standard and impact.

Professor Adler received her award in person and expressed her gratitude for the special recognition. She said, “This award for me gives recognition to the importance of educational research and educational research that is grounded in the realities of our mathematics classrooms. It gives meaning to the NRF vision for science and service of society.”

A Distinguished Professorin the Wits School of Education, Prof Adler was born and raised in Johannesburg. She completed a BSc in Mathematics and Psychology at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1972 and her Secondary Teachers Diploma at the University of Cape Town in 1973 before taking up a teaching post at Harold Cressy High School in Cape Town. In 1977 she returned to Johannesburg and joined the SACHED Trust, an educational NGO concerned with enriching the quality of education of those disadvantaged in apartheid South Africa, where she first taught O-level mathematics to youth who were out of school following the Soweto uprising in 1976. 

Her work at the NGO over the next 10 years enabled her to further her social justice advocacy, seeking to address the educational inequalities in South Africa by improving mathematics education through the development and evaluation of distance education courses. At the same time, she studied for her MEd at Wits, graduating cum laude in 1985. In 1987 she moved into academia, lecturing in the Department of Professional Studies at the Johannesburg College of Education for two years before moving to the Education Department at Wits where she worked variously as a Lecturer, Head of Department, Professor, as well as the SARChI Chair of Mathematics Education 2010 – 2019. She holds an A1-rating from the NRF.

Prof Adler completed her PhD in 1996 with a thesis that looked at the dynamics of teaching and learning mathematics in multilingual classrooms, specifically examining secondary teachers’ knowledge in this context. This was later published as a book as well as a range of papers in peer-reviewed journals. This seminal research has had a lasting impact on the broader field of mathematics education, providing valuable insights for educators and policymakers.

Her theoretical and practice-based innovations, which have paved the way for new and transformative approaches in mathematics education, address two fundamental research problems: the complexities and challenges of teaching and learning mathematics in multilingual classrooms, and the enhancement of professional education for mathematics teachers. The latter came to the fore in the mid-1990s with the demand for “upgrading” the qualifications and teaching quality of secondary mathematics teachers in post-apartheid South Africa. The practical problems were two-fold. Firstly, there was a pressing need to “upgrade” teachers who had received inadequate education in mathematics during the apartheid era. Determining the appropriate curriculum to address this knowledge gap became a critical consideration. Secondly, there was the challenge of enabling teachers to gain access to graduate study, as their three-year apartheid-era diploma qualifications presented a barrier to further academic advancement. She took proactive steps to establish a range of transformative higher education programs. 

Her initiatives were made possible by her accelerated appointment as the Distinguished Sentrachem Professor of Mathematics Education in 1997. These programs were designed to empower the research community to effectively address the challenges at hand. Among these initiatives was the establishment of a Doctoral programme, which played a vital role in creating a vibrant community of practice. 

Working alongside a dedicated cohort of students, she spearheaded efforts to position mathematics education as a robust research domain within the university, and more broadly in the country. This collaborative and interdisciplinary approach fostered a rich and dynamic research environment where scholars and students alike could explore innovative approaches to mathematics education and contribute to its advancement. 

In 2005, Prof Adler established and, for a period, led the renowned Marang Centre for Mathematics and Science Education at Wits. This centre quickly gained a reputation for excellence in postgraduate research and development, attracting students from across the African continent. The Marang Centre became a hub for advanced studies and innovative research, further solidifying Prof Adler’s commitment to enhancing mathematics and science education and empowering educators with the necessary skills and knowledge. Between 2010 and 2019, as the DSI-NRF SARChI Research and Development Chair in Mathematics Education at Wits, she directed a large professional development project, reaching over 200 secondary mathematics teachers and many learners across 80 schools in Gauteng and researching its impact together with a large research team of Doctoral and postdoctoral Fellows.

Prof Adler is an Honorary Professor at Oxford University and University College London both in the UK. She has published more than 60 peer-reviewed articles and four books; co-edited two special journal issues and contributed 50 book chapters, achieving more than 7 000 citations and an H-index of 37. She has served on various editorial boards for leading publications such as the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education and Educational Studies in Mathematics. Over the course of her 45-year career in teaching and academia, she has garnered numerous accolades in recognition of her contributions to education. These include, among others, the ICMI’s Hans Freudenthal Medal (2015) for an internationally influential and sustained research program in mathematics education; the Svend Pedersen Lecture Award (2015); the ASSAf Gold Medal for Science in the Service of Society (2012); and the University of the Witwatersrand Vice Chancellor’s Research Award (2003).

The NRF has been one of the most important institutions throughout Prof Adler’s academic journey, she said at the awards ceremony. “The NRF has been a bedrock of my research post my PhD, through multiple research grants over many years, supporting empirical work, graduate students as well as opportunities for international conference participation – because that is also important beyond publications for influencing research. I’m particularly grateful for the SARChI Chair that I held from 2010 to 2019. This was a funding partnership with the FirstRand Foundation, and it was for research-linked development, not only research work. The goal to which you had to commit was to improve the teaching and learning of mathematics in our country, not a small ask. The funding supported interventions with teachers in schools, research teams that included masters, doctorate and postdoctoral fellows as well as the empirical work then to investigate the impact of the interventions.”

Prof Adler joins a list of academic luminaries who have attained the NRF Lifetime Achiever Award since 2004 which includes:

  • 2004 – Dr Reinhard Arndt 
  • 2005 – Professor Es’Kia Mphahlele 
  • 2006 – Dr Bob Brain 
  • 2007 – Dr Mamphela Ramphele 
  • 2008 – Professor Patricia Berjak 
  • 2009 – Professor Njabulo Ndebele
  • 2010 – Professor Phillip V Tobias
  • 2011 – Professor Malegapuru Makgoba
  • 2012 – Professor Tim Noakes
  • 2013 – Professor Tebello Nyokong
  • 2014 – Emeritus Professor Lionel Opie and Professor Hoosen Coovadia
  • 2015 – Professor Michael Feast 
  • 2016 – Professor Chabani Manganyi
  • 2017 – Professor Brian O’Connell. 
  • 2018 – Dr Bernard Fanaroff
  • 2019 – Professor Teboho Moja
  • 2021 – Linda Richter
  • 2022 – Emeritus Professor Brian van Wilgen
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