The South African Maths Debacle

south african maths

The matric results are out and here’s what you need to know about South African Maths in the educational system and how to help SA’s learners.

As it is every year after the matric results have been released, the debate surrounding the standard of Mathematics in South Africa ensues. As does the question about the validity of Mathematical Literacy (shortened Maths Lit).

Maths Lit was first introduced into the South African curriculum in 2006 as an alternative to Pure Maths. While Pure Maths is based more in the abstract science of numbers which involves problem-solving as well as the teaching of logic, critical thinking and reasoning, Maths Lit involves real world problem solving and understanding the language of maths (sum, difference, etc). 

Not only was Maths Lit introduced as an alternative to Pure Maths. It’s also viewed by many learners and critics as the easier counterpart to Pure Maths as it does not involve as much problem solving as well as critical and analytical thinking. However this does not mean Maths Lit is the lesser of the two, it teaches valuable personal financing skills. At the end of last year the Department of Education lowered the Grade 7, 8 and 9 Maths pass rate to 20%, due to the number of students failing maths in these grades (and failing the grade as a result).  This decision was to ensure more learners were completing high school.

If Maths Lit is actually centred around real-world problems and not around algebra, which most scholars will never use again, why the big debate?

The Scary Truth

A 2015/16 survey conducted by the World Economic Forum (WEF)  showed that South Africa ranked 138 out of 140 countries in the quality of maths and science education. This leads me to question the standard of education being offered by our government, which also leads me to my next thought process.

If our standard of Maths education is already at a low standard, why did our education department see it fit to lower the maths pass rate to 20%? They say that this was done as many learners struggle with Maths and by lowering the pass rate, it makes it fair to those who are not mathematically inclined and allows them the opportunity to matriculate by taking Maths Lit from Grade 10 onwards.

“When a learner, specifically those in Grades 7 to 9, has failed mathematics it means they can’t be promoted to another level because mathematics is a compulsory pass subject,” stated the report. A directive has been issued for those learners who pass “everything but fail mathematics” to be considered for the new pass requirement so they can continue to FETs or Grade 10. “A decision was taken that the group of learners who fail mathematics must not have less than 20% minimum pass mark to be given an opportunity to do mathematics literacy,” said Brian Shreuder, head of the Western Cape Education Department (WCED).

A little more context:  this all started in 2014.  Learners who were entering the General Education Training (GET) phase had to meet the following requirements: 50%, 40%, 40% for Home Language, First Additional Language and Mathematics respectively.  Following this, the Department realised that this was a shock to the system for learners and a “condonation range” of 7% was implemented.  This grace range was expected to shorten over the next five years.  However, there were massive failure rates within the first two quarters of 2014, despite the grace range.  And so here we are with a pass rate that has now dwindled to 20%.

This means that more and more students are taking Maths Lit without considering Pure Maths. This is largely due to the fact that students are being taught difficult mathematical terms in English, which isn’t their home language. Not only that, but teachers at a primary school level struggle to teach basic arithmetic – the foundations of Pure Maths. 

Okay Debbie Downer – What is the point of all of this?

Bringing back the question raised earlier. If Maths Lit is actually centred around real-world problems and not around algebra, which most scholars will never use again, why the big debate?

Thousands of people are left sitting with a matric certificate that does not benefit them to the degree that it should. Their low marks and lack of Pure Maths means that they will not gain entrance into tertiary institutions and will not be able to study towards a career that will greatly impact our economic sector. Hence, the startling amount of careers on our critical skills list in South Africa.

A principal from a Cape Town public school says that instead of lowering the maths pass mark 

“it would be better if the department would provide people to help these kids and to work hand in hand with them.”

While Debbie Schäfer, MEC of the WCED, says:

“The circular does not address the real problem and that is that we simply do not have sufficient good maths teachers in South Africa.”

Perhaps there is an easier solution than changing the curriculum or education system. Perhaps an easier and quicker solution starts with us.

Some people just aren’t made to do maths – right?

Elijah Mhlanga, spokesperson for the WCED, has this to say:

“Some people are more inclined towards the arts, others are better with technical subjects. Making this policy unfair to those who are forced to take Maths but are not good at it.”

I also thought that some people just aren’t wired to do Maths. That you get the creatives and you get the analytical thinkers. Upon further research, I was surprised to learn the truth regarding this statement.

Professor Miles Kimball from the University of Michegan and Professor Noah Smith from Stony Brook University have this to say regarding the in-built nature of Mathematics:

“Is math ability genetic? Sure, to some degree… [but] for high school math, inborn talent is much less important than hard work, preparation and self-confidence.”

Other research also concludes that while natural math ability is definitely genetic, maths at a high school level can be successfully completed by all scholars. An alumni from the University of Leicester and the University of Sussex says this regarding maths:

It is essential in public decision-making and for participation in the knowledge of the economy. Mathematics equips pupils with uniquely powerful ways to describe, analyze and change the world. […] It develops the mind, underpins the study of other subjects, is a necessary component of many jobs, is necessary to be a successful citizen.”

Sure, maths like algebra and trigonometry on a deeper level is not necessary for all scholars who aren’t going to pursue it further in their tertiary education. But on a basic level it teaches a way of analytical thinking and problem-solving that is vital to a thriving and successful economy in our country (again, let’s think of South Africa’s critical skill list).

How do we Educate the Current Learners?

The first thing that needs to be implemented is the hiring of more thoroughly educated mathematic teachers who WANT to help the learners of South Africa become more educated and have a better chance at tertiary education. The only way for well-educated maths teachers to be hired is if we educate learners well so that they can go on to study to become maths teachers.

Once enough parents and communities are made aware of the importance of maths for education in South Africa, steps towards change can be made and our country will stand a better chance at doing well economically and as a nation.

Gotta love them teens

As a norm, teenagers do not realise the importance of working hard throughout high school and achieving the best results that they can. This is a characteristic most teenagers share. It is only once they reach matric and need to start applying to university that they realise how important their subject choices were.

Hence the need for good teachers to motivate and encourage their students to work hard and to choose the right subjects, especially when it comes to maths. Teenagers need constant reminders and encouragement to work hard and not get lost in their own worlds of self-doubt.

Take action NOW

Encourage your child, neighbours child, nieces and nephews to try their best to work hard and take Pure Maths. Encourage your children and their friends to start study groups. Speak to the high school teachers in your community to start extra classes for those who need it.

All it takes is one person to start the ripple effect, more will follow and jump on board.

If you’re a maths teacher or parent who is working hard with your child and is encouraging them to be the best they can be, then we salute you and thank you for your hard work. Please share your story and tips to encourage those around you. 

As a natural result of quality education, the standard of education will rise and we will start seeing the critical skills list being shortened as our countries children have a real opportunity to educate themselves.

EduConnect 2Cents

While things can at times seem negative for South Africa, we can take reassurance from the fact that there are so many teachers, parents and individuals who are working together to bring about change and help the students of our country. When we all work together, great things are able to happen.

Let’s be remembered as the generation who built up educated, strong and confident leaders.

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