Matric exam stress may be awful, but it’s just an educational step on the amazing road of life

Matric exam stress may be awful, but it’s just an educational step on the amazing road of life

Maths curriculum designers must recognise that some Maths topics, such as integers and algebra, are more difficult to learn than others, and thus need more time and continual attention.

Dear DM168 reader,

I’m sure many of you remember the nail-biting stress of matric exams and sometimes wonder, as I do, about how the hell we made it. I remember going swimming a lot at the public pool and reading novels for sheer pleasure to take a break from the Maths, Biology, Physics and History I was meant to memorise and practise.

I went to Parkhill High School in the 1980s, a so-called coloured government school in Durban, a short walk from our home in Effingham Road, Redhill. We had no swimming pool, music, drama, school hall or any real sport to speak of, and many of our classrooms were prefab buildings. For two pivotal years in high school, 1980 and 1981, we were involved in a countrywide school boycott, marching around the schools with placards protesting against Bantu education and the unequal education we received under apartheid.

I was competent at Maths before the boycott, but lost the building blocks during the period of protest. My parents arranged for a teacher friend of theirs to tutor me, but for the life of me I just could not understand the relevance of these theorems and calculations to what was happening around me and in our country. Although our maths teacher was highly qualified, he was so highbrow that he could not translate his knowledge to me in a way that I could understand.

On the other hand, I excelled in English and History – taught by two teachers who went way beyond the call of duty and the limitations and restrictions of apartheid education to instil in me a lifelong passion for and love of learning. Mr Barbeau, my History teacher from Standard 7 to matric, taught me to question everything, and research far and wide, not to be limited by the ideologically skewed Afrikaner nationalist version of history in the government-issued textbooks.

He answered every impertinent question I threw at him by making me search for the answers in a pile of reference books he brought from the University of Westville, where he was undertaking further studies. My English teacher in Standards 8 and 9, Miss Hornsby, at the time a recent young graduate of the University of Natal, ignited and encouraged my passion for poetry, literature and writing by exposing me to texts beyond the curriculum, and setting essay topics and class discussions that were completely relevant to our experience.

I hated matric because it sucked all the fun out of learning, turning a spirit of exploration, mind-opening and enchantment into preparation for the final exams, every subject geared to the exam, and not to the pursuit of learning and understanding.

I am time-travelling back to my matric year in the 1980s because my son, who is writing matric this year, had a debilitating panic attack while writing the grim Mathematics Paper 2 exam, which covers statistics, probability, trigonometry and geometry.

I have motivated and encouraged this beautiful, kind, young man, who has lived and wrestled with ADHD all his life, to endure 12 years in a school system absolutely not geared for minds and beings like him.

How do you – and why would you – box in a boy who is constantly thinking of a dozen things at a time, switching from Kafka, to clouds, Gaza, racism, injustice, slavery, insects, the cosmos, Harry Potter, Jujutsu Kaisen and Attack on Titan, to learning to speak Kiswahili, playing piano and guitar, composing music on Logic Pro and weight-training, with constantly evolving refrains of music running in his head, from Beatenberg to Miles Davis, and from Joe Hisaishi to Kendrick Lamar and Mozart. A boy who has got this far by having to work four times as hard as his peers to focus and concentrate in classrooms caged by a curriculum that allows for limited creativity, and problem-solving and collaborative work on everyone’s part, teachers and learners alike.

Every year, when matric marks come out in January, we bemoan the fact that our learners do so awfully, in Maths in particular. The one explanation of what perpetuates this state of affairs that resonated with me was explained by Professor Jonathan Jansen on TimesLive. He wrote that mathematics is taught without meaning, little more than as a series of operations and calculations. This is exactly what turned me off the subject. I needed to always know why we were doing it and the teachers’ answer of “because that’s how it works” did not help me understand the use of maths.

Jansen added that children sense that education is about the right answer, so they are “terrified of looking silly in a class of image-conscious teenagers”. This form of teaching, which makes learners fear being wrong in front of their teachers or peers, does not prepare them for a world with complex problems that needs us to make mistakes and learn from them before coming to a solution that works.

Jansen also referred to an overcorrection to the open-endedness of outcomes-based education, in which teachers were given the scope and freedom to create their own teaching plans. The CAPS curriculum specifies detailed content for every subject that must be covered in tight time frames. This view was echoed in an article in The Conversation Africa by Craig Pournara, associate professor of mathematics education at the University of the Witwatersrand, who argued that maths curriculum designers must recognise that some maths topics, such as integers and algebra, are more difficult to learn than others, and thus need more time and continual attention throughout the year.

I would add to this list the need for more teachers in Maths, and all subjects, who are not just skilled but passionate, teachers like Mr Barbeau and Miss Hornsby.

I wish all of this year’s matrics the calm and wisdom to realise that these exams don’t define the immensity of who they are and who they can become. It’s just a step on the long and winding, up and down, potholed road of life. There are many other steps that can lead to many other rewarding paths.

Please support our quest to get the next generation hooked on the joys of learning by going out and buying our latest MavericKids annual activity book at our online Maverick Shop. This year’s edition covers a broad range of topics, including the wonders of the ocean (nudibranchs, sharks and bioluminescence), financial literacy for the budding business leaders, and interesting insights into everything from farming and solar panels to submarines and lighthouses.

For every MavericKids bought from the Maverick Shop, we will donate a copy to Gift of the Givers, which will distribute both the books and a stationery pack to children in need of reading support.

Meanwhile, our DM168 lead story by Chris Makhaye is terrifying – it’s a deep dive into the assassination nation we have become, where not learning or working, but killing for lucrative jobs or tenders in politics and business, has become an epidemic of bloody proportions.

Please share your thoughts with me about matric, learning, our assassination nation and anything else on your mind by writing to [email protected]

Yours in defence of truth and learning,


This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Robert Mckay says:

    Matric exams are insanity. Now that I have experienced a gentler, less stressful system, I too wonder how we survived…of course not all of us did. My neighbor died by suicide in response to the stress of Std 10. And from the teachers side it is also insanity. We teach without meaning because we have to in order to get our kids to a point where they can pass and excel. Even if I wanted to add in the impact of Mendels genetics on Eugenics…I can’t because the kids would sense that this is not relevant to the exam. “Stick to the topic, Sir” was a common refrain in my class…but it is the digressions that make it meaningful. But a high stakes exam precludes all of that.

    Fortunately I did have teachers who digressed from the curriculum. My favourite was Cannon Presley who start the lesson with…”Guess what the Nats have done today, boys?”. Thank you, Sir.

  • Johan Buys says:

    in defense of Maths, it is a hurdle and kids must learn how to deal with hurdles.

    Life is not about picking the third lane (say History) because the hurdles there are knee high instead of hip height in lane 4 (Maths or Physics)

    End of the day, any kid can, I’d they apply themselves, get 50% for proper math. It does help if the foundations were laid early instead of telling them that not everybody can do math.

    One of my least favorite High School teachers (we differed on politics and almost everything) was my Math teacher, but I nailed Maths achieving nearly 100% and he had to respect that.

    Please stop telling kids that math is not for everybody.

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