Opinionista Ivo Vegter 14 May 2013

Who needs the Queen’s English?

Evidence suggests that children are not being taught to a very high standard at school. The chattering classes are all in a tizzy about it. But why does it bother anyone? After all, will they really need those skills in their future careers?

A story is doing the rounds about the hilariously atrocious spelling and grammar of a test set for school kids in an Mpumalanga school district.

Omitting the many instances where sic erat scriptum is really required, since using Latin would just be cruel and condescending, the question begins thus: “Instruction to learners Read all the intructions carefully. Answere on the answer sheet provide. Write neatly.”

Someone, presumably employed as an English teacher and judged sufficiently capable to set school tests, actually wrote that. And nobody caught it before it was distributed to an entire school district.

What follows is “Bees in the jam”, a short story that forms the basis of a comprehension test. According to Nontobeko Mtshali, reporting for The Star, the first paragraph reads: “One day I returned at the camp to find Isaiah sitting at some distance crying. ‘The bees, she got the jam.’ He had been stung in many places. While he was up at the Windmill doing some laundry and swimming, a bee has discovered some open tin of fig jam in the tent. She had made a beeline for her hive, and returned several co-workers. On the principle of finders keepers, they believed that the fig was theirs, and made these quite clear to Isaiah. As I has been guilty of leaving the jam leaving the jam in the tent, I felt in duty bound to get that tin of jam out way before others returned returned.”

Presumably, answering “I do not comprehend this amphigory” would not score a child any marks, despite demonstrating a high degree of literacy.

The Mpumalanga department of education felt in duty bound to slap the wrist on this author of the worse prose, before more children was become stupid stupid. According to a spokesperson, tests set at district level will now make a beeline for a hive of experts who are sitting at some distance crying.

In short, the problem, she has gone away.

Except that she hasn’t, of course. And English is not the only subject so brutally maltreated at school level. I have personally encountered a Grade 11 pupil who did not seem particularly unintelligent, but who, when asked to convert 75384 cents into rands, was completely nonplussed. Eventually, I explained that the trick was to divide by 100, and why. The kid promptly produced a calculator.

This is someone who actually passed Grade 10, and was working their way towards a matric certificate. Granted, the subject was “math literacy”, which is where they dump everyone who can’t learn mathematics because their teachers are innumerate, drunk by first break, or too busy striking for more money, fewer responsibilities, less discipline and shorter working hours.

Understand that the subject “mathematical literacy”, at best, will equip you to make a shopping list and work out whether you have enough money in your pocket. Even if you pass, which my student did after a lot of extra lessons, it hardly even equips you with basic arithmetic skills. It certainly will not give you any sort of proficiency in mathematics. However, one would have thought converting rands to cents and back might be achievable by Grade 11.

Another well-documented case was raised by professor Jonathan Jansen, rector and vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State and honorary professor of education at the University of the Witwatersrand. The question, in a mathematical literacy paper, reads: “State whether the following event is certain, most likely or impossible: Christmas Day is on December 25 in South Africa.”

It became the subject of an exchange in Parliament, when Peter Smith of the IFP asked Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga to please explain.

She points out that the purpose of the question was to test pupils’ proficiency with the basic concepts of probability, before contradicting herself by saying both that it wasn’t intended to test whether students knew the date of Christmas in South Africa, and also pointing out that not everybody celebrates Christmas on the same day, which is irrelevant if you do not need to know the date.

Wrote Jansen: “Here are three simple realities: Most primary school teachers do not know enough maths to teach it, they do not know enough about the teaching of maths to teach the subject effectively, and they do not work in stable school contexts to teach without interruption.”

The problem is not limited to anecdotes. ITWeb reports from a recent business breakfast hosted by Neotel, at which education specialists discussed the dire state of mathematics and science teaching. Not only was there much concern at the low standard of teaching, the professional development of teachers, the obstacles posed by the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union, and the “devastating long-term effects” of these problems, but the sense of despondency expressed by attendees was itself alarming.

“Our kids can neither count, nor can they read properly,” panelist Graeme Bloch said. Attendee Robyn Clark Rajab added: “Lots of good questions… but once again this will probably be where it stops.”

True as all this may be, let’s look on the bright side. Having been accused by some readers of always being negative, I’m eager to prove them wrong.

Take mathematical literacy, for example. In most jobs, and especially government jobs, this simply isn’t a requirement. Would it have made any difference whether Nkandla cost R100 million, R200 million or R500 million? Does anyone really care how many textbooks are printed and delivered to schools, and how many are mouldering in warehouses or dump sites? Is there any sense to the decision to subsidise electric cars to the tune of 35%? When civil servants fly business class and rent luxury hotel rooms while their residences are being renovated, do any of the justifications for their behaviour require proficiency with arithmetic? Or would such proficiency be a liability?

Consider Motshekga’s point about probabilities. The question offers the choices “certain”, “most likely” or “impossible”. The problem is that a pupil who really did understand the basic concepts of probability would look for two choices: “certain” and “not very likely”. Having stipulated that the purpose of the question is not to test knowledge of the dates on which Christians celebrate holy days, the pupil can be assumed to either know this, or not know this. If they do know the date of Christmas as a matter of fact, the probability is one. If they do not know it, the probability of it falling on any particular day is one in 365, which is not very likely at all. So, both answers would be correct, which has the added benefit that teachers marking the test will not have any arithmetical difficulty with the scoring.

Let me offer another example. At the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 7th Session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties (CMP7) to the Kyoto Protocol, a blue line was painted along Durban’s beachfront promenade at one metre altitude above sea level. Nobody officially believes that sea levels will rise by one metre in the foreseeable future. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UNIPCC) itself expects a range of between 18cm and 59cm by 2100. So clearly, numbers aren’t a strong suit for the ministers, city councillors, assembled worthies, and environmentalists who walked that line for the benefit of the television cameras, with the aim of alarming viewers about the gravity of their cause.

Conveniently, having established that numeracy is an over-rated skill if all you’re angling for is a job as a propagandist, bureaucrat or conference-goer, this story also brings us to proficiency in English. The fact that it took 37 words to correctly describe a meeting of environmental bureaucrats suggests that English comprehension isn’t high on Agenda 21 either. And considering that it was more of a beach party than a serious event with significant outcomes, the gap between its formal designation and what one ought to comprehend is even wider.

Why would our scholars need to understand anything other than the language used in that “Bees in the jam” story? They’re not very likely to run into Shakespeare on the bus to work. The bard is dead. Chaucer is deader. And the English they spoke is deadest of all. LOL. Pretentious pedants make much of “the Queen’s English”. What for? Does anyone actually expect to meet the Queen and have to comprehend what she says? WTF? Of course not!

Like with arithmetic, which is perfectly flexible, depending on the political propaganda or financial fraud for which it is required, English is a malleable concept. Spoken colloquially, it is abysmal, even among native English speakers, and certainly among those for whom it is not a first language.

But more importantly, jobs in the private sector are few and far between. Our government proposes to solve this problem with labour-intensive public works projects. Ergo, pupils are far more likely to end up working for the very same government that wrote that awful piece of bee jam prose. In which case, it would pay the prospective employee to comprehend their likely employer.

One can only conclude that scholars in South Africa, whether in English or mathematical literacy, are being taught perfectly well. This is cause for optimism and good cheer.

Quod erat demonstrandum. Wait. I wasn’t going to condescend by using pretentious Latin phrases. So, to put it in school-level English: she’s finish and klaar. DM



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