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School maths education needs a paradigm shift


Prof Michael le Cordeur is Vice-Dean Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Education at the University of Stellenbosch. He is deputy chair of the Stigting vir die bemagtiging deur Afrikaans.

While other countries are preparing to enter the world of maths and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the number of South African matriculants taking the subject has decreased alarmingly. A new approach to maths tuition is needed.

A disturbing aspect of the matric results is that the number of matriculants taking pure maths has decreased alarmingly, mainly because learners are choosing to take the easier mathematical literacy. Umalusi has emphasised that more attention should be given to the way in which maths is taught in our schools.

Although I differ from the Association of Afrikaans Teachers that maths is no longer offered in 300 schools, there are clear signs that maths tuition is in dire straits. My research shows a decrease in pure maths in the FET Phase (Grades 10 to 12).

In 2019, there were 14,178 fewer learners taking pure maths in matric. In contrast, the numbers for maths literacy increased by 6,362. The average for maths is also very low. More than half (54.6%) of the matrics who wrote maths achieved only 30%.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution

The gap between rich and poor schools is probably best demonstrated by achievements in maths and physical science, the two subjects indispensable for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), which refers to the progress of technology and the impact it has on society and our future economy.

E-learning and “Dr Google” will soon change the traditional method of tuition and the practice of textbook use (and has already started changing this). Think for a moment how technology has changed your daily life regarding banking, student notes obtained from websites, and senior citizens who get their pensions from ATMs. Think of Takealot and Amazon. Think of books which have changed to audiobooks or can be read on a tablet.

I have analysed the 2018 matric results of 37 high schools in one district in the Western Cape after obtaining the permission of the provincial head of education. The schools are all located in the Cape Winelands, including Boland towns like Stellenbosch, Paarl, Wellington, Worcester, Ceres, Robertson, Saron, Wolseley, Tulbagh and the Hex River Valley. I am of the opinion that this district constitutes a valid sample representing the rest of the Western Cape and also South Africa.

I targeted these schools because I was involved with them as teacher, principal, circuit manager and chairperson of the Boland Schools Sport Association. My knowledge of these schools and their circumstances supplied good background knowledge for analysis of the results. For the analysis of the maths results, I distinguished between former Model C schools, coloured and black African schools. I do this, not because I necessarily agree with the distinction between races, but rather to make the point that poverty still plays a role in South African education.

In total, 1,391 matrics out of a total of 5,132 took maths in this district at the 37 schools whose results I analysed. Only 27% of the matrics studied maths.

Model C schools

If one analyses the results according to racial groups, the picture looks even worse: at eight of the previous Model C schools a total of 930 matrics (ie 66%) out of a total of 1,416 took pure maths in matric. If one analyses three previous Model C schools in Stellenbosch, the number of matrics taking pure maths rises to 84%. At Paul Roos Gymnasium it is even better: 220 matrics out of a class of 247 took pure maths, thus 89% of the matric class. In addition, all members of the class achieved more than 70% and more than half the class passed with distinction. These schools enjoyed mother-tongue instruction – in English and Afrikaans – which could have played a positive role. This is the one reality of South Africa.

Black schools

The other reality is the performance of the matrics in our township schools. In the district under discussion, I analysed the results of six township schools (there are not many black African schools in this district.) A total of 120 matrics out of a total of 647 wrote maths in the 2018 examination. In sharp contrast to their white peers, this represents only 18% of the matrics. These matrics all study through the medium of English while their mother tongue is isiXhosa or isiZulu. There are some matrics with English as a home language, but they are in the Model C schools.

Coloured schools

The picture is even bleaker if you analyse the results of the 23 coloured schools in this district. Only 341 matrics out of a total of 3,089 (ie 11%) took pure maths. Of course, there are exceptions, and some schools are above average. In this district, there were three schools where not one learner took maths in matric. While the Stellenbosch Model C schools had the most learners who passed matric with maths, only 8% of the matrics in coloured schools in Stellenbosch took maths.

These schools all receive mother-tongue instruction in Afrikaans. Compare that to the township schools where the learners had to master maths in their second language. Although mother-tongue instruction increases the chance of success, it is clear that it will not solve the maths problem. It is rather a combination of poverty, lack of resources and the absence of maths teachers which plays a role.

Paradigm shift needed

With the 4IR in mind, it is necessary to renew our thinking about maths tuition in poorer schools. Intervention is especially needed in primary schools. Children are taught from day one that maths is difficult. A negative perception is conveyed to the child. Eventually, the child starts to believe this and as a result avoids this subject.

This is where the Department of Education’s focus should lie: to make maths interesting to learners from the start, to cultivate a passion for this subject. Children should know that maths can also be fun. Those with a passion for maths should be identified at primary school level and encouraged to study in this field. This is not something which can be fixed in the last school year with a few camps or extra classes. By the time children reach matric, it is already too late.

We need more maths teachers. Maths teachers are snapped up by affluent schools, with extra remuneration. The Department of Education should do the same. Learners who shine in maths should be attracted by bursaries to become maths teachers. These young teachers can teach maths in schools where the need is the greatest for the same period of time as the duration of the bursaries they received, in the same way young doctors are expected to work.

Outreach efforts

Stellenbosch University (including myself) should also reflect on this problem. It is one of the greatest inconsistencies that the schools just on the other side of the Matie campus are hesitant about taking maths. The SU social impact programme should include outreach to maths classrooms in poorer areas.

We are standing on the cusp of a technological revolution, a revolution which will drastically change all our lives but especially the way students will study and one day go to work. Exactly how this will all play out we do not yet know. What we do know is that learners who take maths and physical science at school have an advantage over other children. It is their names which shine on the merit lists; it is they who head the queue for bursaries.

Schools can no longer afford not to offer maths. The previous rector of Stellenbosch University, Russel Botman, dreamed that the child of the farm workers would study with the child of the farm owner. Without maths in matric, Botman’s idea will remain a dream. DM


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