Opinionista Michael Workman 25 April 2021

Don’t sneer at maths literacy – it is the subject of the future in the 4IR era

What is needed in today’s rapidly changing world are critical and creative thinkers who can adjust to the powerful forces of globalisation. Disciplines are changing, and a host of new opportunities are available to graduates. Maths literacy is a subject of the future in that it offers a variety of skills such as research, statistical analysis and business skills.

Schools and universities need to rethink the negative perceptions of maths literacy. I can almost sense the angst of those advocates of core maths (CM) on reading this sentence. Some academics may see it as a typical “lowering of standards” and most students, parents and teachers consider maths literacy (ML) a subject that should only be written by those students who are so weak at maths that their chances of passing CM at matric level are very slim.

Every year, international bench-marking statistics reveal how poorly South African students achieve compared to the rest of the world. However, I argue that maths literacy is a crucial subject necessary for the global world, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

I do not in any way suggest that CM be downgraded as it is an important subject for many career paths. Instead, I believe, ML should be upgraded and all students should undertake this vital subject that will open many opportunities for the rapidly changing world of work.

My main concern, however, is that ML is considered a low-status subject. Consequently, students at schools are coerced into doing CM, a subject that many students find difficult and time-consuming. The final result is that there is a perception that only “dumb” students do ML.  

There is a continuous discourse in South African schools on the subject of maths. Presently, students can choose between CM and ML for matriculation exams. Students are usually given until Grade 10 to decide on their subject choices. Regrettably, there is huge pressure exerted on staff, parents and ultimately on students to do CM rather than ML. There are various reasons for this, the first and most salient being that ML is perceived by parents and teachers as a “dumbing down” of the syllabus as it is simplistic, and not robust enough to study for a BSc, BCom and certain other degrees at university.

Counter to this, there is also a concern that given the choice, most students will take the easy route and select ML. I do not believe that students who have aspirations of becoming a doctor or an aeronautical engineer will select ML over CM for matric, and CM must always remain a university requirement for such degrees. However, for those students who have no inclination to study medicine or build bridges, ML would be a much better choice.

If what is needed in today’s rapidly changing world are critical and creative thinkers who can adjust to the powerful forces of globalisation, then young graduates will have to adapt rapidly to a highly competitive job market where the nature of employment and required skills is changing at an exponential rate. Disciplines are changing, and a host of new opportunities is available to graduates. ML is a subject of the future in that it offers a variety of skills such as research, statistical analysis and business skills. 

The most vulnerable students are those children in the poorer, less resourced schools who are in very large classes. This situation can only result in failure and will be another reason South Africa always has extremely low international benchmark results.

According to maths educator, Robyn Clark, ML is accepted in more than 200 career choices including BCom, law and certain medical and science degrees. There is no question that CM is crucial for career paths such as engineering, actuarial sciences and so forth. However, as it has already been contested, ML opens the door for many other careers.

If ML needs some changes within the syllabus to give it more credibility then there needs to be another look at ML at university level, inasmuch as universities set their own entrance criteria. Maths literacy, a subject that offers real-life skills and career opportunities, certainly deserves a place in the curriculum and should be given equal status to other subjects such as English, Afrikaans and core maths.

Many students are under the impression that the only degree that one can complete at university having taken ML at school, is a BA degree. Thus, those students who struggle with CM and take ML to ensure a bachelor’s degree pass believe they may only apply to complete a BA at university to make the most of their education. Contrary to this misconception, banks are now employing more graduates with BA degrees or liberal arts graduates.

As Sarah Butcher writes, “forget finance, economics, maths, physics and electronics, Banks are all about liberal arts graduates. They love them. And they are saying so in public… We already knew that Goldman Sachs likes liberal arts students – it released a chart showing that liberal artists constitute its second-largest cohort of employees last year (2013).”

There is now much evidence that BA graduates are proving themselves to be valuable. Vanderbilt College of Arts and Science in the US clearly indicates the success of history graduates. Two of the responses to a survey were: “the critical thinking skills I learnt have helped me to excel here… these skills I acquired in conjunction with my major – gathering and analysing information”; and “perhaps the skill that helped me earliest and most is my writing ability.”    

Having taught maths for more than 35 years, I have had to spend much time dealing with students who have become “victims” of CM. Many of these children have very little sense of worth and confidence. They are left with negative feelings about a subject they should enjoy.

There are numerous reasons that children find maths difficult: for example, CM has undergone massive reforms, swinging from very mechanical methodologies, to socially constructed epistemologies. Teachers have had little say in these “top-down” reforms and consequently have to implement new maths models that have little relevance to context.

In my experience, class teachers in primary schools are blamed because they have not specialised in CM and when children enter high schools, those who struggle are placed in lower sets and the more knowledgeable teachers teach the higher sets. Parents, likewise, are spending a small fortune for extra CM lessons, because teachers are placed under enormous pressure to deliver a syllabus in a very short time frame and do not have sufficient time to consolidate adequately. They are simply teaching a subject they do not enjoy or have little knowledge about. 

The most vulnerable students are those children in the poorer, less-resourced schools who are in very large classes. This situation can only result in failure and will be another reason South Africa always has extremely low international benchmark results.

There are many students in poorer communities with fewer resources who, given the opportunity of doing ML, would achieve much better marks and that could give them the chance of attending university or doing some form of vocational training. DM

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