There is no doubt that education is a vitally important aspect of every young South African’s future. There is equally no doubt that the current education system is facing many challenges and is struggling to produce school leavers of the calibre required in industry, most notably when it comes to the subject of mathematics. The Improving Maths Performance Debate, held in Johannesburg in 2015, brought some of South Africa’s brightest minds together to consider solutions to this recurrent challenge.
According to Prof Hamsa Venkatakrishnan, SA Numeracy Chair at Wits University, the institution’s project has focused on teaching in the intermediate phase. Here, she says, there are significant numbers of teachers who have trouble teaching maths.
“There is a limited understanding of what progression is in the Intermediate and Foundation phases. Too many teachers only check that children have the correct answer, rather than considering how they got there. For this reason, we implemented a 20-day course to assist teachers with ways of learning maths that can then be introduced in the classroom. Our emphasis is on the connections between representations and on coherent explanations.”
Prof Jill Adler, Maths Chair at Wits University, points out that this issue is a multifaceted challenge. This means that it is not adequate to consider a single intervention into the system, because the system itself is constantly evolving.
“We need to understand what is happening in the earlier grades, because the problems start long before the learners get to high school level. The goal of our intervention is to change the teachers’ relationship with maths, by changing how they talk about it in class.”
Margie Keeton, a trustee of the Epoch and Optima Trusts adds that the organisation has been focused on a project to increase the number of black school leavers with a C or higher in maths. The Maths Challenge Programme (MCP) has had a positive and sustained impact on learners, she explains, adding that nationally, 15% of students obtain a quality pass, while 40% of the students in the schools the MCP works with achieve similar.
“We aim to continue to support these schools and are now implementing a long term programme for Grade eights. We will be sharing the lessons we have learnt and we are also open to partnerships, because we believe we have something special here,” she says.
Barbara Dale-Jones, CEO of Bridge, a non-profit organisation aimed at fostering collaboration and co-operation across the education sector, suggests there are four actions that will help improve maths education.
“Firstly, it is important to identify the performance stage of the system in which you are operating and to choose your intervention level. You must also ensure teacher buy-in. Secondly, one needs to understand the challenges involved in scaling – it is crucial to be able to take the understandings and learnings achieved in pilot projects before rapidly taking them to scale. Remember, not everything is scalable and also a project’s impact may be diluted by scale.”
“The third way lies in committing to knowledge management, which means sharing knowledge around good practice and developing more than just research and reports. The sector needs guidelines, databases and tools for teachers to be developed as well. Finally, it requires a commitment to proper evaluation. This means defining the impact of the project, considering post-project evaluation to track its sustainability and, most critically, ending the culture of secrecy around evaluations. These results must be shared so we can all learn from them,” she concludes.