Consider maths lit alternative

Anyone who follows the news on maths education in South Africa, and the less-than-inspiring results our learners achieve in national and international tests, will know that the reality for most of our learners is that they're not being adequately prepared for the next year in the classroom, let alone life beyond the classroom.

There is little need to rehash the statistics that show this, and instead what I would like to do is point to a few key issues I believe are impor- tant to consider.

No single solution
It is tempting to search for the single silver bullet and believe that an imported textbook series that develops maths skills to be learnt out of real-life problems; or a piece of technology; or even a prescribed curriculum with accompanying workbooks (like the current CAPS curriculum) will be the answer to our problems.

The reality is that the problems in maths teaching and learning are long-standing, multifaceted and challenging, and so the solutions to them will need to be too.

While this does not negate the need to look for innovative and interesting solutions, it does mean that we have to continue to create strong leadership in our schools, and develop a culture of learning and teaching as well as supporting teachers to strengthen their content knowledge.

Primary school maths
Matric exams attract a lot of interest. It is a cause for consider- able concern that only about 15% of learners who wrote the national senior certificate examinations took and passed math with a mark of 40% or more.

The problem does not begin in matric. Each year of maths in school builds on the previous year, so until strong foundations are in place, we will have great difficulty making any improvements at higher levels.

Also, many careers and further learning pathways require maths, but the mathematical content they require involves topics like measurement, volume, area, fractions, percentages, decimals, ratios and data handling — all of which are covered in primary school maths.

Using this mathematical content in further learning and the workplace, requires a flexible and deep understanding of these basic concepts and an ability to use them in a problem-solving context.

We need to be paying significant attention to the teaching and learning of maths at primary level. We need to develop value and support specialist mathematics teachers in these schools.

Math (il)literacy?
Math literacy has been painted as a Mickey Mouse subject and portrayed as the soft option that lures students away from "real maths". Although students who intend to take up a career in the sciences and engineering need to take maths at school, I believe that math literacy that is taught well and examined properly could be of value to all school learners.

There is a lot of utility in devel- oping a profound understanding of basic maths concepts. We should focus on building math's literacy into a subject that could offer this in relevant contexts rather than dismissing it out of hand. Curriculum woes Published benchmarking of South Africa's mathematics curriculum against international curricula suggests that our curriculum is of a good standard.

However, ongoing feedback from universities and declining enrol- ments in maths at school level suggest that we might be trying to do too many different things with a single offering of maths, instead of specialised offerings.

Currently all learners who do matric maths take the same exami- nation, whether they need the subject to enter university engi- neering or as a requirement for a technical trade.

One size does not fit all
Therefore, the high-level maths they have to do at school becomes a barrier to enter their chosen field for a number of learners. South Africa's one-size-fits-all mathematics curriculum and school-leaving examination are unusual in the international context and, I would argue, need to be reconsidered.

This will let us open pathways for the roughly 50% of learners who are currently taking and failing matric mathematics.

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