/ 25 April 2014

Maths ‘myths’ don’t add up

Problem: "Which country can progress economically unless it has people whoa re competent at amthematics?"
Problem: "Which country can progress economically unless it has people whoa re competent at amthematics?"

Professor Tamsin Meaney from the University of Malmö, Sweden, is in danger of creating new and dangerous myths in “Myths of maths and education” (March 28). Her article is a summarised version of her address as a plenary speaker at a conference of the Southern African Association of Research in Mathematics, Science and Technology Education held in January at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.

In the article she claims there are three statements that are myths “and accepting these myths can have dire consequences for our youngest children in particular”. I am not an expert in education and I have thus not read all the learned articles she refers to. But I do want to apply some common sense garnered from what I have read in a number of fields of study. Let us take the three “myths” one by one.

First “myth”: Doing well in mathematics is likely to support the country’s economic progress. Of course there is a complicated relationship between mathematics achievement and economic progress, but which country can progress economically unless it has people who are competent at mathematics? One of the essential requirements for developing and emerging countries to progress economically is to raise the level of mathematical and scientific ability of their people. Without it they do not stand a chance.

Second “myth”: Succeeding in education will bring children out of poverty. If young children were to believe that this is a myth it would certainly have dire consequences for them. Disadvantaged children will remain disadvantaged and poor because they will have no opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty if they do not succeed in education. Of course, educational success is not a guarantee of children being lifted out of poverty. Succeeding in education is a necessary but not a sufficient condition.

Third “myth”: Regular testing will contribute to raising educational standards. Maybe in Sweden and the other industrially advanced countries regular testing does not contribute to raising educational standards, but in South Africa it is essential to have regular testing, well before the final matric exam.

And these tests need to be benchmarked internationally to see how we are really doing. This is because in this globalised world we now compete against other countries around the world for jobs.

Regular tests at lower grades can give our educationalists the chance to see how we are performing in education and allow them to intervene where problems are detected. Of course, regular testing alone will not raise educational standards. It is essential to take steps to improve education where the tests show it to be necessary.

The M&G report unfortunately does not tell us how Professor Meaney’s address was received at the plenary address, but I hope she was challenged and shown that she was propagating dangerous myths. – Johann Maree, emeritus professor of sociology, University of Cape Town