I remember how, as a schoolboy in Nigeria, my understanding of the natural world – tempered at home and among my friends – was far removed from the world presented in the textbooks handed to me at school. The concepts of science and mathematics, especially, were alien to me.
This is because the mathematics and science that were prevalent among the Yoruba indigenous people were relegated to the background of the agenda presented at school. For instance, Yoruba calculus, mechanics, systematics and ecological knowledge, to name just a few, were thought to be irrelevant to school mathematics and science.
The average Yoruba came into the classroom with an encyclopaedic knowledge of natural phenomena, but this had to be suppressed to survive in an environment where canonical mathematics and science were the only standard accounts accepted at school.
I was reminded of this once again when I recently witnessed the Afro-pessimism that followed in the wake of a World Economic Forum (WEF) report ranking the quality of maths and science education in South Africa as dead last out of 148 countries.
To rub salt into our wounds, the forum’s Global Information Technology Report, which looked at “how prepared an economy is to apply the benefits of information and communications technologies [ICT] to promote economic growth and wellbeing”, placed South Africa 146th out of 148 for overall quality of education.
Newspaper editors, bloggers and the social media sphere did not pull their punches. There was plenty of reasoning about just why we did so poorly. The blame was placed on the early introduction of calculators at school, making thinking redundant; on the little attention being paid to basic education; on the poor implementation of (good) policies; on the lack of political will; on bad teachers and worse teaching facilities.
Others – me among them –found critical flaws in the WEF report and its methodology. The department of basic education, too, took issue with the report.
Critics argued that the rankings are “subjective, unscientific, unreliable and lack any form of technical credibility or cross-national comparability”. It was pointed out that no standardised tests were actually conducted to assess the quality of maths and science education in the surveyed countries. Instead, the rankings were based on an annual “executive opinion survey” in which the WEF asked business leaders to assess the quality of maths and science education in the country and score it accordingly.
Square pegs in a round hole
In short, these sorts of “League of Nations” assessment reports tend to lack cultural validity. They are like square pegs in a round hole. It’s the same iniquitous, hegemonic and inequitable power division between the dominant voice over the silenced majority.
They hardly count as objective scientific assessment.
That being said, we are not denialists. We know that we do have problems with maths and science education in the country. Academic assessments by the basic education department have shown that as few as 3% of grade nines scored more than 50% in mathematics.
A 2011 study compiled by the University of Stellenbosch for the National Planning Commission highlighted results from the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Education Quality. In that study, conducted in 2007, South Africa performed below most of the other 14 African countries that participated.
The Stellenbosch report also made some sound and admirable recommendations. It addressed capacity development within the teaching force, school management, accountability to parents and education authorities, the quality of early childhood development centres and – critically – understanding the issues of those students learning in languages other than their mother tongues.
“In summary, learners who speak English as a second language clearly perform worse on average than their first-language English counterparts, but it is not clear why they perform worse,” wrote the authors. “It could be due to linguistic disadvantage, school-level factors, home background or, more likely, some combination of all of these.”
It is, indeed, about more than language, some of us are arguing.
Most educators see the teaching of science as initiating young members of a society into the subculture of science, a subculture with its own knowledge, skills, attitudes, interests, values and language (and it’s not always a commonsensical language).
We also believe that it is necessary and critical to understand where the learner comes from when we seek to translate the knowledge we’re trying to pass on to them.
But these students come to us with other prior knowledge, with baggage. They are not blank slates.
What we need to do is create a relationship between the science they see at home and the science they see in class. For many, science is coined in such a language that it becomes as alien, as otherworldly to them as it was to me. In physics, for example, we talk of “energy”, a concept that means different things to different people in different contexts. For some it connotes vitality, for others power – everything but what it connotes in physics.
Similarly, in African contexts you have four colours (all other colours are used as descriptives), whereas in physics there are seven colours in the visible light spectrum.
As such, there is a wide gulf and often a clash between what pupils are told and taught at home – their belief systems about natural phenomena – and the science in their school books.
A global phenomenon
This is not peculiar to South Africa or to developing nations. It is a global phenomenon. It has been found in studies in the United States, Canada, Australia and, of course, in a host of developing countries where children from multicultural backgrounds are taught what we now call, in a flawed term, “Western science”. (You can imagine a learner in Texas torn between the creationism taught at home and church and the evolution taught at schools.)
What I and others have been arguing for is a greater emphasis on the use of indigenous knowledge systems (IKS) in the teaching of science and mathematics in particular. The challenge is including IKS in the school curriculum. We believe we can do this by adopting what we call a contiguity argumentation learning theory, which draws on the Aristotelian theory that focuses on how conflicting ideas are resolved by interacting together to attain cognitive harmony. It also draws on ubuntu, a central African world-view theory focusing on the relatedness, interrelationship, reciprocity, synchronicity, complementarity and unity in a diversity of ideas.
Some elements of these theories have, to a degree, been embraced in both the Revised Curriculum Statement for General Education and Training and the National Curriculum Statement for Further Education and Training. Sadly, the teachers who are supposed to enact the new curriculum have not been adequately prepared to implement it in their classrooms.
Demanding a place for IKS in the formal curriculum is not merely a romanticised clinging to outdated and irrelevant knowledge systems that lack the sophistication of those we know and love today. It is practical and can change the relationship of pupils and teachers to the material they must learn and teach.
I have in my own studies recorded how teachers – starting off either unfamiliar with or sometimes downright hostile to IKS – have seen the value of introducing it in their teaching. Similar research by colleagues at the University of the Western Cape and in Zimbabwe has likewise reported promising early results.
A recent study by the Human Sciences Research Council illustrated how, in the Eastern Cape, everyday objects such as a fireplace enclosure and three-legged pots could be incorporated into teaching and learning materials – even though, the authors noted in their paper, “at first it was not easy persuading them that their ‘knowledge’ was rich enough to make its way into the school curriculum and workbooks”.
Colleagues at Unisa and North-West University have also illustrated the value of the strategy board game morabaraba (which is popular in rural communities in South Africa and neighbouring countries) in teaching geometric shapes, ratio and proportion, symmetry and logical reasoning.
An important aim of science education is to incorporate the implicit and explicit meanings specified in the science curriculum into the dominant culturally determined world-view templates of learners. This, we believe, to borrow US psychologist David Ausubel’s popular dictum, will allow us firstly to determine where a pupil is, and then to take him/her from there.
This way we can perhaps, in time, change the perceptions of those critical business leaders and spare ourselves from further scolding in WEF reports.
Professor Meshach Ogunniyi, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, held the Unesco chair for science and mathematics education at the University of the Western Cape for many years before retiring recentlyBring ‘home science’ into the class