/ 23 April 2015

Maths at school adds up to success

The Maths Centre's aim is to inculcate a love of maths and science and to make learning fun.
The Maths Centre's aim is to inculcate a love of maths and science and to make learning fun.


When I ask an audience to “raise your hand if you loved maths at school”, I am lucky to have 5% of the audience do so. When I ask them to “raise your hand if you use some form of maths in everyday life”, more than 80% of hands go up.

Maths is undoubtedly a fundamental feature of basic literacy. Why then do national results show that, in a matric class that began with more than a million pupils, only 30 287 passed maths well in 2014? Year after year, South Africans debate the issue, but the problems in maths and science education continue.

The Maths Centre, an organisation I joined 15 years ago, believes that, if maths is taught with love and discipline, all stakeholders can be empowered to enable a steady shift towards improved outcomes.

The centre focuses on the core of the solution to the education crisis by running programmes that target teachers and pupils in some of the most poorly resourced primary and high schools in the country. In 2014, the centre supported 520 schools, and its programmes involved 174 695 pupils and 4 268 teachers. In addition, the centre grade 12s scored pass rates of 81.3% in maths and 85.5% in physical science, which enabled them to access tertiary education.

The initiative develops programmes to enhance the qualifications, competencies and professionalism of teachers, and to monitor teacher and pupil progression systematically.

The centre’s trainers believe that schools should be homes away from home in which pupils must grow and develop. The moment children walk into the classroom, teachers must work to replace external challenges with exciting, engaging learning.

Pupils acquire knowledge cumulatively, moving from simple to complex concepts. In the foundation phase, it is crucial to bridge that gap in a gradual and structured manner.

Currently, in the foundation phase, in a maths lesson much time is wasted on colouring in symbols and shapes instead of teaching children rigorous intellectual focus, reading, writing and talking and drawing maths. Between 30% to 40% of the curriculum is not covered each year.

Love is also an important word in maths instruction. It removes the fear that so often accompanies pupils’ mathematical learning experience.

Fostering a can-do attitude enhances mathematical thinking and confidence in pupils. Specifically, the centre’s interventions involve three facets: correct, restore and enhance. Our programmes include teachers, parents, communities, business and industry to effect sustainable education solutions.

There are several examples of the practical work that the centre is doing to make a difference in communities.

In primary schools, teachers are encouraged to create a conducive learning environment in which pupils can see maths all around them. As part of the centre’s initiatives at primary schools, external walls and playgrounds are painted with fractions, word problems and maths games like morabaraba. Pupils become proud of their school and recognise how they can excel in maths and value its importance.

My colleagues at the centre are acutely aware of the fact that more than half of pupils leave school with no certification at all.

Because of this, there is an intense focus to correct the grade nine drop-out rate with a programme called MST (maths, science, technology) for Engineering. As part of this programme, world-class science lab carts (self-sufficient with water, gas and solar-generated electricity) are used to expose pupils to the practicalities of science, resulting in improved examination results.

Similarly, MST and Information Communications and Technology hubs in high schools encourage the use of learning technologies, such as computers, CDs and DVDs, and mobile labs to create an effective and engaging learning environment.

In a programme called Maps and Mirrors, pupils are able to gain work experience within mining, manufacturing and IT companies to advance their visions for future careers.

At the same time, we have to look at restoring functionality to schools as a system. Senior management teams of schools are supported to improve their understanding of what the centre calls the “school effect”, such as improving the connection between MST as subjects, and between maths and science departments, improving the management of the curriculum and assessment, and improving relationships with districts, provincial and national education departments.

This ensures that the intellectual value of MST and its connections to careers and further education are fully appreciated and understood in schools.

In the Share and Shine Campaign, teachers meet to share their best practices, to address their own shortcomings and to learn how to support their pupils better. From 2016, the South African Council of Educators will endorse these courses and teachers will earn points for professional development.

One size does not fit all. Maths and science have their own vocabulary and pupils need to develop deep thinking, retention, recall and reproduction to be able to solve more complex problems.

Cumulative gaps created each year make it impossible for pupils to succeed in examinations, especially in grades six, nine and 12. To counter this, the centre promotes the development of language and supplies dictionaries and glossaries to some schools.

Teachers are also provided with ways to cover the full curriculum under these circumstances and support visits to classrooms help to transfer learning from workshops.

These combined resources will give teachers the ability to tackle the whole curriculum.

Charting progression is the key. Up to grade 12, pure maths should be encouraged as a first choice.

Everyone has a role to play, including parents. Parents do not necessarily have to help with homework if they do not feel equipped to do so. Instead, they can inculcate discipline by creating a small space where their children can do their homework without any disturbance. Parental participation enhances the principle of reciprocity, with parents becoming equal partners in education.

All South Africans who care about understanding, creating and maintaining a good quality of life should care about MST. Moreover, powerful teachers make powerful learning and pupils. Let every teacher champion their classroom, every parent their children, every grandparent their grandchildren with love, strong discipline and care, no matter what it takes.

Sharanjeet Shan is the executive director of Maths Centre, a nonprofit organisation striving to improve maths, science and technology education.