SA Schools’ Maths Crisis Doesn’t Add Up
For many learners, maths is a nightmare subject, and studies show that South Africa has a maths crisis. NEREESHA PATEL spoke to an expert on how to address this crisis, in schools and at home.
Over the years, the quality of South Africa’s education system has suffered. This is seen clearly in the teaching of mathematics in our schools, which is among the worst in the world.
In 2011, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study showed that South African learners have the lowest performance among all 21 middle-income countries that participated.
Results of diagnostic tests carried out by maths tutoring service Brighter Futures with over 8000 high school learners in 2017 and this year showed that concepts such as multiplication from as early as Grade 3 are not being properly mastered.
These tests also revealed deficiencies for Grade 8s: the average performance of fractions at a Grade 4-7 level was just 31%, and word problems and numbers/integers were 37% and 32%, respectively.
As learners move through the senior phase of Grades 7-9, and mathematical operations become more abstract and complex, areas of weakness cause devastating drops in achievement. These could have detrimental effects in the long-term, specifically a plummet in maths-efficiency and decreasing levels of confidence.
“In maths, the knowledge and concepts from previous grades scaffold onto one another,” explained Joanne Brink, CEO of Brighter Futures. “This means that learners who haven’t grasped basic concepts at the early grade level will find it harder to complete basic questions at the higher grades because they’re still struggling on simple concepts.
“For example, we see how this manifests with Grade 9 learners spending one minute of their question time to complete a basic multiplication operation, which is only a small component of the question. This means they don’t even get to the algebra component of the question in the time allotted,” Ms Brink added.
As a result of these complications, Grade 9 learners who are unable to achieve 50% or more are often encouraged or even mandated by many schools to switch from mathematics to maths literacy in Grade 10. On average, 50-60% of learners drop to maths literacy in Grade 10, but this rate varies, depending on the income level of the school population.
Two-thirds do maths lit
The Grade 12 matric results in 2017 showed that 66% of learners wrote maths literacy (280000, while only 143000 wrote pure maths).
For learners who wish to study towards becoming engineers or doctors or other professions that require a strong knowledge of maths, it can be devastating to make the switch. Ms Brink said that it boils down to “a matter of missing fundamentals”.
The backlog in these learners’ maths mastery means that they are unable to cope with the Grade 10-12 pure maths curriculum, unless they receive significant extra support, Ms Brink explained.
“At this point, many of them have given up. They’ve been repeatedly told that they can’t do maths and now believe it themselves.”
Ms Brink suggested that parents check the children’s level of proficiency in basic maths concepts by asking them simple maths-based questions, for example by using a deck of cards to play multiplication or fraction games, and visiting websites that hosts free maths games.
Teachers must be able to properly diagnose the maths gaps in their classroom. Schools can partner with Brighter Futures to run diagnostic tests so that they can pinpoint where the gaps started and how extensive they are, Ms Brink said.
Brighter Futures currently runs diagnostic tests for Grade 8-12 maths learners across 13 schools in Gauteng. This, said Ms Brink, helps teachers to “better prioritise and focus on the key gaps through extra lessons or simply modifying the sequence of teaching or other means”.
Learners each receive a detailed report that breaks down their results across the topics tested. “This empowers the learner and parent to focus on their areas of weakness from the beginning of the year,” Ms Brink said.
Each teacher receives a report that shows their class’s performance across the topics tested.
Using these test results, schools can develop focused workshops or provide ongoing extra lessons for learners who have not mastered the basics and thus need to catch up.
The role of parents
Communicating the importance of parents ensuring their kids complete additional maths tasks at home is also key in improving their understanding and application of the subject.
Ms Brink also said that the provincial education departments can also use the diagnostic tests conducted at schools to develop relevant learning support materials and teacher development workshops that address the Primary school maths gaps that high school learners arrive with.
“The district subject facilitators who monitor and support each subject for public schools require that teachers stick to a rigid curriculum plan that lists the sequencing of topics, how much time should be spent on each topic, and so on,” Ms Brink noted.
“Although curriculum coverage is an excellent goal for each school, the priority should be placed on key topics being properly mastered, rather than enforcing coverage for every single topic,” she suggested. “Maths departments then have the information to develop in-house school initiatives that can address these gaps. Examples would be creating space in the weekly timetable for basic maths drills or revising key topics.”
Brighter Futures has partnered with three Catholic schools — Maryvale College, McAuley House and Sacred Heart — in Johannesburg archdiocese, and found that the level of participation of parents and learners at these schools far exceeds most of the other schools they have partnered with.
“We’ve seen that for learners to improve their maths results, there are essentially three critical ingredients: the learner needs to participate in their learning journey by asking questions and identifying when they are struggling; they need to be committed to practise maths questions; lastly, their parents are committed and involved in their child’s maths journey,” Ms Brink said.
“These three ingredients are highly present at our partner Catholic schools and many others because of the culture and ethos of the schools, and we commend them for achieving this.”
For more information about Brighter Futures and to access their online resources go to www.brighterfuture.co.za
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