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Mon Nov 24 11:24:36 CAT 2014

Science teachers failing

KATHARINE CHILD | 05 November, 2012 00:04
A teacher gives a lesson during the second day of the 2012-2013 course at the Alfredo Miguel Aguayo Sanchez school in Havana
A teacher gives a lesson
Image by: DESMOND BOYLAN / REUTERS

As South Africa continues to perform dismally in international schools maths and science proficiency surveys, Wits professor Marissa Rollnick has pointed to the standard of teaching as part of the problem.

The World Economic Forum's annual report on development has placed South Africa last among 62 countries on the quality of maths and science education. Last year, South Africa was second-last - ahead of Yemen.

Rollnick, chairman of science education at the Marang Centre for Mathematics and Science Education, said her concerns were less about the papers set for matric exams written last week and more about the general standard of science teaching, which she believed did not prepare pupils for the exams.

About the science paper written last week, Rollnick said: "Most of the paper is of good quality, apart from a few multiple-choice questions that can be described as being of poor quality."

Rollnick said only 40 of the 150 marks were for easy questions.

"I found many of the questions very difficult, and there were too few easy questions for pupils with poor understanding to pass . I would expect the pass rate to be the same or lower than last year.

"In order to pass, any pupil would need to show a good knowledge and understanding of chemistry."

Rollnick explained that pupils were tested on their understanding and application of knowledge, and not on whether they had merely memorised information.

The problem, said Rollnick, was that, in most schools, pupils were taught to memorise the work instead of to comprehend, analyse and apply it.

"I know most teachers aren't teaching the comprehension, application and analysis of the material. I have witnessed enough teaching [and] teachers themselves often don't have the knowledge."

She said there was a "lack of sensitivity" by the examiner to linguistic challenges faced by South African pupils.

"The same questions could have been asked in much simpler language without any loss of the standard of chemistry being tested.

"The majority of South African pupils will not be able to answer many of the questions merely because of the language demand," Rollnick said.

Universities were likely to assume that pupils who scored less than a B grade would struggle with first-year chemistry, she said.

Science professors noted that each year there were fewer and fewer exam questions focusing on science in everyday life and science in society.

"This means that we are moving back to an old-fashioned curriculum," Rollnick said.

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga announced last month that a meeting would be convened to discuss how to increase the number of pupils studying maths and science.

Her department has plans to examine the standard of the National Senior Certificate exam. Comparisons will be made with countries on the same development level as South Africa.

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