The Big Read: Lessons from the space age - Times LIVE
Sun Apr 30 20:33:07 SAST 2017

The Big Read: Lessons from the space age

Jonathan Jansen | 2017-02-23 07:09:04.0
STAR POWER: Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Nasa mathematician Katherine Johnson - a pioneer in US space history and a subject of the film 'Hidden Figures'.

Seldom does a movie audience spontaneously applaud a film they had just watched. You felt the goose-bumps on the skin and the lump in the throat throughout the 127-minute movie.

It was vintage Hollywood, taking you through the pain of watching three black women being denied their brilliance as young mathematicians in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, only to become key players in the successful launch of a manned satellite into space.

It was the early 1960s and the Russians had caused consternation in the Americas with the launch of Sputnik at a time when the space wars were about national pride and international pre-eminence between the superpowers. Nasa was under enormous political pressure to catch up with the Soviets but this required mastery of complex mathematical calculations for which the white men of the agency simply did not have the intellectual nous.

The solution was right there, among them, in these human computers with their incredible mathematical skills, but the organised and everyday racism and sexism of the era were obstacles to recognising the talent under their noses and matching the competitiveness of their Cold War rivals.

Every South African child should watch this movie based on Margot Lee Shetterly's non-fiction book of the same name, Hidden Figures. It is a real-life story that carries many powerful messages on both sides of the Atlantic. It debunks the still widely held nonsense that women and blacks have less of an aptitude for mathematics than men and whites. The movie puts its finger on the core of the problem - the lack of social opportunity rather than the innate intelligence of those who do mathematics.

As these black women overcome the obstacles facing them, they solve the complex mathematics and the even more complex human relations that would eventually enable the Americans to place a man on the moon.

Blacks and women still struggle to achieve in mathematics today. The obstacles are less the structures of racism than the self-imposed restraints of society and schools. Most South African students still do not have competent mathematics teachers from the foundation phase through the high school years.

It is a problem we can solve easily. The obstacles are not Verwoerd and apartheid but the present-day government which 20 years later still lacks the courage and the competence to overcome these barriers to learning.

The movie is also a reminder of the terrible costs to society when we fail to open up opportunities in science and mathematics - and, indeed, in all areas of human learning - to every child or adult. Our inaction from one academic year to the next exacts an incalculable cost on science and society.

To name the problem - incompetent mathematics teachers - is to confront the teachers' union, for which there is no problem: government should give more to teachers, not demand more from them. To solve the problem - preparing competent mathematics teachers - is to once again sink into the quicksand of a failed strategy: incremental teacher training. The department of basic education really does not have any imagination beyond attachment to the classic definition of madness - doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.

A radical solution is required. At the very least this involves massive investment in primary school teaching; it means taking attention, financial and political, away from the final years of high school and steadily building competent foundations in numeracy in the early years. You cannot solve the problem of scientists and mathematicians at university when the pipeline producing such talent is compromised from the very start of formal education.

Teacher training (the same old) should be replaced by mentor-based support to maths teachers in the weakest schools. This strategy solves a political problem by replacing external inspection with in-classroom mentorship by critical but supportive peer teachers with proven competence in maths (and science) teaching. The strategy is more expensive in the short term but more sustainable in the long term.

And there is no way to solve the problem of strong mathematical foundations for every pupil without teacher evaluations based on high performance standards in the subject. This kind of evaluation would follow mentorship-based, on-site support to teachers.

Here the authorities should confront an unpleasant reality - not every teacher will be able to meet these standards and this minority should be counselled out of classroom teaching and replaced.

On the other hand we can pretend the problem does not exist, blame the past, and watch movies instead.


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