We can do the maths

08 November 2012 - 02:09 By Jonathan Jansen
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If you still believe mathematical literacy should remain in the school curriculum, consider the following question from the Grade 12 Paper 1 examination written last week: "State whether the following event is CERTAIN, MOST LIKELY or IMPOSSIBLE: Christmas Day is on December 25 in South Africa."

For this brainteaser you would gain two marks. I am not sure what upsets me more - the fact that there are three options to this question, the cultural bias against non-Christian pupils, or that the mathematics in question 1.1.7 is not obvious at all.

Then, if that were not enough, Statistics South Africa released its Census 2011 report which, on its front cover, shows a smiling young teacher with chalk and duster in hand addressing a group of school children. Behind her is a black- board showing division problems, one below the next. Question 3 shows a line that reads 21 ÷ 7 = 6. Whether this is poor use of the blackboard space or a simple error of calculation, the carelessness of mathematical representation speaks to the broader crisis of maths and science in our country. That Stats South Africa did not realise the embarrassing front page message makes you wonder about the reliability of what appears between the covers.

Small wonder the fifth Financial Development Report of the World Economic Forum, also released last week, placed South Africa last out of 62 countries for the quality of its science and mathematics education. Ahead of us were poor countries like Kenya, Bangladesh, Ghana and Nigeria. A good friend told of a countryman who saw the forum's announcement in a positive light - we got 100%, 62 out of 62.

Fret not, there is wonderful news just released. The minister of basic education will appoint a committee to investigate the standard of the matric exams. Don't hold your breath; I can confidently give you the results of that investigation in advance. The study will not declare the matric standards a disaster; they will report that our standards are actually quite high and on a par with other countries, but perhaps minor adjustments need to be made. It is called politics; when under pressure, establish a commission.

In the meantime, the foundations of mathematics teaching and learning remain a crisis and no amount of testing and retesting will change that fact.

Here are three simple realities: Most primary school teachers do not know enough maths to teach it (content), they do not know enough about the teaching of maths to teach the subject effectively (pedagogy), and they do not work in stable school contexts to teach without interruption (instructional time).

This brings me to the story of Thembi* (a pseudonym), which I shared with you last week. I was deeply moved, and at times emotional, as scores of South Africans at home and abroad sent e-mails offering to contribute to the university education of this remarkable young matriculant who not only survived the horror of rape and bearing witness to the murder of her mother at the hands of her father, but rose above these traumas to score her highest marks this year (90%, 94%) in not one but two mathematics papers.

Many readers said they were pensioners, and one asked: "Would you mind if I gave R20 only? It's all I have." A mother shared the story with her child, who also wanted to contribute from his meagre pocket money. Others said they had no money at all as they were unemployed, "but I will pray for her" said one, and from another jobless person, "Can I read to her or help in any other way"?

The commitments still come daily, and I want to thank you sincerely on behalf of the young woman; she will write to you after the Grade 12 exams are over.

I can assure you there are millions of young women like Thembi out there who, given half a chance at a decent maths education, will also excel in this subject with quality teaching in stable school environments. What grieves me deeply is the amount of talent that is wasted because our expectations of youths are so low.

Yet your responses prove to me what is possible with citizen action. Just imagine that the energy, commitment and selflessness that you demonstrated were used to change all our schools and improve the academic prospects of every student across the country.

What if, as you showed, our first response to an education crisis somewhere was not our incorrigibly fractious government but our own resources - spiritual, emotional, intellectual and material?

For now, be certain to enjoy December 25.

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