The problem with maths

2009-08-18 00:00

THIS is in response to the headline on the massive maths failure in KwaZulu-Natal (The Witness, August 13).

It is definitely a massive failure, but is not confined to KZN. It’s a major South African problem which the “experts” are trying to solve without even bothering to identify the cause of the problem.

Anyone who is involved must first realise that maths cannot be taught the same way as (for example) embroidery is taught. The sequences that one would follow in embroidery could have originated in someone’s imagination but it has, since then, become a “rigid” sequence which could be called a “pattern”. On the other hand, any sequence or pattern that is found in maths is based on pure and simple logic. And that is why, in countries where the standard of maths is far higher, the most basic and primary task of any maths teacher in the junior classes is to invoke and stimulate “the sense of logic” that is inherent in every child. Understanding of maths and proficiency in it would automatically follow. This is exactly what is not happening in South Africa.

Here (with hardly any exception) maths is taught more as a pattern the children need to follow. The teachers show the patterns and the children follow them with occasional or constant assistance from their parents, who themselves are the products of “the pattern system”.

The technique works perfectly when children are in primary school. There are very few patterns for them to master and there are far too few diversions to distract them. The entire scenario changes as they get to the higher levels where logical thinking and analysing are an absolute necessity to handle any problem that requires the application of a concept.

For most people, the solution lies in the retraining of teachers, especially matric teachers, and money is being poured into this futile and ludicrous venture. They fail or refuse to see that in most countries, the task of a matric teacher is very much like fixing a roof on top of an existing wall which, in turn, is built on a strong foundation. Here, the matric maths teachers are busy fixing roofs on imaginary buildings that do not exist. The obvious results shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Any corrective measure, therefore, should start right at the junior levels, just as the fertilisers to produce a better yield are placed around the roots and not over the flowers.

The most important corrective measure is to put systems in place to make sure that only a person with a degree (or qualification) in a particular subject should be teaching that subject at any level. In most countries (which includes a lot of African countries), a physics teacher, for example, wouldn’t be allowed or asked to teach even a closely related subject like chemistry or maths. Here, on the other hand, it is common for teachers to teach a subject (including maths) without themselves having any formal or sound education in that subject. The department and teachers’ unions are currently relying on “in-service courses” and training programmes to equip such “makeshift” teachers.

A horse can be taken to a training centre only to improve its basic skills as a horse. But no training on Earth can make a camel out of it. Training can dev­elop only what is inherent. And what is inherent is what you understood and learnt as a child and observed time and again in various dimensions and manifestations over the years. No in-service course can provide someone with this understanding and insight. And a person without this insight can never be a teacher.

• Thomas Mathew is a maths teacher from India who has worked in Africa since 1977. He came to South Africa in 1991 where he worked in the former Transkei until 2005. He currently teaches Grades 8 to 12 at a high school in Matatiele.

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