The problem with maths

By Drum Digital
28 August 2014

Moms with school-going children know maths homework is often a shared event in many households. Do you wonder math literacy is just a watered down version of the real McCoy? We help you add it all up.

Ask your high school child what their least favourite subject is and the answer is likely to be maths.

Five years ago many learners breathed a sigh of relief when maths literacy was introduced from Grade 10 as an alternative to the notoriously difficult subject.

It covers basic maths for use in everyday life and is generally considered easier than pure maths. Since then the number of maths students in South Africa has dropped steadily.

So is maths for only the smartest of the smart? Not if you consider what’s happening at Zwelibanzi High School in Durban. School principal Sibusiso Maseko experimented with maths literacy for two years then decided to phase it out. He believes it’s possible for any learner to do well at maths.

The result? His matriculants are attaining As and Bs for maths year after year – opening the way for them to become doctors, engineers, scientists and accountants.

The case for maths

Professor Jonathan Jansen, rector of the University of the Free State, caused an outcry last year when he denounced maths literacy as an evil meant for lazy teachers and learners.

Maseko says he and his teachers don’t want to produce learners who are useless once they enter the real world. “I know of other schools getting As in maths literacy that boast a high pass rate – but then their students find they can’t get into university courses that require maths, and they often don’t know that beforehand,” he says.

He and his staff take pride in producing learners who go on to study further and are snapped up for internships by companies. But it requires hard work from teachers and learners alike.

In the second term Grade 12 learners at Zwelibanzi are offered optional extra maths classes three hours a day by staff whose only reward for this labour of love is a braai hosted annually by the headmaster to say thank you.

“I don’t believe it’s that they [learners] can’t do maths; it’s whether or not they’re willing to put in the effort required to be good at it,” Maseko says. He adds parents should take care not to scare their children off maths just because they struggled with the subject when they were at school.

“The world needs people who think the way maths teaches you to think and we shouldn’t underestimate our children in this respect.”

Professor Jansen agrees. “I’m absolutely convinced that this ‘watered-down maths’ [maths literacy] was implemented as compensation for our failure in this country to teach maths properly,” he says.

“We need to correct the real problem and get betterequipped teachers who can teach maths properly, all the way from the lower grades.”

He says he was shocked recently to hear about a school that set its learners and teachers the same maths test in an attempt to find out why its maths pass rate was so poor – and the children did better than some of the teachers!

“The school system is failing our children and it has nothing to do with their intellectual capabilities,” he says. And he doesn’t buy the argument that maths is just too difficult for children.

“Why is Mr Maseko getting it right? I can think of every excuse imaginable as to why I shouldn’t have taken maths but I had teachers who told me I could do it and made an effort to help me.”

According to a 2008 research report published by independent research organization Centre for Development and Enterprise any learner who achieves a mark of 72 per cent or higher in mathematical literacy is capable of achieving at least 50 per cent in maths. The report found tens of thousands of candidates who took mathematical literacy could have passed maths.

Professor Charles Simkins, the report’s author, says many schools are failing to meet the minimum performance standards in mathematics and science education, “undermining the potential of millions of young South Africans and hampering national development”.

The case for maths literacy

On the other hand there are teachers who passionately defend maths literacy in schools. They argue in the old school system maths wasn’t compulsory and now students at least have the option of gaining some kind of knowledge of maths in the form of maths literacy.

“Thanks to maths literacy children who previously struggled to pay attention in class because they believed they couldn’t do maths or were too slow now have more self-confidence,” says Maria Schmidt, a maths teacher at Curro Durbanville Private School in Cape Town.

“In today’s society it’s vital to be number-wise and you don’t need to be an excellent mathematician to achieve that,” says Gauteng-based Maggie Verster, a senior consultant at education organisation Commonwealth of Learning and facilitator of an online maths literacy teachers’ community.

Here’s what some of her group said in support of the subject:

  • “I’ve taught many leaners who, despite much effort, determination and diligence, just don’t understand mathematics. They’re frustrated, develop low self-esteem and learn to hate maths classes. I feel it’s insulting to these learners to be told they can’t do maths because they’re not trying hard enough.”

  • “You shouldn’t do maths literacy if you intend to complete a B Com or B Sc degree. Most students who opt for maths literacy don’t have the aptitude to succeed in either the science or commercial fields. Taking maths literacy limits your access to certain university courses but universities are not the only places to be educated.”

  • “Maths literacy learners feel positive about themselves; they’re getting more than 60 per cent for the first time in their lives!”

  • “I bumped into a former learner recently. She did maths literacy at school and now owns her own cosmetics business and is doing well. She told me her maths literacy helped her a lot when setting up the business.”

  • “I tested some of the teachers on what my pupils learn in maths literacy – how to do their tax return, how to make sense of their water bill, how to draw up a budget and what residual value means when you sell a car. Most of them didn’t know, and these are the things maths literacy teaches.”

  • One teacher said about 80 per cent of the learners he’s taught over the past six years didn’t go to university but followed a trade of some sort or went on to become entrepreneurs.

After school options

If you applied to study at the University of the Witwatersrand and had passed matric maths you’d be eligible for degrees in the faculties of:

  • Engineering and the building industry (including construction management and quantity surveying)
  • Science (including computer science, statistics and actuarial science; physics and chemistry; geography, archaeology and environmental studies; biological and environmental sciences)
  • Health science (including medicine, dentistry and pharmacy)
  • Commerce (including politics, philosophy and economics)

A learner who’d passed maths literacy would be eligible for these degree courses:

  • Bachelor of Arts (including fine arts, music, drama, performing and visual arts)
  • Bachelor of Law
  • Bachelor of Education

With maths literacy you’d probably be accepted to study  a trade such as motor mechanics, boiler-making or panel-beating. You’d need maths to do courses such as electrical, civil and mechanical engineering or architectural drafting at a university of technology.

- Kim van Reizig

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