Making maths matter

2011-06-14 00:00

ON Thursday last week, the front-page article of The Witness engaged the issue of unqualified teachers, in particular in areas such as maths and mathematical literacy. The numbers are presented as shocking, although they are certainly not new. However, the extent of the problem can only be judged against the total number of practising teachers — something the article omitted. What concerned me more was that some may read this article as if teachers' qualifications are the main factor contributing to the high failure rates. I will respond on the basis of research on the topi­c.

Firstly, international literature suggests that the factors related to the teacher only predict 30% of the difference in pupils' performance. The home situation, the pupil him or herself, socioeconomic factors, peers and the school account for the other 70%. Internationally, pupil aptitude and attitude are the main factors in performance — as many believe it should be. However, South Africa is a country where most of the variance in pupil performance is still between schools, rather than bet­ween pupils within schools. Thus, pupil aptitude and attitude may not matter as much here: you can be a motivated, dedicated, and hard-working pupil, but, to put it crudely, it really does matter what school you go to. And the schools are in very different states. As we read in the National Planning Committee's Diagnostic Overview, 1 500 South African schools still do not have on-site ablutions.

Secondly, socioeconomic class is a main factor in a country with extreme inequalities, where on average each white person literally spends 10 times as much money as his or her black co-citizens. In the study of Grade 6 maths teaching and learning our team is completing at the moment, the statistics we have been gathering confirm that for each extra indicator of wealth in pupils' home circumstances, their scores on our test go up by two thirds of a mark. (Piped water, electricity, books in the home, parents' education level and a fridge, were some of the indicators we used.)

Thirdly, language seems to be a major factor. When we hold all other variables in our study constant, the statistical model predicts that English home-language pupils will score 14,5 points higher on the maths test than non-English home-language pupils. This is probably closely linked to school and socioeconomic class, but we must not forget that many pupils have to transition from mother-tongue instruction from Grade 1 to Grade 3, to English or Afrikaans in Grade 4. Almost 80% of our pupils are taught in their mother tongue from Grade 1 to Grade 3, but under 30% have the same right secured from Grade 4 to Grade 6. Furthermore, pupils have not been prepared for this transition, since less than two percent are taught their new language of instruction in the Foundation Phase. And even if they have been, it is too much to expect that they will be what has been called cognitively bilingual — capable of engaging the content meaningfully in a second language.

The result is that we are constructing our pupils as deficient, that it forces teachers to reduce the cognitive demand of the lessons and that these pupils' disadvantage increases with time.

Fourthly, there are the pressing issues of early childhood development, including nutrition and good preschool education. Bad nutrition in the first years of life may put a ceiling on learning for good. To make matters worse, children start school without pre-literacy and pre-numeracy skills.

Finally, we have to face the very uncomfortable truth that there is no clear difference in the content knowledge of qualified and unqualified teachers, at least not in our random sample of teachers from the greater uMgungundlovu district. Unfortunately, this does not mean that they all score equally well on the test we gave them (which mostly consisted of mathematical knowledge needed for teaching Grade 6). Rather, it means that they score equally badly. (It seems the time teachers spend preparing for a class is a more important factor in determining pupil performance.)

Does this mean that our teacher education is failing? To be honest, we know that take-up from our teacher-education programmes generally is too low. But it also reflects that teachers qualified under the previous regime were qualified, but qualified in particular ways, because there was "no use in teaching the Bantu child mathematics", as Hendrik Verwoerd put it.

The one factor I have already touched upon is the children themselves. The importance they assign to mathematics and their self-concept impact on their performance. Surely, here it doesn't help that most pupils do not like mathematics, even hate it, and that the general attitude is that this is okay, because so many care-givers, teachers, and other role models themselves do not like it?

So, yes, it is a problem that many current teachers are unqualified or are underqualified. It is a huge problem that those qualified may also have low content knowledge. And it is an even bigger problem that we can only expect to produce a quarter of the mathematics teachers we need every year. Frankly, I think we need to boost our teacher education, both in quality and quantity. Money better spent than on football stadia and tickets?

Meanwhile, we need to start taking the good teachers we have and putting them where they can make a difference. Let us teach all children mathematics in their home language, if possible; let us teach them so that they actually enjoy the subject; let us teach it so it makes sense; and let us do this by asking those who have excelled in it and want to make a difference to step up — retired mathematicians, scientists, engineers and perhaps even current ones who believe that this is more important than another research article. Who knows, they may even make sure those toilets get built.

• Iben Maj Christiansen is an associate professor of mathematics education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She writes in her personal capacity.

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