Start them young

2008-09-19 00:00

It is one of the mysteries of modern times that mathematics has become imbued with paranoia. During my own school days (in boys’ schools) maths and the preparatory arithmetic were among the most popular subjects. Relative to creative writing and the “swotting” subjects, we were enthusiastic about maths because most of us found little difficulty in applying the methods to get the answers. We were not brighter than pupils of the 21st century, nor were the teaching methodologies exceptional. In fact, we recited tables ad nauseam in which way we learnt accuracy and how to do the sums without wondering too much what theories lay behind the practice. Of course, in those days a calculator was a large box-like, non-electronic and distinctly non-portable instrument, the use of which would never have been condoned by the great proponents of mental arithmetic. I remember being mystified by calculus in my final year when it was accepted that many would take advanced (or was it called additional?) maths in matric. Only then, it seems, did we flounder.

Now, young people are floundering even before they reach high school. It is bad enough that they have difficulty with the numeracy, but all too frequently their re-sponse is to renege on the challenge. Maths phobia is characterised by such lack of confidence that receptiveness to further learning is often at a zero level. The tragedy is that for a large number of young people their future study and career options are severely restricted and they have little alternative but to pursue courses which, except in isolated circumstances, are neither among the country’s scarce skills, nor economically very relevant. Later, they will regret their lack of fortitude in maths, but will find it almost impossible to make up the lost ground.

At Linpark High School last year, only one matriculant took advantage of the excellent workshop facilities at the school and studied motor mechanics. There are several reasons for this very sad state of affairs. Firstly, there is a residual stigma against “practical” as op-posed to academic subjects. Many parents, despite what it costs when they call the plumber or have their cars serviced, are still reluctant to encourage their children to take up blue-collar careers. In fact, it was the governing body at Linpark, I was told, that had insisted that the school be marketed as a “comprehensive” rather than a “technical” high school. In my view, its technical facilities are its competitive edge, but only in a community where people have an appropriate respect for technical skills and technical careers. Young people lucky enough to have escaped parental inhibition, or perhaps encouraged by those who are en-lightened enough to recognise the value of technical skills, are distinctly employable at attractive salaries. They are far better off than their friends who went for marketing in the absence of anything else that appealed. A second, and perhaps even more significant, inhibitor is the fear of maths.

Technical subjects are best done with maths and this means that for many the option of choosing a technical subject doesn’t exist. From the perspective of the country’s future economic growth, and considering the gross shortage of technical skills, this is disastrous.

There is another factor, too. The national curriculum includes technology from Grade 1 to Grade 9. This is the learning area which should expose young people to the wonders and excitement of technology so as to stimulate their interest and develop their aptitudes. But a teacher wishing to learn the methodology of this subject must make private arrangements to do so. Although promised, I understand, bursaries are not being made freely available to those who wish to become adept in the teaching of this field. Consequently, most of the teachers engaged in technology are unqualified methodologically and probably uninterested as well.

So, here in a country desperate for artisans and engineers and others who have the skills to design, construct, maintain, repair and produce, we have thousands of school pupils who are deprived of the opportunity of developing technological literacy and will avoid maths at any price. What are they all going to do, for goodness’ sake?

Faith is being pinned on Further Education and Training (FET) colleges, but they are quite insufficient in number to address the levels of technological and mathematical illiteracy. In any event, contrary to the original intention as I understood it, they are being marketed more as post-school learning institutions instead of viable and sensible alternatives to the insipid academic matric. Many admirable ef- forts are made to correct these deficiencies by organisations and individuals who devote themselves to the advancement of those on the brink of adulthood. But intervention is required at primary school level, for it is here that the matric pass rate is determined and skills development begins, and not in Grade 12 where the flags are flown and the fanfares resound.

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