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Robert Andrew
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Teaching Mathematics to Oppressed People

29 January 2014, 18:34

It is by now common knowledge that the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Technology Report for 2013 ranks South Africa's Maths and Science education second last in the world, only ahead of Yemen[1]. Yemen has a GDP of $35 Billion and a GDP per capita of$2300 and spends about 5.2% on education.[2] South Africa’s GDP is about $384 Billion, GDP per capita $7000 and spends about 6% of GDP on education.

The context of maths education in Yemen appears to be similar to that in South Africa and many developing countries:  schools have large classes, few resources, dominant teachers, and most importantly, standardised ‘whole class teaching’, and focus on factual information rather than instilling knowledge with understanding. It is not known what the pass mark is in Yemen and if it is higher than the 40% requirement in South Africa, the position in South Africa may be that much graver. It is also not known whether Yemen has a watered-down version called Maths Literacy. As the website Politics Web has stated:  “We welcome the Minister's [Basic Education] recently established special task team investigating the progress of teaching programmes in maths, science and technology across South Africa. We can no longer deny the fact that our education system has limped down the international rankings and is in dire need of intervention”.

Of course, it is only about 50 years ago that the teaching of mathematics and science to the majority of the population was not even considered necessary.  The Bantu Education Act, 1953 (Act No. 47 of 1953; later renamed the Black Education Act, 1953) was a segregation law which legalised several aspects of the apartheid system[3]. Hendrik Verwoerd, at the time Minister of Native Affairs, claimed that the aim of the Act was to solve South Africa's "ethnic problems" by creating complementary economic and political units for different ethnic groups. Education was viewed as having a rather pivotal position in entirely eventually separating South Africa from the so-called Bantustans. In this regard Verwoerd stated:  "There is no place for [the Bantu] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour.  What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice?"

The design of ‘special’ education curricula for people being oppressed by oppressive regimes is not new. It may also be argued that poverty is oppression, so a large majority of our people are still being oppressed even though they are politically free.  What has been found important, however, is how to rectify the damage done by repressive curricula, after transformation to non-oppressive conditions.  I believe getting this right is our greatest challenge for improving the standard of the teaching of mathematics in South Africa.

Of significant importance in this regard is the work carried out by Paulo Freire (1921 to 1997)[4]. Freire was a Brazilian educator and philosopher and was as a leading advocate of ‘critical pedagogy’[5]. Critical pedagogy is associated with maximising the relationships between teaching and learning. It is described as a continuous process of ‘unlearning’, ‘learning’,’ relearning’,’ reflection’ and ‘evaluation’. Freire claimed that the positive impact of these actions on students who have been historically, and continue to be disenfranchised by, ‘traditional schooling’ can be successful.

Freire is best known for his influential work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed[6], which is considered one of the foundational texts of the critical pedagogy movement.

In this book Freire seeks to overturn the educational status quo that Freire saw as ‘a banking system’ in which teachers deposited knowledge into the passive brains of students. “The scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits,” Freire wrote. The purpose of teaching is to pass exams.

Freire rejected the ‘banking’ approach, claiming it results in the dehumanization of both the students and the teachers. In addition, he argues that the banking approach stimulates oppressive attitudes and practices in society. Instead, Freire advocates for a more world-mediated, mutual approach to education that considers people incomplete. According to Freire, this "authentic" approach to education must allow people to be aware of their incompleteness and strive to be more fully human. This attempt to use education as a means of consciously shaping the person and the society is called ‘conscientization’, a term first coined by Freire in his book. Freirean education is meant to respect and include the oppressed, empowering them to seek social justice for themselves and others. Learning is a critical dialogue between teacher and students, with a shared goal of raising consciousness about oppression and social justice. It is an alternative approach to:

The teacher teaches and the students are taught

 The teacher knows everything and the students know nothing

 The teacher thinks and the students are thought about

 The teacher talks and the students listen- meekly

 The teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined

 The teacher chooses and enforces his choice and the students comply

  The teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the teacher

 The teacher chooses the program content and the students, (who were not consulted) adapt   to it

 The teacher confuses the authority of knowledge with his own professional authority, which he sets in opposition to the freedom of his students

 The teacher is the Subject of the learning process and the students are mere objects.

 While critical pedagogy is relevant to all education and applies to all subjects taught, it is of special significance to the teaching of mathematics, which many regard as the unique ‘essence and language’ of life and nature. To this end, the learning and teaching of the subject of mathematics should encourage, enable and inspire students:[7]

 To recognise that mathematics permeates the world around us

To appreciate the usefulness, power and beauty of mathematics

To enjoy mathematics and develop patience and persistence when solving problems

 To develop mathematical curiosity and use inductive and deductive reasoning when solving problems

 To develop abstract, logical and critical thinking and the ability to reflect critically upon their work and the work of others

 To develop a critical appreciation of the use of information and communication technology in mathematics

 To appreciate the international dimension of mathematics and its multicultural and historical perspectives.

 Knowledge and understanding are fundamental to studying mathematics and form the base from which to explore concepts and develop problem-solving skills. Ability for mathematical reasoning is an essential tool for making deductions and solving problems.

Investigating patterns allows students to experience the excitement and satisfaction of mathematical discovery. Mathematical inquiry encourages students to become risk-takers, inquirers and critical thinkers.

Through the use of mathematical investigations, students need to be given the opportunity to apply mathematical knowledge and problem-solving techniques to investigate a problem, generate and/or analyse information, find relationships and patterns, describe these mathematically as general rules, and justify or prove them.

The purpose of education, and especially mathematics education, is to create a better learning environment and a better world. Freire himself maintained that this was not merely related to educational tools and techniques but also to teachers and learners living and relating in a stimulating educative practice.

[1] Politics Web:






[7] Senri International School Foundation.

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