What is the real problem with Mathematics?

2017-07-17 15:40

I was excited to see a City Press Editorial: It’s time to deal with the reason kids fail maths – I am a high school math teacher (ex Model C, if you’re interested), and City Press Editorials are often pretty good at getting to the heart of the matter.

Sadly, I was a bit disappointed by the time I reached the end.  Oh, it was OK as far as it went and its proposals were obvious enough: Hire skilled teachers…Competency tests…Upgrade teachers’ abilities…and so on.  In this case though, I didn’t think that the editorial got to the heart of the matter.  So sit back and make yourself comfortable, ‘cos this is going to be quite a long article while I offer you two decades of teaching math and trying to understand what exactly is going wrong.

Where to start?  I remember well my first year at the high school where I am still teaching, and how the math results were ‘the worst we ever had’ – not a happy thought for a new teacher in a new school.  18 years down the line I can only say that every single year our math results have been worse than the previous year!  It may be an astonishing thing to admit, but I think it’s time for the truth to come out: we can only deal with the present situation if we acknowledge just how bad it is.  Don’t think we haven’t tried, by the way; intervention programs, extra lessons…the fact is that nothing works.

Corruption plays its part, I think.  Fifteen years ago I was interviewed by a lady from the D of E.  She explained a far-reaching project that was intended to upgrade math skills in high schools.  Basically, any math teacher would be invited to attend a course every weekend for a year; if they successfully completed the course, they would be paid a double salary for the next three years.  I commented that my best course would be to pretend that I was under-qualified…”Oh no,” she replied, “someone like you would be giving the course and receive even better benefits.”  It was a staggering proposal: upgrading 100 teachers would cost about R30 million and how many hundreds, if not thousands of teachers, would be involved.  “The funds are in place,” she assured me.

Anyway, I didn’t hold my breath, which was just as well.  Ten years later the D of E suddenly called teachers from a variety of subjects to workshops that were to be held at hotels across the province.  Teachers were expected to reside at the workshops from Friday to Sunday.  I flatly refused to attend any of those workshops, seeing them as a cheaper, watered down version of what that lady had spoken to me about a decade earlier. 

On the one hand I acknowledge the right of the D of E to change its plans, but on the other hand…I suspect that people had been ‘dipping into’ those funds in place, and when the funders started to ask questions a revised and of course cheaper option was hurriedly put together.

The root of the problem, I suggest, is to be found in Grades 3 and 4; and the insidious practice of pushing learners into the next grade.  Let’s tackle the second one first.  The so-called pass requirements are actually a joke: the D of E will never accept a large number of learners failing a particular grade, and if a school is impertinent enough to arrive at the end of the year with results that show too many learners failing a grade, they are told to ‘go back and sort it out’.  Do I need to draw a picture of what that means?

I honestly estimate that some 70-80% of Grade 8 learners arriving at our school in recent years have not passed math since Grade 5 or 6.  Unbelievable, I hear you say.  Well, you simply do not want to know what we have to do to get our Grade 8 and 9 learners into the senior phase – I made one damaging admission at the beginning of this article, and that’s enough for now.  Besides, as an educator I am shamed by what I had to do.

So what about Grades 3 and 4?  Surely this is the time when some of the fundamental building blocks for a future in math have to be consolidated, namely bonds, tables and arithmetic.  Unfortunately the only way to do that is through drilling and repetitive exercises.  There is no other way.  You have to show a learner that one half plus one quarter is the same as three quarters, and show them how it works with other simple fractions.  Yet 80-90% of Grade 8 learners, when asked what is one half plus one quarter, will either not answer at all or – after much thought – reply ‘2 over 6’.  If a learner does not KNOW that seven times six is 42 by the time they come to high school, it is simply too late to try and teach them.

Actually, everybody knows that the real problem vis-à-vis mathematics starts around Grade 3 or 4, but no one does anything about it.  Why?  Well, the thing is, you see, that a radical intervention program in those grades would not produce any real results for a decade, which is simply too long for politicians and parents to wait.  Instead, we have to put up with that travesty called Math Lit, hated by learners and parents, who see it as a completely useless subject.  Instead, we have to accept learners to do mathematics in the senior phase, despite overwhelming evidence that they simply will not cope, because parents scream at us – yes, literally scream at us – that ‘there is no way my child will do Math Lit’.

Are you still comfortable?  You shouldn’t be really, really.  If you are involved in basic education, you know I’m telling the truth, and you know I’m taking a bit of a risk since I could be charged with bringing the profession into disrepute.  It’s usually easier to shoot the messenger rather than accept the unpalatable truths she or he may be speaking.  If you are a parent you should be getting off your chair, unable to contain your outrage at what is happening in our public schools.  On my side I have tried to speak the truth as I see it; I have tried to ‘deal with the reason kids fail maths’, so don’t shoot me: I’m only the piano player.

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