Like Surgeon Xolo and Albert Einstein our learners can also be Mathematics smarties.

2014-08-06 08:44

The reason why we have such unreasonably high rates of learner underachievement in mathematics and also unreasonably high rates of learner enrolments in mathematical literacy, especially in the black communities, can certainly be attributed to our teachers’ and communities’ mathematics stigma around math.

Had it not been of the lack of guidance by my family and teachers, I would have done Mathematics but unfortunately I did this lousy Mathematical Literacy and we cannot let other equally talented learners to fall for this academic tragedy.  One of the mathematical wizards in South Africa is Surgeon Xolo who, at first, was nowhere near the top collar range but with his teacher’s belief in him he rose from the bottom of the class to the top and went on to do his Ph.D. in math in one of the world’s best higher learning institutions, Cambridge University. The same can be said about Albert Einstein. Their stories attest to the fact that there is nothing really impossible if there is someone who believes in your mathematical and other abilities. We are first to moan when the lists of qualified Chartered Accountants, Actuaries and Engineers as well as Math Olympiads are dominated by our white communities turning the blind eye on the fact that most schools in urban areas have eliminated mathematical literacy as a subject in the realisation that whether you want to be your own boss or be employed, the likelihood that one will succeed in the corporate sector with the mathematics background far outweighs that of mathematical literacy.

What seems to be the problem with the black schools is the obsession with quantity than quality results—they will rather have more learners progress to the next grade with math literacy grade of 70% than with 20% in math. It is about time teachers devised creative ways to teach mathematics than to wholly attribute dismal learner academic performance to learners’ deficient efforts. In our black communities it is an accepted norm for learners to take home 1% in math. Yes, at the school that I used to work the highest mark in grade 10 was 15 over 199. When a child takes home 30% in this subject he or she is given a pad on the shoulder for it seems to be an acceptable norm and the most possible one to reach. The purpose of this article is not to assume that everyone is mathematically gifted but just a mere attempt to show that we have more people who can do math than math literacy. I am going to try to put forth how we can create sustainable and empowering learning environments (SuELE) with the hope of overcoming this mathematical dilemma in our township schools.

The use of indigenous language(s) as the language of learning and teaching (LoLT)

It is a real worry to know that the number of learners who take math in South Africa is at its lowest levels. There is empirical research evidence that the use of home language or lack thereof contributes largely to a child’s academic success/ failure. Setati (2008:103) avers that classroom conversations that include students’ first language as legitimate resources can support students in learning to communicate mathematically. Setati, et al (2010:129) further note that the majority of South Africa’s teachers teach in classrooms and schools where English is officially the language of teaching and learning, but not the prime language of either the teachers or learners. When you look at this from the commercial and political perspective it makes sense to use English as the language of teaching and learning but academically it has disadvantaged so many of the capable souls. For everything to make full sense it must be explained in our home languages but what we are faced with is the situation whereby most of our learners are compelled to learn math in English, the language they still have to understand for survival. In this instance learners fail to understand both the mathematical language and English as the language of tuition.

To overcome this language barrier I suggest we do the following:

  • It will be wise for teachers to switch between English and any indigenous language by explaining the meaning of mathematical concepts in the language that learners will understand, although this may prove to be troublesome in a classroom that is linguistically diverse.
  • We need to inculcate the culture of reading among our learners, especially English literature, so that we can improve their vocabulary. We hope by so doing they will be in a better position to wrestle this language challenge.

Creativity, practicality and learner-centred teaching are important

Do teachers ever bother to show learners where in real life will they need and use math? Do our math teachers ever think we have come to the end of talk and chalk method that I am sure is every learner’s dismay? It goes without saying that math is in nature abstract but we can make it lively by using examples that every learner is familiar with. Instead of using examples that are provided in the textbooks, use the rondavel (every child in Africa has seen it probably) as the means to illustrate the circumference of a circle. We know as a teacher you have undergone an intensive training and you deserve to stand in front of learners to showcase your world-class pedagogical skills, but isn’t it time you gave learners more opportunities to demonstrate how they learn best? How about you incorporate role-play in your teaching? Why not task those learners who understand some complex mathematical concepts to tutor those who do not? To ensure that this process is a success, teachers can train these tutors in order to understand the art of teaching, pedagogy.

We live in a world that is technologically driven, thus has provided us with ample opportunities to interact with our peers not only within our borders but offshore, thanks to the internet. We need to use these resources to our advantage by engaging with the global partners in education to share ideas on how we can make math interesting. We can connect our learners to their fellow learners in Singapore, for instance, to collaboratively solve math problems and possibly exchange tips on how their teachers make math easy and interesting.

Contribution to sustainable learning and empowering learning environments.

These suggestions I hope will contribute to the creation of sustainable and empowering learning environments which, in a nutshell, comprise: 1) sharing of ideas and experimental learning; 2) reciprocity—teachers learn from learners and vice versa; 3) making and learning from mistakes is embraced wholeheartedly and lifelong learning is engraved in the teachers’ and learners’ hearts.

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