Why do South African learners perform so poorly in mathematics? What can we do to improve performance? Is maths still relevant in our current context?
These are some of the questions that Kagiso Trust attempted to answer at the latest instalment of Education Conversations, hosted in conjunction with the University of Johannesburg. Together with panellists Dr. Linda Zuze of the Human Sciences Research Council, Dario Fanucchi, technical director at Isazi Consulting, and consultant Nontobeko Mabude, the event – themed around ‘Mathematics: How does South Africa measure up?’ – examined findings from the recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Studies (TIMSS), and their implications.
For Zuze, some of the most interesting data revealed by the study pertains to gender differences in terms of performance in mathematics, particularly as STEM subjects’ apparent lack of appeal for female learners has been well publicised. In fact, says Zuze, by the time learners reach Grade 9, there is relatively little difference in their performance; although in general, female learners tend to perform better in Grade 5. There is, however, a major difference to be discerned between the achievement of children at fee-paying, independent schools, who tend to perform better than those at non-fee paying schools. Added to this, boys were more likely to outperform girls amongst high achievers at fee-paying schools.
Zuze also commented on the fact that boys at non-fee paying schools were seen to have the lowest career aspirations (although this may be because they are open to less formal career paths). Girls are generally more ambitious in terms of their career goals; they are also more likely to discuss their concerns with a parent or other adult, and to benefit from parental involvement in their homework. A final observation is that although the incidence of bullying has decreased at South African schools, male learners still regularly experience bullying across all school settings.
The TIMSS findings were based on a sample of 12 514 learners, 334 mathematics teachers and 331 science teachers at 292 schools.
Fanucchi’s answer to the question of whether South African learners measure up in mathematics is that we should not be looking at whether mathematics is considered difficult, but if it can be thought of as relevant in our current context. He maintains that the answer is yes, particularly as almost every action or item we encounter in our daily lives involves an element of mathematic calculation. The solution, therefore, is helping learners see this relevance for themselves. It may also help to strengthen the relationship between learners and teachers, so that learners are inspired to try their hardest while receiving the teaching support they require. Technology can also be employed to help foster understanding amongst students; even in schools where connectivity is an issue, cell phones may become a useful teaching aid, said Fanucchi.
For Mabude, the challenge lies in addressing teacher challenges; the major obstacle being the fact that – at primary school level especially – teachers are not required to be subject specialists and are, in fact, rotated through various subjects on an annual basis. This inhibits their ability to foster the deep understanding of mathematics that is required in order to help learners address their concerns.
Although the question of how to address poor performance in mathematics is a complex and multi-faceted one, the panellists were in agreement that the perception of mathematics as a subject that is impossible to master urgently needs to be disproved. Learners should be made to understand that it is simply an extension of their innate logic, and therefore is within everyone’s reach. It is the responsibility of all involved in the education sphere to bring this to their attention, and to use their creativity to make mathematics more accessible.
Education Conversations is an attempt by Kagiso Trust and the University of Johannesburg to encourage greater stakeholder engagement in the creation of an effective public education sector; the goal being to move away from focusing on the pathology of the sector and instead foster debate about the initiatives that have proved fruitful.