• July 07, 2017 | Dennis Bloem

Better no Maths than the fraudulent 20% pass mark that the Department of Education wants to perpetrate against learners from disadvantaged communities. Keeping the majority of South African learners on the back foot is totally antithetical to any kind of transformation - leave alone the much bandied radical economic transformation so popular with some politicians today.

It is common cause that most South African maths learners have been continuously at the bottom of the international heap. To exacerbate the dire situation, most maths educators in the past twenty three years failed to acquire the level of skills needed to impart quality maths education. The greatest indictment, however, has to be against the Minister of Education, her deputy, the MEC’s and their Directors General. Why does COPE judge them so harshly?

The way in which maths education is conceived and the manner in which the curriculum is set out merit very severe censure. The political heads are making a tough situation nigh impossible. We cite Paul Lockhart in support of this statement. Lockhart was for many years a research mathematician. He also taught maths at Saint Ann's School in Brooklyn, New York. He makes out a very strong case for the need to reform mathematics education thoroughly so that the aesthetic, intuitive and heuristic aspects are given the centrality they deserve.  

We agree that what is taught in the guise of mathematics and how it is taught and tested in South Africa and elsewhere is antagonistic to the enjoyment and appreciation of mathematics. Googling “A Mathematician’s Lament” or “Lockhart’s Lament” will provide a fascinating tour de force on what has gone wrong in the teaching of mathematics everywhere.

How mathematics is presently being taught, he asserts, has been stunting the imaginations of children. By drably and narrowly focussing on a “sterile set of facts to be memorized and procedures to be followed” neither aesthetics nor analytical skills have benefitted. Mathematics, like music and poetry, must be “a creative and rewarding process of invention and discovery.” By overly emphasising the ‘what’ and neglecting the ‘why’ educators have reduced “mathematics …to an empty shell.”

Reducing the pass mark, as the department is proposing, on top of reducing mathematics to an empty shell must be seen as negating the learning of mathematics to such an extent that nothing at all of consequence will have been learnt. Through both policy and teaching failure a loathing for mathematics or a fear of it will endure to the lasting detriment of learners.

The ANC has just been through an extensive policy review. What a tragedy that neither time nor thought was given to radically reforming the teaching of mathematics as Paul Lockhart has urged in his book. The upshot is that our learners who were on a slippery slope all along will slide even further down.

Is it asking too much to reform the whole approach to the teaching of mathematics?

Finland provides a definitive answer in that regard. It is hardly surprising for this nation, which is a leader in education, to have seen the future and for it to want to seize it while other nations are simply snoozing or simply bewildered about which way to go. The Finns have begun a five year process of radically overhauling its education system. By 2020, the country expects to have phased out teaching individual subjects in favour of teaching thought provoking and relevant topics that have modern relevance. Learners will instinctively and immediately see the point of what they are learning and will want to engage in that learning because it will be meaningful. Maths as a subject on its own will be gone as will all other subjects.

Years ago the Bullock Commission advocated teaching English across the curriculum. The new approach of integrating the curriculum and bringing in a variety of subjects into proper focus to meet special demands, in the same way, will give learners specific skills to meet those very requirements. The clear applicability of knowledge - whether in respect of mathematics or science or any other area of study - provides the most powerful motive force for learning.

The new Finnish model will encourage problem solving and team work so essential to a successful modern economy. By 2020 the whole of Finland will have moved over to the new system.  

Google: mathsinthepark for a proposed South African prototype that will change maths learning in South Africa when it comes into existence.

Meanwhile, when will the South African government embrace radical educational reform and better still extreme radical reform? When will mathematics be taught in a new and innovative way with a view to application as well as to aesthetics and philosophy? To achieve a radical departure will require retraining of educators and the sooner colleges of education are reopened the better. Teachers will need extensive in-service courses to genuinely prepare them for what the coming decades will require.

In conclusion COPE utterly rejects the reduction of the pass mark in mathematics as it does its reduction to an empty shell through the curricular approach now in place. If what is meaningless, ab initio, is followed by more utter meaninglessness the result will be nothingness and emptiness.