Tackling the challenge of improving South African learners’ maths results

Synopsis: the Improving Maths Performance Debate, held recently in Sandton, Johannesburg, under the auspices of the FirstRand Foundation, brought some of South Africa’s brightest minds together to consider solutions to this recurrent challenge.

Improving Maths Sizwe

There is no doubt that education is a vitally important aspect of every young South African’s future. There is equally no doubt that the current education system is facing many challenges and is struggling to produce school leavers of the calibre required in industry, most notably when it comes to the subject of mathematics.


When identifying the causes behind the failure of so many learners in respect of this subject, the tendency amongst the public is to bash the teachers, but when one considers the complexity of teaching maths, one quickly realises that there is much more to the issue than simple teaching failures.


Mr. Edward Mosuwe, DDG: Curriculum Management Delivery, delivered the keynote address of the Improving Maths Performance Debate and highlighted the systemic challenges in maths education in the country. He encouraged the participants at the event to confront these challenges, deliberate on them and come up with sustainable options.


Sizwe Nxasana, Chairman of the FirstRand Foundation and sponsors of the event, pointed out that the organisation is aware of just how important this issue is and is thus committed to doing all it can to assist in changing the status quo.


“Solving this challenge requires asking the right questions, developing the right remedies and obtaining the right levels of support from external players, such as tertiary education institutions,” he says.


“It is important we develop our own solutions to the challenges, to cope with the vagaries of our education system. We must also commit to collaboration. If we work together, we can do more, at less cost while avoiding duplication of effort. Ultimately, we need to build a shared understanding of the problems, so we can mobilise resources to match the scale of the challenge and develop not one, but a range of possible solutions.”


According to Prof Hamsa Venkatakrishnan, SA Numeracy Chair at Wits University, the institution’s project has focused on teaching in the intermediate phase. Here, she says, there are significant numbers of teachers who have trouble teaching maths.


“There is a limited understanding of what progression is in the Intermediate and Foundation phases. Too many teachers only check that children have the correct answer, rather than considering how they got there. For this reason, we implemented a 20-day course to assist teachers with ways of learning maths that can then be introduced in the classroom. Our emphasis is on the connections between representations and on coherent explanations.”


“We have received great feedback from many of the teachers involved, who felt the course had made them enthusiastic about teaching maths, as they now had different and better methods to take back into the classroom,” she says.


Prof Jill Adler, Maths Chair at Wits University, points out that this issue is a multifaceted challenge. This means that it is not adequate to consider a single intervention into the system, because the system itself is constantly evolving.


“We need to understand what is happening in the earlier grades, because the problems start long before the learners get to high school level. The goal of our intervention is to change the teachers’ relationship with maths, by changing how they talk about it in class.”


“We named the course ‘mathematical discourse in instruction’ and its aim is to unpack and explain the abstract ideas in maths. The course involves 20 days, spread across the four terms. This gives the teachers time to work at their maths and teaching between sessions.

It appears to be working, as since its implementation more learners in the schools we work with are attaining A, B or C grades in grade 12.”


Margie Keeton, a trustee of the Epoch and Optima Trusts adds that the organisation has been focused on a project to increase the number of black school leavers with a C or higher in maths. The Maths Challenge Programme (MCP) has had a positive and sustained impact on learners, she explains, adding that nationally, 15% of students obtain a quality pass, while 40% of the students in the schools the MCP works with achieve similar.


“We aim to continue to support these schools and are now implementing a long term programme for Grade eights. We will be sharing the lessons we have learnt and we are also open to partnerships, because we believe we have something special here,” she says.


Barbara Dale-Jones, CEO of Bridge, a non-profit organisation aimed at fostering collaboration and co-operation across the education sector, suggests there are four actions that will help improve maths education.


“Firstly, it is important to identify the performance stage of the system in which you are operating and to choose your intervention level. You must also ensure teacher buy-in. Secondly, one needs to understand the challenges involved in scaling – it is crucial to be able to take the understandings and learnings achieved in pilot projects before rapidly taking them to scale. Remember, not everything is scalable and also a project’s impact may be diluted by scale.”


“The third way lies in committing to knowledge management, which means sharing knowledge around good  practice and developing more than just research and reports. The sector needs guidelines, databases and tools for teachers to be developed as well. Finally, it requires a commitment to proper evaluation. This means defining the impact of the project, considering post-project evaluation to track its sustainability and, most critically, ending the culture of secrecy around evaluations. These results must be shared so we can all learn from them,” she concludes.