When I ask an audience, ‘Raise your hand if you loved maths at school’, I am lucky to have 5% of the audience respond positively,”
says Sharanjeet Shan, Executive Director of Maths Centre, a national non-profit organisation striving to improve Maths, Science and Technology (MST) education in Grades R through 12. Shan continues, “When I ask again, ‘Raise your hand if you use some form of maths in everyday life?’ More than 80% of hands go up.” Mathematics is undoubtedly a fundamental feature of basic literacy.
Why then, do national results show that in a matric class that began with over a million learners, only 30, 287 passed mathematics at levels 5, 6 or 7 in 2014? Year after year South Africans voice concern and the debate around the challenges in Maths and Science education continues. However, Maths Centre believes that if mathematics is taught with love and discipline, all stakeholders can be empowered to enable a steady shift toward improved outcomes.
Maths Centre, founded 30 years ago, focuses on the heart of the solution to the South African education crisis; targeting programs towards teachers and students in some of the most poorly-resourced primary and high schools in the country. In 2014, Maths Centre’s various projects supported 520 schools, reaching 174,695 learners and 4,268 educators. In addition, Maths Centre Grade 12s scored pass rates of 81.3% in Mathematics and 85.5% in Physical Science at required levels to access tertiary education.
The initiative develops programmes to enhance teacher qualifications, competencies and professionalism while systematically monitoring teacher and learner progression. Its trainers believe that schools are homes away from home where learners must grow and develop. “The moment the child walks into the classroom, educators must work to replace external challenges with exciting, engaging learning,” says Shan.
Learners acquire knowledge cumulatively, moving from simple to complex. In Foundation Phase, it is crucial to bridge that gap in a gradual and structured manner. Currently, much time is wasted in the Foundation Phase on colouring in symbols and shapes in a maths lesson, instead of teaching children rigorous intellectual focus, reading, writing, talking and drawing maths, 30-40% of the curriculum is not covered each year. But, Shan explains, “Love is also an important word in Mathematics instruction; it removes the fear that so often accompanies mathematical learning experience for children.”
It is this drive to proactively foster a “can do it” attitude that enhances mathematical thinking and confidence in South African learners that has resulted in both Shan and Maths Centre receiving global recognition for their efforts. Shan was named by the Schwab Foundation as an awardee of the 2015 Social Entrepreneur of the Year. She is one of 33 social entrepreneurs across the globe who have been recognised for their ability to effect practical implementation of scalable solutions in the face of social challenges in their respective countries.
Specifically, Maths Centre interventions operate at three levels, ‘Correct’, ‘Restore’ and ‘Enhance’. “Our programmes include teachers, parents, communities, business and industry in the process creating and effecting sustainable education solutions”.
There are several examples of the practical work that the Maths Centre is doing to make a difference in communities across South Africa.
In a primary school setting, educators are encouraged to create conducive learning environments where learners can see mathematics all around. As part of existing Maths Centre initiatives at primary schools, external walls and playgrounds are painted with fractions, word problems and Maths games like Morabaraba. “Learners become proud of their school and recognise how they can excel in maths and value its importance,” says Shan.
Shan and her colleagues at Maths Centre are deeply mindful of the fact that further down the line, over 50% of learners leave school with no certification at all. Because of this, there is an intense focus to ‘correct’ the Grade 9 drop out tragedy with a programme called MST for Engineering. As part of this programme, world class science lab carts (completely self-sufficient with water, gas and solar generated electricity generate) are used to expose learners to the practicalities of Science, resulting in improved examination results. Similarly, the MST and Information Communications and Technology (ICT) Hubs in high schools encourage the use of learning technologies such as computers, CDs, DVDs, mobile labs to create a highly effective and engaging learning environment.
In a programme called Maps and Mirrors, learners are able to gain work experience within mining, manufacturing and IT companies to advance their visions for future careers. In the same vein, ‘Restore’ activities are a system thing, not a single thing. Senior management teams of schools are supported to understand what we call the School effect, the myriad of issues such as improving connectivity of MST as subjects, maths and science departments, management of the curriculum and assessment, relationships with districts, province and national ensure that the intellectual value of MST and its connections to careers and further education are fully appreciated and understood in schools.
In the Share and Shine Campaign, educators meet to share their best practices. In this space, educators address their own gaps to support the learners better. From 2016, the South African Council of Educators will endorse these courses and educators earn points for professional development.
One size does not fit all. Mathematical and Scientific language has its own vocabulary and meaning and needs to support deep thinking, retention, immediate recall and reproduction on demand into more complex problem solving situations. Cumulative gaps created each year make it impossible for learners to succeed in examinations, especially Grade 6, Grade 9 and Grade 12. In response, Maths Centre promotes Language connections as a campaign, supplying dictionaries and glossaries to various schools and educators are supported with strategies for covering the full curriculum under these circumstance. In addition, classroom support visits endorse transfer of learning from workshops. Shan says, “All the resources combined will give the educators competences to tackle the whole curriculum.” Charting progression is the key. ” Up to Grade 12, Pure Maths should be encouraged as a first choice.
Finally, Shan stresses that, “Everyone has a role to play, including parents”. Parents do not necessarily have to help with homework if they do not feel equipped to do so. Instead, parents can inculcate a discipline by creating a small space where the child can do homework without any disturbance. “Parental participation enhances the principle of reciprocity, with parents becoming equal partners in education,” says Shan.
All South Africans who care about understanding, creating and maintaining a quality of life should care about MST. Moreover, powerful educators make powerful learning and learners. Maths Centre’s programmes include all stakeholders – educators, learners, parents and communities, business and industry as part of a solution. Shan stresses, “Let every teacher champion their classroom, every parent their children, every grandparent their grandchildren with love, strong discipline and care, no matter what it takes”.