The story of South Africa’s overall performance in maths is a much lamented concern, based on various global studies. Picture: David Ritchie/African News Agency (ANA) Archive
The story of South Africa’s overall performance in maths is a much lamented concern, based on various global studies.

In a 2016, a World Economic Forum study showed South Africa was ranked 146th out of 148 countries and in a 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, South Africa was ranked with the bottom five worst performing countries.

I was therefore completely inspired this past weekend to be part of two maths initiatives designed and funded by the Western Cape government that seek to build a culture of proficiency and excellence in maths education.

The annual YearBeyond Programme provides a platform for post-Matric youth who are not in education or employment to bring their innovative skills into the education sector, by using their own lived experiences in a classroom to design solutions for other youth still in school. This year the theme was “Making Maths FUNctional”. Some 98 post-Matric youth are participating in this year-long programme to improve a specific education challenge - in this case, maths tuition. They are using their own stories and learning difficulties to design solutions to improve the learning experience of other pupils. This is true innovative design-thinking.

The work they did was displayed on Friday at the UCT GSB Solutions Space in Philippi in the second round of the YearBeyond Education Innovation Challenge. It was inspiring to see the “FUNctional” solutions to maths education that the students came up with. It was clear that our children are not avoiding maths. They simply want it taught in a way that values them.

Then on Saturday morning I spent time attending another Western Cape government maths initiative designed by Andrew Barrett and the amazing team at Olico, a maths education NGO. More than 120 learners from 25 low fee/no fee schools descended on UWC to participate in the 2019 Western Cape computer-based “Times-Table Challenge” for Grades 6-9. I saw learners consistently scoring 100% in complex time-based multiplication calculations.

The top students in this competition were completing multiplication tests consisting of 15 questions per session at an average speed of 17 seconds per session! That’s answering each question in just over one second. And these were mostly learners from our poorest schools - and a few who have no regular access to doing maths calculations on a computer keyboard.

During conversations with several students at both competitions I asked them how they were able to be so innovative and achieve such phenomenal results in these competitions.

In both cases students replied without a blink: “School is boring. We are not inspired to learn. If we can be taught like this every day we will do much better.”

This raises the all-important question: what must the 2019 classroom experience be like for learners to achieve successful educational outcomes?

Across both platforms I have seen young people stand up to give absolutely inspirational performances. I saw them being bold in their ideas. I saw them embrace the moment to shine. I saw them egged on by their peers to do better. I saw them go and hug both those who succeeded and those who got edged out by a better competitor. I have seen those who took 19 seconds to complete a set of maths questions go and high-five their opponent who took 17 seconds to do so. No one threatened any one. No one got angry. All this points to the fact that there is much more wrong with our classroom culture than with our education system.

In our over-crowded classrooms with our over-worked educators, it is perhaps time to allow parents, NGO-partners and innovation professionals back into the classroom to help build a new classroom learning space. Unless we build these partnerships we will fail, not only in global rankings but also in supporting our children’s aspirations. I walked away knowing that our bright and beautiful children want a more supportive classroom to give wings to their dreams.

* Lorenzo A Davids is chief executive of the Community Chest. 

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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