Pupils during the maths exercise at Nkazimlo Primary School in Khayelitsha. The writer says that pupils need to feel the excitement and fun of mathematics and how it informs almost every aspect of our modern life. 	PIcture Cindy Waxa
Pupils during the maths exercise at Nkazimlo Primary School in Khayelitsha. The writer says that pupils need to feel the excitement and fun of mathematics and how it informs almost every aspect of our modern life. PIcture Cindy Waxa

Number fun is the sum of success

By Msizi Mkhize Time of article published May 25, 2016

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Teaching mathematics needs creativity and a touch of magic, writes Dr Msizi Mkhize

The wonder of mathematics surrounds us, in the cellphones we use, the computers we work on, the televisions we watch, the cars we drive, the homes we live in.

Yet many pupils are under the impression that learning mathematics is synonymous with following rules made by other people and that it serves no useful purpose in their lives.

It is for this reason that teaching and learning mathematics in the 21st century should be imbued with creativity.

A teacher who finds creative links between pupils’ worlds and mathematics is one who will keep them excited and this will discourage rote learning.

Mathematics challenges our creative brain, but usually because of the teaching methodology it comes across as anything but exciting.

As a result, we often hear teachers and parents complain about mathematics being a “difficult” subject for “gifted” children only.

To get all pupils (not only the gifted ones) interested in mathematics, the creative elements of the subject need to be explored to the fullest.

The pupils need to feel the excitement and fun of mathematics and how it informs almost every aspect of their modern lives. This comes down to teaching methods. Mathematics needs to be communicated creatively and new techniques employed in order to make it interesting.

The new mathematics methodology discourages rote learning and attempts to excite pupils by revealing creativity in mathematics. Such an approach affects large numbers of aspiring accountants, economists, engineers, doctors, geologists and scientists as well as computer specialists, physiologists, botanists, architects and technicians.

The great number of career opportunities mathematics opens up for school leavers needs to be pointed out to them.

Education remains a minefield of conflicting theories, for example around issues of grouping. Many teachers feel grouping should be inspired by common deficiencies rather than ability and that it must be variable and short lived.

Once the deficiencies have been attended to, then teachers must decide on another motive of inclusive grouping.

Currently, teachers favour inclusive as opposed to ability grouping.

Inclusive grouping encourages mixing pupils with different abilities in the belief that all pupils benefit from interaction with a diverse group.

It enhances the sense of equality and unity in the school. It also requires pupils to work as a team and assist each other, for example, the top-performing pupils in mathematics help fellow pupils during breaks or after school hours, over weekends or holidays.

The argument against ability grouping states that grouping views pupils as not equal in education. Teachers using ability grouping tend to put more teaching effort on greater able pupils than on lesser able pupils and thus diminish the self-esteem of those with the lesser ability, which in turn negatively affects their attitude towards mathematics and other subjects.

Some of the methods to encourage different learning skills require very little effort. For example, pupils keep a book of essentials (or USB) – in addition to the classwork and homework exercise books – in which they put the chalkboard summary (or computer presentation slides) used in the lesson to solve problems.

Establish a mathematics club or society at the school. Through this, the pupils experience a range of benefits from extra tuition, access to mentors, life coaches and counsellors. It enables them to hear motivational speeches from mathematicians, statisticians, accountants, engineers and others who use mathematics in their work.

The society can arrange mathematics symposia; promote research on mathematicians; run competitions for “mathematics” poems, songs, essays, stage plays, posters with maths terms and symbols and show and tell (maths pupils use this in other subjects); maths videos; and do fund-raisers for maths-related excursions. The society can also organise a “I Love Maths Day” where pupils express their love of maths and display love of maths all day.

The society can produce a newsletter that covers a variety of subjects, such as a profile on a mathematician each month, a profile of a mathematics role model (chartered accountant, engineer, doctor, etc.), an educational page with games, quizzes and steps to remember when solving problems, and career guidance regarding jobs that require maths.

A lively well-designed newsletter that involves the pupils in its production and compilation will go a long way towards making mathematics fun and creative.

The newsletter can also be used to announce the top maths brains in the school on a monthly basis and a sponsor could arrange prizes.

Most important, though, remains the attitude of the school body towards mathematics.

If the subject remains on the front burner at all times, through mentions in school assembly and displays on school notice boards, and if the attitude to mathematics consists of promoting its creative and fun side and pointing out that it opens the door to many careers, mathematics will come out from its dreary shroud of being a “difficult” subject. In the end, the pupils will benefit along with the country.

* Dr Msizi Mkhize is a lecturer in accounting in the School of Accounting, Economics and Finance at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. His PhD study examined the mathematical competence required for success in university accounting, and explored the relationship between attitudes towards mathematics, and the learning of accounting among pre-service accounting teachers

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