Mathematics in crisis in SA despite it being a gateway subject for higher education and career options, warn experts

Pupils during a maths exercise at Nkazimlo primary school in Khayelitsha. Picture Cindy Waxa.

Pupils during a maths exercise at Nkazimlo primary school in Khayelitsha. Picture Cindy Waxa.

Published Jan 10, 2022


Johannesburg - Among the almost 600 000 candidates who wrote matric in 2020, a meagre 5.3% scored 60% or more for Mathematics.

Given that the required pass rate is just 30% – something that only 125 526 candidates achieved – experts said maths is in crisis as it is a gateway subject for higher education and career options which are vital for any country’s economic development and growth. It remains to be seen whether the 2021 results will be any better.

The national matric results for learners in public schools have been scheduled to be announced on January 21.

In an effort to address South Africa’s maths crisis, global communities will celebrate World Logic Day on January 14.

The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) declared the day in partnership with the International Council for Philosophy and Human Sciences. This global day of observance aims to bring the intellectual history, conceptual significance and practical implications of logic to the attention of interdisciplinary science communities and the broader public.

The South African Mathematics Foundation (SAMF) highlighted the importance of mathematics as a tool to help develop logical thinking. In a study published in 2020, researchers found “that, in general, the greater the mathematics training of the participant, the more tasks were completed correctly, and that performance on some tasks was also associated with performance on others not traditionally associated”.

The 2014 matric results for mathematics, mathematics literacy and physical science were worse than in 2013, monitoring body Umalusi said. File image.

The study further reports that “intensive training has been shown to impact the brain and cognition across a number of domains from music, to video gaming, to Braille reading”.

The SAMF offers two learner development programmes to help primary and high school children sharpen their logical thinking skills, amongst others. The Nestle Nespray South African Mathematics Challenge (SAMC) is for Grades 4 to 7, and the Old Mutual South African Mathematics Olympiad, co-sponsored by the South African Institute for Chartered Accountants (Saica) is for Grades 8 to 12.

Both competitions consist of non-routine mathematical problems which stimulate learners to think further than in the classroom.

“The idea of the Challenge is to start developing logical thinking at a young age," said Ashley Ah Goo, vice-chair of the SAMC Problem Committee.

“Teachers, parents, and learners must realise that the questions will be difficult. Why else would we call it the Mathematics Challenge?”

Thomas Hagspihl, a member of the Problem Committee for the Samo and headmaster of St Martin’s School in Johannesburg, explains that the questions for high school learners get increasingly tricky.

“Creative problem-solving skills are essential and very marketable in today's technology-oriented marketplace. This marketplace is now global, and South Africa needs to be very competitive. Hence we need expert problem solvers. Practice in problem-solving will help to train our future leaders in technological development.”

He further explains that the absence of logical and critical thinking in high school kids is a pandemic of frightening proportions.

“Unfortunately, the teaching of Mathematics has, in most classrooms, become recipe style, chalk-and-talk, with the lame excuse of never having enough time to finish the curriculum. Incorrectly taught, the high school Maths curriculum teaches no thinking at all. How much thinking can there be if a teacher teaches you how to factorise a trinomial, then does five examples for you and then gives you 20 more for homework?”

"That's the beauty of the South African Mathematics Olympiad," said Hagspihl.

“The Problem Committee works hard at designing questions that are non-routine and that pupils have not seen before. You have to thus engage in an activity called thinking. De Bono claims this kind of thinking is painful and contrary to what humans typically do – and it is. There can be no greater satisfaction when you finally get an answer to a problem, especially if it is a complex problem. Our problems require only a basic knowledge of the curriculum and can thus be attempted by anyone.”

Professor Kerstin Jordaan, executive director of the SAMF and Mathematics Research Associate at the University of South Africa said: “We, therefore, encourage teachers nationwide to register their learners for the upcoming Challenge and Olympiad. Registration for Quintile 1 and 2 schools is free, whereas Quintile 3, 4 and 5 and private schools pay a nominal entry fee.”

The SAMF, a non-profit company, was founded in 2004 by the Association for Mathematics Education of South Africa and the South African Mathematical Society.

SAMF's vision is to play a leading role in expanding the base of mathematics excellence in South Africa by contributing towards professional development of mathematics educators, promoting the advancement of mathematics through creating awareness of and developing skills in mathematics, research, advocacy and identifying and nurturing of mathematically talented youth towards an innovative landscape in South Africa for science, business, finance and engineering.

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