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Yes, we can improve maths literacy

The Global Information Technology Report 2014 of the World Economic Forum (WEF) rated South Africa last in terms of performance in mathematics and science education, which comes, ironically, at a time when South Africa is hosting the International Mathematical Olympiad.

This is according to Yuven Gounden, project manager communication and marketing of the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (Saica), who says one needs to address the lack of performance in these subjects by institutions working side-by-side with government.

“If we choose to be positive about the report, we could be well on our way to finding the Rainbow Nation’s pot of gold at the end of our national journey towards a better life for all,” says Gounden,

“Saica has a vested interest in the mathematics performance and results at schools level in our country.

“The prerequisite for a student to study towards becoming a Chartered Accountant in South Africa is an exceptional pass rate in mathematics.

“The very same body, the WEF, has, ironically, rated South Africa the best in the world in accounting and auditing standards for four consecutive years.

“The seemingly contradictory findings, therefore, seem surprising.

“One would logically assume that, as the country with the number one CA (SA) position, South African would have directly benefited from the mathematics teaching within the education system.”

Gounden says Saica has been heavily involved in the promotion of mathematics at school level across the country for years, and builds partnership agreements with institutions to provide valuable support to the entire mathematics education machinery.

“The results speak for themselves. Most of these initiatives fall under Saica’s Thuthuka programme, which aims to capacitate learners and educators to improve mathematics results among learners, as well as creating awareness of the importance of mathematics for those learners aspiring to become CAs(SA),” he explains.

“Another valuable partnership is with the South African Mathematics Foundation (SAMF), where Saica and the Harmony Gold Mining Company co-sponsor the South African Mathematics Olympiad (Samo).”

Prof Poobalan Pillay, Emeritus Professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science, says that, regarding the importance of mathematics in the world today, investment decisions in the stock market are no longer being made by financiers, but by PhD mathematicians and the immensely complex computer programmes they devise.

“Whether it is image processing, DVDs, GPRS, investments in stock markets, design of state-of-the-art aircraft, cancer research – all use mathematics,” Pillay says.

“If you are thinking of making mathematics a career, do not be afraid that you may be without a job; more and more business houses are seeking mathematicians to help run their organisations.”

Chantyl Mulder, senior executive professional development, transformation and growth at Saica, says: “Mathematics is the gateway to many key professions, such as accounting, engineering, actuarial sciences and medicine.

“We need to encourage and support our learners to study mathematics, but, more than that, we need to aim for good results.

“If I had one wish, it would be that 70 per cent of learners who pass mathematics obtain 60 per cent or more.

“Can you imagine the effect this would have on our country and its people?

“The Department of Basic Education has, over the past few years, joined hands with Saica through its Thuthuka Education Upliftment Fund, to support the annual maths development camps in the country.

“While most teenagers are sleeping under warm blankets during the cold winter months, Saica engages about 200 learners per province in serious mathematics education camps.

Gounden says it remains clear that mathematics underpins the economy, as well as science and technology.

“This is evident when one is able to see that disciplines in engineering, mining, information technology and other such areas have mathematics as a key prerequisite,” he explains.

He also highlights the fact that one of the problems when it comes to maths illiteracy is that teachers are not adequately capacitated.

According to Prof Servaas van den Berg, of Stellenbosch University’s Economics Department, a survey of education in South Africa reveals that primary school teachers are battling with the simple arithmetic they’re meant to be teaching,

“Clearly, this should be a starting point; if teachers are trained adequately, this is bound to have a spin-off effect in the classroom,” he says.

“The problem will simply fester if teachers themselves cannot fathom the intricacies, and if learners are left with inaccurate calculations and perceptions.

“Furthermore, in order to dispel the myth that mathematics is difficult, there should be a focus on promoting it as a fun subject.”

The Association for Mathematics Education of South Africa (Amesa) feels that “mathematics has a widespread public image as being difficult, cold, abstract, theoretical, ultra-rational, but important. It also has an image of being remote and inaccessible to all but a few super-intelligent human beings with mathematical minds.”

Amesa feels this perception is not true, but it is because of this image that many people feel it is acceptable to be unsuccessful in mathematics.

Amesa says that the first step to rectifying the problem is to give a clear message to our children that mathematics can be fun, is doable, and you need it.

Gounden concludes there is a clear need for a concerted and converged effort from all parties who have an interest in education, particularly maths and science education.

“Considering that South Africa is a leader in scientific projects, such as the Square Kilometre Array telescope, there is a growing need for South Africa to “grow its own timber” – and this is possible, given the country’s other successes thus far.

“It is incumbent on every South African to play a role in the critical field of mathematics and science education, in order to make a real difference towards a continued healthy, growing economy.” -@BoksburgEd

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