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Maths and science crisis?

JOBURG – Studies reveal that South African schoolchildren perform poorly in mathematics.


An apparent obvious fact that South African schoolchildren perform poorly in mathematics has, in turn, raised the question of whether maths is still relevant, given the country’s current context?

Kagiso Trust, a development agency focused on developing and implementing education and socio-economic programmes, attempted to shed light on the subject at a recent event themed Education Conversations, hosted in conjunction with the University of Johannesburg’s Faculty of Education. The event – hosted under the banner, Mathematics: How Does South Africa Measure up? – examined findings from the recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss), and its subsequent implications.

Panellist, Dr Linda Zuze of the Human Sciences Research Council, said some of the most interesting data revealed by the study pertains to gender differences in terms of performance in mathematics, particularly as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) subjects’ apparent lack of appeal for female schoolchildren, which has been well publicised.

“By the time learners reach Grade 9, there is relatively little difference in their performance; although in general, female learners tend to perform better in Grade 5,” said Zuze.

“There is, however, a major difference to be discerned between the achievement of children at fee-paying, independent schools, who tend to perform better than those at non-fee-paying schools. Added to this, boys are more likely to outperform girls among high achievers at fee-paying schools.” Zuze indicated that boys at non-fee-paying schools were seen to have the lowest career aspirations whereas girls are generally more career enthusiastic. The Timss findings were based on a survey of 12 514 schoolchildren, 334 mathematics teachers and 331 science teachers at 292 schools in South Africa.

Co-panelist, Dario Fanucchi, technical director at Isazi Consulting (a Joburg-based data management company) said, “The country should not be looking at whether mathematics is considered difficult, but if it can be thought of as relevant in our current context.” He added, “Almost every action or item we encounter in our daily lives involves an element of mathematical calculation.

“The solution, therefore, is helping learners see this relevance for themselves. It may also help to strengthen the relationship between learners and teachers so that learners are inspired to try their hardest while receiving the teaching support they require. Technology can also be employed to help foster understanding among students; even in schools where connectivity is an issue, cellphones may become a useful teaching aid.”

Edited by Beryl Knipe

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