When you walk into a maths class at a South African school, don’t be surprised if the pupils are chanting. Learners are often encouraged to learn by rote and memorise formulas, then recite these back to the teacher parrot-style.
Maths requires learners to actively construct and build new knowledge on existing foundations. This is known as a progressive subject. But in South Africa these building blocks and basic number sense are sorely lacking among younger children. By their fifth year at school, many children are almost two grades behind curriculum expectations.
There have been a number of curriculum revisions and systemic interventions over the past two decades that have tried to tackle these problems. None have done the trick. Part of the problem is that the current school system doesn’t give children the agency they need to take charge of their own learning.
The case for after-school learning
The South African Numeracy Chair Project at Rhodes University has conducted research that suggests after-school maths clubs could be valuable spaces for changing children’s learning habits and attitudes.
Research has been conducted in the US about the role of “out of school time” - particularly summer schools and after-school calculus clubs for high school students. There is a solid base of evidence to suggest that these non-classroom spaces can be hugely beneficial.
But even internationally there has been very little research into how after-school clubs or classes could benefit learners in the foundation phase of grades 1 to 3.
The local research goes some way to close this gap. It was conducted in Grahamstown, a small city in one of South Africa’s poorest provinces, the Eastern Cape.
After-school maths clubs were set up at schools whose pupils tend to perform poorly in the Annual National Assessments, which test numeracy at different grade levels. The schools are poorly resourced and don’t always have enough teachers. The pupils come from a poor community with high adult unemployment levels.
The clubs have created the space and time for learners to work at their own pace. This is very useful for children who learn faster or more slowly than the majority of their classmates.
The research team discovered that many children relish the opportunity to do their homework at these clubs because they are managing their own time instead of trying to keep up with teachers and classmates. In the the first Grade 3 (year four) club we established, each learner was given a 48-page homework book and encouraged to complete a page each day, from Monday to Friday.
This meant that they ought to come to the next session with five pages done, though it was also made clear that they needn’t stop at just five. Half of the learners returned the following week with all 48 pages completed. They wanted the next book in the series.
This experience was repeated in subsequent clubs and prompted the introduction of a very successful homework drive in the teacher development programme that forms part of the South African Numeracy Chair Project.
The teachers also found that those learners who took part in the after-school clubs were keen to explain how they had solved a particular problem. These pupils have become “helpers”, guiding their classmates through different methods of finding a solution.
Teachers use club learners experiences to start conversations in the classroom. They ask, “Explain how you got that answer?” or “Which method is more efficient and why do you say so?” - questions that lead to rich mathematical discussions. This engagement teaches other learners about active participation.
Implications of the research
It is important to consider the long-term and larger impact of producing learners who are passive, dependent on teachers to feed them answers and information, and are uncritical. These children will eventually go into the workforce and risk taking these qualities with them. More urgently, though, South Africa needs to tackle its dismal Mathematics results.
The club model is easy to replicate. All of the material produced for the Grahamstown maths clubs can be downloaded for free from the South African Numeracy Chair Project website. The clubs can be held in a classroom, at somebody’s house or in a community centre.
The after-school maths clubs and homework drive have emerged as a way to strengthen agency by developing more active, independent and persevering learners. They have also bolstered learners’ maths marks.