20% maths decree sets a dangerous precedent for schooling in South Africa

Learning the fundamentals of maths can equip children with critical thinking and reasoning skills. Reuters/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

The department of basic education in South Africa has reacted to pupils’ exceedingly low attainment rates in maths education in a controversial fashion. It has issued an urgent circular to its heads of departments, principals, managers, directors and exam and curriculum heads outlining a “special condonation dispensation”. This applies to pupils completing grades 7, 8 and 9 in the 2016 academic year which has just ended.

Pupils who did not meet the 40% criteria in mathematics will now be able to progress to the next grade provided they met all other pass requirements and obtained more than 20% in mathematics. Only those who passed Grade 9 maths with 30% or more will be allowed to continue with the subject.

Those who achieved in the 20% band will have to take mathematical literacy in the last years of their school careers. This is a somewhat different and far less demanding subject.

The move has been widely condemned from most quarters. For instance, the education department in the Western Cape province, warned that if no “drastic action” is taken, “we will be sitting in the same position next year”. Indeed. The national department claims that its directive constitutes “an interim measure”. But how does it hope to address the crisis in maths education in future years? What can be done to instil pupils with the valuable, relevant skills developed through good maths teaching?

Building critical thinking skills

South African pupils’ chronic under-performance in maths is not a one-off event. It has become entrenched. An earlier study shows that pupils’ basic maths abilities – calculating fractions, simple number sense, analysis and probability – have steadily declined.

All of this illustrates the debilitating burden that generations of South African children have had to endure, from the apartheid era until the present day: an education system that has failed them. It has not inducted pupils into the custom of thinking and reasoning on logical, rational and critical terms. Critical thinking is a vital skill.

Research has shown that a well-cultivated critical thinker raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely. They are able to gather and assess relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively. They can reach well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards.

The relationship between “mathematics education” and “more complex thinking” is typically symbiotic and mutually inclusive. Good, productive mathematics education can positively raise pupils’ skills in diagnostic, methodical thinking.

Defective teaching and learning could consign them to a school life steeped in frustration, fear and failure. This is precisely the fate of those perpetually struggling in this crucial area of learning.

Primary school pupils’ gross underachievement in maths education suggests they may not have been equipped, at their relevant levels, with the skills needed to think and reason effectively and meaningfully. This is why the subject occupies such an eminent place in global schooling assessment criteria – not only because of its content, but for the skills that are transferred and developed alongside it.

The education department argues that some students are more inclined towards the arts while others are better with technical subjects. This is not well founded. David Pearson, a scholar of cognitive psychology, refers in his writing to the domain of neuroscience which has confirmed that “everyone uses both sides of the brain when performing any task”. Pearson argues that while certain impulses of brain activity have occasionally been associated with creative or cogent thinking,

…it doesn’t really explain who is good at what – and why. Studies have actually revealed considerable overlap in the cognitive processes supporting both scientific and artistic creativity.

Here’s another, fairly widespread fable about maths: “The ability to factorise quadratic functions is not a prerequisite for an educated child”. Such standpoints devalue the subject’s more authentic meaning. Instead it’s important to ponder what happens when an education system continually fails to equip its students with the aptitudes required by so many positions or professions, even if those aptitudes are not explicitly mathematical.

Employers have long recognised that applicants with maths credits are more inclined to succeed at jobs that call for logical reasoning, precise enquiry and careful deduction. Not only this, but a wide and protracted variety of job descriptions and professional occupations – in both the sciences and humanities – call for maths education to a lesser or greater degree.

A dangerous precedent

South Africa’s maths dilemma should not be perceived purely on narrow, technical grounds. The domain of mathematics education must be seen instead in its full complexity and for its potency to endow pupils to meet some of life’s most vital challenges. Children’s dismal failure at maths is a reflection of an education system that has continually quelled their capacities to arrive at sound answers based on accurate reasoning.

Drastically lowering standards – such as “condoning” a 20% mark – sets a dangerous precedent from which the country may not recover for years. The education department’s directive essentially diminishes the great and important role of maths in children’s general educational as well as their broader human development. Such a course, regrettably, will assuredly exacerbate an already dire situation.

Maths education can only really flourish and generate more fruitful outcomes within the context of a well-functioning national education system. It is here, arguably, that the real problem lies. South Africa’s education system is merely a reflection of its broader social system. This is generally characterised by high levels of economic and social inequality, poverty, violence and abuse, and dysfunctionality.

It stands to reason, then, that positive educational change is incumbent upon profound social change. In the absence of social change, however, what is the fate of the overwhelming majority of South Africa’s 12 million and more school-going children today? My own field studies show the importance and usefulness of gaining a deeper understanding of how certain poor, isolated schooling communities have endeavoured to overcome the odds.

Such an approach presents a prospective framework – broadly defined – for others to emulate or, at the very least, to contemplate while real social change remains obscure and elusive.

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