SA’s Maths challenge has little to do with numbers

If you’ve ever visited a foreign country, you’ve likely experienced the frustration of not being able to communicate with someone who speaks a different language. Although humans are naturally wired for communication, we can’t help but feel excluded and helpless when we can’t understand what we’re hearing.


Yet, this is how the majority of South African learners feel when they’re sitting in a Maths class.


Everyday, they encounter complicated jargon, like ‘fractions’, ‘denominators’, ‘integers’, ‘exponents’ and ‘coefficients’, that are rarely explained in a way that they can understand. The result is that they lose interest, stop listening and never fully grasp the basics, which is essential if they are to ever understand Maths.


As we recognise World Maths Day on 12 March, we need to start thinking differently about Maths education.


The language of Maths

Maths is essentially a language in its own right, yet we approach teaching by focusing on numbers, algorithms, symbols and equations, and spend little time on the actual words – how they’re pronounced, what they mean and why they exist. We teach Maths as something separate to language and writing when, in fact, it is closely related and interdependent.


The fact that English is not the first language for the majority of South African learners exacerbates the problem and is a main reason why Paul Sondergaard, author of My Maths Buddy and founder of the One Book One Learner initiative, believes our Maths pass rate isworkshop


Learners excited about receiving My Maths Buddy, Sekhutlong Primary, Katlehong


Learners partaking in the practical’s during a workshop


Learners partaking in the practical’s during a workshop


Project delivered at a school in Kimberley, Norther Cape



“Once learners build up their Maths vocabulary and have a conceptual understanding of mathematical terms and how to apply them without thinking, we’ll see a massive improvement in pass rates and, as a result, higher university acceptance among learners who want to study STEM (Science, technology, engineering and math) subjects,” says Sondergaard.


It’s this belief that motivated him to create the My Maths Buddy dictionary of Maths terms – a world-first that will soon be replicated in the UK and the US. The dictionary helps children understand Maths terms and improve their marks.


Proof is in the numbers

Taking this type of approach to teaching Maths is already paying off for some teachers and learners who have used My Maths Buddy.


Abigail Paile, a Grade 9 Maths teacher at Ivory Park Secondary School, said that when she started paying more attention to the terminology in lessons, her learners went from scoring 30%-40% to averaging 75% purely because they were able to follow the lesson.


And Given Mtshabi, who once thought that Maths was “just another subject he had to pass”, went from scoring 40% to above 80% once he understood the words behind every topic. Today, Given is an engineering student at the University of Johannesburg.


Different approach

“Lowering the Maths pass rate will not improve learners’ understanding of the subject or get them interested in STEM subjects. If we change the national Maths improvement strategy to focus on helping learners fully understand the language, we might not even have to worry about pass rates anymore. As a result, we’ll attract more learners to the subject because they actually enjoy it and no longer view it as just another subject they have to pass to get through school,” says Joanne van der Walt, Sage Foundation Programme Manager for Africa.


South Africa desperately needs more scientists, engineers, coders and just about every other STEM discipline. Not only that but having a basic knowledge of Maths is essential for everyday tasks, like working out a budget or submitting a tax return.


“This is why The Sage Foundation is supporting initiatives by the SA Maths Foundation, which include workshops for teachers on how to incorporate the language of Maths into the classroom,” says Van der Walt.


“If more businesses support these types of initiatives, we can change the way we teach Maths in our schools and change the outcome, not only for learners but for the country.”


To support the One Book One Learner initiative, click here. To purchase a copy of the My Maths Buddy dictionary, click here.


Heidelberg Nigel Heraut

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