The teaching and learning of Mathematics in South African schools is not yielding the intended outcomes as outlined in the country`s education policies, strategies and curricula. There is a large body of literature that attests to this. This includes assessment reports by the Department of Basic Education (DBE), research by universities, other research agencies and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) working in mathematics education in South Africa. The low learner achievement levels revealed by national assessments such as Annual National Assessments (ANA), regional assessments such as Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ) and international assessments such as Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) are indicative, at least in part, of current ‘ineffective’ teaching and learning practices.
Perhaps the big question is, why do we study mathematics and why do we put so much time and resources to get more learners enrolled in the subject and performing better at it?
Mathematics is often perceived as a difficult subject and it is this perception that has impacted negatively on learners’ experience with the subject and their lack of confidence in their mathematical abilities. Evidence shows that the majority of learners in South Africa do not learn to work fluently with whole numbers in the early grades of schooling. Mathematics is one subject that is recognised as having the ability to grow our thinking to unlimited and unimaginable bounds. Research has established the association between early-grade mathematics knowledge and later mathematics achievement. Dr Pirjo Aunio in the paper titled Early numeracy performance of South African school beginners says “Early numeracy skills are highly relevant for children’s mathematics learning at school, especially in the initial years when much mathematics learning relies on early numeracy competence. Because mathematics is a hierarchical subject, concepts are built incrementally upon each other, requiring mastery of previous concepts”.
In response to the research that locates the problem in foundation years, the Zenex Foundation commissioned a Landscape Review of Mathematics Interventions in South African Schools which highlighted the need for large-scale Foundation Phase Mathematics interventions. The Review recommended that these should be coupled with rigorous evaluations to determine what would work in improving learner outcomes in this area.
To this end, Zenex Foundation worked with Maitri Trust and Elma Philanthropies and partnered with the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) and University of Cape Town’s School Development Unit (SDU), on a project called the Grade R early mathematics in 2017. This was the first Grade R mathematics intervention of its kind in the country and was implemented across all schools in the Western Cape province. The overarching goal of the Grade R early mathematics project is to improve the conceptual understanding and mathematical skills of Grade R learners. This is the approach adopted by the Department of Basic Education’s (DBE) new Mathematics Framework called Teaching Mathematics with Understanding (TMU). The Grade R early mathematics project aimed to achieve this by using effective resources and training materials which supports a conceptual approach to Mathematics teaching and learning.
The project was implemented over 3 years and an independent evaluation of the project indicated that Grade R teachers/practitioners had improved their confidence and motivation to teach mathematics. This was very important as many Grade R teachers/practitioners did not have the requisite mathematics skills to teach mathematics with confidence. Many Grade R teachers/practitioners were Early Childhood Development (ECD) practitioners and with the formalisation of Grade R, many required training in the early mathematics curriculum. Furthermore, Grade R teachers/practitioners were able to apply interactive teaching methods and include the seven principles (context; activity; level; interaction; guidance; inclusivity; and practice) in the classroom.
As part of ongoing professional development, Grade R teachers/practitioners were taught to identify aspects of their Grade R Mathematics teaching that are working, as well as areas for improvement, and plan how to improve their teaching practice going forward. Continuous professional development including the critical reflection and feedback on classroom practise is critical for the teaching profession.
Critical mathematical thinking is a necessary condition if we are to successfully transition the South African economy into a knowledge-based economy, foster analytical thinking and promote entrepreneurship. The knowledge economy relies on innovation that pushes technological advancements to the limit. We cannot depend on what we know to solve the challenges we have as country. We must develop new skills that will deepen our understanding of new knowledge that will grow us to ask new questions.
We have a mathematics learning and teaching challenge as seen in our learner performance and evidenced from research. The Grade R early mathematics project is but one example of what is possible when government, funders, researchers and practitioners work together. Education is a social problem; let’s all get involved.