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[OPINION] SA can’t compete globally without fixing its attitude to maths

This article was first published on The Conversation.

South Africa is not producing enough school leavers who are competent in maths and science. This is a fact borne out by international assessments such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) and the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report. These show that South Africa is not making much headway when it comes to maths and science.

The 2016 Global Competitiveness Report ranked South Africa last among 140 countries for maths and science. This places it behind poorer African countries like Mozambique and Malawi.

In 2016 there was a marginal improvement in the maths pass rate, from 49.1% the previous year to 51.1%. The country is moving at a glacial pace in an area that demands urgent attention. After all, science and maths are key to any country’s economic development and its competitiveness in the global economy.

The TIMMS study ranks Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan among its top maths and science performers. It’s no coincidence that these countries feature among the top 20 on the Global Innovation Index. Good quality education fuels an economy. South Africa needs to increase its supply of science and technology university graduates, which at the moment constitute the bulk of scarce skills outlined by the Department of Higher Education and Training.

But instead of chasing improved results the government is lowering the bar for maths at school level. At the end of 2016 it set 20% as a passing mark for pupils in grades 7, 8 and 9. This lends credence to the common view of maths as a subject only the “gifted” can comprehend.

It’s time to place a premium on maths and to ensure that pupils – especially those from poorer backgrounds – receive the necessary support to excel at maths. This is critical if South Africa is to produce the human capital needed to drive economic growth and create new industries in the future.

HOW MATHS AND SCIENCE BOOST ECONOMIES

Maths and science are a gateway to new industries. Mastery of them endows an economy with the human capital needed to ride the technological wave. In his work on the industries of the future Alec Ross, who advised Hillary Clinton on innovation during her term as US Secretary of State, points out that sectors such as robotics, advanced life sciences, codification of money, big data and cybersecurity – all of which require mastery of technology and mathematical skills – are the pillars of the fourth industrial revolution.

Simply put, this “revolution” is the age of technology that’s already upon us.

More importantly, a grasp of maths and science boosts confidence and expands career possibilities for pupils. This ultimately gives them an edge in the labour market.

Many students drop out of maths not by choice but because they’re frustrated by a lack of adequate support. I speak from experience: I dropped the subject when I was 14 at the end of what’s now Grade 9 but used to be called Standard 7. Our maths teacher didn’t encourage those he called “slow learners” to continue with the subject and I was one of many intimidated into giving up on maths.

But succeeding in maths, or in any area of skill, isn’t entirely a matter of genetic endowment. Psychologist Anders Ericsson, in his book Peak, draws on three decades of research to prove why natural talent and other innate factors have less of an impact than what he calls deliberate or purposeful practice.

He contends that:

a number of successful efforts have shown that pretty much any child can learn math if it is taught in the right way.

South Africa should be focusing on how to teach maths in the right way rather than buying into the myth that it is an impossible subject. The current approach is robbing the economy of critical human capital.

RADICAL INTERVENTIONS

Some may argue, though, that any improvement or shift is impossible in an education system that’s plagued by weak infrastructure, a lack of teacher development and support and too few qualified maths and science teachers. Even if the numbers of teachers in these subjects were to increase, it’s crucial that the quality of education rises too.
Radical interventions are needed, now – or South Africa will never become a global player in the fourth industrial revolution.

The country must develop new teacher training methods and nurture a supportive environment for teachers. Innovative teaching tools should be introduced in the early phases to demystify maths and science for young pupils. If these subjects are more fun to learn, more pupils may be drawn to them as future career options.
Taking these steps will give South Africa a better chance in the future to harness the talent of its youth to powering the economy, and improve its global competitiveness.

Mzukisi Qobo is an associate professor at the Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation, University of Johannesburg.

The Conversation

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