SA must spare no ef­fort with maths and sci­ence in schools

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS - MZUKISI QOBO

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 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 per­cent the pre­vi­ous year to 51.1 per­cent.

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 per­cent 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.

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 pupils 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 maths if it’s 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’s an im­pos­si­ble sub­ject. The cur­rent ap­proach is rob­bing the econ­omy of crit­i­cal hu­man cap­i­tal.

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 num­ber 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 teacher­train­ing 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. – The Con­ver­sa­tion

Pupils must be equipped to ride fourth in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion wave

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