Tag Archives: maths

Maths should not be used as a ’measure of intelligence’

A very interesting perspective presented by Prof Anna Sfard is that Maths should not be used as a ’measure of intelligence.’ Read the piece, it’s short and thought-provoking.

Doubling for growth: CDE workshop notes

The Centre for Development and Enterpris (CDE) held a workshop entitled Doubling for Growth, to discuss ways to address the maths and science challenge in SA’s schools. A report with the same title was published last year that presented a plan to double the number of maths and science matriculants.

The workshop was meant to reflect on progress and challenges since the report, and open the discussion to a wider audience that also wants those kinds of results for maths and science.

It was attended by a number of private companies that invest in the “maths and science problem” as part of their CSR spend. They also need those graduates as future staff.


  • Corporates and government are investing large sums of money but are seeing very little impact.
  • Interventions produce small numbers of graduates, e.g. one company supported 8 matriculants per year.
  • Not enough sharing of resources and efforts between players in this space.
  • How to measure the impact of the various singular efforts to address the problem?

Ann Bernstein, head of CDE, gave a presentation that covered the following:

Challenges in contemporary SA schooling:

  • Lack of accountability
  • Poor management
  • Low time on task (46% of teacher time is spent actually teaching — this should be 85%)
  • Slow pace and incomplete coverage of curriculum
  • Poor teacher competencies: precise facts about teacher qualifications in SA are not known
  • Maths teaching poor all the way through
  • Language of instruction (LOI) is not the mother-tongue language of many learners
  • 220 Dinaledi schools (out of 400) where no impact is seen on HG maths passes

New curriculum has huge implications for teaching capacity:

  • 2007: 275,000 SC learners doing maths HG or standard grade (SG)
  • 2008: > 500,000 doing maths or maths literacy

Many more teachers are needed!

Far too few high performing schools:

  • 2004-2007: SA is stuck on around 25,000 HG maths passes per year
  • 0.5%: number of African matriculants who wrote higher grade (HG) maths and got a “C” or above (2004)
  • 50% of public schools do not produce one single Senior Certificate (SC) HG maths pass
  • More than half of HG maths passes come from ex-model C schools. There is no guarantee that these schools will keep producing. They also face pressure to perform! Focus should not only be on the poorest of the poor and the low-end schools; these well-performing schools should be supported.

CDE recommendations:

  • To strengthen the Dinaledi programme: introduce a contract between schools and the DoE.
  • Identification of talented learners
  • New capacity in the DoE. Need strong communication from the DoE on the issue.
  • Teachers: test them. Need an audit and supply plan. Not enough data on this, not enough being done about it. Need more qualified teachers NOW for January 2009 — must IMPORT!
  • About 80% of public schools are dysfunctional. National voluntary apptitude test. Commit to get those kids to a decent school. Will need bursaries/support.
  • Private sector: current approach is not working, not fundamentally improving the education system. Ad hoc interventions are helpful, but not enough. The private sector must not perform the state’s role. They should use their private resources as “risk capital” to test innovative ideas that can go to scale.
  • Make “Doubling” a national project:
    • Need to strengthen and expand the Dinaledi programme
    • Need HG candidates from outside the Dinaledi schools
    • Take a “SARS approach” and create a unit to run the Doubling project: Executive leadership; Comprehensive strategy; Bigger budget and staff; and Report to parliament every year on progress

CDE proposed an ongoing private sector/foundation forum to:

  1. Discuss and agree on advocacy points of leverage for new the government.
  2. Discuss how to invest in the M&S problem with a “risk capital” approach, and partner with organisations that can take interventions to scale.

Dr Math going from strength to strength

Dr Math is a maths tutoring service to school learners that uses MXit, the South African mobile instant messenger application. Laurie Butgereit of the CSIR Meraka Institute, Pretoria, presented an update to the project at ICeL titled IM Dr Math: Using Instant Messaging in a Mathematics Tutoring Project.

Points to note since I last blogged about the project:

  • It now runs 2-8pm, Sunday-Thursday, with some 20 tutors.
  • 3,200 learners have used service, some as young as grade 3
  • Tutoring is still mostly done in English, but some Afrikaans cases are occurring.
  • Learners contact Dr Math from many different places, not just their homes, e.g. while on buses, taxis and on the sports field. One learner even contacted Dr Math while in the bath!

It’s great to see such an innovative project develop.

Sitting next to Laurie at the conference dinner she described a simple math arithmetic competition that is now running through Dr Math. Learners answer simple maths questions to compete in real time to be in the ever fluid top 10 list.

We also spoke about the the apparent opportunity for a MXit/MIM-based text adventure/role-playing game to support maths learning outcomes.

Technology, maths and professional teacher development

I had lunch with Dr Jeremy Roschelle, a Director at the Center for Technology in Learning, SRI International, Palo Alto, CA. For over 60 years SRI International, an independent, nonprofit research institute, has produced world-class research and been a major player in the growth of Silicon Valley and the computer revolution. (The mouse was invented at SRI International.) The main points of our discussion is below.

Previously I blogged about a presentation that Jeremy gave on the effectiveness of technology in the classroom, when scaled up. In the study that Jeremy led, SimCalc — an interactive software-based curriculum that teaches graphing technologies and concepts of proportionality to 7th grade learners — was implemented in 48 classes in Texas. The learners in those classes showed a significant improvement in performance compared to 47 control classes. Today Jeremy again reiterated the importance of a holistic approach to implementing technology enhanced learning, which includes having good software that is aligned with the curriculum, and comprehensive educator training on that software.

Jeremy also spoke about the importance of having educators that are adaptive and strategic in their teaching approaches. Being flexible means that an educator can present a concept in a way that is different to that given in the text book, but that might build on examples given by the learners in a class. To develop these skills of adaptation and flexibility, educators can be trained in practices of argumentation. This sort of professional teacher development should be coupled with training in software used in the classroom, e.g. like for SimCalc. Of course, domain knowledge — knowing maths very well — is still crucial. It’s no good having a wonderfully flexible educator who can’t remember key formulas.

School testing is currently very good at separating out those with subject aptitudes from those without. For example, a maths test is an easy way to discern the top 5 and bottom 5 learners in a class. Typically the top learners receive further boosting and go on to become very strong in maths, while those at the bottom tend to stay there. The current education testing system will need revising if the goal is to improve grades overall, not not just for top learners. In the SimCalc study, Jeremy created specific metrics to measure the impact of that particular software.

The dual role of maths means that on the one hand it comprises numbers and formulas and on the other hand it requires analysis and logic for number manipulation. This duality is collapsed by the current way of teaching maths. There is a need to separate this out again, but not too far. Jeremy says that you can’t ignore the numbers and formulas aspect of maths by trying to make it a subject that is applicable to everyday life in every way, because much of mathematics proper is simply very domain specific.

As a parting shot he spoke about two projects that he is involved in: Group Scribbles and G1:1.