‘Failure rate in mathematics has remained stubbornly high’

Posted on July 15, 2019

From the period 2008 to 2018, South Africa has not made adequate progress in producing more matriculants with quality maths passes (50% or higher marks).

“The failure rate in mathematics has remained stubbornly high. Almost half of the learners who write mathematics fail it (obtain a mark of 29% or lower),” said Rhodes University Vice-Chancellor Dr Sizwe Mabizela, who was the keynote speaker at the conference of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education (PME 43) held recently at the University of Pretoria’s Groenkloof Campus.

The conference was presented jointly by the South African Mathematics Foundation and the African Mathematical Union  under the theme: “Improving Access to the Power of Mathematics”.

Chaired by UP’s Professor Johann Engelbrecht, Professor of Mathematics Education, it provided a platform for South African and African scholars, educators, students and emerging academics to share their perspectives as well as interact and network with international leaders in the global mathematics education community. It was attended by major role players in maths education in the country and the world, with more than 400 delegates from over 50 countries present at the event.

Dr Mabizela, a mathematician, said: “The average failure rate in mathematics over the period 2008 to 2018 is about 50%. Of particular concern is the increasing trend in the proportion of learners who fail mathematical literacy. On average, the proportion of learners who fail mathematical literacy has doubled [from about 15% to roughly 30%].”

Furthermore, in absolute number terms, the number of learners who have passed mathematics with a mark of 50% or higher [strong passes] has, on average, constantly hovered around 53 570. “This shows that the pool of learners who would qualify for university programmes that are math-intensive – engineering, health sciences, accounting and science – is small and has remained relatively stable over the period 2008 to 2018.”

Serious consequences for SA and its development

He said he found the pattern of learner performance in mathematical literacy “deeply confounding”.

“Ordinarily, one would expect that with the curriculum having stabilised, teachers having developed appropriate skills and pedagogical content knowledge, and with past examination papers in circulation … proportionately more learners should be performing at a higher level and achieving better outcomes.”

However, proportionally more learners perform at a lower level and obtain weaker passes in mathematical literacy. The poor learner performance in mathematics and mathematical literacy has serious ramifications for South Africa and its development. “High-level skills essential for development rely on good performance in mathematics. For admission into engineering, accounting, health sciences, physics, astronomy and other critical study fields essential for development, mathematics is an absolute necessity.”

Professor Peter Liljedahl (Simon Fraser University, Canada), Professor Hamsa Venkat (Wits University), Professor Mellony Graven (Rhodes University), Professor Markku Hannula (University of Helsinki) and UP’s Professor Johann Engelbrecht at the conference at UP’s Groenkloof campus.

Dr Mabizela argued that despite a number of well-intentioned interventions in the teaching and learning of mathematics and mathematical literacy, South Africa was not making adequate progress towards creating and improving access to the power of mathematics. Proportionately more learners are obtaining marks in the range between 0 and 49%. “A lot more still needs to be done,” he said.

South Africa must accept that it will not achieve quality outcomes at matric level if it does not invest adequately in quality teaching and learning of mathematics at the foundation phase, warned Dr Mabizela. “Mathematical knowledge is hierarchical in nature. If one lacks the foundational knowledge and concepts, there is very little hope that this can be remedied at senior grades.”

Furthermore, there are many in the profession for whom teaching was not the first-choice career option. “Many more never had good teaching modelled for them. Through no fault of their own, they themselves were subjected to poor-quality teaching. Rather than condemning and castigating them, we must find a way of working with them [through psycho-social healing].”

Teacher pedagogical content knowledge is a major determinant of quality teaching and learning, he said. “It seems trite but true: a teacher cannot teach what he/she does not know.” He cautioned that constant changes to the curriculum created instability in the teaching and learning of any subject.

'The queen and basis of all sciences'

“An almost single-minded focus on pass rates alone without due regard to the quality of passes is causing serious distortions in our education system. We need a more textured measure of quality, which will incorporate a variety of parameters including pass rates, learner retention rates and quality passes.”

Many people declare, with “gleeful abandon,…how bad they were in mathematics”, noted Dr Mabizela.

“They seem to take it as a badge of honour that they failed mathematics. Very few people, if any, would declare that they can’t read or write. We must change this attitude and mindset towards mathematics,” he said.

However, the situation regarding the teaching and learning of mathematics and mathematical literacy is “not immutable nor is it preordained”.

“We have it within our grasp to fashion a better and a brighter tomorrow.”

UP’s Prof Engelbrecht said while there were challenges in the school system, there were pockets of excellence, despite many schools not being well equipped and not having qualified teachers. The status of teachers should be raised, he said.

He said while the government had done much to improve the system, more needed to be done, and suggested that next year be declared the Year of Mathematics, “the queen and basis of all sciences”.

- Author Prim Gower

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