National Mathematics week was held recently; from 1-5 August. “The main purpose of Mathematics Week is to highlight the beauty, utility and applicability of mathematics and also to dispel the myth that this subject is difficult, cold, abstract, and only accessible to a few,” says Prof Johann Engelbrecht, Executive Director of the South African Maths Foundation (SAMF) (Engelbrecht, 2011). Activities during the week focused on Mathematics and Mathematics Education, with the aim of making it more interesting, attractive, relevant, rewarding and engaging to learners and the community at large. “The activities highlight the impact of Mathematics on our daily lives and stresses the importance of Mathematics as a foundation for careers in science, technology and managerial jobs,” says Elspeth Mmatladi Khembo, Chairperson of the SAMF and National President of the Association for Mathematics Education of South Africa (AMESA) (Engelbrecht, 2011). This initiative is gratifying, as very few will deny the importance of Mathematics to our learners and the critical state that our national numeracy is in.  Last month, the Annual National Assessment revealed that the national average performance in numeracy is at an average of 28% (SABC News, 2011). National Mathematics Week is by no means the only Mathematics initiative.  The following three events are indicative of a national movement to advance Mathematics. These are: The South African Mathematics Olympiad (SAMO) SAMF annually hosts the SAMO, the biggest Olympiad in the country. A total of 58 375 learners from 882 schools nationwide entered this year’s competition. SAMO’s aim is to challenge the learner’s problem solving ability during the Olympiad. SAMF states: ‘Creative problem solving skills are very necessary and very marketable in today's technically oriented market place. This market place is now global and South Africa needs to be very competitive. Hence we need expert problem solvers. Practice in problem solving will help to train our future leaders of technological development’ (SAMF, 2011).   The JET South African Mathematics Challenge Primary school learners participate in this annual event which is open to all learners from Grade 4 to 7.  The Challenge aims to enhance the quality of the teaching and learning of mathematics, more specifically to:

  • Promote interest in mathematics,
  • Promote a broader perspective on the nature of mathematical activity, including that mathematical activity is more than calculating,
  • Promote problem solving in mathematics education,
  • Promote the perspective that the calculator is a useful and necessary tool in mathematical activity (the calculator cannot solve problems for learners),
  • Emphasise the importance of reading in mathematical activity,
  • Provide a diagnostic tool to enable teachers to identify learners' misconceptions, and
  • Develop and disseminate materials that may contribute to meaningful mathematical activity in classrooms.

The Challenge questions are aimed at conceptual knowledge, the application of knowledge in new situations, problem solving, reasoning, communication and general mathematical thinking. Presently about 60 000 learners from about 300 schools participate in the Challenge every year (SAMF, 2011).   International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) South Africa is also represented at the IMO. The IMO is the World Championship Mathematics Competition for high school students. The first IMO was held in 1959, hosted by Romania.  This year the IMO was held in Amsterdam on 18 and 19 July. Team SA collected one silver medal, two bronze medals as well as two honourable mentions (Engelbrecht, 2011). Despite the above mentioned competitions and the heart-warming achievements of the students in the competitions, a bleak picture is still painted of our educational system.  The Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) recently released a statement indicating that it is concerned about the dismal state of South Africa's education.  HSRC's chief education research specialist, Dr. Cas Prinsloo, says change must start in the foundation years of school. "The education system is so interwoven that if you take a strand of spider web and you give it a little tweak, the whole thing will rattle - everything is related to everything else. The first solution is that it should be in early childhood development – that foundation phase learning. That is where it should start" says Prinsloo (HSRC, 2011). Reddy and Janse van Rensburg of the HSRC, state that the ‘education system consists of two parts, namely the socioeconomic haves and the have-nots.’ The South African schooling system shows that:

  • The national mean mathematics scores are low and need to improve.
  • There is a high differentiation of the educational performance of students from different socioeconomic conditions and we can say that we have two systems of education.
  • An estimated 30% of schools perform reasonably well, while 70% of schools are underperforming.

The authors conclude that differentiated targets need to be set for both these socioeconomic groups, since neither is performing at the requisite levels (HSRC, 2011). According to Reddy and Janse van Rensburg, analytic skills in mathematics need to be built up from early years. Mathematical knowledge is hierarchical in nature and therefore strong prior knowledge is critical for conceptual development. The acquisition of these capabilities is shaped in the early years by the nature and quality of interactions in the home and community and the quality of input from school (HSRC, 2011). High levels of attention paid to the early years of learning (reception year and foundation phase) for children from environments of lower household and parental resources would contribute to breaking the cycle of poor academic performance (HSRC, 2011).     To this end the South African developed TriMaths assessment suite can identify which aspects in mathematics a learner needs help with.  It assesses three areas of maths (which should ideally be used together, but can be used separately): 1. Basic Mathematics: learner’s basic cognitive skills and knowledge/achievement in mathematics, 2. Mathematics Vocabulary: learner’s adequacy of mathematical language proficiency, and 3. Study Orientation toward Mathematics: learner’s interest and study orientation in mathematics. The results can be used by teachers and parents to assist learners to target specific areas in mathematics which would improve their understanding of the subject.  TriMaths is specifically aimed at learners between 9 and 15 years of age and is available in English, Afrikaans and Tswana.  The tool is currently being translated into Portuguese as it has sparked much interest abroad. From the above it is evident that the sooner a mathematics problem can be identified and rectified, the more opportunities will arise for the learner’s future.  An individual, group, or ideally systemic intervention could turn the proverbial mathematical tide in South Africa.  Imagine the possibilities and the role that you could play in that process.

Contact JvR Psychometric Advisory Services (PAS) Department for more information on the TriMaths suite.    
References Engelbrecht, J. (2011). SAMF eNewsletter – July 2011. Retrieved 24 August 2011 Reddy, V., and Janse van Rensburg D. (2011, June).  Improving Mathematics Performance at Schools [Research Publication 22213].  HSRC Review, 9 (2). Retrieved 24 August 2011, South African Mathematics Foundation (2011, July).  SAMF eNewsletter – July 2011. Retrieved 24 August 2011 SABC News (2011, July).  HSRC Concerned about state of SA's Education. Retrieved 24 August 2011.