Maths is Messy and Experimental

“South Africa’s Grade 9 national average for mathematics was 11% in 2014, which points to the reality that we have already lost most maths learners by Grade 9,” says Rhodes University Professor Mellony Graven of the Numeracy Chair Project, which is focusing on improving basic maths skills in South African public schools.

“We are faced with a situation where the majority of Grade 4 learners in this country are unable to do basic maths and multiples.”

She uses disruptive techniques to encourage learners to become excited about maths: “I take a koki and, in front of the learners, I scribble rough workings and doodles in the learner books we developed through the Chair. I do this to emphasise that learning maths needs to be messy and experimental, it is not about neat sums and clean pages. Learning maths is also about making mistakes; mistakes are our friend because it is in addressing our mistakes and asking questions that we learn.”

This is not what happens in most classrooms. Many teachers insist that learners’ maths books are neat for the inspectors and they therefore discuss maths problems orally, with the answers written neatly by the learners in their books. More often than not, this is without any understanding of how they got to the answer.

Prof Graven emphasises that blame is too often placed on the teachers. “In the higher grades they are expected to teach algorithms to learners who do not have a foundational understanding of numbers. It’s an impossible situation.”

The Numeracy Chair Project is working on changing this through a range of schools-based projects.

One of the projects is the Early Number Fun Teacher Development Programme. This Grahamstown-based programme is designed around a community of Grade R teachers from 10-12 local government schools who meet on a monthly basis to engage on issues around the development of number concepts in pre-school learners.

Another key project called Pushing for Progression has established after school maths clubs for primary learners and teachers from government schools in Grahamstown, the Eastern Cape and other provinces to introduce after school maths clubs. To date over 100 clubs have run and the programme is growing.

This is precisely the kind of programme that Dr Sizwe Mabizela, the Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes University, is supporting in his educational drive for schooling equality in Grahamstown, called Reviving Grahamstown Schools. Starting locally, the greater goal is to revive schools nationally. The Numeracy Chair projects share this approach.

Maths clubs and more recently the Pushing for Progression programme started with a pilot in a Grahamstown school in 2011. Clubs emanating from the Pushing for Progression programme are now run by teachers across districts and several provinces, often supported by district specialists, thus the sphere of influence is expanding rapidly.

“We have a different ethos to the traditional schools maths programme,” says Prof Graven. “When we present a maths problem for the learners to solve, we encourage them to do their rough workings in their books. We also encourage them to ask questions.”

The approach is proving highly successful for learners and teachers.

After school maths club learners, from the weakest to the strongest, eagerly work through the series of four Tailored Independent Activity books at their own pace. The books start with the basics and progressively build on their maths skills. Many of learners complete a book (ranging from 12-20 pages) in one week. They are excited to work through them and the Chair project has already distributed thousands of these books.

“The clubs double as a strong maths learning base for learners and teachers, and as a powerful research base for the Chair’s postgrads and postdocs,” says Prof Graven who believes that all Chairs should have a strong community engagement component.

“Several of our postgraduates are now in provincial positions, which is extremely important in extending new approaches, or what we call expanding the sphere of influence, to the teaching and learning of maths in this country. One of our former Master’s students, Zanele Mofu, for example is now the Foundation Phase Curriculum Specialist for the Eastern Cape and is currently doing her PhD on the nature of teacher learning through running mathematics clubs in the King Williams Town district.”

Prof Graven argues that the after school clubs provide spaces in which learners can shift their learning dispositions and change ways of participating mathematically. She offers the example of a young boy who was disruptive in class and was considered by teachers to be weak at mathematics while the club assessment showed that he was above average. For example, when the club facilitator asked learners to put together numbers that would equal 10, most came up with 7 + 3 or 5 + 5, but he came up with 5 + 5 + 1 and 13 – 3 (introducing a new operation). His conceptual, explorative approach to maths was far ahead of his classmates.

“We are excited by what learners can achieve and we want to expand the club programme,” she says. “We are calling for schools to remain open after 1pm so that learners can use them as safe spaces for independent work. Most schools in disadvantaged areas lock their gates at 1pm.

“At the moment the learners are only doing one extra hour per week in the maths clubs and the progress is unbelievable. The club learners are the ones getting the school prizes – it changes their perceptions of themselves and helps them to gravitate to the top.”