Advice Column, Education

Solving The Math Problem

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Shockingly low Mathematics results at Senior School level are cause for concern: the average score for Grade 9 learners who wrote the 2014 Annual National Assessment (ANA) Mathematics test was 10% and only 35.1% of last year’s Matric students obtained a final mark of 40% or above in Mathematics.* “These results are worrying, but there is hope. The key to solving the national Maths problem is in early intervention programmes for children in the Foundation Phase,” says Edublox Director of Educational Programmes Susan du Plessis.

Poor results have been blamed on overcrowded classrooms, lack of scholar transport and underqualified teachers. While the Department of Basic Education plans to run training workshops for Grade 8 and 9 Mathematics teachers** and invests in school infrastructure, educational experts say that lasting solutions lie in the Foundation Phase.

“It’s completely wrong to say that if there is a huge drop out in Grade 10 or 11 then the problem must be in Grade 9 or Grade 8. That’s not the case,” says Education Economist Nicholas Spaull. “We know that children aren’t acquiring these foundational skills in Grades 1 to 3 and therefore that’s where the focus needs to be. Matric starts in Grade 1.”***

Du Plessis agrees with Spaull and says, “The Mathematics problems seen at Senior School level are due to a weak foundational understanding of the subject in Primary School. Parents should not become despondent about the problem. If they are aware and look out for signs that their child is struggling with the subject, early intervention in Primary School can help to ensure learning problems do not persist to High School level. The saying, ‘Prevention is better than cure’ really is true.”

“Before revision worksheets can be of any use, one needs to establish an in-depth understanding of Mathematical terminology. Foundational skills can then improve a learner’s ability at focussed, sustained and divided attention. Children need help in developing the cognitive tools for visual processing and deductive and inductive reasoning. Curriculum-based exercises including mental arithmetic, reading and word sums can further improve understanding. Children who struggle to learn require support in mastering visual, sequential and working memory,” says du Plessis.

Working memory is described as “the engine of learning” because it has shown to be the primary indicator of academic performance. It is the cognitive system responsible for the temporary storage and manipulation of information.

For example: to solve a problem like (3 X 3) + (4 X 2) in your head, you need to keep the intermediate results in mind (i.e., 3 X 3 = 9) to be able to solve the entire problem. Working memory is necessary when staying focused on a task and blocking out distractions.

Learning Mathematics is a stratified process, explained du Plessis. “Certain skills have to be mastered first, before it becomes possible to master subsequent skills. Excelling at Mathematics can unlock many career opportunities in the future.”

Parents with children in the foundation phase can easily identify if their child requires additional Mathematics support with this simple checklist:

  • Does my child obtain low Mathematics results?
  • Does my child struggle to do mental calculations?
  • Does my child count using fingers?

Du Plessis says that children still using their fingers to count in Grade 4 were at risk of missing out on learning more complicated elements of the subject, affecting their long-term chances of Mathematics success in the High School.

It is commonly accepted that children should be able to count before they start Grade 1. To teach your child to count, du Plessis recommends that parents count forwards and backwards from one to 11 with their child. Once this has been mastered, a child should count forwards and backwards from 11 to 21 and then from 21 to 31. This technique should steadily progress up to 100.

“Counting backwards demonstrates a thorough understanding of the order in which numbers are placed. Mathematics is all about counting. If a child cannot count properly they will not be able to move on to more complicated sums,” said du Plessis.

“Mathematics is important for whatever career you want to do, if you cannot grasp the content then your choices are limited. It is critical to get the basics right from Grade 1. Once you have built a strong Mathematical foundation, it remains forever.”

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