Like Surgeon Xolo, our learners can also be mathematics smarties

| November 7, 2014 | 0 Comments

By Lehlohonolo Mofokeng

It is a real worry to learn that fewer and fewer learners matriculate with pure maths in so-called ‘township’ schools1 in South Africa each year.2

The reason why we have such unreasonably high rates of learner underachievement in pure mathematics and also unreasonably high rates of learner enrolments in mathematical literacy,3 especially in black communities and also in township schools, can be easily ascribed.

No one should moan because the lists of qualified chartered accountants, actuaries and engineers in South Africa are dominated by white graduates.4 It is, I believe, because most highly functioning schools (and those are mostly found in urban areas) do not favour mathematical literacy.5 The logic is that the likelihood that students will succeed in the corporate sector is far greater if they have a pure mathematics background rather than a mathematical literacy background.6

On the ‘flipside’, I have observed first-hand what Martin Prew, a visiting fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) School of Education and an education development specialist, has called a “bizarre situation”:7 that many ‘black’ or ‘township’ schools are concerned with quantity rather than quality – they would rather have more students progress to the next grade with math literacy grades of 70% than a smaller percentage with pure maths marks, which may not be as good.

Many more can master pure maths

One of the mathematical wizards currently at work in South Africa is Surgeon Xolo who, with his teacher’s belief in him, rose from the bottom of the class to the top and went on to do a PhD at one of the world’s best higher learning institutions, Cambridge University.8

His story attests to the fact that nothing is really impossible if there is someone who believes in your mathematical abilities. I am of the opinion that it is about time more teachers in previously disadvantaged or currently disadvantaged schools devise creative ways to teach pure mathematics, instead of wholly attributing dismal learner academic performance to learners’ deficient efforts.

It is time to change the perception in our black communities that it is acceptable for learners to score 1% in pure maths. Indeed, at the school at which I taught, the highest mark for a maths-based assessment in Grade 10 was 15 out of a total of 199. At this school, when children achieved 30% in maths, they were given a pat on the back, for it seemed to be a tolerable norm and the most possible one to reach. The purpose of this article is not to assume that everyone is mathematically gifted, but to show that we have more people who can do maths rather than maths literacy. How can we create what I call sustainable and empowering learning environments (SuELEs) with the hope of overcoming this dilemma in our township schools?

The languages of learning and teaching

There is empirical research evidence that the classroom use of home language or lack thereof contributes largely to a child’s academic success/failure.9 Mamokgethi Setati, another South African maths heroine and associate professor and director of the Marang Centre for Maths and Science Education at Wits University, as well as professor extraordinaire at the Tshwane University of Technology, avers further that classroom conversations that include students’ first language as legitimate resources can support students in learning to communicate mathematically.10 When you look at the issue of maths competency from a commercial perspective, it makes sense to use English as the language of teaching and learning; yet academically this approach has disadvantaged many capable souls. Simply put, most of our learners are compelled to learn maths in English. They oftentimes fail to understand both the mathematical language and English as the language of tuition. To overcome this language barrier, I suggest that it would be wise for all teachers to be trained to switch between English and indigenous languages to explain the meaning of mathematical concepts in the language that learners will understand, although this may prove to be challenging in a classroom that is linguistically diverse. At the same time, we must nurture a culture of reading among our learners, especially English literature, so that we can improve their English vocabulary and comprehension.

Creativity, practicality and learner-centred teaching are important

Perhaps most crucially, teachers must learn to show learners where and how in real life will they need and use maths. Our maths teachers must end the tyranny of the ‘talk and chalk’ method that I am sure is every learner’s dismay.

Every teacher can make maths lively by using everyday life examples. Instead of relying on the textbook, use the rondavel,11 a common sight in Africa, as a way to illustrate the circumference of a circle.

Teachers should also give learners more opportunities to demonstrate how they learn best. Why not task those learners who understand some complex mathematical concepts with tutoring those who do not? Then everyone is teaching and everyone is learning.

We live in a world that is technologically driven and thus has provided us with ample opportunities to interact with communities not only within our borders but offshore, thanks to the internet. We need to use these resources to our advantage by engaging with global partners in education to share ideas on how we can make maths interesting. We can connect our learners to their fellow learners in Singapore, for instance, to collaboratively solve maths problems and possibly exchange tips on how their teachers make maths easy and interesting.

Contribution to sustainable learning and empowering learning environments

I hope these suggestions will contribute to the creation of SuELEs which, in a nutshell, comprise the sharing of ideas and experimental learning, and reciprocity – teachers learn from learners and vice versa. In the most powerful learning environments of all, making and learning from mistakes is embraced wholeheartedly and lifelong learning is engraved on teachers’ and learners’ hearts.


1. Many learners attending ‘township’ schools in South Africa require a good deal of protection and resilience to overcome the obstacles and adversities in their context of development. [Source: Bouwer, C. and Mampane, R. (2011) “The influence of township schools on the resilience of their learners.” Available at: 01002011000100009&script=sci_arttext.]
2. See, for example: Press%20Articles/2013/Collaboration_is_key.aspx; and Fasset (2013) “Fasset Scarce Skills Guideline.” Available at: Research/Scarce%20Skills_Guide_2013_%20Final.pdf.
3. Fleisch, B. (2014) “Large-scale instructional reform in the Global South: insights from the mid-point evaluation of the Gauteng Primary Language and Mathematics Strategy.” Available at: 3; and Mtshali, N. (2014) “Education minister eyes pure maths.” Available at: maths-1.1716214.
4. See, for example: Fasset (2013) op. cit.; and Skade, T. (2014) “Do black South Africans earn less?” Available at:
5. See, for example: Mtshali, N. (2014) op. cit.
6. See, for example: Clark, R. (2012) “Maths vs maths literacy: the continuing debate.” Available at: 2012/01/09/maths-vs-maths-literacy-the-continuing-debate/.
7. Prew, M. (2013) “SA’s maths education crisis laid bare.” Available at:
8. See:
9. Ntshangase, N.D. (2011) “The negative impact of learning in English on the cognitive development of second language learners of English.” Available at:
10. Setati, M. (2008) “Access to mathematics versus access to the language of power: the struggle in multilingual mathematics classrooms.” Available at: 01002008000100007.
11. Steyn, G. (2006) “The indigenous rondavel – a case for conservation.” Available at: 2263/10792/Styen_Indigenous%282006%29.pdf.

Category: Summer 2014

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