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The state of mathematics in South Africa

February 24, 2012

South African secondary schools don’t offer courses a la carte like many American high schools do. Instead, starting at grade 10 there are two or three tracks. Students who want to be doctors will study math and science, those who want to be handling money in some fashion will study math and business, and everyone else takes the more practical and less technical mathematical literacy course, as well as less esteemed subjects like history.

I don’t formally teach any of those math courses but sometimes learners who are studying math as opposed to math literacy (there are about 10 of them in each grade) will ask me to help them with something, more often than not an assignment that’s due tomorrow, and we’ll grab an empty classroom. I don’t mind because even though it’s not my responsibility, I’d rather work with those who want my help than with those who are content to skate by at 30%, the passing score in most South African classes. Sad that someone who waits until the last minute to do their homework passes for a motivated student when sitting beside someone who doesn’t even copy down the assignment.

This isn’t what this post is about, at least not directly, but I have the most upsetting time trying to teach negative numbers to my class of 73 grade 8 learners. Sometimes in math education, we tell students something is impossible as a way of saying we’ll deal with it later. In 2nd grade we say that 2 – 3 is impossible, and only later we reveal that it is possible, we just have to use these things called negative numbers to describe it. We might say that it’s impossible to take the square root of 2, and then change our minds and say we can do it, the answer will just be irrational. Likewise, we have the power to take the square root of negative numbers. We just have to call them imaginary. After all the time I spent regressing to talking about negative numbers when the curriculum calls for topics more appropriate for grade 8, I still have learners who write on the test that “6 – 7 = impossible”. It’s like a lump of clay that was left out in the sun to harden before it was sculpted all the way because the sculptors were incompetent or lazy.

So I was with this class, I think it was grade 10, and I’m not sure what they were supposed to be doing at that time but their math teacher was attending a life skills presentation for grade 8. They had this algebra worksheet, moving numbers around and solving for x. A little complex but still solvable by just following the rules.

I copied a problem on the board as the impromptu class began to fill. One girl walked in carrying a grasshopper, pinching it by the body.

“What are you going to do with that?” I asked as the grasshopper slowly cycled its legs.

“I’m going to eat it.”

“Fine, let’s see you eat it. Ilani.

“No, not yet. I have to take it home and boil it and fry it.”

“Well, what would you do if you have to use your hands, like solving this problem on the board?” I asked, proffering her the chalk.

“Then I will put it in my pocket.” And she did. Right in her shirt pocket. And it stayed there.

She took the chalk and stared at the board. She made some tentative moves to write something as the grasshopper took tentative steps up her shirt. Seeing that no one had any clue where to start, I let her sit down and showed them how to work the problem.

This was interrupted for a few minutes when I was talking about parentheses and they wanted to call them brackets. The argument ended when someone pulled out a dictionary and looked up parenthesis (“Eish! Our teacher cannot teach us right because he calls them brackets!”), but the real end to the argument was when we agreed we should stop looking up words and focus on solving math.

I finished the problem and let one of the boys take a crack at solving the next one on the board. I took the photo of the grasshopper below while he was working, and when I looked back up, he had committed a fatal error such as adding 12x + 2 to get 14x. “Fatal error” is a phrase I learned from my Calculus II professor. He explained it as like when your computer gets a blue screen.

I showed them how to do it right, of course, and since they’re not my class I can only hope they’ll retain it. That’s the state of mathematics in South Africa. Lacking in foundations and full of grasshoppers, but they’re trying.

  1. Katherine Crosby permalink

    haha brilliant. I especially like your simile with the clay.

    I seem to remember some efforts to teach positive and negative numbers as being similar to a timeline, the most obvious one being AD/BC which Christian students might be familiar with already. It allows something to visualize.

    • That could work. I’ve tried temperature but they don’t get it, maybe because it’s never below freezing here.

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