Western Cape Strengthened Mathematics Strategy launch

Good morning

  • Acting SG, the DDG: Institution Development and Coordination, Archie Lewis,
  • DDG: Curriculum and Assessment, Haroon Mohammed, and our WCED officials,
  • Guest speakers and academics,
  • Principals and teachers,
  • And all invited guests,

Today marks a real turning point for our province as we unveil the Western Cape Strengthened Mathematics Strategy for the next five years.

We have been concerned about our province’s performance in Mathematics for some time. While we have had, and continue to have, the highest matric pass rate for Maths in the country, there has been a worrying trend in Maths participation.

We have also seen a gradual improvement in systemic test results, until the pandemic came along and reversed a lot of those gains – especially in the early grades. So the Department had to take these learning losses into account when developing the strategy too. (I don’t need to remind everyone how important these tests are in telling us whether we are making progress with our interventions. It really is a pity that other provinces don’t have access to the same kind of data.)

I won’t unpack the detail of the strategy as you have heard from many capable officials doing so, but I hope that you have found these two days to be a celebration of Mathematics teaching, and a source of encouragement for the task ahead.

Our Maths teachers have already done incredible work to get our children interested and improving in Maths – and I am glad that the new strategy has a strong human resources component to it. You are our most valuable resource in this endeavour and you can really feel a love for the subject when we engage with these teachers.

But…are we are adults and parents unintentionally undermining their work?

31% of 15-16 year olds in a multi-country study by the Programme for International Student Assessment said that they were nervous of doing Maths problems. 33% said they would get tense doing their Maths homework, and 60% worried that Maths classes would be difficult. Unfortunately, studies also show that girls are more likely to experience this anxiety than boys are.

This anxiety is developed from an early age, and our children look to us as adults and especially as parents for guidance. In fact, studies have shown that teachers’ and parents’ attitudes toward their students’ and children’s ability in Maths are key determinants in the development of “Maths anxiety” in learners.

We need to think about how we speak about Maths as adults. (I’m excluding our Maths teachers here of course, because we know you all have a special love for numbers that you try to instil amongst your learners!)

Self-fulfilling prophecies

We often hear someone say “I wasn’t good at Maths” or “I didn’t enjoy Maths at school”. I’ve been guilty of saying this as recently as this week.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, the American astrophysicist and author, pointed out something very important, saying: “Somehow, it’s okay for people to chuckle about not being good at math. Yet, if I said ‘I never learned to read,’ they’d say I was an illiterate dolt.”

We need Maths in our everyday lives, yet are comfortable proclaiming that we are not good at it, creating two false impressions.

Firstly, it creates an impression that you either have an innate genetic ability for Maths, or you don’t, and that there is no changing this. Certainly, not everyone will become a renowned mathematician. But when it comes to high school Maths, pretty much anyone can manage through hard work, preparation, and self-confidence.

A group of psychologists undertook a study with junior high school students in the United States to determine whether a student’s beliefs about mathematical ability changed their outcomes on tests. They presented two ideas to the learners: that you have a certain amount of intelligence which you can’t change, or that you can significantly change how intelligent you are.

The learners who agreed that they were able to change how intelligent they were achieved higher scores in Maths than those who believed you couldn’t change your level of intelligence. The psychologists then worked with some of the learners in the latter group to convince them that they could develop their intelligence through hard work and that the brain will make new learning connections. They received a startling result: as the learners’ beliefs changed, they worked harder, and their scores increased!

This is not one lone study – many others have come to the same conclusion about how our self-beliefs affect our ability to achieve. So when we say things like “I’m not a Maths person” to our kids, we may well be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy about their mathematical abilities, without even realising that we are doing it! Why on earth would we hamper our child’s enjoyment of Maths – and their future career prospects – by suggesting that you are either good at it or not? We should rather be reminding them daily that anyone can improve if they put in the hours.

The same goes for those who urge children to switch from Maths to Maths Literacy because it will be easier for them. I have previously raised my concerns about this, particularly as a result of the pressure from ‘league tables’ based solely on the matric pass rate. I will happily see a school encouraging more learners to take Maths and have those learners getting 60% for it, than have them getting 80% for Maths Literacy. We must emphasise quality over quantity.

Maths as a skill

The second problem with these phrases is that the past tense creates the impression that Maths was just something you did at school, didn’t enjoy, and now you don’t have to do anymore. Obviously, nothing could be further from the truth: not only does Maths have a functional use (from shopping to working out your taxes), but it also develops the problem-solving techniques and abilities that you apply to all aspects of your life and career daily – as the programme of this conference illustrates.

We are all still doing Maths, every day, all the time. And yet, our own anxiety about Maths persists into adulthood.

A lot of the difficulty has to do with how those of us who – like me – are not education experts see Mathematics at school: as a subject, instead of a skill.  Shakuntala Devi – who was popularly known as “The Human Computer” for her mental calculations – asked: “Why do children dread mathematics? Because of the wrong approach. Because it is looked at as a subject.”

It is clear from the speakers at this conference that Maths has a place across all fields, from archaeology to art, and that the skills it teaches us are applied across all subjects – in just the same way that reading applies. We already have a Reading Strategy and Team READ, so adding Team Maths is the logical next step!

As you will no doubt be aware by now, I resigned as Minister of Education this week, to pursue new opportunities. But I can promise that I will be watching with great interest to see how the implementation of this strategy will affect our learners’ performance over time. I wish you all the very best in this endeavour, and have no doubt that you will continue to pour your expertise and dedication into our children’s hearts and minds so that they, too, can appreciate Maths in the way it should be appreciated!