Witsies respond to report on quality of maths and science education in South Africa

There have been mixed reactions to a report released this week which suggests that the quality of South Africa’s maths and science education is extremely poor by global standards.

Academics and students at Wits University are split between those that believe there are firm reasons for the poor quality of education and others who reject the report itself, known as the “Global Information Technology Report 2014.”

Released by the World Economic Forum (WEF), the report ranked South Africa’s quality of maths and science education last out of 148 countries including Kenya, Chad, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Lesotho.

Reacting to the report Professor Eunice Mphako-Banda, a mathematics lecturer at Wits, believes that a key problem is the introduction of calculators in maths education. “The biggest problem I see is this introduction of calculators in primary school,” says Mphako-Banda. “You don’t learn anything by using calculators.”

Students must “think and use [their] brain,” said Mphako-Banda.

Professor Gillian Drennan, assistant dean of undergraduate affairs in the faculty of sciences at Wits, agrees that students battle to apply what they have learnt, saying that pupils in high school have been taught “how not to think”.

“We [South Africa] need students who know how to think.”

Lagging behind

Dr Gideon Fareo, a computational and applied mathematics (CAM) lecturer, questions the validity and authenticity of the report, claiming that the report is “not a scientific comment … based on scientific deductions.”

Fareo does, however, believe that the results of these findings should not be de-bunked.

“In light of the facilities available in [South Africa], we shouldn’t be having this problem,” stated Fareo. “Why are [countries like] Nigeria and Haiti ahead [of us]?”

Both Mphako-Banda and Fareo believe that the problem lies in the lack of attention paid to primary schools.

“[Government] spends so much money on tertiary education but what about the foundations?” asked Fareo. “[Without basic education], how are [students] supposed to cope in high school and university?”

Mphako-Banda, who hails from Malawi, says she doesn’t “trust this system [of South African education]”, and believes that the “political will,” to improve South Africa’s education is non-existent.

“We are not looking at the standard [of education], [just at] how do we make people pass.”

“This whole system makes me angry,” she says.

Fareo, however, believes that the government “has a good ambition”, but just does not apply its policies well enough.

“I believe we can do better than we are now.”

Inadequately prepared for university

An honours student in CAM, who has asked not to be named, is currently doing her research on matric pass rates for mathematics, dealing with Model C public schools in particular.

Her preliminary results show that pass rates are “quite bad” and believes this is due to “bad teaching facilities and bad teachers”. She also said that she felt under-prepared for her tertiary education.

A PhD student in CAM, who spoke to Wits Vuvuzela on condition of anonymity, believes that maths in high school “has been made a joke”, and students are “inadequately prepared for university”.

He also said that “language is [one of the] main issues” he has to deal with when teaching CAM students, stating that they understand the maths but reading textbooks and notes in English presents a challenge.

Solutions at Wits

Mphako-Banda also believes that students are “very, very unprepared” for tertiary-level education, but adds that Wits has had to offer a two-week pre-university course to registered engineering students, because lecturers “know [the students] are not prepared” to cope with the level of maths and science at the university.

According to Brennan, Wits has received a government grant and specialists will be employed in the faculty of sciences to help students who are struggling with the curriculum.

Brennan believes that the decline in educational standards is “not just a South African problem.”

“The decline in education is a global phenomenon … and at a global level, [we need to] tackle head-on these challenges.”