Each year, the release of the matric results unleashes a frantic conversation about how to meet the demand for skilled workers to support the South African economy. We live in a world where technological innovation is vital for global competitiveness. So, unsurprisingly, a lot of attention is given to maths and science results and to the number of matriculants choosing technical courses at the tertiary level.
Although our circumstances are unique, South Africa is not alone in its concerns about technical skills. The global shortage of skilled workers is likely to explode in the coming decades.
According to one projection, the unmet demand for workers with a tertiary qualification will be as high as 40-million by 2020.
To make matters worse, populations are ageing in countries such as Japan, China and Germany. This means the supply of educated workers in these regions will decline.
To improve their competitiveness and to meet the demands of an increasingly technological world, countries around the globe are seeking ways to increase the number of science, technology, engineering and maths graduates. More than ever before, strategies to strengthen secondary school maths and science are under review.
Vocational training programmes are not always viewed as viable alternatives to traditional courses. There are ongoing efforts to improve the quality and relative standing of these courses.
The South African position is remarkably similar to the global one. Skills planning to support inclusive growth is a policy priority. However, there are a few important differences between the local and global approaches to maths education.
Here is one recent example: in December last year, the department of basic education announced that learners in grades seven, eight and nine who did not achieve 40% in maths but passed all other subjects would be allowed to progress to the next grade, provided that they achieved at least 20% in maths. The department argued that not all learners are technically inclined and that expecting them to achieve better results in maths is unfair and unrealistic.
But what if the opposite were true? What if, instead of lowering our standards for weaker learners, we actually expected them to complete a relatively advanced maths curriculum?
The idea might seem far-fetched but there is evidence from several countries to suggest that exposing learners to more complex mathematical concepts may increase overall performance — and that includes weaker learners.
According to the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment of 15-year-old students in 65 countries, exposing learners, irrespective of their ability levels, to more complex problems was linked to improvements in their applied mathematical skills.
In some countries, it was clear that exposure to more complex maths concepts increased anxiety among weaker students. Strategies to address this included giving those who were struggling focused tasks in the classroom so that they could improve their understanding of specific concepts.
Because parents can inadvertently pass a sense of anxiety about maths on to their children, it was important to work with parents to shape positive attitudes towards maths.
What was critical was that weaker learners continued to be exposed to an advanced curriculum.
Policy-makers and practitioners in many of the countries that participated in the assessment considered this to be a far better approach than separating weaker learners from other learners by streaming or, worse still, relegating them to a diluted version of the curriculum.
The attitude of teachers also made a big difference in helping learners of different backgrounds to develop advanced mathematical reasoning.
Many taught classes with a diverse group of learners. They were more successful when teachers avoided labelling them based on their academic performance.
Instead, teachers who repeatedly reinforced that doing well in maths was possible for all learners with perseverance achieved better results from learners. Encouraging learners to improve each time they achieved their individual milestones developed resilience in those of different backgrounds.
Though encouraging, these success stories seem to take place far from the crushing reality that many South African educators face on a daily basis. One could easily argue that teaching complex maths to South African learners would also be possible if well-resourced learning environments were guaranteed and if teachers were provided with the training, support and class sizes that would allow them to monitor learner progress individually.
We always need to be careful in positioning ourselves against international evidence.
Many of our teachers are overworked and face increasing class sizes. This environment makes it difficult to give each learner the individual attention they might require, let alone tap into how anxious they feel about learning maths.
It does make sense, on some level, to progress weaker learners who are struggling with maths and allow them to sidestep careers that rely on maths. It’s much harder to expect more. But it is not impossible.
Singapore consistently ranks at the top of international mathematics assessments. Although there is some flexibility in the curriculum at the upper secondary level, a core maths syllabus is compulsory for everyone until the end of secondary school.
Closer to home, maths is compulsory at all levels of secondary education in a number of African countries, including maths powerhouses such as Kenya. A compulsory core maths curriculum does not guarantee success in the subject for everyone. Far from it.
But this approach recognises that the capacity of weaker learners to grasp complex concepts might be more than we think and that exposure to maths is important for everyone — not only for career choices but for developing critical thinking and abstract reasoning in an increasingly technologically driven world.
A decision about whether to study maths and to what level will have a long-term effect on a person’s life. Our perspective on what learners can achieve in maths has become painfully narrow. Developing the mathematical talents of every child, regardless of background, is a responsible approach to take.
I would go even further and say that, if we don’t work towards higher standards for all learners, we will reinforce existing inequalities in South African education. This is something we cannot afford to do.
Linda Zuze is a member of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study at the Human Sciences Research Council.