What are the causes of ‘problems’ in maths education in South Africa?

It is generally agreed that there is a problem in South Africa with maths education. The evidence for this claim comes from a range of international benchmarking tests such as the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) (see, for example, Mji and Makgato (2006)).

We are interested in the perceived and actual reasons for these problems, and a first step in our research has been to ask people, using a web 2.0 approach which draws on the ‘wisdom of the crowds’. For example, Twitter and Facebook have been used to invite people to complete a questionnaire. People were asked whether each of the following is a key reason for the problems, has some influence or is not a reason:

  • Assessment focuses on the wrong things
  • The curriculum is not fit for purpose
  • Mathematics is hard
  • Societal attitudes towards mathematics are negative
  • Teaching is not good enough
  • Too many learners opt for maths literacy
  • The language of learning (Language of learning and teaching – LoLT) is not the home language

The research is at an early stage, but some initial results are available. The graph below summarises responses from 69 participants (as at 8th August 2014).

causes SA

This suggests that, for most people, negative attitudes in society towards mathematics and poor teaching are the biggest reasons. The language of learning and teaching also seems to be a big concern, with fewer than 20% saying they believe it is not a reason. Similarly assessment seems to be a concern with only 20% of respondents saying that it is not a reason.