By now the national #Matric2013 results  temperature may have gone down somewhat. Perhaps most people have read and reread the same information a couple of times, so they should know some of the verifiable facts quite well. Ask someone who reads the news, including the bits and pieces on the social networks, and they will easily give you the litany of bad news items. There is no need to repeat any of that.

And the extent and frequency of comments and analyses surpass that of many newsworthy items of the whole year. (How is it that there are so many analysts, statisticians, systems theorists and educational experts out there, by the way? And how is it that they come out of hiding  when it is matric results time?)

The comments are  at best repetitive and further indulging in a pathologising discourse: there is an underlying conclusion that this is a sick ‘mathsless’, ‘scienceless’  nation and its pathology can be seen in how our young  perform on the final examination of their competence in a couple of knowledge domains (from six to eight or, god forbid, nine or 10 subjects). We have no hope and we are self-diagnosing that we are at the edge of the abyss where what is waiting for us is a society in which half of our children don’t make it to the final school destination and will beg off us and pilfer from us ad infinitum. The simplistic and very seductive way to think about this drop-out phenomenon is that these young people are lost and are no longer an asset to the nation. In fact, they have become a liability.

At worst the comments are crudely judgmental and uninformed. There is no need to repeat how almost every component of schools – teachers, the public service of education and so on and on ­–  is judged, and judged with relish by some, especially if it can serve as Politicking. The judgments are also of the comparative type where just the sample size is already an issue: one example is when private education and its system of evaluating matrics via the Independent Examination Board are compared to the public system. So here we have 9,500 privileged young people, taught and assessed by a small group of teachers who are hand-picked; with half a million young people taught by teachers who were trained, in many cases, in one of the 116 colleges of yore. (Footnote: No audit was asked to determine the high percentage of matrics who passed successfully and who have had their marks put through statistical processes by the same body that worked with the public system’s scores and processes.)

Two things

I have only two things to say about the facts of the results: I comment on  the drop-out rate and the minimum scores.  It saddens me that so many of the children fall by the wayside in their effort to learn at school. Why do they drop out? Does a successful student give up easily? I would think not. Kids give up because they fail. It says so on their report cards. The reasons why they fail are many. I mention only the few that I have studied.

They fail because they failed right at the outset – in the early grades when they were learning to learn. And they did not fail because of lack of cognitive capacity. They failed because most teachers have not been trained to teach the most challenging field of knowledge well – I am talking about mathematics and why this domain of knowledge is crucial. They failed because their teachers were not trained to teach concepts when it is needed most – to build the foundation of understanding of number, magnitude and the way these feature in our lives.

Kids at school learn to do operations with numbers and they learn to manipulate maths symbols and notation and it works for a while. But not for long. It really is like the foundation of a house. You have to dig deep and systematically to get the trench right. You have to mix the ingredients of the concrete in a very measured way and then you lay the foundation. You water it – keep it damp like my father the bricklayer always told us. Then only when it has settled do you mix the new brew that holds bricks together. You start laying the bricks very, very systematically – all the while checking for alignment, using the level, checking for fit and using the trowel skilfully. You never rush to build a wall because it certainly will not last. There will be cracks and in a storm you may lose it. Sorry to say, there are many rushed RDP houses that attest to this.

It’s the same with maths learning. ‘Kahle’. ( I like the Herero word, ‘katiti’ I think is the spelling). Slow down. Dig deep.  We have such a nice foundation phase curriculum, but it goes way too fast for most kids.  It requires rapid progress through very important concept-learning that should, for most children, go much slower. And if a teacher does not stay on curriculum schedule the district official will note that in the meticulous records teachers are expected to keep. Kids who fail maths early never catch up. That is a ‘finish and klaar’ statement that is backed-up by research in developmental psychology and neuroscience as well as mathematical education research. It impacts physics learning, chemistry learning, biology learning and geography learning. Get the picture?

While they learn to understand maths, to read its notation and use its language… they also learn to read and write at the same time. Maybe they are lucky and their teacher knows that she  teaches phonemes  and not words to begin with. Maybe she is still holding on to the 80s fad of ‘whole language’, and that is bound to delay their literacy development. Maybe they will catch up because, fortunately, if you know phonemes in a language you are likely to build your skill (if you have books and knowledge and a growing vocabulary). Maybe you find it easy to learn the very tough phonemes of English too, so you can be a competent bilingual reader. Maybe.

Now the other issue. The ‘percentage’ at which you are regarded as competent in matric. It is measured  ‘per hundred’ units of knowledge as marked by someone who has been trained to use the memorandum well and can make some sound judgments about what you say in your answers. Or, as some (including myself) would have it, you need to show competence in at least half of the desired competencies, concepts, creativity measures etc. per one hundred. Why do I say 50%? Do I really believe that you will know 20 more units of knowledge per 100 more than when you knew only 30? No.

For me it is not about how you are measured on this metric. It is about how much more you will try to do to lift your self-esteem. I think you, matriculant, will be honoured if we say you are in the ‘upper half’ and therefor a South African matric with dignity. I think 30% makes you feel less dignified.

And I do believe that schools and districts will step up to the plate if expectations are higher. It’s the human condition. They will, after some moaning and groaning.  It’s for self-respect. It’s about honour, about being honoured.

If matric students then fail they will also know they failed honourably. If they fail on 30% (and whatever other combinations involved in calculating the pass mark), there is little hopefulness and more desperation.

Class size in Grade 1

Which brings me to the last impression. I am quite an admirer of the Finnish system of education for many reasons.  But the most important one is that citizens hold education in very hig esteem. They want to bring up little Finns to be savvy, fulfilled  citizens. Simple. That is one of the reasons they keep the classes in the lower grades small.

I cannot see and have never seen how a Grade 1 teacher can introduce six-year-olds at once to the worlds of alphabetical symbols (often in two languages in succession) to the abstract world of mathematics, including its symbolic notation, and the rest of the demanding Grade 1 curriculum if there are 35 children in her care.

I am now convinced that grade 1 and 2 classes should be reduced to 20. If you do not believe me, try to explain how one number is part of another number to only one child. Now add 34 children. If you still don’t believe me:  have you ever organised a birthday party for 35 children? I mean, that event  is about eating and drinking sugar and playing games and not hurting each other for two hours. Imagine  teaching an abstract concept that takes intense assessment of each individual to ensure that they have grasped it, while managing their behaviour.

And if these kids in a class of 35 do not develop solid concepts (in the foundation), the chances are that they will never catch up and then will live in an RDP maths world where the house will collapse long before matric.

Please SA, – chill on matric and get to grade 1 for comment, analysis, statisitcs and teacher development.


Main Pic: Schoolboy at the Lukhanyo Primary School, Zwelihle Township (Hermanus, South Africa)

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