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Sunday, December 5, 2021

Covid-19 could accelerate changes in how we teach Mathematics

While learners in schools for the middle class and independent schools have had access to online learning, learners in schools for the poor and working class have had no such access.

Visiting associate at Wits University Lynn Bowie said this was also unlikely to change in the near future.

On Monday, Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga announced that public schools across the country will shut down this week and reopen on 19 July.

The decision comes after President Cyril Ramaphosa ’s address on Sunday that schools must be closed by 30 June 2021 due to the third wave of the coronavirus in South Africa.

Ramaphosa said the number of daily new infections was more than doubling, and that hospital admissions were rising. Ramaphosa said the deaths from Covid-19 were increasing by nearly 50%.

“The situation has gotten worse. In addition, we now have the Delta variant. The Delta variant has now been detected in five of our provinces, namely the Eastern Cape, Free State, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Western Cape.

“We are concerned about the rapid spread of this variant. “Reports from some countries, including on our continent, also suggest that infections and clinical illness in children may be more common with the delta variant, even as the overall rate of infection remains substantially lower than in adults,” said Ramaphosa.

Bowie said there is evidence that, in mathematics, learners in less well-resourced schools are four years behind their counterparts in well-resourced schools by the end of Grade 9.

It is therefore likely that most Grade 9 learners will fell further behind in 2020 and continue to do so in 2021.

“This situation needs urgent attention. It is time to think beyond 2021, and to treat 2021 and 2022 as a continuous learning opportunity.

“It is also time to be more strategic about what is taught. In the Covid-19 discussions on schooling there has been too little focus on what learners will learn – whether at school or at home,” said Bowie.

A study by Associate Professor at the University of Stellenbosch Nicholas Spaull found that only 16% of Grade 3 students in South Africa are performing at a Grade 3 level in mathematics.

Spaull said the poorest 60% of students are three Grade-levels behind the wealthiest 20% of students in Grade 3.

The gap between the poorest 60% and wealthiest 20% of students grows to four Grade-levels by Grade 9.

After Grade 9, South African learners must choose between Mathematics and Mathematical Literacy for the remaining three years of secondary school.

Mathematics is essential for entrance into science-based programmes in universities, but the majority of learners lack the knowledge to cope with Mathematics from Grade 10 onwards.

Associate Professor of Mathematics Education at Wits University Craig Pournara said for example, in the Annual National Assessments for Mathematics administered from 2012 to 2014, the average mark each year for Grade 9 was less than 14%. 

“Similarly, in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study assessments in 2015, only one third of South African Grade 9 learners achieved at the minimal level in mathematics,” said Pournara.

He added that a recent study of Grade 9 and 10 learner performances on negative number, basic algebra and functions yielded an average score of 28.3%.

“Clearly Grade 9 performance is far below desired levels,” he said

“Add to this situation the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In most state schools, Grade 9s are scheduled to return to class on 19 July 2021.

“Research indicates that long breaks from school lead to learning loss, with maths scores being particularly badly affected. And these breaks have a greater negative impact on learners from lower socioeconomic groups,” said Pournara.

Pournara and Bowie suggested that a limited number of core concepts and skills for Grades 8 and 9 that will provide a strong foundation for further mathematics be identified.

The two said this can be a solution to the pandemic interruption of learning.

“This involves, firstly, a carefully designed curriculum to address learners’ difficulties, starting with whole number, fractions, negative number, introductory algebra, linear patterns and functions.

“Secondly, teachers need a range of supportive materials – not just fixed lesson plans. It should be clear what must be done face-to-face and what can be done alone at home without technology. Teacher materials should help to identify gaps in learners’ knowledge and to provide guidance for re-teaching what learners have missed,” said Bowie.

Pournara said tests should focus on revealing what learners understand and what they are battling with, instead of putting pressure on them to “pass” a certain level.

He said if this is done, Covid-19 could be the unexpected catalyst that makes the education system accountable to learners and their learning. 

“But we need to get Grade 8 and 9 learners back to learning as soon as possible. It is crucial that they are not neglected because of an overwhelming focus on Grade 12 learners,” he said.

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