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DBE: Angie Motshekga: Address by Minister of Basic Education, at the Mathematics Indaba, Sol Plaatije House, Pretoria (12/12/2016)

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DBE: Angie Motshekga: Address by Minister of Basic Education, at the Mathematics Indaba, Sol Plaatije House, Pretoria (12/12/2016)

Photo by Government-ZA
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga

13th December 2016


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Programme Director
Basic Education Deputy Minister: Hon. Mr. Enver Surty
Basic Education Director-General: Mr. Mathanzima Mweli 
All State Senior Officials
Esteemed Academics
Non-Governmental Organisations Leadership
Organised Labour
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen

It gives me pleasure to address the 2016 Mathematics Indaba wherein we are expected to place the teaching and learning of Mathematics within the public schooling on the radar screen. There is also a need to define the set of values for the teaching and learning of Mathematics in the South African context.


Programme Director; public schooling in South Africa is the largest in the region. According to the Stats SA General Household Survey, 2015  there were approximately 14 million learners at school in 2015. Approximately six percent of them attended private schools. Three-quarters (76,2%) of learners who attended public schools benefited from school feeding schemes. A further 64,6% in 2015 reported not paying fees. Furthermore, 70% of learners walked to school, while 8% used private vehicles.

Clearly, we are doing well in terms of access, and equity, but not well in quality. We must bear in mind that the numbers are telling us that if the public schooling sector fails, the whole country will tumble.

Therefore, we must understand the enormity of the task on our shoulders. Moreover, according to the recent (2013) OECD Country Report on South Africa concluded that to redress ‘catastrophically high unemployment among the youth…[51 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2012] …education remains… the critical problem’. The OECD argues that South Africa’s educational outcomes are ‘aggravating the excess supply of unskilled labour and worsening income inequality’.

Programme Director; it’s not rocket science that for us to succeed as country, vast improvements in this area of the public schooling system especially in Mathematics and Science are vital to South Africa’s future socio-economic prospects: for the learners as well as the development of the country as a whole. We owe it to the current generation and posterity to offer cutting-edge public schooling that has vastly improved learner outcomes in gateway subjects. Ours is a historical mission to bring about fundamental change in the lives of our people. Basic education is often considered as a catalyst for such fundamental change.

Programme Director; first and foremost I must be candid with you all – this Government has begun to accept that there is a problem in the teaching and learning of Mathematics requiring urgent intervention. Yet its extent and depth of the problem is often underestimated in favour of reports of ‘progress’ such as the recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2015. In our view, perhaps misplaced is that TIMSS 2015 showed an upward trajectory in both Mathematics and Science. We convinced ourselves that improvement of 87 points for Mathematics and 90 points for Science indicate significant progress. The cold fact is that we are moving from a low base. TIMSS 2015 underscores the  point that challenges emerge in the early stages of mathematics education, as we scored below the magical 400 points mark. Sadly, improving teaching quality alone may not be sufficient to redress the country’s schooling ills, but it is likely a necessary precondition for such improvement. Where does one start in this regard?

Programme Director; we must begin to understand the  epidemiology of poor learner outcomes in Mathematics. We need to analyse the patterns, causes, and effects of poor learner outcomes in the South African context.  It is the cornerstone of basic education policy making across the world that proper diagnosis of the problem should be studied to death before any remedial actions are instituted. Public policy decisions have swiftly moved to evidence-based practice by identifying risk factors for the problem and targets for preventive measures.

Programme Director; here is our conundrum - South Africa is significantly underperforming in education in general, particularly Mathematics teaching and learning. Mathematics teaching is often poor quality, with teachers not able to answer questions in the curriculum they are teaching, one indicator of the challenge. Often national testing is misleading as it does not show the major gap at lower grade levels. Of the full complement of pupils who start school, only 50 per cent will make it to Grade 12 and only 12 per cent will qualify for university entrance. (Centre for Development and Enterprise (2013) study). The CDE said   fundamental reforms are needed in the basic education sector.

Programme Director; it is only fair to say the teaching and learning of Mathematics in South Africa is like a patient in hospital. We have since moved out of the ICU into the general ward. We need to get the patient discharged and healthy. it’s time for business unusual. What we don’t need is another voluminous policy position paper. There is no shortage of strategies, plans and policies.

For-instance Goal 1 to Goal 3 of the Action Plan to 2019 Towards the Realisation of Schooling 2030 says we must increase the number of learners in Grade 3, 6, 9 who, by the end of the year, have mastered the minimum language and numeracy competencies for their respective grades. We have dismally failed to achieve these minimum Goals largely because apart from failure to muster Mathematical concepts, our learners do not have grade appropriate reading skills. Yet, research from the University of London’s Institute of Education (IOE) found that learners between the ages of 10-16 who read for pleasure made significantly more progress in vocabulary, spelling and Mathematics than learners who rarely read.

Programme Director; it is within this context that we gather here today. Our ultimate aim is to find the right diagnoses and treatment plan for our patient.

Perhaps to open that debate, one may argue that there is an urgent need to start a discourse on what should characterise a typical South African teaching and learning practice in Mathematics. In this regard, we need to contextualise international and regional best practices and draw lessons for South Africa. We need to reinvigorate the teaching of Mathematics in its entirety – from classrooms learning practises, content, teaching, and assessments. We must also pay particular attention  to the development of a new curriculum for initial teacher education, induction and continuing professional development.  In this regard, I call for the overhaul of the South African pedagogical-content knowledge outlook. We must as matter of urgency develop a South African Pedagogical Content Knowledge Framework as a starting point.

Programme Director, our focus on Mathematics is not an obsession or a quick fix solution to arrest the falling Matric pass rates, and lower participation in Mathematics in the FET Phase. Our primary aim should be to demystify the myth that South African learners are not mathematically inclined. Instead, foremost in our minds should the fact that the study of Mathematics is indeed a prerequisite for tackling poverty and promoting short and long-term economic growth. This is important if not critical to the future of the country.

However, we need disabuse ourselves of the notion that we must improve learner outcomes in Mathematics so that our learners are prepared for university and future careers, especially in science, technology, engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. The second misnomer is that Mathematics is an objective, abstract, and inhuman subject. Mathematicians are often perceived to be human beings born with special talents in logical reasoning and skilful manipulation of arcane symbols. They also enjoy tinkering with weird ideas and puzzles.

Programme Director; we must locate our desire to improve learner outcomes in Mathematics within the emerging paradigm that says we must all pay attention to Mathematics as a foundational skill to help us in managing our lives in general. Accordingly, with the help of Mathew Felton an Assistant Professor of Mathematics Education in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Arizona – I have concluded that there are three fundamental pillars of the 21st century Mathematics – these are:

  • We learn Mathematics so that we can appreciate diversity in human thinking and accomplishments throughout history and around the world;
  • We learn Mathematics because it has practical utility hence we must help learners to see the role of Mathematics in their daily lives, their community practices, and their cultural backgrounds; and
  • So that we can understand, analyse, critique, and take action regarding important social and political issues in our world, especially issues of injustice.

Dr Ardyth C. Foster in his seminal paper titled Interactions between Cognitive Skills and Problem-Solving Performance (2014) concluded that there are four critical Mathematics utilities. These are:

  • Spatial skills and production and use of drawings to solve word problems
  • Verbal skills & mathematical problem-solving performance; associated with higher cognitive functions (critical thinking, sound reasoning, problem solving)
  • Logical/Analytical component also related to problem solving
  • Logical/Analytical skills tightly linked to verbal skills

We can clearly draw comparison between the “classical perspective” understanding of Mathematics and modern thinking. We must advocate for what Professor Mathew Felton calls, “equitable-curriculum perspective”. He explains that equity is framed in the classical perspective as providing students with access to well-taught Mathematics; while in the “equitable-curriculum perspective,” equity is framed as teaching a form of Mathematics that value and integrates issues of diversity and social justice. Perhaps, in the context of South Africa we can draw favourable lessons from the “equitable-curriculum perspective.”

Programme Director; the call for the overhaul of the Mathematics pedagogy in South Africa is not another political rhetoric, but is informed by international experience.

Fore-instance Mathematics education community in Japan has continuously and extensively developed ‘mathematical thinking’ as an educational value. Its objectives are amongst others - to enable students to understand basic concepts and principles about numbers and quantities, and geometrical figures, and let them develop more advanced mathematical thinking and how to treat it.

In Singapore, they have adopted what is termed embedding cultural values into Mathematics instruction. This is referred to as infusing “National Education” into school subjects including Mathematics. The Singapore Mathematics syllabus (2000) states that, “National Education can be integrated into instruction by drawing examples from the prevailing national and current issues during Mathematics lessons. These examples can be expressed in the problem context during problem solving or incorporated into practical work.” As a result of the customisation of Mathematics teaching taking into account cultural nuances, Singapore tops cross-national assessments of Mathematics and Science globally.

In conclusion, Programme Director, our challenge today is to define for ourselves the values of a South African Mathematics, and to apply these to both learning and teaching. I wish you well in you deliberations.

I thank you!


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