Oct 6, 2009


Today I was helping the 9th grade with an end-of-term mathematics test that they were supposed to have finished the week before last. The first issue I noticed was that every single question was drenched with vaguely irritating social-justice “context” that grated at the mind—the first task, for example, was to take a survey of 50 people’s voting records over the last 14 years (this in a village of 500, mind you) and then organize and analyze those data in a simple way, like finding the average and the range.

I used to think the education system in the USA drenched with politics—it is, of course, but nothing compared to this. Even finding a simple average has to be turned into a lesson on April 27, 1994, or how mathematics has roots in many different cultures, or some other such hokem. It has its place, I imagine, but not in the maths classroom.

On a side note, this seems to be a systematic problem in South African schools that I have seen—that is, too much contextualization. There is not chemistry and physics, there is “Natural Science,” which remains shoddy and jumbled in terms of subject development all the way to 12th grade. (The textbooks suck, too—imagine a 12th grade chemistry book combined with a similar physics book, pared down by 2/3, half written by a chemical company, with no index.)

To my mind, this pollution of mathematics is bad in every case. Mathematics should remain conceptually distinct—some examples from real life are of course necessary, but it is of primary importance to be able to deal with numbers as abstract objects, to lay the groundwork for proof-based maths. Many, perhaps most, problems should be totally abstract. I recall a study a few months ago which found children learn faster from abstract examples than from ones based in reality (I’d track it down if I had some more bandwidth). The RNCS says, “The learner should develop an appreciation of how algebraic manipulation is used to solve problems (and not engage in algebraic manipulation for its own sake).”

But this need not be a death blow for an education system. In a country like England or the USA, where there are teachers that could instill the art of plowing the political, bureaucratic language, digging through the muck to find the concepts beneath, the students still might do well, and perhaps pick up some life skills also. But here, where half the teachers don’t know words like “facilitate,” this is absolutely devastating. Consider this question: “Does the voting trend correlate with the respondents’ impressions about democracy in South Africa?” Forget momentarily what the question is about, just imagine trying to explain it to someone who didn’t know what “trend,” “correlate,” “respondent,” or “impression” meant. It’s not written for an ESL student, and the vocabulary is bureaucratic and unnecessarily sophisticated—and this is supposed to be math!

The 9th graders, of course, had deeper problems. They didn’t know what an average was. They had some small idea of a “mean,” but due to the obscurantist language the question was utterly out of reach. To my mind the social justice lessons should be kept out of the mathematics classroom, but even if not, rural South Africans are not ready for it in any case. I half believe it when some of the teachers tell me that Bantu Education was better.

I’ve been thinking a lot about George Bush’s famous quote: “The soft bigotry of low expectations,” meaning that disadvantaged children should be expected to perform at the same level as rich ones. You’d have to be a racist to think that a Motswana is genetically incapable of performing at the same level as a rich white American. I have been frankly flabbergasted by the students here—their discipline, their halting attempts to teach themselves, and their relative politeness and respect towards me. In any similar situation in the USA—dirt poor kids essentially running free in a school with something like 30% teacher attendance in the classroom—it would be Lord of the Flies.

But students don’t exist in a vacuum. They have teachers, parents, relatives, etc. One can’t just stuff OBE (outcome-based education) and the RNCS down the throats of these terribly oppressed communities and expect the schools to start pumping out Jeffersonian democrats. I’m sure the students, given the proper opportunities, could manage as well or better than anyone, but the teachers, sadly, cannot. The worst problem I see in my village is that the teachers spend very little time in the classroom. It’s not just that they are lazy (they are) or that they can’t wait to move to Joburg and get out of the stinking village (they can’t), or even that they often don’t know their subject well (they don’t). It’s also that they spend roughly half their small amount of school time filling out paperwork. With the Department of Education breathing down their necks (with lots of computerized forms), the Kafkaesque submission requirements for teacher and student portfolios, and their fumbling computer skills, it’s a wonder there’s any teaching at all.

If I were king there are a few obvious first steps I would take. First, RNCS and OBE must go, and should be replaced with something a thousand times simpler, with all the subjects mostly distinct. Second, the teacher quality standards need some teeth—by hook or by crook, every classroom should have a teacher in it every day, or else. Probably out of the question, but I can dream.

Maybe in 20 years, South Africa could start implementing the kind of extremely complex system they've got on paper now. But at this point, it's hard to imagine something failing worse in my school.

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