Mboniselo-696x928How math education can add up to positive change

A difficult truth that those who desire change, struggle to accept is that change – especially changing a whole system – comes slowly. This is especially true for those who work in education. Study after study has diagnosed the problems, but solutions are hard to find and often take decades to produce results. Sometimes, it becomes tempting, although ultimately self-defeating, to try quick fixes. But there is no magic wand that will immediately make everything better.

“In my experience” says Micheal Goodman, Group Content Manager at Via Afrika, “once we accept the truth that change is incremental, it becomes possible to find the inspiration and the will to do the little things today that could add up to big changes in the future.”

These are thoughts that come to mind when Goodman thinks of Nollie Meintjes, who helped establish the Ubumbano Child and Youth Care Centre, an orphanage in Hlabeni. Using her own resources, Nollie created a home for the town’s orphaned children of different ages. She also realised that the children needed more than just a home; they needed the knowledge and skills that would empower them to make a home of their own one-day. So Nollie bought nine tablets for the centre and consulted with Via Afrika to sign up 34 of the children to Via Afrika Tabtor Maths, hoping this tablet-based maths tuition programme for grades R to 7 would help them perform better at school.

It would have been easy for Nollie to see the enormous problem of maths education in this country and feel too overwhelmed to act.

She could have seen and felt disempowered by the reports that say learners in resource-poor schools in impoverished rural towns like Hlabeni, have it the worst. These learners fall behind early on in their maths education careers – in the foundational stages, from grades R to 3 – and few ever catch up. This is because concepts studied in later grades build on those of earlier grades, meaning that maths learning deficits accumulate over the years until they become near insurmountable. By grades 8 or 9, most learners find themselves so far behind in maths that it is unlikely they will ever catch up, not without some kind of generally unaffordable intervention.

But, instead of feeling overwhelmed by these cold, hard facts, Nollie chose to do something, no matter how seemingly small.

The improvements recorded by the learners Nollie signed up to Via Afrika Tabtor Maths suggest to Goodman that her actions will echo through the lives of the children at Ubumbano Centre for generations to come. From grades R to 8, learners from the centre increased their maths performance on average, by about seven percentage points after the equivalent of about 6.5 hours of use. Two of the most improved learners were in grade 8, where it is supposedly too late to help. These two learners increased their scores from 45% to an impressive 60%.

“With an improving understanding of maths concepts and growing confidence in their own abilities, learners at the Ubumbano Centre face better prospects for their future than before,” says Goodman “They now have access to a programme that can help them build towards careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – all of which require that they master the maths concepts they are learning now. It is now no longer out of the question that they could one day be doctors, computer scientists or maths teachers. One of them could even open an orphanage like Nollie did and make a difference in the lives of others.

“It just goes to show, as American president John F. Kennedy once said, that one person can make a difference and everyone should try.”

This article was first published by MCSI SA on 22 February 2017.