Fixing maths

27 Jul

It’s a funny thing when you are passionate about things that you have historically sucked at.

This is, however, pretty much the history of things that I love. I love gaming, but I only play single player games (or co-op games) because put me up against another human being and I end up a bloody stain on the floor. I love rugby and even though I played for my school first team it wasn’t a very big school and it sounds better than it really is. I love technology, but I have no gift in the programming department. If anything describes what I do best it is that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and I am a very dangerous person.

The same is true with maths and science. I am obsessed with reading about advances in science and tech, I firmly believe that the next big leap forward is just around the corner and I keep telling my kids how important it is to do well in maths. However, if you had to go back into the deep, dark past (1989 to be precise) and look at my matric certificate you will see that I got an E on Standard Grade (it was a F on Higher Grade that got converted) for Maths and a D on Standard Grade for Science.

You would think that with marks like that I would hate those subjects but the allure of numbers is something that I can’t avoid. Sitting, as I do, a few metres away from the editor of The Teacher (a sister publication to the Mail & Guardian) I hear about all the different methods that people are employing to help their kids.

There is Mathletics but that costs money, and then there is Singapore maths, which some people swear by and has resulted in Singapore producing amazing results over the years.

Then I was reading an article in Wired which introduced me to The Khan Academy. The story is basically guy starts making videos for his cousin to help her with maths, everyone else starts watching them and before he knows it The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is giving him money and he has 2 400 videos up on the site and millions of people are using his service.

The great thing is that while many other maths tutoring systems cost money Khan Academy is free and kids (and adults) can watch the videos over and over again until the get the hang of the problem. There are also tests that you can do to check how well you understand the material. Because you are advancing at your own pace the smart go quickly and the not so smart can get there when they get there.

The problem with South Africa is that in the (lets call them) less well-resourced schools kids simply do not have access to decent teachers or the internet. Any one of those would be enough to make a dramatic difference to the quality of education that they receive. If many of these kids had access to online service similar to the Khan Academy all they would really need is a tutor to help them over the hump, this tutor wouldn’t even need to be a qualified teacher, just someone that has mastered that particular aspect of the problem.

In the Wired article it is made clear that there are educators that are less than enamoured with Khan’s approach to education (and to be fair Khan says that he is not a trained teacher he is just doing what he thinks needs to be done), but in SA we don’t have the luxury of debating educational methodologies especially when it comes to maths and science.

If kids come out of school feeling like they love maths, that they are confident that they can master their exams and that they can add 2 and 2 (or x and y) then we will be better off than we are now. Maybe by figuring out how we could use, or replicate, this kind of online service in SA we would be laying the foundations for a South Africa where everyone is prepared for the future and not one where more than half the population is left behind.

Comments are closed.