Maths and Science Education: Prospecting the future in South Africa.

by N Barney Pityana

July 19, 2019

There is much about South Africa these days that must cause alarm and anxiety, especially to those who observe however sympathetically. Somehow the politics of the country has all the elements of a Greek tragedy. The economy in under-performing to a woeful degree. Human relations at all levels are at an all-time low, and what he had hoped for at the dawn of democracy, namely, that we could become a nation defined by its multiplicities of race, language, religions. South Africans are experiencing intolerable levels of crime and, with the reports yesterday by StatsSA, unemployment has risen to 29% and in total some 10,6m able-bodied South Africans are unemployed, 56% of who are young people aged 18-24 years of age.

In the midst of that Education could have been an area of excellence and success for South Africa. Not only did we inherit a wholly deplorable education systems from the apartheid regime, in our country spending on education has been consistently high. The quality of curriculum that has been proposed has been modern and progressive and often cotextual. There are many things that South Africa should get right about Education. Yes, we are lagging far behind in the provision of facilities for the conduct of education – schools, sanitation, electricity supply have at times been quoted as woefully lacking. However, all of that taken into account, there is much that should cause South Africans some comfort. Where we have failed most in education has been in committed, diligent, quality teaching by educators.

There is merit to the concern often expressed that maybe Education is highly unionized by a hugely hegemonious teacher union that at times holds the Department, learners, parents, the community and even teachers themselves, to ransom. For me, that is merely the symptom of the deeper malaise that lies deep within the education corpus. What is missing is the prevalence of an intensive dedication to the education and development of an African child. In other ways there is an ethical problem that has not been confronted. An educator is in loco parentis in relation to the child he/she teaches. In other words education becomes effective only to the extent that we show that child the love and dedication of a parent, and the belief in the potential of that child to become what they dream they could become.

I found it necessary to begin this address in this manner, even if it is by means of casting a mere cursory glance at the environment in which we undertake education. Education, to some degree, is an expression of the ambitions and will of society. The context in which education takes place is important: the social milieu, the home, family and community, social institutions like church and sports and the moral and economic climate are all necessary instruments to success in education.

I have one other matter to say that draws from the points I made above. In our desire to promote performance in education, and to exploit the latent intellect that our learners are endowed with, in recent years we may have been in danger of creating out of educational achievement a hugely competitive (even cut-throat in some instances!) environment, complete with a ranking mechanism for the best schools, largely understood in terms of the results that schools produce. The danger is that we may be expected all learners to perform to some uniform standards whatever their learning interests might be. Even more, we might be saying to the learners who are differently abled, that they are not good enough. There may therefore be a danger of not paying sufficient attention to the gifts that each child has that are unique to that child, and we may lose sight of the multiplicity of factors that make up a good school: facilities, environment, equipment, healthy relationships, good teaching, discipline and order, and the moral character of the school, happiness and potential for growth and development. All these are necessary elements towards making a school a good school. It is this holistic understanding of education of the child as an atomized learner, as well as a learner in relationship to others – teachers, other learners, home etc. In my language education succeeds best when it makes of learners more rounded and fulfilled human beings.

I am aware that Mathematics and Science are crucial subjects in the journey of our children towards learning, education and development. Maths especially, is critical for conceptualization, logic, reasoning and thinking skills, cognition, coordination, intellectual balance. Therefore, it is that throughout school life all children are exposed to Maths learning. It is also true that there are far too many taboos about Maths. For many of us there is and has been a culture filter that acts as a barrier to understanding and appreciation of Maths, but a great deal has to do, I daresay, with bad teaching or being taught by teachers who themselves may not be competent or who may be afraid of the subject they teach. It is infectious!

Science is intrinsically about the way the world around us works. It excites our curiosity as to why things are the way they are, and how they function. In other words science also is a system of learning and understanding and developing knowledge about our physical world and the environment. It can be safely stated, I guess, that many of us who are blind to the working of science in the world are as good as walking about the world in a blind state. Science unlocks the world and its environs.

There is a third element to learning Maths and Science that often gets lost sight of. It is the tools necessary for reading with understanding and language. In reality one needs language to express that which one feels, sees and experiences, and it is through one’s linguistic skills that one  exercises one’s critical thinking skills. One needs language to appreciate aesthetically what is happening around one. One needs language also to unlock the secrets of culture and history. Language competency in my estimation is as important and vital to education as Maths and Science are.

Given that, many in higher education will tell you is that there is a gap, ever-widening gap between school and higher education. Far too many students who have excelled at the school level encounter grave difficulties in the learning environment required in higher education. This is so much so that less than 50% of students fail to qualify in their studies within the prescribed period. Among those who do not succeed are some of those who success at school can be said to be phenomenal. There is a problem of synergies between school and higher education. The result that many at our universities are having to contend with is that far too many of our students just cannot cope, get depressed and, in a growing trend, some commit suicide.

What then is it that our education system both in the schooling and in the post-school levels is not getting right? I suggest that it has to do much with the fact that far too much of our education is “success” oriented, and less about vision, dreams and human fulfillment.

The work of Educate is to be commended for a  variety of reasons. For me it begins with instilling in our learners that necessary element of believing in themselves and their capabilities, their curiosity and desire to learn, and the confidence that what they wish to become is within their reach. It has happened too much in education that children were put down and fail to get inspiration. The second matter, for me, has less to do with their learning or acquiring the tricks of tackling examinations, important as that might be, but actually the confidence to look beyond the examination, but as a challenge to be overcome with knowledge. Finally,  it is about foresight to look beyond the moment and see yourself with a role in the creation of a new society {Seth Mikitimi story] As a learner one must always have a vision and insight to succeed. This is more than ambition to succeed but it is to see value in oneself in the denouement of a future.

The paradox is that however much one does, it is never enough. The people of this country have a right to education, to quality education. Only to the extent that we do can we say that this country itself has a future as a democratic, prosperous economy among the community of nations.

**Pityana is the Programme Advisor at the Thabo Mbeki Foundation.

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