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Maths vs. Maths Literacy: the continuing debate

By Robyn Clark

With the Matric results being published last week, a long-running debate has again reared its head. Is Maths Literacy all that worthwhile? After all, many are opposed to it because it’s “dumbing down our students”. Is the Maths taught today the same as the Maths that you learnt at school?

Firstly, I think that Mathematical Literacy has been stigmatised by many people who have no idea what the subject is about. Secondly, Maths has changed, but not in the way that you think.

What is Maths Literacy?
Mathematical Literacy is a subject that uses mathematical concepts, and applies them to everyday situations. Mathematical Literacy is not an alternative to Standard Grade Mathematics; advocates suggest that it is an entirely new and independent subject. Typical lessons include:

  • How to buy a house, including calculating transfer fees, legal fees, and bond repayment amounts
  • The benefits and downfalls of Hire-Purchase
  • Reading and interpreting statistics in newspaper articles
  • How to calculate income tax

These lessons provide learners with the opportunity to become financially responsible and mathematically literate adults. Looking at the debt situation in South Africa, one can certainly see that these are sorely needed skills.

In the curriculum statement, the Department of Education gives their definition of Mathematical Literacy: Mathematical Literacy provides learners with an awareness and understanding of the role that mathematics plays in the modern world. Mathematical Literacy is a subject driven by life-related applications of mathematics. It enables learners to develop the ability and confidence to think numerically and spatially in order to interpret and critically analyse everyday situations and to solve problems.

Because of the highly technical and abstract nature of Pure Maths, one can draw the conclusion that Mathematical Literacy is actually more accessible in terms of language use than Pure Maths. For a large majority of learners in South Africa who are taught in English and not their home language, it may be easier for them to understand the everyday language that Maths Literacy uses, instead of the highly technical mathematical jargon that is part of Maths. This opens another debate altogether: whether Pure Maths should continue being taught in English, or if it should be taught in all of South Africa’s official languages.

Maths vs. Maths Literacy
Before the new curriculum (NSC) was introduced in 2008, learners could choose to take Maths on Higher Grade level, Standard Grade level or not at all. The “not at all” part is the scary statistic. In Aarnout Brombacher’s report on Maths and Maths Literacy,there were as many as 40% of learners who were taking no Maths at all during 2000 -2005. Furthermore, about half the learners who took Maths were taking it on the Standard Grade level. Over the period 2000 to 2005, the average percentage of learners out of the entire cohort of Matric exam candidates who got a mere pass in Higher Grade Maths was a dismal 5.2%.

Forcing learners to do Higher Grade Maths, “in order to keep all options open for tertiary education” was a common trend that actually set learners back, because failing Maths meant that there was no option for tertiary education at all. Hence the introduction of Mathematical Literacy.

Looking at the current situation, there is no longer an option to take Pure Maths on a Standard Grade level. Instead, only two mathematical subjects are offered: Pure Maths (which is on par with Higher Grade Maths) and Mathematical Literacy. It is compulsory to take one or the other. This means that every single Matric candidate is now getting some sort of mathematical education.

Jonathan Jansen’s recent article paints what he thinks is a dismal picture. The reality is that there are many more learners passing Pure Maths today than in the period 2000 – 2005. Jansen states that if one were to change the pass mark to 50%, only 8.38% of the entire cohort of Matric candidates would have passed Pure Maths. This is still greater than previously (5.2%), and is not an argument for exclusion of Mathematical Literacy. I’m not saying this is a pass mark to be proud of: we still have a lot to work towards. I’m saying that Mathematical Literacy shouldn’t be seen as a culprit in taking good learners away from Pure Mathematics.

Jansen has never had anything kind to say about Maths Literacy, which may be right if you’re from a high functioning school which offers Maths. High functioning schools have the resources to train the best Maths teachers, and get their hands on the latest calculators and computer software which assists in the teaching of Pure Maths. The reality is that Maths Literacy provides very necessary mathematical skills for learners who would never have had the opportunity to become mathematically literate before.

But has Pure Maths suffered?
Although a good set of critical thinking skills are still required in order to do well in Maths, many ask: “Is the maths that they’re doing now, the same Maths that I did in school?”. From a Maths teacher’s perspective, it’s hard to give a definitive answer. The NCS Pure Maths curriculum has changed. The curriculum is broader, and contains a wider range of mathematics. Statistics and Probability is now included, as well as Euclidian geometry on an optional basis.

In some ways, depth has been sacrificed for a broader curriculum, with the intention of covering more skills that may be required for employment or study after school. However, the argument that Pure Maths has been “dumbed down” is not altogether true as the same critical thinking skills are still needed to solve mathematical problems. Problems, however, arise from the fact that there are very few teaching resources available to teachers. Teachers were not adequately trained to teach the new curriculum and there is very little support out there for them, especially in rural areas of South Africa.

In other countries, Mathematics as a school subject is very different. Many different types of Maths are taught as different modules of the subject. Learners take the modules that they will need in their further education.

Perhaps the largest issue in the South African Maths crisis is not the willingness of learners to learn, but the lack of support the Department of Education gives to its schools and teachers.

Robyn Clark teaches high school Mathematics and Mathematical Literacy at Sekolo sa Borokgo, a small independent school in Randburg, Johannesburg. She is passionate about education in South Africa and is especially interested in the accessibility of Maths education. She is currently studying towards her MSc in mathematics education at the University of Witwatersrand.


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  1. Hannah Hannah 15 July 2014

    I think there is a case for both sticking to maths even though it may be very hard for some but also opting for maths lit because you just don’t have a head for maths core. What use is it to struggle to pass a subject or you need to spend so much time in that subject to make the grade and then all of your other good subjects suffer as a consequence. It is sad to me that in our modern society that maths are the be all and end all of placing students in study fields that very often require no true practical application for maths. My kids are both very bright in languages and other subjects but struggle immensely with maths. They are now forever labeled as “not so bright” – do you see how wrong that is? I found this article because I am researching this very subject. I think what every parent needs to do is have your child go through a series of aptitude tests with reputable career councilors and only then make your decision if it is necessary to continue the suffering or if he/she should rather drop maths and score better overall. Good luck to every parent out there that needs to make this difficult decision!

  2. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 16 July 2014

    I think it’s a positive move to make maths or maths literacy compulsory up to Matric. If you don’t end up studying a hard science, then at least you have some experience with logic that you could have opted out of entirely. If you do end up studying a hard science, then you would’ve taken maths anyway.

    I struggled with maths too, ended up passing it on standard grade in the old curriculum but I do agree that the department does much to build ‘flagship schools’ to make itself look good but does very little that helps teachers in the classroom.

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