Let’s Talk About The “Great Dumbing Down Of The South African Child”

Professor Jonathan Jansen is currently the University of Free State’s vice chancellor, which puts him in a pretty good position to talk about the state of our education system.

Although he is leaving that post in August, heading overseas to take up an invitation as a Fellow at the Centre for Advanced Studies at Stanford University, it’s clear that Jansen is enraged at the Department of Basic Education and their approach to mathematics.

In case you missed it, this week it emerged that the Department was considering “dropping the requirement that pupils pass mathematics in the senior phase (Grades 7-9) to progress further”.

Cue Jansen’s piece on the Rand Daily Mail titled “The great dumbing down of the South African child“, where he doesn’t mince his words:

What to do with the high failure rates in mathematics has, for a while, preoccupied the minds of the politicians and the bureaucrats who do their bidding; in fact, in 2016, pupils who failed mathematics by the existing low standard (40%) received a condoned pass in Grades 7-9 if they achieved a mere 20%…

The department does not know how to improve the teaching and learning of mathematics in schools…[and] rather than solve the problem at the input side of the educational equation (making competent mathematics teachers) they wreck lives by lowering the standard at the output side (dropping the achievement standard for mathematics).

We know that such a proposal ends with politician slapping themselves on the back, pointing to an increased pass rate as a sign of their own success, but if they want to paint it as having our children’s best interests at heart they’re going to have to try harder:

Let me be clear: there is no educational justification for this kind of recklessness visited on the lives of our children. Every single teacher or academic that I know has been stunned by this irresponsible plan. That the department would even contemplate such a decision for mainly poor and black pupils makes a lie out of the pretence that this government cares about the poorest of the poor.

Mathematics is not about symbols and equations. It is the most direct and efficient way in which to learn the skills of logic, reasoning and calculation. It is through mathematics that children learn how to solve simple and complex problems through the application of the mind. Maths teaches patience, discipline and the thrill of resolution. More than the intellectual fulfilment and human qualities that come from mastery of the subject, no serious career after school can be pursued in this century without a good pass in mathematics.

What the department has also done, therefore, is channel large majorities of pupils into dead-end career options. Say goodbye, young people, to jobs in quantity surveying or optometry or engineering or accountancy and the actuarial sciences.

Unfortunately the outcry at this announcement has been largely lacking, both from parents and the general public, although the Department of Basic Education has been forced onto the back foot by the media coverage.

News24 reports:

The Department of Basic Education has reiterated that it will not be removing Maths for Grades 7 to 9…

The department clarified that pupils who passed all other subjects, but failed Mathematics with a minimum mark of 20%, would be “condoned” and “would thus pass Mathematics and pass the examination as a whole”.

Relating to the senior phase of schooling, the department proposed passes in four subjects at 40%, one of which is a home language; passing any other four subjects at 30%; and Mathematics removed as a compulsory promotion requirement.

Those numbers are already scraping the barrel, but there’s no easy fix for this one. Do you punish the pupils, when many of them endure sub-par teaching and a lack of resources, or do you push them through and hope for the best?

The latter option tends to be winning out, with the added bonus of inflating that pass rate to pull the wool over the public’s eyes.

At least university is really affordable once you’ve navigated through primary and high school – huh, what’s that?


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