Prof. Mamokgethi Setati
Associate Professor of Mathematics Education, Wits University
AMESA National President

Article published in City Press, 5 September 2004

Mathematics is not difficult! We also know that mathematics forms the basis for scientific and technological advancement. So why are we not getting it right? And how can we get it right?

The only reason why people think mathematics is difficult is because of the way they have been taught mathematics at school. To change peopleís perceptions and studentsí performance in mathematics we need to change the way it is taught. We need high quality mathematics teaching and high quality mathematics teachers in every classroom, for every child. But what is a high quality mathematics teacher? How can you know whether you daughter has got one in her school or not? High quality mathematics teachers are not just well-qualified in mathematics, but they are also well-motivated, professional and also care for their students. Knowing mathematics is important but if the teachers are unmotivated, unprofessional and do not appreciate their studentsí mathematical struggles then their mathematics knowledge is not helpful.

There is a big difference between being able to do the mathematics for yourself and being able to teach it. When you do the mathematics for yourself you use approaches and methods that you are familiar and comfortable with. But when you are teaching you also have to engage with studentsí approaches and methods to mathematical problems, some of which you may not be familiar or comfortable with. Studentsí solution approaches and methods are not always correct. Some of the studentsí solution approaches are mathematically inappropriate and some may be partially correct. What is critical for a mathematics teacher is to be able to understand why the studentís solution is incorrect. I agree with Debra Ball, a well-known mathematics teacher and researcher from the USA who argues that mathematics teaching involves more than recognising that a studentís response is wrong. Quality mathematics teachers do not only recognise their studentsí wrong answers but they also can identify the source of the studentís error. In this way they can start from where the student is and move them towards appropriate ways of solving the problem they are dealing with.

High quality mathematics teachers are the solution to the mathematics problems we are facing in this country. Being a good mathematics teacher involves more than being a good mathematician. It is much more than just knowing and being able to do the mathematics for oneself. It is about being able to explain to students why the mathematical truths that we often take for granted work in they way they do. For example, many grade 8 students would say that 2 +
a = 2a, even though they know that 2 + 5 is not 25. The challenge for mathematics teachers is explaining why 2 + a is not 2a. To do this they need to understand that the studentsí problem with 2 + a is not about addition but it is about working with letters of the alphabets as used in mathematics to represent unknown values. Telling the students that their answer is incorrect and explaining to them the correct way of doing it is not helpful. Students need to understand why their answers are not correct so that they do not make the same mistake in the future.

The concern about an increasingly science and technology-based world and how much South Africa needs scientists is a valid one. But where do scientists come from? What do we need to do as a country to make sure that we have the number of scientists that we need? We have a national strategy for mathematics, science and technology education in the country. We also have, in my view, many potential future scientists. I see them all the time in our primary and secondary school classrooms. I meet them in the streets of our townships, in our malls even downtown Joíburg. We can only have the number of scientists we need by recruiting and retaining high quality mathematics teachers. With a high quality mathematics teacher, mathematics is not only easy but it is also fun and beautiful. Letís get our children hooked on mathematics!

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