Teaching “Remedial” Math

Education is South Africa is mostly centrally controlled. Individual schools have much less independence than they do in America. Many aspects of running a school are directly managed by the higher levels of government. One of these aspects is personnel. The Department of Education (at various levels) has centralized all hiring and assigning of teachers. They allocate teachers to schools based on enrollment.

In South Africa, school enrollment is a funny thing. Technically, the enrollment of a school is not finalized until near the end of January (the first month of the school year). This means that every year after school starts, teachers are shuffled around to cope with the changing enrollment at each school.

My school is losing teachers. So now we have to scramble to cover classes that had teachers at the beginning of the year but don’t now. The problem is even worse for us, because we’re still waiting for the Department of Education to send us our new Math/Science department head.

This is how I found myself moved from teaching 12th grade pure Math and Physics/Chem to teaching 10th grade remedial math. My grade 12 class was maybe the best in the school. Now I’m teaching a much less focused group. And I’m teaching 100 students now instead of around 40.

I have two classes of kids. Both are not as well behaved as I would like, but most of the students seem like they care about school and that makes me very happy. And most of the learners are clearly smart enough to do well in my class.

So I’m not exactly teaching remedial Math. There really isn’t an equivalent to remedial education here. But in Math, there is something called Maths Literacy. So many students had problems passing Mathematics that in 2008 the government created Maths Literacy as an alternative to pure Mathematics. Instead of focusing on higher level Math like trig, analytical geometry, functions, and calculus, Maths Literacy tries to focus on “practical” math. Think finance, using graphs, following plans, etc. It also covers much less material, and requires a less sophisticated level of understanding. It is much easier to pass.

But the biggest difference between American remedial Math and South African Maths Literacy is that students here can choose what they take (for the most part). And most students opt for Maths Literacy. Since *everything* boils down to passing the 12th grade final exam (called Matric), many students choose Maths Literacy because it is easier than Math. There are more students in Maths Literacy than in pure Maths nationally. I can’t find the statistic, but I think the gap is widening.

Most, maybe all, of the students in Maths Literacy are smart enough to excel at pure Mathematics. They have just chosen to play it safe. What nobody tells them is that taking Maths instead of Maths Literacy limits your options when applying to universities (and I've had some pretty sad discussions with students of mine who didn't know they wouldn't be able to study engineering or computer science, or even apply at all to some of the more competitive schools). But even still, I think most students would choose Maths Literacy. People are afraid of Math.

All of you education wonks can check the curriculum here. The meat starts in annexure 2.

3 Comments

Steve Sherman says:

mmmm, math meat

05 Feb 11 @ 9pm

mltammen says:

I couldn’t get the curriculum link to work. Is there another link I can try?

25 Mar 11 @ 4am

michaelwsherman says:

ok, try this link

http://www.education.gov.za/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=25TyZ4RTmKc%3d&tabid=246&mid=594

25 Mar 11 @ 11am