Spare a thought (and tears) for the Children

On Saturday I wept as I stood in front of a group of 15 high school students ranging in age from 15 to 18 (Grade 10 – 12).

For the past five weeks, I have been volunteering my time to tutor a class of Grade 10-12s at a school in Soweto to assist children from under-equipped schools with their school work in order to boost overall performance. There is an education crisis in South Africa and as a privileged member of the society; I have decided to take some time to give back.

 What is Maths Literacy?

 The competencies developed through Mathematical Literacy allow individuals to make sense of, participate in and contribute to the twenty-first century world — a world characterised by numbers, numerically based arguments and data represented and misrepresented in a number of different ways. Such competencies include the ability to reason, make decisions, solve problems, manage resources, interpret information, schedule events and use and apply technology. Learners must be exposed to both mathematical content and real-life contexts to develop these competencies. Mathematical content is needed to make sense of real-life contexts; on the other hand, contexts determine the content that is needed.

 There are five elements to it, Maths Literacy involves:

  1. the use of elementary mathematical content.
  2. authentic real-life contexts
  3. solving familiar and unfamiliar problem
  4. decision making and communication.
  5. the use of integrated content and/or skills in solving problems


 A bit of context here is the fact that until three or four years ago, Mathematics was not a compulsory subject for high school students and in fact many of them elected not to do it at all. I, who studied in Kenya until first degree level, found this extremely odd as Mathematics is compulsory for all until the twelfth year of high school. Further, that some of the outcomes being measured at Grade 10-12 level I did between Grades 4 and 8 to varying complexity.

So why did I cry?

A key skill they have to learn in Maths Literacy is ratios and proportions. For the past five weeks, I have been trying to teach them about cross multiplying in order to equate two relationships. On Saturday, we had a price list for vegetables and had to qualify cost; weights bought and undertake other related calculations.

The problem

If the price of strawberries is R29.99/400g:

  1. What is the price of 1 kg of strawberries?
  2. If he bought 0.4kg of strawberries, how much did he pay?

Each of these questions took us over 15 minutes to solve and I could tell that they just didn’t get what was required of them and tended to guess the final outcome. For instance, I got answers to (ii) above in grammes.

To test whether they understood this price-weight relationship, I would ask whether in (i) they expected an answer that’s greater than or larger than R29.99 and again, they had no clue. Here I was checking whether they understood the relationship and to introduce the idea of sense checking an answer rather than diving in to answer without understanding the question.

After the blank stares, I actually lost my head. For five weeks, we have applied cross multiplying to so many different circumstances and still they can’t apply it or even recognise when it’s the best way to arrive at a solution. What’s worse, even when I reminded them that we have looked at it repeatedly each Saturday without fail, in a bid to refresh their memory, there was no concern or even sense of urgency on their part. In fact, this was my issue to deal with as frankly it had no bearing on them.

The national pass mark is 30% and even with that, some 15.9% of Matric students failed Maths Literacy. The bar is so low and it broke my heart that even with such a low bar, these kids still had little fighting chance and that despite being sufficiently grown up to understand this, they still didn’t an I almost had the sensation of how hopeless my efforts were, almost like I was repairing a fast bleeding wound with the tiniest of plasters.

But that was one sad moment, today I am hopeful and looking at different ways to help them understand this principle as well as make Maths Literacy a practical subject for them and to empower them to have the confidence to do succeed and advance in their studies.




One response to “Spare a thought (and tears) for the Children

  1. I feel for you. I am also a maths teacher (in an independent school in the UK), and have been struggling with similar issues with my pupils, although they are younger than yours (most are 12 / 13 years old).

    My predecessor believed that teaching fractions, and anything related to this such as ratio etc, to pupils before they turn 13 is wrong, and therefore the “hole” in their maths literacy (I love that term, by the way!) is immense.

    And many of them have a huge hurdle to jump if they are to successfully get places at their next schools.

    However, reading your article puts my problems into perspective. I was raised in South Africa, and understand the frustrations of such low expectations for Matric, standards of which so many still cannot attain. How incredibly frustrating for you, the teacher, clearly dedicated to your pupils.

    Please, please persevere – and continue with your approach that makes maths as practical to your pupils as possible – so that they can see and connect with the subject in terms of their everyday life.

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