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June-July 2003



Why don't kids learn maths and science successfully?

Professor Sarah Howie, age 35, is breaking new ground. 

On May 30, Howie became the youngest-ever winner of South Africa’s science Oscar for recent research, the National Science and Technology Forum award. The number-crunching educator also became the first female to ever win that category, for her thorough evaluation of lousy student performances in science and mathematics.

"Not bad going for someone who dropped out of high school physics because it was so boring," joked Howie, the author of that well-known best-seller English Language and Other Factors Influencing Grade Eight Pupils’ Achievement in Mathematics. It’s probably on your bookshelf next to Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.

She is a fundi on one critical aspect of science: accurately assessing how well our children are learning it.

The short answer is: badly. Unlike Sarah Howie's baby, for many African children the possibility of a career in the sciences is about as likely as climbing Mount Everest. The economic implications are scarier than a plummeting rand.

Despite South Africa's economic muscle, its science and math classes regularly fall at the bottom of reputable international studies. The jury is still out on the 2003 data but South African students are regularly outclassed by their Tunisian and Moroccan counterparts. Howie’s research may provide the continent with escape routes.

"Here was someone who tackled a social problem – why don’t kids learn science and math successfully - and applied scientific methods, mostly statistical methods, to try to understand the problem better. I thought that was unique," said an impressed Dennis Hunt, head of the adjudication panel for the National Science and Technology Forum, an umbrella body covering the country’s science community.

Hunt paid tribute to Howie's ability to see solutions in the masses of data - and sure enough, her work is triggering changes.

Next month in Uganda, the World Bank will release a draft report of a massive continent-wide investigation into secondary schooling. Howie heads the South African leg of the research.

Through the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Evaluation and Assessment, which Howie founded, the quality of local classes is monitored closely. Grade Three – the foundation phase – has been tested and results are expected soon. Now it’s time for the Grade Sixes. 34,000 children from 800 schools in all nine provinces are being tested for their abilities in math, sciences and language.

The good news embedded in Howie’s research is that science teachers can be brilliant, regardless of class size or the amount of time spent drilling mathematics. In particular, teachers over the age of 40 can be brilliant.

The bad news is that most of our science teachers are younger than 40.

"Teachers whose pupils did worst were those who trained during the struggle years," says a cautious Howie. "There were so many disruptions – strikes, boycotts, protests – that in some cases they only covered a third of their work. And the government of the day allowed the would-be teachers to be tested only on the work they had actually covered."

Meanwhile, parents might want to keep a closer eye on their children’s social schedules. According to Howie, who herself supervises a dozen Phd students, absenteeism is a national disaster: "roughly half the principals say that their biggest problem is kids not showing up and coming in late."

But one issue is more important than slack students, ill-prepared teachers or indifferent parents.

"The most significant factor in learning science and maths isn’t whether the learners are rich or poor. It’s whether they are fluent in English," said Howie.

Some countries, like Botswana, throw their learners into an English-language environment from their very first day at school. Other countries, like Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, teach in Arabic and only near the end of their schooling, when a minority are preparing for university, switch to the dominant language – in North Africa’s case, French. Some countries successfully mix and match. Malaysia and Singapore churn out world-class students who have learnt everything in a second language.

South Africa mixes both systems but unlike the Asian giants, it doesn't seem to be working for us.

"We do a bit of both styles, and it’s not working," Howie said. "Let’s stop sitting on the fence and make a hard decision. We must either shore up the mother tongue teaching of maths and sciences, or switch completely to English if we want to succeed."

First published in the Sunday Independant.

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