Maths teaching by modern methods
There are several excellent technologies out there, but do they promote real understanding?
There are a number of ICT devices and state-of-the-art technologies that are touted as being effective for teaching, particularly when it comes to maths. But are they as good as they are made out to be? Marilyn Honikman critiques some of them.
In the April edition, the Teacher carried a story about Paper Video (PV), which provides video-recorded lessons for high school learners. Several school principals, teachers and learners related how their matric exam results improved dramatically when learners worked with PV; so much so that at least one school will be dropping maths literacy, now that the video tutorials are available for grades 10, 11 and 12.
Dr Lydia Abel, who co-authored the multilingual book Understanding Concepts in Mathematics and Science and works for the non-profit ORT SA Cape at the Cape Town Science Centre, praises PV — but she also has a reservation about it.
“It focuses on the exams; preparing learners to do well in the final matric exam, which is important. This is necessary, because most don’t get any other support. PV takes learners through old matric maths papers and gives tutorials on all the questions. If they do enough of what Paper Video covers they will probably get 80% of the same, or similar, questions in the exams. But is it really building enough understanding to carry them through tertiary [education]?”
Glen Bunger of Leap Science and Maths School agrees that the focus of PV is the matric exam. “But the matric exam is a gateway to further education and sometimes, to jobs. Before PV the matric exam was an obstacle facing the many poor students who, unlike privileged students, did not have access to tutors or parents who had been schooled in maths and science.”
Abel, Bunger and the co-founder of PV, Paul Maree, spoke about the American Khan Academy (KA) maths lessons, which are free and accessible via YouTube. Bunger told the Teacher that the KA lessons also focus on passing exams, rather than exploring concepts. Maree says the academy is a brilliant provider of free education, but he added that because of the American approach, the syllabus and the content are different from South Africa’s. Bunger told the paper that, in his view, the KA lessons try to cover too much in too little time. “Paper Video breaks it down more slowly and learners can go back to watch it again if they need to. They are in control.”
Schools with smart classrooms are able to receive the excellent lessons beamed from Stellenbosch University’s Telematics programme. Two years ago the Teacher watched one of these lessons take place in front of a packed classroom, though it was held after school hours. A teacher confided that he also found the Telematics geometry lessons invaluable. “When I studied we were not taught Euclidian Geometry, so my understanding of geometry is shaky. This helps me brush up.”
Maree, Bunger and Abel all spoke highly of William Smith’s very sound maths lessons on the SABC’s the Learning Channel. However, Bunger says that, unlike with PV, learners cannot control what they watch, and when. Abel says Smith’s traditional methods have less appeal to modern teenagers than the lively lessons provided by Maree on PV. Maree is more modern, flexible and insightful in his approach.
An article by Brett Davidson several years ago in the Mail & Guardian voiced similar criticism of Smith’s methodology. “He is not educating students, merely teaching them to pass exams — the TV equivalent of a cram college.” Nevertheless, audience ratings were high at 88%.
Abel says CAMI Educational Software focuses on essential concepts (grades 1-12) in maths and science lessons. “These fill the gaps that poor schoolchildren, who can’t get extra maths lessons, have. It was developed specifically for South African children — but at a cost of R900 per user it is out of reach for the poorest children, and it requires a facilitator,” she added.
Bunger says because PV is accessible via a smartphone it can be easily accessed, even by poor South African learners. Nearly 70% of South African teenagers now have access to a smartphone and PV now provides videos on Micro SD cards, similar to flash-sticks for smartphones. “Using a phone is second nature for kids. Give them a Micro SD card and they immediately put it into their phone and can raise the Paper Video App.”
He adds that PV is now piloting the use of a Paper Video Box that runs on Wi-fi, so an entire school can access the videos. In the meantime, 40% of the PV content is free, but schoolchildren still need to raise R200 to pay for the full 80 hours of video-ed tutorials. Some schools have found sponsors to cover these costs.