Taking the sting out of maths and science

July 24, 2017
Jeugdige en positiewe veroudering
July 24, 2017

Dr Melodie de Jager

If we were to make a list of school subjects in order of popularity, maths and science are likely to end up right at the bottom.

It is a mystery why children fall out of love with maths and science if you consider that they’ve spent an enormous amount of time exploring maths and science as preschoolers:

  • They play in the sandpit and learn about numbers when they count how many cups of sand fill a bucket
  • They learn about calculating when they divide sweets so nobody gets more, or less, but exactly the same amount
  • They learn that if you take a roll plus a sausage and add some sauce it equals a hotdog, and
  • They learn if you carefully separate the segments of an orange each segment becomes a fraction of the whole fruit.

Preschool children spontaneously learn about Newton’s law of gravity when they play ball and learn that what goes up must come down. Similarly, they experience gravitational acceleration and the laws of momentum when they speed down the fireman’s pole of a jungle gym.

According to Cronbach & Suppes it is easy to take the sting out of maths and science when you create structure and order in your thinking about real life phenomena by applying systematic and logical methods.

Maths and science create structure and order in your thinking about real life phenomena by applying systematic and logical methods.

Maths and science = real life phenomena

Maths and science is not something separate from real life, maths and science are part and parcel of every master chef moment as well as the core skills needed to drive a car, buy a t-shirt, apply toothpaste to a toothbrush, and to make the perfect cup of coffee.

Imagine a day in the life of a hairdresser or neurosurgeon… In both professions meticulous mathematics is needed to avoid a disastrous outcome.

Maths and science are both processes that help us to define, clarify, understand and solve problems. Yes, these problems can be hypothetical and very abstract, but math and science at school are more focused on concrete, real life phenomena:

  • measuring, calculating and comparing
  • finding tendencies, and
  • finally predicting patterns.

Why would we want to predict patterns?

Jean Piaget, a Swiss Clinical Psychologist, said it is a human trait to search for constancy, because constancy brings predictability and predictability leads to a sense of safety and security which fills us with confidence and creativity, which in turn boosts problem solving abilities.

Patterns help us to survive:

  • When a person’s temperature, blood pressure or sugar levels rise beyond x, y becomes likely;
  • when a) a puff adder bites you, then (b) is the correct ante venom;
  • When a teenager’s hormones are hopping (x) then (y + z) behavior is likely.

Patterns brings sameness, and sameness soothes.

Patterns also protect nature. For instance when the numbers of rain forests and rhinos dwindle, or when HIV/AIDS statistics rise, it says: STOP! Something needs to change!

Patterns allow us to predict. Not to label, but to enable.

The problem with maths and science

The problem with maths and science is that:

  • it is presented in a void (no context)
  • it is taught in an abstract manner with little comprehension
  • most children experience maths and science as theoretical nonsense with no relevance to their lives
  • a child needs to be able to reason in the language of instruction, while the majority of high school pupils in South Africa are second language learners with poor language, reading and writing skills
  • most children skipped multi-sensory and concrete experiences of maths and science in preschool in favour of worksheets and colouring pictures
  • teachers have forgotten about David Feuerstein’s three basics learning needs of a child: 1) a caring adult who 2) unlocks the world and 3) gives it meaning.

What can we do?

We need to realise that the brain is not in the skull alone. The brain starts in the coccyx’s area and when children are expected to sit stil and concentrate for longer than an age-appropriate period of time (to the maximum of 17 minutes) then concentrating becomes almost impossible. To quote Gavin Keller: if the bum is numb, the brain is dumb. Maths and science are found in life, not on paper. Children need to learn hands-on. They need to use as many senses at a time as possible while being actively involved in measuring, calculating,  comparing, finding patterns, etc.

Teachers need to point out the relevance of each topic – relevance improves concentration, it motivates, it aids in the transference of info to memory. Nothing motivates as much as showing: “what’s in it for me?”. Maths and science come alive when it is rooted in real life – the child’s life. And if you cannot find the relevance? Use your available resources! Children with cell phones and data and IT savvy. Challenge them and give them marks for finding relevance.

Take hands with the feeding schools and ensure that every phase lays a solid foundation for the next phase, which starts preschool. Expect preschools to send schoolready children to grade 1 – children who can:

  • sit up and sit still for at least eleven minutes;
  • children who can hold a crayon and use scissors in such a way that a minimum amount of concentration and energy is spent on posture and grip and the maximum amount is spent on planning and executing a task;
  • children who understand and speak the language of instruction with ease, because if they cannot say it, how do you want them to read or write it?

Insist that preschools limit the use of workbooks and worksheets and refrain from teaching reading and writing, but rather maximise controlled and skilled gross and fine motor movement:

  • listening the first time
  • speech and language skills
  • creative art work and
  • discovering the wonder world of maths and science while learning hands-on about the world around them.

Expect the foundation phase to send children who can read and write with ease to the next phase, where learning to learn is the priority. Children are not born with an ability to spot key ideas and summarise them. Children need caring adults to unlock the world and to provide relevance and meaning through asking questions, conversations and debates. Children need teachers who are enthusiastic about their subject(s), because enthusiasm is inspiring!

High schools, we expect you to send children into the world who can:

  • think
  • who care
  • who dare to challenge, and
  • who believe in their own ability to be part of the solution.

We need you to send children into the world who have earned their grades and who know they CAN do maths and science.


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