21st Century Skills

Mathematics: learning to solve problems

Together with academics from a number of universities in South Africa, we believe that a problem-centred approach is the answer to teaching mathematics. ‘Never in the history of the world was it more important to teach our children to think; critical thinking has been identified as one of the skills that will be an essential survival tool for living in the 21st century, in this very fast changing world.’

Learning mathematics is an emotional activity. We are sure you all know the typical pattern: a learner will still achieve well in mathematics up to Grade 7, but by the middle of Grade 10 all the alarm bells start ringing, extra classes are needed and mathematics turns into a nightmare… This scenario has a double-negative effect. We have too few candidates to study successfully in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields and, equally importantly, we have individuals who have done well in life (without mathematics) carrying such a negative emotional experience of mathematics that as parents they are likely to transfer some of these ‘hang-ups’ to their children. These include not only the ‘I could not do maths at school’ reference, but also an over-protectiveness towards our own children that may arise when mathematics anxiety is not well addressed. So the plea is: please allow your children to make mistakes, talk to them about their thinking and encourage them to think with you.

We believe that mathematics should be a sense-making, problem-solving activity, taught in an environment where learners are encouraged to formulate and verbalise their thinking. Learners should also learn from their peers and from their own mistakes. This asks for a change in classroom culture and, above all, we need parents to come on board.

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