Amongst the many challenges of an underperforming South African education system, one of the greatest problems is the lack of numeracy foundations at ECD and Basic Education level. The impact of this is devastating in later years, as shown clearly in the Department of Basic Education’s Annual National Assessments.
Below is the trajectory of the average percentage mark in 2014 starting from a high of 68% in Grade 1 and declining slowly to 43% by Grade 6. The real damage, however, occurs in Grade 9 where the shaky foundations take effect and the whole mathematical edifice collapses into an overall national average of 11%. The cumulative impact of not building a strong enough foundational understanding in Maths is that by Grade 9, learners would have effectively lost 90% of their understanding of the subject.
In 2012, Prof. Jonathan Jansen noted that:
…(F)or every 100 children who enter the schooling system in South Africa, only 48 will make it to Matric. Of the 48 who make it to Matric, only 22 will take Maths as a subject. Of the 22 who take Maths as a (Matric) subject, only 10 will pass; and of the 10 who pass, only four will pass with a mark that is over 50%.
With just four out of every 100 learners leaving the schooling system with an adequate understanding of this important subject, we are not producing enough doctors, scientists, engineers, accountants and business people to build South Africa into a stable and thriving civil society.
How do we address this catastrophe and what can be done to salvage the mathematical future of some 900,000 Grade 6 learners? An innovative organisation called Numeric helps to make things add up by helping young South Africans excel in Maths by empowering them, their teachers, coaches and peer educators to be world-class.
Since establishment in October 2011, Numeric has developed a low cost, scalable model for delivering high impact learning environments in low income communities. Using a gamified, powerful, and free, online learning tool that is modelled on the Khan Academy, Numeric provides disadvantaged children with world-class video instruction through comprehensive exercises that help them master Maths content.
Salman Khan, whose model inspired Andrew Einhorn’s Numeric, are both financial services wunderkinder. Khan is a former hedge fund analyst while Einhorn was an analyst at Allan Gray. The former admits that establishing his academy was a “strange thing to do of social value”, given his background. While the latter’s father thought that Numeric was just a hobby for his Harvard Physics and Computer Science graduate son. However, this year Numeric celebrates its fourth year having reached over 3,100 children through its year-long Maths programmes in the Western Cape and Gauteng. Over 240 teachers-in-training have attended its university-level courses and over 70 Bachelor of Education students have completed year-long teaching internships.
Numeric’s winter school Maths camps are a popular, and highly competitive, annual event for their Grade 7 learners in the Western Cape and Gauteng. The camps are conducted at UCT’s and UJ’s campuses. Of Numeric’s 1,600 beneficiaries, the camps can only cater for 150 learners each at either campus. “For most of our kids, spending a week at the university campuses is their first opportunity, other than at their schools, to be at a large academic institution. It is symbolic. We hope to plant the seed of making university education an attainable dream for them. Mastering Maths is a critical step in making this dream come true,” says Einhorn.
A self-confessed Maths24 champion at school, Einhorn was thrilled to be challenged at last week’s Maths24 tournament with beneficiaries at the UJ camp. Maths24 is a game where you are given four numbers, and you need to combine all four of them to make the number 24. For example, given the numbers 5, 4, 3 and 3, you can combine them in the following way to make 24: (5+4) x 3 – 3 = 24. He reported later, “I was schooled by an eleven year-old from start to finish. If that’s not inspiring, I don’t know what is!”
The Foundation was inspired by Numeric’s Programme Manager, Kristen Thompson’s, enthusiasm during a site visit in June:
Numeric approaches the education crisis in a structured and sustainable way. Our approach enables us to partner directly with schools and communities by engaging schools, learners and parents. We recruit young people from the communities where we work and train them to be coaches. The greatest highlight is watching the gradual shift in attitudes and abilities of both our learners and coaches. They start the year with negative attitudes about Maths (“Maths is boring”, “Maths is difficult,” and “I can’t do Maths”) which become positive by the end of the year (“Maths is fun”, “Maths is interesting,” and “I can do Maths”).
Numeric’s 2014 results speak for themselves.
- The overall persistence rate was 74% compared with 66% in 2013. Persistence is the percentage of learners who remain on-program for the full year.
- The average Numeric learner scored 46.1% at endline compared with 33.7% at baseline, a gross shift of 12.4% (2013: 7.5%)
- The average non-Numeric learner scored 32.1% at endline compared with 27.5% at baseline, a gross shift of 4.6% (2013: 2.4%)
- The net shift attributable to Numeric was 7.8% compared with 5.1% in 2013
- The delta attributable to Numeric was 0.60 compared with 0.34 in 2013. Delta is a statistical measure of impact and Numeric targets a range of 0.5 – 1.0.
- Numeric learners accounted for 67 of the 100 most improved learners out of a total 4, 610 learners tested. Numeric learners account for 23% of all learners tested
A continuation of this positive trajectory will make a meaningful difference to SA’s long-term skills base. It proves that positive momentum in the fight to save this country’s mathematical ability is achievable with a powerful combination of technology, determination and passion. Numeric shows us that it is possible to rebuild mathematical foundations – one classroom at a time.