Johannesburg, February 2021: If you have a relationship with a child or ever spent time with a child, you’ll be familiar with the often-repeated question they never seem to tire of: “But, why?” It’s exactly this insatiable curiosity about the world around us and how it all works that make subjects like maths and science so important – they help to provide the framework for how children can find the answers. But beyond useful formulas or interesting facts, maths and science stimulates critical thinking and problem solving; life-long skills that children will benefit from outside of these subject fields. Sadly, in South Africa’s impoverished communities access to quality education, basic amenities, encouragement and support from family and teachers is either lacking or non-existent. It’s therefore not surprising that in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2019 (TIMSS) South African learners consistently scored in the bottom three countries of the 64 countries and entities that participated in the study.

One school in Thembisa which caters for the poorest of the poor in their community, The Love Trust’s Nokuphila Primary School, aims to change that. We spoke to the head of the senior grades at Nokuphila, Shepherd Chihwehwete, about the importance Nokuphila and The Love Trust places on cultivating a love for science and maths from a young age. We also spoke with Sheila Madzikanda, grade four maths teacher at Nokuphila, for her perspective and on how technology and their latest eLearning platform help the learners grasp abstract concepts.

 Shepherd Chihwehwete

Chihwehwete believes that by introducing mathematics at a young age we build the foundation for critical skills such as science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM), which, in South Africa we are currently lacking. “Also,” Chihwehwete explains, “mathematics provides an effective way to practice mental discipline, since it encourages logical reasoning, and mental rigor. Children are given the chance to reason logically as mathematics and science are absolute in their correctness. The basics of mathematics and science also play a crucial role in understanding the content and nature of other subjects, such as the social studies, the arts, music, etc.”

One of the major disadvantages for learners from poor communities Chihwehwete states, is that learners are discouraged early on by family and members in the community because according to them maths and science are difficult subjects and only ‘geniuses’ understand them; so why bother? According to Chihwehwete, as maths and science are practical subjects by using a variety of teaching methods, teachers can make the lessons interesting, more engaging, and easier to understand complex concepts. Fortunately, Chihwehwete says, “we are very lucky that we have small classes at Nokuphila, which means we’ve got the opportunity for one-on-one learning and thereby keep the learners motivated and interested”.

One way that the teachers at Nokuphila are striving to make the subject material more interesting and simpler to understand is through the use of their new eLearning platform. As Madzikanda explains: “Each learner is unique and different learners learn differently. eLearning allows teachers to maximise the potential for individual learning curves, and also learning styles within the classroom. It also makes it easier to explain abstract concepts, especially in maths and science.” By integrating technologies into the classroom set-up and teaching methods Madzikanda believes that learners will also be better equipped for life outside of the classroom as technology forms part of their daily lives: “I don’t think the school can be divorced from the outside world – they should actually meet the needs of society, which also makes learning more relevant.”

But students aren’t the only ones benefitting from implementing eLearning in the classroom. As Madzikanda points out, “you can focus more on the individual child and their learning needs because automation from using technology reduces the admin workload; for example, as soon as the learners are done with an activity, everything will be marked and graded immediately. You [teachers] can also easily track the learners’ progress.” She also comments on the practicality of eLearning during Covid lockdowns and restrictions.  It allows for remote learning/teaching so learners aren’t left behind.  It also allows parents to get more involved. Parents can see when tests and projects are due as well as check the overall performance of their child[ren] at school. Madzikanda states from her experience that because of the nature of the platform teachers need to prepare their lessons more rigorously, for example, sometimes parents sit in on a lesson taking place over Microsoft Teams “so, the teachers need to take into account more than just the traditional classroom environment, which should be seen as a positive.”

In closing, Chihwehwete emphasised the effect that parents and family have on how learners absorb subjects such as maths and science: “For the parents, the most important thing is to talk about mathematics in a positive way – as a negative attitude is infectious.” He also encourages parents to show an interest in their children’s schooling. Simply by making sure their children have time and privacy to work on their schoolwork will make a massive difference.

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