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Which way Mathematics?

8th November 2012

About 30 years ago (1979), I produced a fairly controversial article in the Daily News entitled “Should We Go Back to Traditional Mathematics?” When the article appeared in the paper the State House phoned the Commissioner for National Education, Michael Shogholo Muze and inquired whether Tanzania was still teaching New Mathematics despite President Nyerere’s comments about the programme.

The commissioner summoned me after he had learnt that I was the source of the issue of the said article. When I was in his office he told me, “We think what you have written in the paper is right. We support you fully. If you should be summoned by the State House to explain, just do it because we think you have opened people’s mind about the new programme”.

A quick investigation showed that some time during the experimental stages of the new mathematics programmes, Mwalimu Julius K. Nyerere (then president of the United Republic of Tanzania) visited Nigeria.

He was invited into a class conducting a mathematics lesson using the new approach. The ideas of SET dominated the lesson. He had learned mathematics using the traditional or rather conventional methods which did not use sets and taught the “hows” and not the “whys”.

He was surprised to see the new approach which instantly did not appeal to him. He inquired why they should teach that way. He was bewildered to hear that even in his own country, the programme was being implemented.

When he came back he passed a word that the programme should be reconsidered. The order came at the time when the commissioner for National Education was Mark Kinunda, a mathematician who was a great believer of the modern mathematics approach. Other experts such as Raphael Kiyao, then Director of the Institute of Education (now known as Tanzania Institute of Education) when the programme was being implemented, and R. Mwajombe (then head of MTUU and later served as UNICEF boss in Tanzania), supported the programme.

In fact Professor Geoffrey Mmari who served briefly as Director of the Institute of Education before crossing over to the Education Department of the University of Dar es Salaam, Mark Kinunda and Mwajombe participated in developing course materials for the new mathematics.

Moreover, an evaluation had recommended the use of the programmes (modern and traditional) by fusing them into one. Gradual phasing out of the two programmes had already started. So, the order to revert to the traditional methods was not implemented. Instead the new ideas were fused into the conventional method to produce the type of programme we have today.

I wrote the article after learning that some teachers were not comfortable with the modern approach. They needed more training and commitment. A few teachers refused to adopt the new methods of teaching because the approach was too demanding.

Some parents complained about modern mathematics because they failed to assist their children when the children got stuck in solving certain problems. These became a source of confusion in conducting the lessons properly. A lot of pupils and students were already fluent with the new approach and they needed sustainable effort to achieve good results.

Some teachers, even today, teach in the same ways they used in the early sixties. Some of the pupils who were taught through the traditional approach and later became mathematics teachers have been emulating their former teachers. “We teach the way we were taught,” they claim.


Recent developments in education demand the use of learner-centered approach. Teachers groomed in the traditional approach will find it a bit difficult in this paradigm shift.

What ever the case may be, the teacher has to help the students in achieving the educational goals. In this manner, the teachers of mathematics are left with a big challenge of inciting interest and amusement in the study of mathematics and at the same time prove the attainment of popularity and sustainability of teaching mathematics in school.

The Ministry of Education and Vocational Training now advocates Competence Based teaching. This approach to teaching, utilizes the previous experience and knowledge of the learner to guide him/her to develop new skills, knowledge and attitudes and hence acquire the desired competences. A mathematics lesson needs this approach. Any attempt to avoid it may lead to unacceptable results.

The Mathematical Association of Tanzania which was formed in 1966 to aid the speeding up of the new methods through seminars and annual meetings has been struggling to make ends meet.

Recently a pi day has been established in Tanzania to provide a platform for mathematicians and their supporters to motivate students to like mathematics. A number of stakeholders have expressed their satisfaction in this endeavor and now wait for your support.

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