Ironically, the blooming genius did not spend much time in elementary school. Apparently, his performance was so poor that his teacher gave up trying to make him understand maths, and instead took him back to her mother, telling her that a goat could probably do better in the subject.
It is reported that the mother, an accomplished teacher herself, taught her son at home – little knowing that he would mutate into an inventor of all time.
It is further said that when people referred to him as a genius, Thomas replied that he was not. To paraphrase him: genius was nothing but a product of hard work, doggedness, and common sense.
This inspirational story could partly unlock the root cause of what is ailing our current mathematics learners, when only a dismal 16 per cent managed to scrap through last year – an alarming failure rate by any standards.
The most important lesson from the Edison story is that we can overcome the fear of maths in our young learners and turn them into future technologists. Sadly, we seem to have given up, wondering aloud as to why we should investigate “the obvious”.
But if we want to develop our own competent technologists, engineers and scientists, time is ripe for a big rethink. If we really want to put paid to the scandalous importation of “expatriate” engineers from the likes of India and China to design, supervise, erect, commission and maintain even the most elementary of plants, we must train our own people and trust them do drive our development.
Our ingrained belief that we can be developed by people from our “development partners” is nothing but misguided political balderdash.
But we can only train our own experts to satisfaction if we have “trainable” people equipped with the right knowledge in the relevant subject/s right from school. This is precisely what the so-called Asian Tigers did. They trained and relied on their own people to spearhead development.They did not rely on experts from outside their own borders.
I will be stupidly hypocritical if I were to say, or even merely suggest, that mathematics is an easy subject. Far from it. I am not an educationist but my decades of experience as a successful learner of the subject tells me that succeeding in the subject requires an uninterruptible learning process, unqualified interest in the subject and diligence.
I must emphasize that the learning should never be interposed. The interest in the subject is equally critical. For elementary learners, this must be cultivated through a joint venture between the teacher and parents on one hand and the learner on the other.
With this, the interested learner will be able to develop the right background as quickly as possible. The background will be the underpinning of the learner as he or she goes along. If this is lost along the way, things will start falling apart. It will now be difficult for the learner to catch up again, if ever. The learner will start an irreversible process of hating the subject, with 2 plus 2 starting coming to 5!
In continuing with the learner who has lost the basic building blocks, several traits will start emerging. Having hated the subject, he or she will stop asking questions or seeking help from the instructor.
When the teacher is busy imparting mathematics concepts to others, these particular learners will find it more worthwhile using their time to draw cartoons or exchanging jokes, weird or otherwise. The die will have been cast. They will have developed an attention disorder, appearing fatigued and fidgety for no apparent reason. A this stage, the teacher will need divine intervention to manage the situation.
Interest and dogged attitude to practice plays a pivotal role in developing problem-solving skills in a mathematics student. A learner with these two characteristics will always be trying to solve problems ahead of the rest of the class. The learner will accomplish this simply by studying worked examples and starting to work out subsequent problems on his or her own.
Some learning colleagues and I conquered mathematics through this route. Every success in mastering one chapter or method will trigger an insatiable thirst for trying the next one, and the next, and the next. Much like character Oliver in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, one of our secondary school class readers, he or she will always be asking for more.
Another critical personal factor that can act as a central plank for the learner’s mastery of mathematics is mental ability. Mathematics consists of a series of algorithms – in algebra, trigonometry, calculus and other topics – which in most cases appear rather abstract to many first-time students.
For example, solving a quadratic equation by completing the square entails a set of sequential steps that the student must remember if he or she has to succeed in solving the problem. A mix of one or two steps will make the student end up with the wrong answer. It is as simple as that.
However, can this abstract reasoning ability be developed by the teacher if the student does not possess it innately? Can the student be encouraged to think logically? Your guess is as good as mine, although I am sure mathematics teachers have the answer.
Peer and family influence can have a lasting effect on the learner’s confidence and interest in learning. Some parents and guardians almost dictate the career path of their children. If the parent did not do well in maths, he or he will likely always give the impression to the children that the subject is a hard nut to crack.
Much the same message might come from peers at school hailing from similar family backgrounds. That is why it is not uncommon to see a whole family tree comprising lawyers if the mother, father or guardian was a lawyer. The same thing would apply to mathematics-oriented professions.
Peer and family influence apart, the sad fact is that the interest in pursuing mathematics is on the decline. One argument: why struggle with a difficult subject like mathematics instead of studying history and the languages which will probably fast-track you into politics?
This suggests that politics has become the most highly paying “profession” in our country – not medicine, engineering or technology. Many see the lust for riches and the glorification of kleptocracy are fast killing interest in studying subjects like mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology among our learners.
This is a tragic development. It is a trend which, if left unchecked, will make Tanzania the only country in our part of the world teeming with socio-political scientists but without technologists. Needless to say, we shall not be able to compete.
Back to the thread of our maths failure problem: just what is the root cause? The frequent change in the curriculum is probably one of the factors “confusing” students, teachers and parents/guardians alike.
Our curricula have kept changing with changes in the people serving as the respective (Education) minister and other senior officials. Every minister or curriculum development director, etc., would prescribe the printing and distribution of new textbooks with different contents.
These changes affect students at various stages of their learning of mathematics. Sometimes the changes are so dramatic that even students who have started catching up in the subject give up owing to the nature of the “strange” topics introduced – which even teachers are not adequately prepared for.
As expected, the learning chain for this group becomes irreparably broken. Before Dr John Magufuli took over as President, no one knew why these frequent changes in the curriculum, syllabus and books were being implemented. But now we know: it was part of the wide scheme of corruption and lack of accountability now codenamed “majipu”.
But what about the role of the teacher? How far can the teacher go in helping an unwilling student to understand, love and breathe mathematics? What is the pass rate in the subject in government-run schools – which some of the best maths teachers have left to seek greener pastures in well-paying private schools – compared to private schools?
Are maths teachers adequately well motivated and looked after? Is their compensation package differentiated? Is it really the brightest maths Form Six students that universities enroll for training as maths teachers in our secondary and other schools?
These questions should help us better understand how to add to the contribution of teachers in turning around the teaching of maths in our schools. My view is that we need to appropriately address the issue of mathematics teachers and, indeed, teachers for all subjects or any hope of succeeding through mere political pronouncements like “Big Results Now” will remain big but without tangible results.
Take the example of our ward secondary schools, which we are politically very proud of but in which we never enroll the “elite” sons and daughters of our MPs and other influential people hailing from the same wards. No really quality mathematics teacher will ever be posted to such schools and not soon “flee” to non-government schools that pay and otherwise motivate teachers by results.
And, lastly, our educationists need to take a holistic look at the root cause of failure in maths in our schools. They must examine the causes of lopsided teaching, the students’ lack of appetite for maths and other science subjects, the contribution of parents, the larger society, the curriculum, etc., etc.
I am very sure that a solution can be found. If need be, we can seek President Magufuli’s personal intervention – as praying for his leadership even on the most ordinary of issues. We might not have to go that extent, though. However, “doing nothing” just cannot be an option.• Jackson Majura is an engineer and a private consultant. He can be reached at email: [email protected]; cell phone: +25578409660.