maths or mathematics literacy

To Maths or not to Maths that is the question.

Having worked with many students over the years, perhaps the biggest source of anxiety toward the end of their schooling careers is: What next?

Choosing a study path is not an easy task but in reality, the decision already started in Grade 9 when your child chose their subjects for the FET phase. This process would have inadvertently closed certain doors and opened others. This notion of ‘doors being closed’ may scare some parents but I would argue that some doors are indeed, meant to be closed. Part of the process of subject choice is the inevitable question for those struggling with Mathematics…. shall I drop to Mathematics Literacy? A phrase that, by its very implication, assumes a child has failed. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The reason students struggle in Mathematics vary widely but irrespective of why, it can be said with some certainty that, nobody deliberately chooses it. For some, a significant learning barrier may make numeracy a challenge that is seemingly insurmountable. For others it may be a teacher with whom they could not connect and struggled to pay attention to. It may also simply be a matter of not putting in the work required. Although the latter is less common than you may think.

A child obtaining 40% for Mathematics in Grade 9 would have to put in a significant amount of work to improve by 20 or 30 percent in their Grade 10 year. A task that is certainly possible but not easily attainable. This of course becomes compounded each year, and as many students ‘try give Mathematics a go’ until their Grade 10 or 11 year,  the task to catch up becomes ever more challenging. Inevitably they again are faced with the dilemma of moving to Mathematics Literacy.

Let’s not negate though, for those who do manage to work alongside their learning barriers and improve dramatically it is an achievement worthy of praise. Sometimes deep beneath the consistent failure there is indeed a deep-seated love or respect for Mathematics that simply needs the right combination of support, determination and desire. I think many parents hold onto this which is understandable. The question then becomes where is the line?

The far more common and likely scenario is that those students either remain in their struggle or improve by a far smaller margin. Ironically, sticking with Mathematics despite significant challenges can, in the end, actually hamper your chances of attending a university. It is far better to get 50 or 60% for Mathematics literacy than to fail Mathematics.

So, it really needs to begin with an honest and open conversation with your child’s Mathematics teacher. They are usually experienced, having taught thousands of students in their careers. Their input regarding your child’s ability and where to draw that line before considering a move to Mathematics Literacy needs to be taken very seriously. Stubbornness on the part of the parent to dismiss genuine concerns can land up causing more harm in the long run.

This conversation needs to include real, and sometimes challenging questions such as are they likely going to gain acceptance for a study course requiring Mathematics at a tertiary institute? Would they even want to if they could? Many do, but it’s a question that isn’t asked enough.

Of course, there are nuances here that I cannot possibly attend to and I am certainly at risk of generalizing. However, after countless conversations with students these ideals, largely still ring true. At very least this should offer up some food for thought.

A closer examination of Mathematical literacy illustrates just how bad a rap it gets. Among high achieving schools in particular, it is often looked down upon and many of the students feel unintelligent for ‘having’ to take it. This speaks more to social psychology than an objective appraisal of what is in your child’s best interests. Most Math’s Lit students actually feel a sense of relief when they make the move over from core Math’s (perhaps a better way of framing it than ‘a drop to Maths lit”).

So what about University? We have touched on it but a common argument may be, “You need Maths to get into varsity”? That is a partial truth in that there are indeed many courses that do require that. But again, we ask ourselves are we willing to risk R40-R60K on tuition fees on a Mathematically-centric course when our child is scrapping through high school Mathematics? Let’s look at UCT entrance requirements. Please note this is a general table and should not replace a thorough investigation into specific faculty requirements.

FacultyStudy areaMath’s requirement (%)Math’s literature option (%)
CommerceCommerce60 
 Actuarial science80 
Engineering and built environmentCivil engineering75 
 Electrical, Electrical and computer and mechatronic engineering80 
 Construction studies65 
 ArchitectureNBT proficiency in mathematics* 
 Property studies65 
 Chemical engineering80 
 Mechanical, Engineering80 
 Geomatics75 
Health sciencesMBcHB60 
 Physiotherapy50 
 Occupational therapy5060
 Audiology5060
 Speech-language pathology5060
HumanitiesBa or BSocSci (general) including PsychologyNot needed 
 Philosophy, politics and economics60 
 Fine artNot needed 
 Social workNot needed 
 Theatre & performanceNot needed 
 MusicNot needed 
LawllbNot needed (in all cases) 
ScienceMarine biology Physics Mathematics Physiology & human anatomy
ocean & atmosphere science
chemistry Ecology Genetics Geology Computer science Biochemistry
70 

 *National Benchmark test

What we can see by this table is that for many courses Mathematics is needed. However, it is not a requirement for every course. In addition, we have not looked at private tertiary colleges which, while generally more expensive than state universities, often have selection criteria far less strict in comparison. Take AAA school of advertising which offers several degrees in marketing only requiring Math’s Literacy or Vega school offering digital or game design degrees that also only require Math’s Literacy. The point is the options are out there if we look for them and therefore a move from Math’s to Math’s Literacy is not as damning as many parents still believe.

Finally, an important consideration is, has your child undergone any professional career/aptitude testing? If not, it may be valuable to look into this option. If they show values, interests, an aptitude and personality preferences which lead to a career not requiring Mathematics then it goes a long way in helping your child decide their subject choice. In addition, a career assessment, if done by a credible Educational Psychologist can point you in the direction of courses and opportunities they may have not considered yet. These types of assessments range anyway from R1500 to R5000 and not all assessments are created equal. Make sure you do your homework and choose someone who has a passion and interest in career guidance.

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