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China on my mind

Tony Joe White was thinking about California when he wrote the lyrics: “California on my mind.”  Over the past few days, China has been on my mind.

My interest in China was sparked by a snippet on television about China making soccer mandatory in schools; soccer is going to become part of the national school curricula. China is not a great soccer playing nation; it has only qualified for the World Cup once, in 2002.

What really got me thinking was the fact that schools were looking at dedicating 3 hours per day to soccer. Like all South Africans, I’d really like to see a Bafana Bafana team achieve greatness, internationally, and this may require a lot more focused attention to developing players early in childhood. However, even higher on my wish list is the desire to see children on the African continent excel academically.

Children in China are pushed hard – children typically spend nine hours a day at school, one hour longer than their parents spend at work. Some even spend twelve hours per day in the classroom. In addition, many have extra Maths and English lessons as competition for jobs and university places is high.

As Africans, we can learn from the Chinese. I am not suggesting that we turn the school day into a marathon, but that we ask ourselves the tough question  – are our children spending enough constructive hours a day in the class room, learning and being taught? Irregular school attendance, teacher absenteeism and school boycotts, continue to play havoc with children’s schooling in South Africa. I cannot speak for the rest of the continent.

When we think of proficiency in mathematics, our eyes are always cast Eastwards to Asia as a whole, and China in particular. Africa is not on the radar; South African learners lag far behind their counterparts in mathematics, globally.

Children in China follow a nine year programme in maths. The curriculum is divided into four phases and children are required to spend 15 hours per week on maths – this equates to roughly two full days of maths tuition a week. No wonder, Chinese children are so good at maths.

Learners in China are required to prove their solutions in front of the class. If anything, this approach motivates children to ensure that they have prepared adequately, and have mastered a concept. There is also an emphasis on teaching logical reasoning. How often do maths teachers in Africa ask probing questions? When I studied maths at school I was instructed to memorise theorems, whether I understood their application was irrelevant.

Another important lesson from China is the fact that teachers teach a single subject. Far too often, certainly in South Africa, we have teachers with matric maths teaching maths; this is unacceptable. We need to put measures in place to make Maths teaching a noble and well remunerated profession.

China has put measures in place to take “a great leap forward,” on the soccer field. Africa as a whole and South Africa in particular, needs to take “a great leap forward,” to ensure that children on the continent are able to compete against their counterparts academically, particularly in subjects such as mathematics. Mathematics is a door-opener to so many careers, many of which are scarce skills areas on the continent.

We need to implement best practices in education from China. The UK has recognised that maths teachers in Shanghai are outstanding. An article published in the Guardian in 2015 entitled: “The maths teachers of Shanghai have the perfect formula for learning,” reveals that children from the poorest 30% of Shanghai’s population were outperforming children from the wealthiest 10% in England. Poverty in Africa, is no excuse for poor academic performance.

England has implemented a Shanghai-England teacher exchange – countries in Africa need to do the same.

Chinese children are high achievers – their achievements are often attributed to their “tiger mothers” pushing them really hard.  Mothers on the African continent, “lion mothers,” need to roar. They need to ensure that their children work hard at school.

China is rolling out its national soccer curriculum in 20 000 schools over the next five years. Imagine if we rolled out best practice maths teaching in 20 000 schools across Africa over the next five years; this could change the face of Africa, forever.

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