In a time where excelling in science courses is seen as a privilege of geniuses only, Heydey School has transformed how her students learn maths, a historically unattractive but important subject. In this interview, Mrs. Susan Amuta, Proprietress of the school talks about the Nigerian education system, and how to help students love maths.
Globally, there is intense emphasis on STEM- Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics courses, but Nigeria records less than 50% pass rate in maths in the annual WASSCE. What does this portend to the nation and how do we fix it?
We can fix this by training teachers in the sciences, by introducing and sustaining vocational training, guidance and counselling and by lowering entry requirements for science courses. The last point is particularly interesting to me as I have always wondered why entry requirements for the sciences are so stringent.
Take for example, the requirement that a student who desires to study the sciences must also possess a credit level pass in English Language. The student has five credits in core sciences, yet the qualifying authorities insist that without a credit pass in English, the student cannot study the course of choice in the sciences. You then wonder in which language the student wrote the examinations and got credit level pass in at least five subjects.
That is just an instance of the dysfunctional nature of Nigeria’s assessment procedure. Our education system and our curriculum need continuous evaluation to bring them up to speed with changing times. Education should be engaging, interesting and fun, such that students are able to visualise and indeed live the subjects they are taught. They should see how the subjects correlate to everyday living, and there will likely be improvements in general attitude towards and pass rate in mathematics and other science courses. Without strong focus on the sciences, Nigeria’s quest to become a developed nation via industrialisation will not be achievable.
Growing up, did you love mathematics?
There was a general phobia for mathematics, and this prevented students who would have developed keen interest in the subject from following through. I must say that I did not love maths because of that general apathy towards it at the time. We recognised that there was apathy towards mathematics at the very early stage, even before our school was founded. This is why our vision in Heyday School is to make sure we remove the fear of mathematics from our children and equip them with the knowledge, skills and principles that would make the subject interesting and fun.
How have you been able to this?
At the pre-school stage, we make the children active in mathematics through the use of real objects and activities that emerge from the children through music, arts and craft, sorting by colour and size, matching pictures to objects and arranging pictures in correct sequence. This is to help the children progress from concrete experiences to more abstract ones and to naturally internalise mathematical concepts so as to eliminate cramming.
At the primary level, we organise maths quizzes and inter-class competitions. We teach mental maths, such as Abacus and Speed Mathematics for mental alertness and intuitive thinking. We also make mathematics fun for the children through games, mathematical songs and one-to-one teaching.
Seeing how mathematics lays a solid foundation for excellence in the sciences, beyond training students to ‘just’ pass maths, how can we make them love the subject?
Mathematics should be made real to the children through concrete experiences, basic concepts such as one-to-one correspondence and classification equivalence. In addition, government should introduce a reward system for mathematics skills and scholarships for students who excel in mathematics.
It is not a single-incentive package; a mix of incentives helps to engage the interest of students from different angles and levels. What may appeal to one student, another student may not find engaging. However, having a potpourri of incentives helps to ensure that all students are engaged. It also improves the teacher’s ability to retain students’ interest in maths.
Which method or device has been particularly helpful in improving your pupils’ maths skills?
A remarkable method that we have been using and which has made maths easier for the children is the Abacus Training Programme. It has removed the fear of maths from the students and empowered students to calculate large numbers without the aid of an electronic calculator. Indeed, adopting Abacus solutions in our bid to enhance our students’ love for, and appreciation of mathematics has been very effective as the tool and suite of solutions are not intrusive and they do they distract from the general teaching method.
The introduction of Abacus Training programme has fuelled remarkable growth in the interest and ability of our students in mathematics. This has rubbed off on other subjects since strong interest in one subject naturally helps students maintain interest in other subjects.
How is Abacus Training Programme improving mathematics and other skills of your pupils?
Abacus Mathematics has improved the logical and analytical minds of the children. It has also improved and sharpened other skills like vigilance, spatial relation, listening skills, creativity, memory power, patience and precision. It has made them resilient, confident and has given them the “I can” attitude. As I mentioned earlier, it rubs off on other subjects because if you are very good in one subject, there is a tendency to transfer that ability to other subjects. What we are seeing is that the strong interest in mathematics has naturally enhanced their interest in other subjects.
One of Abacus’ most important qualities is enhancing the pace at which students can reason logically. Imagine empowering a student with the ability to calculate numbers and solve equations at a speed faster than electronic calculators. Though that ability will be more noticeable and indeed useful in mathematics, it is naturally transferred to other subjects; the students can think faster and are able to find solutions to problems in other subjects at faster rates than they were used to. At Heyday School, we have benefited immensely from the method in the sense that it has helped to remove the fear of mathematics from our children. They now look forward to maths periods with enthusiasm because Abacus makes the learning fun, easy and enjoyable.
Apart from our low performance in STEM courses, what other challenges are present in the Nigerian education sector?
There are several challenges in education administration in Nigeria. Chief among them is inadequate funding which impedes the ability of schools to provide the infrastructure and services that they would ideally like to provide in order to give students the best environment to enhance their scholarly abilities. Another is keeping in step with the ever changing needs of information and communication technology. ICT has become an integral part of education, helping to make teaching-learning fun and interesting; the amount of knowledge students and teachers can possibly tap into is limitless.
A third issue is the short supply of qualified teachers. When teachers graduate, they no longer go straight to the classrooms to start teaching. You’d have to invest time and funds to train them and scale up their skills. I could go on and on but in spite of these challenges, the education system is not a lost cause, particularly with the intervention of private sector education providers. Some schools have done particularly well in providing required facilities and trained instructors and it shows in the quality of the students we produce.