Should we focus on STEM or languages?

As you may know, from the North American shores to the African safaris, governments are scrambling to modernize their education systems so that they may be relevant in the 21st Century.

The focus of most governments have been to try and get as many learners proficient in STEM subjects so that the pipeline is not starved of a constant supply of talent.

This is good but is the emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) misplaced? Many a governments have realised that teaching STEM in isolation does not achieve the intended results and have now remixed STEM into STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics).

Americans have been known to be very good communicators such that they can easily compensate for lack of content knowledge with confidence and eloquence. By the way in a small and very informal survey I did in 2016, learners at a SOuth African high school thought that Barack Obama was the most intelligent President in the world because of his sublime oratory skills. This is an indicator that the mastery of language can lead to significant change through a clear articulation of aspirations and how we will get there.

There have been studies thathave shown that there is a strong correlation between language of instruction proficiency and success in subjects like mathematics and physics. I am neither saying that to be good in physics one ought to be good in the language of instruction nor am I am saying the converse.

Using SOuth Africa as an example, Ihave seen how lack of language mastery is causing mayhem to learners’ proficiency in mathematics. In a class I taught a while back I asked the learners a word problem as follows:

Question: Take a number, double it, add 5 and the answer is equal to 25. Write this English statement in mathematical language (equation)

50% of the respondents gave the following response:

Answer: Let x be the unknown number, x/2 +5 = 25

I was surpprised as to why learners would give such a ridiculous answer to a simple statement. Looking at the answer you can see that every aspect of the equation is correct except the use of 2. The students clearly did not know whether to multiply or divide by 2. This led me to probe even further to ascertain whetehr the learners understood the word “double”.

What I found was astonishing because they gave me feedback that in the townships they have a slang statement that says “double up” meaning “shortcut”, so to them double implies making something smaller thats why they divided.

I then realised that there was a communication barrier between me and them because I had assumed that the word double is known to all man as multiplying by two.

My point here is that I am emphasizing the fact that this was not a mathematical ability problem but a language problem. This problem was a hindrance to the learners’ success in mathematics.

To drive my point hom I am going to say another statement:

Question: “What is the palindrome of 55?”

Now tell me how you are going to answer that quaetion correctly if you dont know what the word “palindrome” means? Is this a mathematics problem or a langauge problem?

The policy makers within education should take cognisnace on the need to push for language literacy as this has profound implications on how a learner will do in STEM and other subjects. So, should we be focusing on STEM or ensuring language is good?

How is South Africa preparing its learners for the Nth Industrial Revolution?


Education is meant to prepare learners for jobs of the future. Politicians and economists the world over are talking of the 4th Industrial Revolution and how it’s changing the idea of work as we know it. It is a given that countries that have or are making great strides at preparing their workforce for these changes are thriving or will thrive in this New World Order.

During the debate on President Cyril Ramaphosa’s first State of the Nation Address, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said “pupils will need new skills to meet the demands of a world using advanced technologies, including artificial intelligence, robotics and driverless cars.” She also told the gathering that her department has been engaging with international and local experts on the implications of the fourth industrial revolution on education.

She further alluded to the fact that these advanced technologies such as automation, artificial intelligence, robotics, nano-technology, 3D printing and autonomous vehicles will demand non-routine inter-personal and analytical skills, social skills such as persuasion emotional and social intelligence and will demand creativity, agility and adaptability which are not necessarily being taught or nurtured in our current schooling system.

I applaud the minister for her statement in parliament as this should set the tone for education reform in South Africa. The question that I have for Minister Angie is: How are you preparing the learners for the Nth Industrial Revolution? N is a natural number greater than 3 in this context.

I do not doubt the minister’s passion for empowering the learners to meaningfully contribute to the success of the country but what I doubt is her willingness to be radical in overhauling the ailing system into a vibrant and value adding entity.

As an education support practitioner I can give a testimony of the improvements that have taken under her stewardship but are not necessarily known to the public because the department does not celebrate its successes enough. These small wins have been the result of unrelenting efforts from both the public and private sectors especially the NGOs. The business sector has also heeded her call for a multi-stakeholder approach and are contributing immensely to the addition of value in the system.

The biggest constraint in the ecosystem is lack of Radical Education Reform (RER) to get rid of any remnants of apartheid era education and truly usher in a quality and fair education ecosystem. The reforms that have been implemented to date have been infinitesimally small and have not reconfigured the education system as platform for the nurturing of future STEM leaders who will be ready to take on the challenges of tomorrow. The changes have been cautious and accommodative of the weakest links in the system.

When I talk about weak links, I am referring to both teachers and learners who are being carried by the system and are a hindrance to progress. I am a firm believer in “No Child Left Behind” policy which is fair and conforms to the human rights values that we subscribe to, but this should not be a reason to deny the bright and gifted children a chance to be the best they can be within a system that rewards diligence. For example the mathematics curriculum is shallow and was designed with the weakest learner in mind as opposed to designing it for the best learner. This is anti-development and has to be rectified.

From a STEM perspective, this lack of RER is the reason why we are lagging behind in the race for the Nth Industrial Revolution. As a mathematician, I am well aware of the fallacy of hasty generalization whereby one cannot conclude an outcome based on one instance but for emphasis and illustration I will employ an example of one the many reasons why we are not at the forefront in fields like robotics, artificial intelligence, optics, space travel and all the emergent industries that rely heavily on STEM. My example will be posed as a question. Why are South African mathematics learners not taught matrices in high schools?

Given that the topics included in the matric curriculum are not rigorously dealt with a big void whereby crucial topics are omitted. Statistics was not in the curriculum and was introduced recently, the reason given was that most teachers had not done the topic in Bantu schooling system so there were no skills to pursue this subject, I am glad that it’s now included. What about matrices? Students who do not pursue STEM subjects in university will never get to know what a matrix is.

Matrices are pervasive in the new economy and the lack of exposure by learners to this topic is one of the many drivers why we are not producing top of the range students who become leaders in STEM fields. Matrices are everywhere in our day to day lives and we ought to empower the learners the ability to solve complex and wicked problems using matrices.

Below is a list of some of the areas where matrices are used extensively:

  • In physics related applications, matrices are applied in the study of electrical circuits, quantum mechanics and optics.
  • In the calculation of battery power outputs, resistor conversion of electrical energy into another useful energy, these matrices play a major role in calculations. Especially in solving the problems using Kirchoff’s laws of voltage and current, the matrices are essential.
  • In computer based applications, matrices play a vital role in the projection of three dimensional image into a two dimensional screen, creating the realistic seeming motions.
  • Stochastic matrices and Eigen vector solvers are used in the page rank algorithms which are used in the ranking of web pages in Google search.
  • The matrix calculus is used in the generalization of analytical notions like exponentials and derivatives to their higher dimensions.
  • One of the most important usages of matrices in computer side applications are encryption of message codes.
  • Matrices and their inverse matrices are used for a programmer for coding or encrypting a message.
  • A message is made as a sequence of numbers in a binary format for communication and it follows code theory for solving. Hence with the help of matrices, those equations are solved. With these encryptions only, internet functions are working and even banks could work with transmission of sensitive and private data’s.
  • In geology, matrices are used for taking seismic surveys.
  • They are used for plotting graphs, statistics and also to do scientific studies in almost different fields.
  • Matrices are used in representing the real world data’s like the traits of people’s population, habits, etc.
  • They are best representation methods for plotting the common survey things.
  • Matrices are used in calculating the gross domestic products in economics which eventually helps in calculating the goods production efficiently.
  • Matrices are used in many organizations such as for scientists for recording the data for their experiments.
  • In robotics and automation, matrices are the base elements for the robot movements. The movements of the robots are programmed with the calculation of matrices’ rows and columns. The inputs for controlling robots are given based on the calculations from matrices.

Just these illustrations will show you that we are robbing our learners of an opportunities to be at the fore-front of the technology-driven new era.

How will our learners compete with learners from Russia, China, Estonia, Finland and other countries that have these life-changing topics in the primary and high school curriculum? Even a child from Zimbabwe, Zambia or Kenya is introduced to matrices in Form 3, so why can’t the South African government radically change the education system so that it brings meaningful value to the country and continent? How long shall we wait cautiously as the world moves forward at a fast pace and we are surely being condemned to the zenith of the STEM advancement and breakthroughs.

My message to Minister Angie is that she should not settle for little gains bur be radical and really change the course of history through education. She should be bold to call out those who are impeding progress whether its officials, or unions like SADTU who in their bid to protect their own, undermine the improvement of the whole system. I hope this little message of mine reaches the minister. I salute people like Panyaza Lesufi who work tirelessly to improve education for all, they are many out there, we just need the minister to lead the revolution.

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