South Africa’s maths matric pass rates have declined once again, plunging the field deeper into crisis. Fixing it requires a holistic approach, including the overhaul of how schools teach this often-dreaded school subject. This is where gamification could make a substantial difference, experts say, now and in the long run. Making mathematics more palatable and relevant improves learners’ grades, boosts their study options, and increases their chances of finding meaningful work as young adults.
It has been a problem for years: South Africa’s maths education. In 2019, six in ten (63%) of Grade 4 and 8 learners didn’t have the mathematical knowledge and skills they should have at their age. In the meantime, matric mathematics pass rates have deteriorated for years. Last year is no exception: According to the Department of Basic Education’s latest national senior certificate examination report, which was published on Monday, only 125.526 of 233.315 candidates (53.8%) who wrote mathematics last year, passed. That is down from 54.6% in 2019.
The consequences of this are far-reaching, as it feeds into South Africa’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) skills shortage, which has been amplified in the latest National List of Occupations in High Demand (OIHD). Presented in November last year, the document features 345 scarce occupations, of which the bulk – from engineers and biotechnologists to architects and investment professionals – requires concrete mathematics and STEM skills sets.
Experts say the starting point of solving this two-headed crisis is to make STEM subjects such as maths more exciting and desirable, for instance, by tapping into the Fourth Digital Revolution in general and gamification in particular. “This type of technology uses gaming elements in non-game contexts, in this case, education, to fuel children’s natural drive to compete, perform, learn, and socialise whilst maximising their overall learning performance,” says Philip von Ziegler, global head of English markets at Smartick.
Founded in 2009, the company has produced an Artificial Intelligence (AI)-powered online maths programme that gives children aged 4 to 13 access to a virtual world in exchange for 15-minutes of focused, hardcore maths. “Your performance during these sessions determines your reward in stars and gems, which you can spend in the virtual world to upgrade your Avatar, your Avatar’s house, buy pets, and acquire new clothes. The better you do during your sessions, the more rewards you get, and the more virtual spending power you have,” Von Ziegler says. “This incentivises kids to do their best.”
He explains Smartick’s virtual world is as education-centred as the maths sessions themselves, but in a fun way. “Besides your Avatar’s house, this world comprises a virtual classroom which we have filled with interactive tutorials learners can use to take on more sessions and deepen their knowledge. The virtual boxing gym enables participants to compete against one another in real-time maths sparring sessions,” he says, noting all questions are tailored to each student’s ability thanks to the power of AI.
The brain game section is Smartick’s most important segment, featuring a wide range of brain games that intend to develop learners’ memory, logic, reasoning, critical thinking, focus, physical flexibility, and health. “These, too, are essential skills in day-to-day life.”
Over the past years, Von Ziegler and his colleagues have kept a close eye on the programme’s impact. Some outcomes have been staggering, he says. “Last year, we followed the progress of two children of a domestic worker, a 15-year-old boy and a 10-year-old girl. Both had been struggling with maths for a while and started the programme in May 2020, by doing twenty sessions per month.”
The girl started with a 52% maths average, which had been her average throughout primary school, and the boy was in the low 40s, Von Ziegler says. “Within four months, she climbed up to 85% whilst the boy, who was outside our age range but lacked a solid maths understanding, achieved a 75% grade, almost double of where he used to be less than a year ago! We did nothing miraculous, besides giving them the tools to strengthen their maths foundation in a fun way.”
Whilst helping children improve their maths grades and study prospects is good for them, there are more winners. “It helps nurture the skills we need so badly as a country, locally and from the ground up,” Von Ziegler says, referring to the above-mentioned OIHD-report. “The fact we are not producing the talent we need is badly affecting the private sector, which is forcing them to import employees, but also on the economy as a whole.”