Michélè Booyzen runs Targeted Remedial Tutoring, a cottage school in South Africa for 9- to 13-year-olds with a range of special educational needs. Here, she talks about her success in teaching maths and how consolidation and engagement are key to her children’s learning.After travelling and teaching for 17 years I came back to South Africa to focus on special education. My time overseas had opened my eyes to the fact that many children in mainstream education risk falling behind because we just don’t have the time to reach them and really understand their individual needs.
Mathematics Outcomes in South African Schools, a 2013 report by The Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE), suggested that the teaching of mathematics in mainstream education in South Africa is amongst the worst in the world.
In 2011, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) showed that South African learners have the lowest performance among all 21 middle-income countries that participated. It concluded that vast improvements in this area of public schooling are vital to South Africa’s future socio-economic prospects — for the learners as well as the country as a whole. The report stated that, ‘poor mathematics and numeracy in public schools is likely to accelerate private schooling growth and enrolment in private extra mathematics lessons’.
Another report published in December 2016, this time from South Africa’s Department of Basic Education, confirmed it had lowered the pass rate for mathematics to just 20 per cent in an effort to keep children moving through the country’s struggling school system.
Having arrived back in South Africa I set up Targeted Remedial Tutoring, a cottage school based on the ethos of home schooling. We support various high functioning children, including those on the autistic spectrum who struggle in mainstream schools, those with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders (ADHD), attention deficit disorders (ADD), Asperger’s Syndrome and many with dyslexia. It offers the quality of teaching that the CDE report suggested was missing.
The aim of the school is to start with each child’s individual problems: what is their challenge, how does it manifest itself and how do we need to tailor the learning experience to meet their need.
Sometimes a part of the challenge in supporting our students is working in partnership with their parents. Understandably, many parents don’t shout about their child’s individual learning needs as they don’t want them to be labelled. However, if a child is unaware and doesn’t understand that they have certain learning difficulties or challenges then it becomes a lot harder for us to support them in the right way.
When learning something new, it takes up to 12 repetitions for an individual in mainstream education to remember it. However, for children with learning difficulties, this figure jumps to 80. And while consolidation is key to the majority of our children’s learning, we find that repeating learning activities not only gets boring but also undermines the child’s self-esteem. So, I focus on a lot of repetition at Targeted Remedial Tutoring.
Changing this way of learning is key to success, particularly so when it comes to subjects such as maths or literacy that will be relevant to pupils no matter what career they choose to pursue.
Once we have understood each child’s specific learning needs, I consider their potential future career path. Ultimately that is what we are helping them towards. For many of our children, a night job or work in an IT department is probably ideal, although this is by no means all that these wonderful kids can do! They constantly amaze us with their skills and abilities. Nurturing these skills is, in my view, part of our job; it’s about finding or creating a solution that teaches these key skills while ensuring we still deliver the core curriculum.
Having taught in international schools for many years I was aware of the numerous maths resources available. My assessment of these is that if a child is good at maths most of these resources are fantastic, but what I needed was something that offered a staged pathway for those who struggle or simply have a block with maths. More importantly, it had to offer multiple activities to repeat and consolidate the learning in a more engaging way.
Self-confidence and self-belief are huge problems for most kids with special needs and maths can easily sap their confidence with its propensity for answers that are either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. When a child who has learning challenges gets answers incorrect, and sees the red X, it can do tremendous damage. When I teach new concepts in maths, such as long division or long multiplication, we all work together and the children mark each step of their work themselves. This means, they see lots and lots of lovely ticks or check marks next to each line of their work. Then it doesn’t matter if the answer is incorrect because there is then only one X in the middle of all the ticks. As one of my students said, ‘I love getting sums right because I feel on top of the world and I love that nothing happens to us if we get sums wrong’. This is such an important part of our teaching.
As the children start to see that their steps are correct, they start to push themselves into getting the answer right thereby learning the concept and building confidence, having taken ownership of the maths problems.
“I love that my teacher talks slowly and says things over and over again to help me. There is nothing I dislike about maths; maths is the best subject ever.” Matthew, aged 11.
Once they know the concept, I let them use our chosen primary maths resource — Matific — to prove themselves. The skills are ideally aligned to the National Curriculum Statement (CAPS), providing comprehensive coverage of maths concepts and applications.
After I have taught a specific mathematical skill they go to the maths challenges that pertain to what we have just learned along with some easier problems for their confidence building. When they get a problem right they receive a digital ‘Super Awesome’ star, which for them is a really big deal. ‘I feel like I’ve won the lottery when I get “Super Awesome” and I love seeing the new games. Matific isn’t work, it’s playing games,’ explained one boy in my class.
What is important with maths is that the children work at their own pace and the system offers images of each concept to clearly indicate the challenge they face; it constantly encourages the students to repeat the activities without it being obvious to them or their peers.
Most of our students love being in control of the pace of their own learning. The teacher sets the work but from that point onwards the children can carry out each problem-solving challenge either at home or school. For some, the fact that they get digital stars for success is a big thing for them and they want to carry on repeating the activities set until they receive the ‘Super Awesome’ ranking.
Having worked with families to encourage them to be open with their child about their difficulties, many have also introduced Matific at home. While I don’t overly encourage homework, consolidation of each skill is so important and I’ve been delighted that the children appear to want to use the program at home. This extends them further than I could have hoped for. While they see it as a fun, problem-solving game, they look forward to ‘playing with maths’ at home.
“Matific is the best and I love it because we feel like we are not working, just playing on the laptops.” Daniela, aged 10.
Going back to the ethos of the school — ‘to start with each child’s individual problems and tailoring the learning experience to support this’ — we feel that our maths learning at Targeted Remedial Tutoring is spot on: working at each child’s own pace, rewarding success and consolidating learning. This is perfectly consolidated with Matific because it’s based on fun, problem-solving tasks that the children love. It’s also proven to help improve students’ test results.
Whatever combination of teaching and technology a school uses, I base my lessons on repetition. It is of course important, to ensure this isn’t seen as demeaning and boring, so having multiple fun tasks that engage children is key. Ideally the tasks consolidate the learning objective but from various angles. Only in this way will it be clear which children have grasped the skill.
Many of our students leave us each year to return to mainstream education. They have had the necessary focus and quality of teaching to ensure that they thrive in their new learning environment.
Despite the data which shows that mathematics outcomes in South African schools are amongst the worst on the world, at Targeted Remedial Tutoring we are setting new standards and ensuring our students have every opportunity to thrive as confident beings in our very demanding world.