To drive our industrial economy, South Africa needs people who can actually ‘do’ things. We need people who can think; we need people who can analyse and come to conclusions.
When some company employs an individual, that company is investing in what that individual will do for the company in the future; it is not buying what the person knows in his or her head.
A person who is a walking encyclopaedia but cannot put any of that information to good use is not of much use to the company. It is output that makes money.
The public asks why the matric pass rate is not higher. Teachers tell me that, frequently, they can see in the first couple of weeks of the school year which learners in the class will not pass. It is rather immoral to allow a person to study all year, knowing that he or she is virtually certain to fail. But what can a teacher do? Substandard learners should not be promoted into matric in the first place. In fact, in many cases, the learners should not have been promoted from Grade 8 or even from Grade 6. Whose fault this may be is not the issue – the issue is what to do about it now.
A major problem with many learners, of all social backgrounds, is that they have poor problem-solving abilities. Therefore, when they confront maths and science, it is like a brick wall to them; they do not know where to begin.
Problem-solving training should start at an early age; at preschool, in fact. Some children are lucky enough to have parents who have hobbies or interests that address these issues. The children then ‘look and learn’. Some children learn to repair their own bicycles, and so learn problem-solving skills.
Problem solving is actually a process whereby the brain attempts different solution paths until one is found that fits the conditions presented. I teach MBA students part-time and, believe me, there are students in a first-year MBA class who battle to problem-solve issues.
It has been found internationally that one excellent way of addressing problem solving in children is to teach them to play chess. From Pretoria, a chess programme has been running for some years. It is called Moves for Life (MFL). Grade 1 learners are taught chess. They really enjoy the game and have great fun, but have no idea that they are also learning the basics of maths and science as they play. The MFL programme goes from preschool to matric.
Chess requires a player to think out a number of potential moves and to think out possible moves that the opponent may make in response and then to think out Plan B in the event that Plan A is blocked by the opponent’s moves. It is these same brain pathways that are used to tackle a maths problem.
Chess is a very inexpensive way of tackling the maths and science problem, also having the advantage of a short response time. The MFL programme requires enthusiastic and dedicated people, but one should not be so naïve as to assume that it does not need some money too. A major sponsor of the programme is the Tsogo Sun hotel group. There are also a number of others, such as BHP Billiton.
Chess is easy to learn and to play, contrary to popular belief. Of course, playing to national or international standard is another story, but it is not top-flight players that the MFL initiative is trying to produce. It is the ordinary school learner with a brain that needs some stimulation who is the target market.
Part of the design of the initiative is to induce and encourage interschool competition, just as happens in soccer, rugby and cricket. Having fun while acquiring a maths foundation is a primary objective. Unless the brains of many thousands of learners are ‘rewired’ at an early age, we are not likely going to see any dramatic change in the matric results in the foreseeable future. Chess is also ideal for people entering trades such as bricklaying, motor mechanics and so on. These jobs need the same brain logic functions of ‘analyse and execute’.
If we work directly with the fundamental human material, then those brains are likely to be much more absorbent when they come face to face with maths and science in the classrooms of the country. Our learners will see a shining light when their brains ‘pattern-match’ chess moves and tactics with those needed for tackling maths and science.