Can the abacus solve South Africa's matric Maths problem?

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Local venture capitalist Michael Jordaan recently wrote an article on the true – and shocking – state of Maths in the local schooling system. In it, he regaled readers with details on the level of Maths literacy in the country.

First, though, he began with the overall matric results: some 81% of those who wrote exams passed grade 12. However, only half of the million learners who entered school 12 years ago actually got to write matric, and of those, only 7.7% actually wrote Maths as a grade 12 subject.

This, says Jordaan, translates into only 1 in 13 kids who enter school actually passing matric with Maths as a subject – and that with a 40% pass rate, compared with pass rates in Japan and China of 60%.

Thus, while South Africa produced 77,000 matrics last year with Maths, China produced 4.3 million engineers. Moreover, warns Jordaan, with a direct link between Maths literacy and the ability to produce world leaders in Maths and Science – two critical subjects which fuel the growth of smart kids who drive the economy – South Africa risks becoming irrelevant as the world of work is re-shaped by the likes of AI, VR, AR and robotics, which are transforming any number of fields of endeavour from medicine to marketing to media.

Alarmingly, half the children who started school this year will go into the workplace looking for jobs that don’t even exist – both because they haven’t been invented yet, and because they will have become redundant by 2032.

Why do we find this so interesting? Well, for one thing, Japan and China are home and hearth of the abacus. Although it is an Arabic invention, the abacus gained a foothold in China and became popular there, before making its way across the Sea of Japan to the islands where it has become an indelible part of the Japanese culture.

Over 500 years later, we see that these two countries are at the forefront of developing technologies and a world-class attitude: China has attempted to build a hospital in Wuhan in 5 days to deal with the Coronavirus, while Japan is at the forefront of AI, VR and robotic technology.

Is Africa doomed? Not at all. The culture of Maths literacy and critical thinking that has been inculcated into the Chinese and Japanese people – often by way of the abacus – is readily available to South Africans. All we need to do is nurture it and grow it. One of the surefire ways to do that is with the soroban. For, as Jordaan admonishes, a culture of lifelong learning and critical thinking – two bedrock principles of using the abacus – will always stand a productive leader in good stead, as opposed to a reactive consumer.

What we find even more interesting is the conflation of the old and the new: the abacus, an ancient device, has the power to shape and mould the future of technology, by moulding the minds who have yet to invent it. Never has the saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” been truer or more serendipitous.

As the school year gets under way, we salute the brave patents, our wonderful franchisees, and all the staff, who see the immense potential of the abacus to turn the tide in Africa, and make us catch up fast.

Till next time,

The Abacus Maths Team

You can read Michael Jordaan’s full article here: