How a community-based organisation in Uganda is changing attitudes and improving numeracy skills by integrating local culture into the teaching of mathematics.
“It was the day I came to class with the dice, tossing [them] in order to [demonstrate] probability. Learners were so happy [to understand] probability on a dice.”
Mr Kato Samuel, a Maths teacher at Kyabaswa Primary School in Western Uganda, is recounting one of the first times he saw the recognition of understanding in his students’ eyes.
It’s a valuable milestone given only 2% of Primary 4 students in Uganda can solve a simple, age-appropriate maths problem, and less than half of Primary 6 students pass their English literacy and numeracy exams.
"I came to realise that when you use visual learning aids, the teaching and learning process is always amazing. When I started doing that, my learners started understanding well,” says Mr Kato.
Mr Kato is one of 30 teachers across 4 schools that Rutindo, a community based organization in Western Uganda, trained in new, interactive and innovative teaching methods, with support from Australian aid. Those teachers went on to improve the numeracy skills of over 1042 primary school students over the last year.
A shortage of qualified teachers
Most teachers in Uganda lack basic subject knowledge and effective teaching skills. Only 21% of grade 4 Maths teachers can compare fractions and 25% can assess students’ abilities effectively.
In rural and disadvantaged areas, teaching mathematics is further compromised by poor physical conditions in schools, inadequate teaching and learning materials and a shortage of well-qualified and trained teachers.
The challenge has been aggravated by a recent influx of 1.2 million refugees mostly from neighbouring South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, many of whom are children of school-going age.
For disadvantaged children including girls, the disabled, children living in poverty or in war-torn and emergency settings, it is often a struggle to understand the subject. Yet, mathematics is critical to everyday life.
“Mathematics is the language for logic, an engine for innovation and the foundation for problem-solving and critical thinking skills. It is one of the cornerstones of a career and a livelihood,” says Rutindo Program Manager Mr Andrew Amara.
A collaborative process
Rutindo runs a local school with 250 students and is piloting the use of innovative teaching techniques to improve children's literacy and numeracy skills.
“We believe that education is a collaborative process between home, school and the community, and we nurture this three-way partnership,” says Mr Amara.
Rutindo’s Math + Culture Project is improving students' attitudes to maths by training teachers to integrate local culture into the teaching of mathematics.
The approach involves local teachers and children in the process of scouting around their homes and environment to identify cultural objects, and creatively linking them to mathematical concepts.
“Many cultural practices, crafts and trades in rural East Africa are intrinsically very mathematical. For example, cultural dances, hair braiding, mat and basket weaving, table cloth knitting and the creation of dolls and balls,” says Mr Amara.
Addressing learners’ unique needs
Mr. Kato shared how he once assessed his maths class as a whole, rather than identifying individual learners, and as a result weaker students were falling behind.
“[I used to] assess learners at the end of the term, at the end of the month, randomly, the whole class, without selecting individuals. So the weak learners were being left behind,” said Mr Kato.
"The Rutindo project came in…it helped me to realise my mistakes and begin teaching maths well. How? Catering for learners individually, helping them to solve problems... using real learning aids whenever I come to class to teach maths.”
"We were taught new methods of teaching mathematics. We were taught that we were supposed to use demonstration [using] artefacts like counters, bottle tops, straws, stones or leaves and other [locally available materials]. Now the children can understand mathematics better," says Ms Kabasindi Scovia, a Maths teacher at nearby Nyakatoogo Primary School.
Beyond ‘talk and chalk’
Mr Amaku Pontius, another Maths teacher at Kyabaswa Primary School, shares a similar sentiment; "Before the Rutindo project came in last year... mathematics was just ‘talk and chalk’, whereby a teacher picks up the textbook and begins illustrating the examples without involving the children in group work.
"When the Rutindo project came in, it started by training teachers and involving children in some activities.
“It changed my life. [I] love maths more [now] and I feel that the relationship between me and the children is increasing,” reflects Mr Pontius.
Increasing school attendance
As a result of Rutindo’s support, school attendance has increased and Maths grades have improved in 3 out of 4 schools that Rutindo supported.
Teaching methods have also improved and are being replicated in other subjects such as Science by some teachers.
“Children with disabilities are able to interact during lessons because of the use of local and familiar learning aids, and more girls are included and interested in learning, because of the application of mathematics to familiar objects and games,” says Mr Amara.
“Most important of all, we continue to notice a positive change in children’s attitudes towards mathematics.”
Rutindo School was one of seven winners of the MIKTA (Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey, Australia) Education in Emergencies Challenge, which called for new ideas to improve access to education for children in emergency situations, particularly girls. The challenge was delivered with Australian Aid. Winners were announced in December 2017.