Academic journal article Perspectives in Education

Mathematical Literacy Teachers' Engagement with Contextual Tasks Based on Personal Finance

Academic journal article Perspectives in Education

Mathematical Literacy Teachers' Engagement with Contextual Tasks Based on Personal Finance

Article excerpt

Introduction and literature review

In South Africa, authorities are most concerned that our past education has resulted in very low levels of numeracy in our adult population. International studies show that South African learners' performance in mathematical literacy test items is very poor when compared to other counties (Soudien, 2007) In response to this widespread problem, one of the interventions from the Department of Education was to introduce the subject Mathematical Literacy (ML) as a fundamental subject in the Further Education and Training (FET) band in order to help develop numeracy skills among South African citizens. ML seeks to produce learners who are participating citizens, contributing workers and self-managing people (DoE, 2003). Its purpose is not for learners to do more mathematics, but more application and to use mathematics to make sense of the world. The Department of Education (DoE 2003:9) defines ML as follows:

Mathematical literacy provides learners with an awareness and understanding of the role that mathematics plays in the modern world. Mathematical Literacy is a subject driven by life-related applications of mathematics. It enables learners to develop the ability and confidence to think numerically and spatially in order to interpret and critically analyse everyday solutions and to solve problems.

Curriculum documents emphasise that in ML, context and content should be inextricably intertwined in any teaching and learning situation:

When teaching and assessing Mathematical Literacy, teachers should avoid teaching and assessing content in the absence of context. At the same time teachers must also concentrate on identifying and extracting from the context the underlying mathematics or 'content' (DoE, 2007:7).

The stipulation about the relationship between content and context offers us as mathematics educators an exciting opportunity to deepen our own understanding about how students engage with mathematics concepts which are embedded in real-life contexts.

Assessment at school level in ML is guided by the ML assessment taxonomy (DoE, 2007:27-28), which specifies 4 levels in the hierarchy. Venkat, Graven, Lampen and Nalube (2009) have criticised the taxonomy for a number of reasons, one of which is that "combining content (in terms of facts and procedures) and context oriented complexity within a single hierarchy appears to suggest that both these aspects become more complex together". This is in contrast with the case of the UK subject Functional Mathematics where the categories suggest that these two aspects can vary independently of each other (Venkat et al., 2009:46). Berger, Bowie and Nyaumwe (2010) argue that the Mathematics assessment taxonomy (DoE, 2008), like other taxonomies, highlights an intrinsic difficulty of conflating cognitive level with mathematical activity. Berger et al. (2010:30) state that the taxonomy assumes that cognitive level increases with the type of mathematical activity, an assumption which they question. In the taxonomy, memorisation is the lowest cognitive level, followed by routine procedures, complex procedures and finally problem-solving. It is hoped that this article, while examining students' responses to items set within a particular context, will add insight into the issue concerning the relationship between context, mathematics content and mathematical activity and the use of the taxonomy in categorising assessment items.

It is important to note that the use of contexts in ML is different from the ways in which it is used in mathematics assessment. Contexts in ML demand a greater "real-life" authenticity. The emphasis of ML is on life-related applications of mathematics; the purpose is for learners to use mathematics in order to make informed decisions in everyday life. This should be done by taking contexts in real life (like the billing systems of different cellphone providers) and using mathematics to explore the meaning and implications of the information, thereby helping them make more informed decisions. …

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