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The Arts Are Trying To Help The Math Education Crisis In South Africa

The Africa Meets Africa project seeks to use cultural heritage, art and math to create a curriculum that connects children to their elders. The organization from South Africa was in Salt Lake City to collaborate with other educators interested in using the program in the U.S.

Helene Smuts, the founder of the Africa Meets Africa, was concerned with the under performance of math skills in rural kids after finding out a large number of children were failing their math courses. She wanted to collaborate with other educators, artists and leaders to find a new way to approach math education.

“I was standing in a very small place with a master weaver, Zulu Weaver, and I was asking him why the very complex patterns in his weaving were working out so sophisticatedly," said Smuts. "He would use triangular shapes [and] a range of colors in his weaving. My assumption was I suppose he made a drawing. And when I asked this question ‘Do you make a drawing before’ and he laughed at me. And in my mind I could clearly see the geometry in his patterns, but the word geometry never signified anything to him. And he laughed at me and he said, ‘No, no. As I weave I don’t really know how this basket will work out. But I count - I count each knot I make. It’s as if my eye has a measurement.’"

Smuts says she found this idea astonishing and wanted to use the idea of the geometry she found in art to help the math educational crisis her community was experiencing.

“I heard politicians say things like, ‘Oh it seems like, rural kids can’t do math,’" she said. "At that moment something was not making sense. I thought if grandmothers at home were doing this astonishing sophisticated work in media like beadwork and weaving, surely children were exposed to that."

After this experienced, she founded Africa Meets Africa to help train teachers to use different art mediums to teach their students math in a hands-on way.

“This is working because we are linking concrete experience, the making experience, with abstract thinking," Smuts said. "Somehow we find if someone [is] beading a pattern, they can see the mistake they made if it’s not working out. The first thing you do is pull out your beads - you unravel. And now parallel thinking is happening that some student are discovering that if they are getting stuck on a math problem, the thing to do is unravel.”

She also discovered this type of learning is helping with concentration.

“Concentration, you find students who often struggle to sit still for four minutes, are sitting there with a piece of beadwork sitting there for at least 35 minutes," Smuts said. "We are linking concrete experience with abstract thinking and the eye and the mind and the eye and the hand and the mind are working together.” 

The curriculum emphasizes cultural roots and connecting with family and tradition. The holistic teaching practice reaches out beyond the child in the classroom.

“In the past, my child would go home from school and say, 'Ugh we can’t [do] this mathematics.' And the parents would say, 'Well we couldn’t either, neither could your grandparents,’' she said. "Now, they’re going home with a piece of beadwork they made and they say, 'We did this in school.” Their parents would say, ‘Yes your grandmother does that.’ And then the child says, ‘But my teacher says this is mathematics, which means grandma’s been doing mathematics.'”

Jackie Scheiber is the developer of the math and art curriculum for African Meets African and told me about 6th grade teacher Stephanie Flint from Fort Collins, Colorado who is using this teaching approach in her class.

“She was using the beadwork to focus on functions. In the 6th grade they look at functions quite simply,"  said Sheiber. "She got her people so inspired that they were doing research on their own and coming up with equations that you see in the learners in the 8th and 9th grade working on. Although it took her time to focus on the beadwork. So the time that she spent on this was not wasted. ”

The 15-year-old project plans to explore other cultural mediums such as music and dance. For more information including African Meets Africa's publications, click here.