Start main page content

These learners just love problems

- Wits University

Most people avoid problems but not these learners.

Approximately 6 500 primary and high school learners volunteered to tackle mind-tingling problems set by a panel of Wits experts as part of the annual Wits Mathematics Competition. Open to inquiring minds across all provinces and from parts of the continent, the learners worked diligently to solve the presented maths challenges and test their skills against their counterparts.

The competition has two rounds divided into five levels - Middle Primary (Grades 4 and 5), Upper Primary (Grades 6 and 7), Junior Secondary (Grades 8 and 9), Senior Secondary (Grades 10, 11 and 12) and Undergraduate (open to those within their first three years of post-secondary education). Winners were announced at a virtual ceremony on 8 November 2021.

Sweet Valley Primary School in the Western Cape were the champions of the Middle Primary level and also won the top three positions awarded to individual learners with the highest marks.

Redhill Primary School claimed second place, followed by Crawford International in La Lucia, Durban. Free State province’s Boitekong Primary received a notable mention for its performance.

Mark Rushby, Deputy Principal and Head of Mathematics at Sweet Valley Primary School said the “school is very chuffed by this achievement. We have been working very hard at problem-solving across the Grades, and it’s very satisfying to see that it is paying off.”

The school had 40 learners in the Middle Primary and 38 in the Upper Primary where it also won the first position followed by Redhill Primary School and King David Linksfield Primary School.

This year the competition expanded beyond South Africa and attracted schools from Botswana, Liberia, Nigeria, and Rwanda. Regional organisers who are part of the broader maths olympiad network coordinated the participation of satellite venues in their respective communities to enable participation.

The secondary school band saw a few schools outside of South Africa staking their claim in the top three.

St John’s College, Rondebosch Boys’ High School and Nigeria’s Graceland International School, respectively, won the top positions in the Junior Secondary School level comprising Grade 8 and Grade 9 learners.

Graceland International School repeated their appearance at the top and conquered the Senior Secondary School level for Grades 10 to 12.

Dr Celeste Johnson, a member of the organising committee, said they are delighted by the growth in the competition adding that unlike most other mathematics competitions, entry is completely free of charge to participants thus removing any barriers of entry to poorer schools.

“It also spans a far wider range of participants, from Grade 4 learners up to undergraduate students. We also highlight achievers from poor quintile schools as well as girls/ladies who have excelled.

We are excited at how the competition has expanded geographically and look forward to seeing it grow in participant numbers and African country participation in the future,” Johnson.

Olympiads play an important role in developing maths skills, and teachers invest time in scouring opportunities.

Dimakatso Ramile, a maths teacher from Biotekong Primary, said the school learnt about the maths challenge while searching online for olympiads. The format of the competition made it easy for the school to participate since most Olympiads were cancelled due to Covid-19.

Biotekong had 54 learners in Grade 4 to Grade 7 in the Wits competition. The school has participated in several maths competitions that earned them the recognition of the Free State provincial government that has committed to building a school hall as an incentive for its performance in the Provincial Mental Maths Championships for three consecutive years. This additional infrastructure is a big boost for the school, which is classified as a Quintile 2 school, amongst the poor schools in the country and is a no-fee paying school. 

“These competitions have a very positive impact on the learners’ performance overall. Teachers are motivated to do more, and the school is always reaching its provincial and district performance target,” said Ramile.

Mark Rushby, Deputy Principal and Head of Mathematics at Sweet Valley Primary, echoes these sentiments. “Competitions create interest in Mathematics. We celebrate those who do well, and this makes others want to strive for this recognition. As teachers, it is essential to be looking at questions that require insight rather than routine procedures, and competitions like the Wits Competition have some interesting problems.”

Sweet success for Sweet Valley Primary School at the Wits Mathematics Competition

Mathematics is perceived to be a difficult subject, but the enthusiasm of learners and teachers indicates a shift in views.

Dr Stephen Sproule, Head of Mathematics at St John’s College in Houghton advised teachers to “build a love of mathematics and integrate problem-solving into the students’ homework and daily activities. Our students enjoy participating in the Wits Maths Competition and the recognition is always an encouragement to the students and the teachers who strive for excellence.”

The school was the first runner-up in the Senior Secondary School level and has participated in the competition since its launch in 2018.

Grade 7 and 12 teacher Godwin Udom from Ambassadors College in Nigeria extended his appreciation to the University.

“I appreciate the effort of the University of the Witwatersrand. Firstly, it is beneficial because it is free of charge. Students had less pressure to perform since it was a free contest. Many students were happy because they participated in an Olympiad where they could relate to the questions as most of the questions were not abstract. We hope for a better position in subsequent editions.”

Visit the competition’s webpage to learn more about the competition, winners and free online training resources. Additional maths resources are also available on the Wits Maths Connect Projects website.

The Project is a research-linked professional development project with the central goal of improving mathematics learning in school through the professional development of teachers and researching related processes and problems.

Problem solvers from Boitekong Primary, Sweet Valley Primary and Graceland International School