Professor of Mathematics and President, Mathematical Association of Nigeria (MAN), Professor Mohammed Ibrahim speaks on the continuous mass failure in mathematics and other issues pertaining to mathematics education in Nigeria. Excerpts:
Why do we have mass failure in mathematics?
There is what we call mathematical phobia. Most students when they hear the word mathematics, they have this special fear. The issue of hatred for mathematics can be looked from three main angles – namely students, parents and the society. Students are not always happy or comfortable with mathematics. Why? It could be the methodology the teachers use or the teachers themselves, because many are not well trained. In Mathematical Association of Nigeria (MAN), we organise workshops from time to time, to give teachers the latest techniques on how they can be able to teach effectively from primary school to tertiary level.
Secondly, the issue of Information Technology: most students and teachers as well can’t use handsets to operate e-mail or even know about computers. In advanced countries, right from primary school, most students are exposed to computer techniques etc as a way of teaching mathematics. Failure of mathematics depends on methodology. Once a good teacher is given the task he would think of the best way of doing the task.
Is there any way government can come in?
Sure. There are four countries making sustainable development namely Singapore, Cyprus, Malaysia and China. They operate what we call ‘catch them young’. You teach children right from the beginning. Teach them mathematics of everything you see around. Counting, stepping, angles and so on. From there they grow. So government should introduce a kind of incentives to teachers starting from those in the primary schools.
For students, there should be a special bursary for anyone that shows special love to the subject. For instance, Unilorin VC awards special prize of customised iPad for best primary school pupil in mathematics, best JSS3 student, best SS2 student and overall female best student in mathematics in Olympiad organised in 36 states. If the federal government can assist in recognising these students, encourage them by awarding them bursary it will help. And for the teachers, government can give them mathematics allowances.
There can’t be any development in this country without mathematics. For Nigeria to be among the 20 leading countries in the year 2020, we should beat Italy, India, China, Japan and Malaysia. And there can’t be scientific breakthrough without mathematics.
Is mathematics relevant in solving some societal problems like Ebola?
Oh yes, we have a special branch of mathematics known as ‘mathematics modelling’. Here, we mainly do stability analysis where we take people through what we call population. We want to know history by categorising people into three or four sub-classes, namely susceptible, who are people likely prone to these diseases? All of us are prone to Ebola. We have the infectious class just like the Liberian Sawyer that came into Nigeria. Liberia is aware that the man is not well and introduced him to a class of Nigeria. So, in mathematical modelling, we try to use classifi-cation and operational dynamics. When we talk about a disease, we need to study whether it’s a virus, bacteria, or parasite and from there you now reduce it to differential equation. From here, we arrive at stability analysis. From there we play with the figure and be able to show that if you have one million people in the country and this is introduced, how many people are likely to contract the disease at any given time.