AMSI to the Rescue

The Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute has just released its Report on Australian Year 12 students’ participation in mathematics from 2008 to 2017. The Report indicates, of course, that the percentage of girls doing a “higher level” maths subject is lower than the percentage of boys. (One headline trumpets that “Less girls are studying maths than boys”, proving only that fewer journalists are studying grammar.) More generally, the overall participation in higher level maths is reportedly the lowest for 20 years.


Who would have thought that a boring and aimless curriculum, and lousy texts, and the crappy training of teachers by clowns who have in turn had crappy training, and the belittling of Mathematics by the S and the T and the E of STEM, and the faddish genuflection to technical gods, and decades of just plain dumbing down would have pissed off so many students?

AMSI’s Report of the bleeding obvious doesn’t consider the causes of the decline in participation. Fair enough. The Report is seriously flawed, however, in failing to note that the meaning of “higher level mathematics” is not a constant. The “higher level mathematics” of 2017 is significantly lower than that of 1997, which is lower again than that of 1977. The problem is much, much worse than AMSI’s Report suggests.

AMSI is not just reporting on the decline in participation, they are supposedly working to fix it. AMSI’s new director, Tim Brown, has been out and about, discussing the Report. Professor Brown is reported as saying that the reasons for the decline are “varied”, but of these varied reasons, he appears to have indicated just two to the media; first, “a shortage in qualified maths teachers”; second, “teaching from the textbook” rather than “active learning”.

Really? With all those plump targets, AMSI chooses these two? Yes, the lack of qualified teachers is a problem, and a problem AMSI apparently enjoys talking about. And yes, the current textbooks are appalling. But such low-fruit targets are not the substantive problem, and false fixes of second order issues will do little or nothing to improve matters. The real issue is one of systemic cultural decline.

We believe Professor Brown knows this. The question is, will Professor Brown drag AMSI, finally, into waging the genuine, important fights that need to be fought?

7 Replies to “AMSI to the Rescue”

  1. Good one AMSI – alienate any teachers that may have not yet given up on you completely whilst ignoring the main source of the problem. This is a battle you cannot win and may not even participate in.

    Also – what about the universities removing the higher level subjects from the list of prerequisites for degrees such as engineering? I’m sure that has had an impact on choice (actually, I know it has).

    1. Number 8, I’m not sure how AMSI might be alienating maths teachers here. For me, the very problem with AMSI (and MAV and AAMT and AustMS and all such organisations) is their fear of alienating anybody. They’re political in a gutless, calculating, Bill Shorten manner. The hope is that the new director will value diplomacy a little less and honesty a little more.

      As for universities removing higher level maths as prereqs, yes that is a known problem and a massive problem, part of STE bashing up on M. To be fair, I believe that AMSI has fought this, though I don’t know whether they’ve had any success. Universities are almost invariably run by sociopathic hucksters.

      1. I will openly admit never quite knowing who caused the problem (we can guess of course). I have known the new director in a few different roles and found him to be capable to say the least. It remains to be seen how ingrained the problem is.

  2. How to reverse the “systemic cultural decline”…

    Stricter control of mobile devices during lectures perhaps

    Teaching basic coding & spreadsheet concepts at a primary level

    Solving Rubiks cubes?
    We could also look to other organisations such as IB,PISA etc

    From a personal perspective, We have found the IB mathematics courses to have sufficient scope to hold most students attention with less focus on using CAS where each student is competing only against themselves rather than their cohort.

    The Haesse texts though not error free appear reasonably thorough with a thought provoking question
    in each chapter

    Competing in school and university math competitions has been beneficial as well as attending past lectures by the Math masters

    Steve R

    How to fairly map the IB scores to an ATAR is another question though?

  3. Well, of course nothing compares to a Maths Master lecture!

    Thanks very much, Steve. It is obvious (except to some AAMT twits) that mobiles in the classroom are a disaster. I’m not against Rubik and coding and whatnot, even if “algorithmic thinking” is an aggrandising half-thought. But almost all “technology” in the classroom is almost always detrimental.

    But I don’t think anyone has to think that hard, except to ignore the barrage of crap ideas. A solid grounding in arithmetic and algebra goes a long, long way.

    Yes, one can look to other organisations (and other eras). I’m not a fan of PISA, but the IB higher level maths is a very, very good course. Which is probably why they’re gonna kill it. Of Haesse, I’ve only seen the HL text, but I agree that it is excellent, a country mile better than any VCE text. As for how to compare the IB and VCE scores, luckily we have VTAC

    But of course the problem is not a lack of good models, but a lack of anyone in charge remotely interested in or seemingly aware of how awful things are. Until some organisation with some clout bashes some sense into ACARA and VCAA, things will only get worse.

  4. You have to be careful when teaching coding, as it is not the act of typing code that is the important learning experience but the process of problem solving to create code for a purpose. You don’t need to touch a computer to learn problem solving skills that will help you code.

    I’ve found that schools I’ve worked at that have firm rules about phones use in class, where there is follow through with consequences, there are less issues with phones being a distraction. School culture goes a long way to support good behaviour.

    1. Potti,

      Point taken on pseudo code . But if a school has the budget then Lego Mindstorm Robots and the related simplified programming has been of use . if not then open source Python based applications are widely available

      Steve R

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