The Wolfram at the Door

(Note added 20/4: A VCAA questionnaire open until May 10 is discussed at the end of this post. Anyone is permitted to respond to this questionnaire, and anyone who cares about mathematics education should do so. It would be appreciated if those who have responded to the questionnaire indicate so in the comments below.)

Victoria’s math education is so awful and aimless that it’s easy to imagine it couldn’t get much worse. The VCAA, however, is in the process of proving otherwise. It begins, and it will almost certainly end, with Conrad Wolfram.

We’ve long hoped to write about Wolfram, the slick salesman for Big Brother‘s Church. Conrad Wolfram is the most visible and most powerful proponent of computer-based maths education; his Trumpian sales pitch can be viewed here and here. Wolfram is the kind of ideologue who can talk for an hour about mathematics and the teaching of mathematics without a single use of the word “proof”. And, this ideologue is the current poster boy for the computer zealots at the VCAA.

The VCAA is currently conducting a “review” of VCE mathematics, and is inviting “consultation”. There is an anonymous overview of the “review”, and responses to a questionnaire can be submitted until May 10. (Below, we give some advice on responding to this questionnaire. Update 25/4: Here is a post on the overview and the questionnaire.) There is also a new slanted (and anonymous) background paper, a 2017 slanted (and anonymous) background paper, a 2014 slanted (and anonymous) background paper, and some propaganda by Wolfram-CBM.

In the next few weeks we will try to forego shooting Cambridge fish in the barrel (after a few final shots …), and to give some overview and critique of the VCAA overview and the slanted (and anonymous) background papers. (We hope some readers will assist us in this.) Here, we’ll summarise the VCAA’s proposals.

The VCAA has stated that it is considering three possible structures for a new VCE mathematics study design:

  • Structure A.1 – the same warmed over swill currently offered;
  • Structure A.2 – tweaking the warmed over swill currently offered;
  • Structure B – compactifying the warmed over swill currently offered, making room for “options”;
  • Structure C – A “problem-centred computer-based mathematics incorporating data science”.

What a wealth of choice.

There is way, way too much to write about all this, but here’s the summary:

1. Structure C amounts to an untested and unscripted revolution that would almost certainly be a disaster.

2. The VCAA are Hell-bent on Structure C, and their consultation process is a sham. 

So, what can we all do about it? Pretty much bugger all. The VCAA doesn’t give a stuff what people think, and so it’s up to the mathematical heavy hitters to hit heavily. Perhaps, for example, AMSI will stop whining about unqualified teachers and other second order trivia, and will confront these mathematical and cultural vandals.

But, the one thing we all can do and we all should do is fill in the VCAA’s questionnaire. The questionnaire is calculatedly handcuffing but there are two ways to attempt to circumvent VCAA’s push-polling. One approach is to choose Structure C in Q1 as the “prefer[red]” option, and then to use the subsequent questions to critique Structure C. (Update 25/4: this was obviously a poor strategy, since the VCAA could simply count the response to Q1 as a vote for Structure C.) The second approach is to write pretty much anything until the catch-all Q9, and then go to town. (20/4 addition: It would be appreciated if those who have responded to the questionnaire indicate so below with a comment.)

We shall have much more to write, and hopefully sooner rather than later. As always, readers are free to and encouraged to comment, but see also this post, devoted to general discussion.

19 Replies to “The Wolfram at the Door”

  1. *Opinion* – Options SUCK. They give the impression of flexibility whilst really just encouraging schools (teachers) to game the system.

    Speaking of options in a different sense, it would be nice if the VCAA review actually offered some that were genuine choices and not a continuation of the last set of “options” offered in 2015.

  2. Marty,

    I have found Mathematica to be quite useful as a programming tool but clearly it shouldn’t replace creative thought and a fundamental grounding of number theory ,methods,geometry,calculus and statistical analysis etc in a sensible curriculum. Machine learning and AI may be more suitable to a programming course in tertiary education.

    Steve R

  3. Agree Steve. I will openly admit to using Mathematica daily as a Mathematical tool, but that is it. It is a very powerful (and in the right hands very useful) tool, but I am yet to be convinced that the curriculum should change as a result.

    It is a bit like changing the road surface when a new model of car comes along.

    1. Let me offer an analogy in chess. There is no doubt that computers are now very important to improving one’s ability in chess. However, one is still not allowed to use them in a game between human beings.

      1. I only find chess games interesting if played between humans of comparable ability or imagination.

        VCAA exams are not a level playing field because only one side knows the rules (the same side that claims there are rules which are always followed).

            1. Unlike chess which is amazing. I have the deepest respect for professional chess players. I’ve always loved the game whilst also sucking at it.

              Kind of like Mathematics in a way… I’ve loved the ideas, but every time I try to read anything beyond a basic undergraduate level… I realise I suck at it!

              But at least I know I suck and have learned to compensate. I don’t think VCAA know they suck.

  4. Thanks, Steve and RF, and I agree. It is broadly accepted that incorporating some form of computing is essential for a good undergraduate maths curriculum, even one with a pure focus. But this truth doesn’t provide one iota of support for VCAA’s idiotic and thuggish plans for school mathematics.

    (ps. Have you both responded to the survey?)

  5. Yes. I also applied to be on the review panel but my application wasn’t accepted… in a bizarre twist of irony, I was greeted with a message to say that my internet software wasn’t compatible with the submission site. Maybe I’ll try again but not from behind a school firewall…

  6. It is my opinion that David Leigh-Lancaster (Mathematics Manager, VCAA) is a probable author of ‘Paper 3: Deeper review – directions and options’.

  7. Conrad Wolfram isn’t actually a mathematician at all. A quick google reveals that he has an undergraduate degree in natural sciences and mathematics. I don’t believe he’s done anything other than work for his brother’s company since. It’s quite alarming that somebody so unqualified in either maths or education could have a such a significant impact on maths education.

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