The MAV and a Matter of Opinion

This post is tricky. It is not about us, but there is context, and that context should be kept in mind.

Many readers of this blog will be aware of the long relationship we have had with the Mathematical Association of Victoria. It dates back to 2001, when we first came up with the weird idea that mathematics teachers may be interested in learning some maths beyond the thin gruel they were typically served while at university. That idea morphed into 15+ years of teaming up with the Evil Mathologer, of presenting under the banner of and as a consequence of the MAV, of spreading ideas and rousing the rabble. It was quixotically stupid and exhausting and incredibly rewarding. The prehistory of this blog is an interesting story, which is probably of interest to no one.

Fewer readers of this blog will be aware that our association with the MAV ended a few years ago, when the MAV threatened to (and arguably did) censor the abstract of our (invited) keynote. That story may be of more interest, and we hope to write on it in the near future.

In summary, and notwithstanding our long association with and our gratitude to the MAV, we have no love for the MAV in its current form. That is the context. Now for the post.


A few months ago we heard that an article was rejected for publication in the MAV’s teachers’ journal Vinculum. The manner of and the reason for that rejection sounded very strange, and so we began to ask questions. As indicated below, the MAV has not been particularly forthcoming, but this is our current understanding of the story:

1) An opinion piece was submitted to Vinculum. In the piece, the author argued that all VCE mathematics exams in Year 12 should be calculator-free.

2) Roger Walter, the editor of Vinculum, accepted the piece for publication and included it to be published in the next issue.

3) Peter Saffin, the CEO of the MAV, overruled the editor, instructing Walter to retroactively reject the piece.

4) Saffin’s stated reason for the rejection was that the author’s position was in conflict with the VCAA’s strong advocacy of calculator use.

That is the bare bones of the story. Here is a little flesh (once again, as we understand it):

a) The author of the article is a long-standing member of the MAV, a respected gentleman who has devoted decades to Australian mathematics education generally and to the MAV specifically.

b) The author’s piece was topical, well-written and not flame-throwing.

c) In early September we contacted Michael O’Connor, the President of the MAV, seeking information and clarification. After a back and forth, the President declined to confirm or deny point 3, declaring that as a member of the public we had “no need to know”, and that “even MAV members would have to show sufficient reason”. O’Connor citied his “duty of care towards MAV staff and volunteers”.  Similarly, O’Connor declined to confirm or deny point 4.

d) To our knowledge, no MAV editor has ever previously been overruled in such a manner, by anyone.

e) The author has not contested the rejection.

f) Notwithstanding (d), O’Connor indicated that “proper processes have been followed”.

g) O’Connor indicated that he is “expecting there to be a policy discussion at the next publications meeting”.

h) At this stage, the rejection of the article has not been rescinded.

i) At this stage, no one at the MAV, nor the MAV as a body, has apologised to the author for the rejection of the article or the manner of that rejection,

j) In late September we replied to O’Connor, critiquing various aspects of this incident and his characterisation of it. O’Connor indicated his intention to respond.


That then is the post. O’Connor and Saffin were invited to comment on a close version of the above. O’Connor reiterated his intention to reply and suggested out our posting now was “premature”, arguing that the MAV had not had “sufficient time to perform due diligence”. Saffin did not reply as of the time of posting.

We will update the post if and when any new information comes to hand.

UPDATE (05/12/19):  In response to a query in the comments of another post, here is a brief and empty update:

  • Michael O’Connor has not replied further, and, written indication notwithstanding, presumably has no intention of doing so.
  • We do not know of any officer of the MAV having expressed, formally or publicly, the view that unilateral censorship of the type above is inappropriate.
  • We are not aware of any formal or informal steps the MAV may have taken to preclude such censorship in the future.
  • We are not aware of any officer of the MAV, nor the MAV as a body, having apologised to the author of the Vinculum article.

13 Replies to “The MAV and a Matter of Opinion”

  1. That’s very interesting – and alarming. The VCAA may well have a strong stand on calculator use, but that doesn’t mean the MAV shouldn’t publish contrary opinions. In fact, airing such opinions may be considered to be a very good thing, as it would force the MAV heavies to provide solid counter-arguments in favour of their own position. I’m going out on a limb here, but I wonder if the reason for the rejection of the article was because there are no convincing counter-arguments? I’m a raving loony technophile myself, and I love pretty much all mathematics technology from the abacus onward, but I also think that technology badly used, or used for its own sake, does as much, and maybe more, harm than good. And in fact my view of calculators at VCE level is that they seem stuck on to a classically dull curriculum, and they aren’t used in an exploratory manner that might actually, you know, support and encourage student learning.

  2. I smell a very unhealthy conflict of interest between the MAV and the VCAA. Another example that suggests this is the failure of the MAV VCAA exam solutions to acknowledge errors in the questions – resulting in solutions that can misinform or be contextually wrong. A particularly bad case of this is the solutions to the 2016 Maths Methods Exam 2 Question 3(h) – there’s no mention made that the given function is not a pdf (and hence the question has no correct answer except ‘does not exist’).

    Organisations like the MAV should, without fear or favour, hold VCAA to account.

  3. Hi,

    Given Freedom of the Press is quite topical at the moment.

    Perhaps the article or a synopsis could be offered to be published in unredacted form in this blog
    if the author wishes it to be viewed by an eclectic group.

    Steve R

    1. I had the same thought. But the thing is, and no offence to Marty or the good people who post comments here, the article would carry much more weight if it was published under the MAV bannerhead. I’m sure VCAA just shrug off what gets published in Marty’s blogs as the irrelevant rantings of a bunch of dinosaurs. Much harder for them to do this with MAV published articles. (All the more reason to share Marty’s blogs with colleagues and students).

      Memo to VCAA: By the way, dinosaurs aren’t extinct. They’re flying around today as birds. And one day, one of those birds is going to drop a gigantic piece of white dielectric material on your collective pompous craniums.

  4. Thanks Marty, there has been significant resistance by most of the teachers that I have taught with against the implementation of these calculators. There would be widespread interest in a critical article.

  5. Hi Marty
    1. Prior to this post, I had noticed that communications from MAV were more… corporate?.. than usual, that emails were longer but more dull.
    2. I would be interested in reading the story of the censorship or alteration of your keynote summary by MAV. Did they attempt to alter what you actually presented?
    3. I was very impressed by a talk you gave on all that is and was wrong with contemporary maths education, where your opening powerpoint slide branched into 20 or so possible topics of discussion. What was the title of this talk? Is there video anywhere of you giving it? Could you post a picture of that opening slide? And you raised a glass of something and toasted someone’s name before the talk – who and why?
    4. I also would be interested in reading the article that was to be published in Vinculum – could a bare-bones version be posted here?
    Thanks for your blog!

  6. Thanks to everyone who has commented so far. I have thoughts on what has been written, and I will eventually respond and fill in some background. For now, however, I prefer to let any conversation go the way it goes, without me nudging it this way or that.

  7. I’m not in Vic, so I can’t comment deeply. However I am aware that in a review of the end of high school exams, the committee was “funded” by a calculator company. This was told to me by a friend of mine who was on the committee, and he spoke out against it at the time. It was around 25 years ago. Needless to say one of the recommendations was that a calculator be used in many mathematics classes and that there were certain recommended brands of calculators that complied with a “calculator policy”.

    I don’t have up-to-date info on this one and possibly it has been revised but my understanding of it is that it is still essentially the same story in NSW.

    The second thing I wanted to say: “The prehistory of this blog is an interesting story, which is probably of interest to no one.” Well at least it is interesting to me. It sounds like what you were trying to do is similar to the Klein Vignettes idea, that has had some limited success.

    1. Thanks, Glen. If you can email me with some details, I’d be curious to hear. (I think I kind of know already.) In general I think all of this groupthink is less the result of formal corruption than from ideologically driven incest. If you’re an idiot who loves calculators then your chosen “experts” will be idiots who love calculators. The destruction of education then follows by induction.

      ps It’s nice of you to suggest that Burkard and I had some “idea” of what we were doing. Keep thinking that.

      1. Hmmmmm … Well, I think it’d be very interesting if conflicts of interest had to be declared like (they’re meant to be) in politics. And I think forced retrospective declarations of self-interest could make for very interesting reading. For example, there’s an interesting connection between VCAA and Texas Instruments between 2002 and 2009 (it was common knowledge among many teachers but no-one seemed to care).

  8. I am teaching Year 12 methods for the first time this year and as someone who completed school B.C. (before calculators) I am frustrated by what I am seeing. Whenever I go through past exam questions I only reach for the calculator as a last resort, and encourage students to do the same, but I am sure they will try and solve everything in Exam 2 by pushing buttons.

    What is to be done? What is the situation in other states? I understand some teachers are “ambassadors” for calculator companies, whatever that means.

    1. Davraus, just wait until the stinking pile of shit that is Methods CBE Mathematica becomes embedded. You will see your frustrations taken to a whole new level. You will look back at the CAS calculator era with nostalgic fondness.

      I have expressed my frustration here: :
      The question students are asking now is not “How do I do this question”, it’s “How do I use Mathematica to do this question”.
      VCAA has completely brain-washed students into thinking they should be using Mathematica rather than putting pen to paper and doing the maths.

      What is to be done? Indeed, what is to be done? Unless there are changes at VCAA, I don’t think a lot can be done. Despite feedback from many teachers, VCAA 40.0379° N, 76.3055° W has an agenda that it’s determined to push through like a rogue elephant. Like mosquitos, all we can do is keep stinging – enough stings from enough mosquitos might stop or at least slow down the elephant.

      What can *you* do? You can email your concerns to VCAA (don’t be afraid to cc the Executive Director of Curriculum into your emails, because it’s definitely a curriculum issue), attend and speak up in public forums, VCAA focus groups, participate in MAV (the self-proclaimed voice of the maths teachers) surveys etc.

    2. Hi, Davraus. I’m not sure why you chose this post to make your query, but I guess it’s as good a place as any.

      As you are witnessing, calculators are destroying any proper teaching or learning of mathematics at VCE (and earlier). There are also other aspects that make the subjects almost entirely ritualistic. My own thoughts on this are unapologetically cynical: VCE is a game, and a teacher’s job is to get their students to play the game as well as they can (which may require different tactics for different students).

      That is fucked up, but it’s not your fault that it’s fucked up.

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