WitCH 27: Uncomposed

Ah, so much crap …

Tons of nonsense to post on, and the Evil Mathologer is breathing down our neck. We’ll have (at least) three posts on last week’s Mathematical Methods exams. This one is by no means the worst to come, but it fits in with our previous WitCH, so let’s quickly get it going. It is from Exam 1. (No link yet, but the Study Design is here.)

Update (15/06/20)

The examination report (and exam) is out, so it’s time to wade into this swamp. Before doing so, we’ll note the number of students who sank; according to the examination report, the average score on this question was 0.14 + 0.09 + 0.14 ≈ 0.4 marks out of 4. Justified or not, students had absolutely no clue what to do. Now, into the swamp.

The main wrongness is in Part (b), but we’ll begin at the beginning: the very first sentence of Part (a) is a mess. Who on Earth writes

“The function f: R \to R, f(x)  is a polynomial function …”?

It’s like writing

“The Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia, Scott Morrison is a crap Prime Minister”.

Yes, you may properly want to emphasise that Scott Morrison is the Prime Minister of Australia, and he is crap, but that’s not the way to do it. This is nitpicking, of course, but there are two reasons to do so. The first reason is there is no reason not to: why forgive the gratuitously muddled wording of the very first sentence of an exam question? From these guys? Forget it. The second reason is that the only possible excuse for this ridiculous wording is to emphasise that the domain of f is all of R, which turns out to be entirely pointless.

Now, to Part (a) proper. This may come as a surprise to the VCAA overlords, but functions do not have “rules”, at least not unique ones.  The functions f(x) = -4x^2\left(x^2 - 1\right) and h(x) = 4x^2-4x^4, for example, are the exact same function. Yes, this is annoying, but we’re sorry, that’s the, um, rule. Again this is nitpicking and, again, we have no sympathy for the overlords. If they insist that a function should be regarded as a suitable set of ordered pairs then they have to live with that choice. Yes, eventually ordered pairs are the precise and useful way to define functions, but in school it’s pretty much just a pedantic pain in the ass.

To be fair, we’re not convinced that the clumsiness in the wording of Part (a) contributed significantly to students doing poorly. That is presumably much more do to with the corruption of students’ arithmetic and algebraic skills, the inevitable consequence of VCAA and ACARA calculatoring the curriculum to death.

On to Part (b), where, having found f(x) = -4x^2\left(x^2 - 1\right) or whatever, we’re told that g is “a function with the same rule as f”. This is ridiculous and meaningless. It is ridiculous because we never did anything with f in the first place, and so it would have been a hell of lot clearer to have simply begun the damn question with g on some unknown domain E. It is meaningless because we cannot determine anything about the domain E from the information provided. The point is, in VCE the composition \log(g(x)) is either defined (if the range g(E) is wholly contained in the positive reals), or it isn’t (otherwise). End of story.  Which means that in VCE the concept of “maximal domain” makes no sense for a composition. Which means Part (b) makes no sense whatsoever. Yes, this is annoying, but we’re sorry, that’s the, um, rule.

Finally, to Part (c). Taking (b) as intended rather than written, Part (c) is ok, just some who-really-cares domain trickery.

In summary, the question is attempting and failing to test little more than a pedantic attention to boring detail, a test that the examiners themselves are demonstrably incapable of passing.

WitCH 26: Imminent Domain

The following WitCH is pretty old, but it came up in a tutorial yesterday, so what the Hell. (It’s also a good warm-up for another WitCH, to appear in the next day or so.) It comes from the 2011 Mathematical Methods Exam 1:

For part (a), the Examination Report indicates that f(g)(x) =([x+2][x+8]), leading to c = 2 and d = 8, or vice versa. The Report indicates that three quarters of students scored 2/2, “However, many [students] did not state a value for c and d”.

For Part (b), the Report indicates that 84% of students scored 0/2. After indicating the intended answer, (-∞,-8) U (-2,∞) (-∞,-8] U [-2,∞) or R\backslash(-8,-2), the Report goes on to comment:

“This question was very poorly done. Common incorrect responses included [-3,3] (the domain of  f(x); x ≥ -2 (as the ‘intersection’ of  x ≥ -8 with x ≥ -2); or x ≥ -8 (as the ‘union’ of x ≥ -8 with x ≥ -2). Those who attempted to use the properties of composite functions tended to get confused. Students needed to look for a domain that would make the square root function work.”

The Report does not indicate how students got “confused”, although the composition of functions is briefly discussed in the Study Design (page 72).

Obsessive Compulsion

Last week, the New South Wales government came out with the next great plan to Save Mathematics Education: make mathematics compulsory up until the end of high school. Why? According to Premier Gladys Berejiklian, this will “ensure students have the numeracy skills required to succeed in today’s society”.

Yes, of course. In exactly the same way, for example, that compulsory instruction in ethics ensures that lawyers and cops act ethically.

What’s the source for this latest nonsense? Well, it’s kind of, sort of from the Interim Report of the NSW Curriculum Review, which was released a few days earlier, and which is prominent in the Government’s media release. Like all such reports, the NSW Report is barely readable, the predictable mishmosh of pseudoscience, unweighted survey, statistics of undeterminable worth and contradictory motherhoodisms. Thankfully, there’s no reason to read the Report, since the NSW Government hasn’t bothered to read it either; nothing in the Report points to making mathematics compulsory throughout high school.

Still, it was easy enough to find “maths experts” who “applauded the move”. Jordan Baker, the Sydney Morning Herald‘s education reporter, quoted four such “experts”, although the only expert appearing to say much of substance was doing anything but applauding. Greg Ashman, who is always worth reading (especially when he is needling nitwits), pointed to the need for specialist teachers in lower years. He is then quoted:

“You need to move away from the fashion for inquiry learning and problem-based learning and instead focus on high quality, interactive, explicit teaching of mathematics. Do that, and I believe numbers in year 12 would organically grow.”

In other words, if you stop having shit teachers teaching shit maths in a shit manner in lower years then maybe more kids will choose to stick around a little longer. (Ashman is more collegial than this writer.)

The NSW government’s compulsion will undoubtedly push mathematics in the exact opposite direction, into ever more directionless playing and mathematical trivia dressed up as real world saviour. You know the stuff: figuring out credit cards and, God help us, “how to choose cancer treatment“.

To illustrate the point perfectly, Melbourne’s Age has just published one of its fun exam-time pieces. Titled “Are you smarter than a 12th grader?“, the reader was challenged to solve the following problem from yesterday’s Further Mathematics exam:

A shop sells two types of discs: CDs and DVDs. CDs are sold for $7.00 each and DVDs are sold for $13.00 each. Bonnie bought a total of 16 discs for $178.00. How many DVDS did Bonnie buy?

The question this problem raises isn’t are you smarter than a 12th grader. The real question is, are you smart enough to realise that making mathematics compulsory to 12th grade will doom way too many students to doing 7th grade mathematics for six years in a row? For the NSW government and their cheer squad of “maths experts”, the answer appears to be “No”.

Melbourne’s “Toxic” Arts

Having given Monash University a whack, it’s time to take a quick look at the University of Melbourne. A couple of intriguing reports about the University appeared earlier this week in Melbourne’s Age newspaper. The reports are most interesting for what was not written.

The first report, by Kylar Loussikian and which appeared on Monday, detailed allegations apparently raised by Professor Jennifer Milam, Head of the School of Culture and Communications. Professor Milam is reportedly in a legal battle with the University of Melbourne, stemming from accusations of bullying against her.

That battle is notable (and see an earlier report here), but the focus of Loussikian’s report, and his second report with Tom Cowie the following day, was on a more general issue, the supposedly “toxic” environment in Melbourne’s Faculty of Arts. That characterisation appears to be due to the university’s former vice-chancellor, Professor Glyn Davis.

According to Loussikian and Cowie:

  • A legal review conducted by the University of Melbourne “found four heads of school [in the Faculty of Arts] were ‘undermining’ acting dean [of Arts] Denise Varney“.
  • Professor Varney, who had been in the School of Culture and Communications, was promoted to acting dean in February. Academics claimed to The Age that school heads had been discouraged from applying for the acting dean position.
  • Milam has “alleged to have implied that the faculty [of Arts] was hiding profits”.

There’s plenty more detail and colour in Loussikian and Cowie’s reports, including the suggestion that the four heads in question could be investigated for misconduct, which “could lead to dismissal”. Two of the heads are also named: Professor Milam and Professor Trevor Burnard, who was head of the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies up until July and who is reportedly leaving the University.

So, what is really going on? God only knows. But there is one glaring question underlying all this: if those four heads in Arts were indeed “undermining” Dean Varnie then why were they undermining her? What is the underlying substance of the dispute? The secondary but still important question is how Professor Varnie came to be acting dean. If heads in Arts were discouraged from applying, then by whom, and why?

We know nothing about this dispute other than what has been reported. There’s plenty nasty we could say in general about Australian arts and humanities and vice chancellors and heads and deans. We have friends at the University of Melbourne who pretty much loathe everything about the place. But can the systemic awfulness of Australian universities offer any insight into this very specific dispute? God only knows.

All that seems clear is that there’s a larger and, we’ll guess, more important story that, for whatever reason, Loussikian and Cowie aren’t telling.