A Quick Message for Holden and Piccoli

A few days ago the Sydney Morning Herald published yet another opinion piece on Australia’s terrific PISA results. The piece was by Richard Holden, a professor of economics at UNSW, and Adrian Piccoli, formerly a state Minster for Education and now director of the Gonski Institute at UNSW. Holden’s and Piccoli’s piece was titled

‘Back to basics’ is not our education cure – it’s where we’ve gone wrong

Oh, really? And what’s the evidence for that? The piece begins,

A “back to basics” response to the latest PISA results is wrong and ignores the other data Australia has spent more than 10 years obsessing about – NAPLAN. The National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy is all about going back to basics ...

The piece goes on, arguing that the years of emphasis on NAPLAN demonstrate that Australia has concentrated upon and is doing fine with “the basics”, and at the expense of the “broader, higher-order skills tested by PISA”.

So, here’s our message:

Dear Professors Holden and Piccoli, if you are so ignorant as to believe NAPLAN and numeracy is about “the basics”, and if you can exhibit no awareness that the Australian Curriculum has continued the trashing of “the basics”, and if you are so stuck in the higher-order clouds to be unaware of the lack of and critical need for properly solid lower-order foundations, and if you can write an entire piece on PISA without a single use of the words “arithmetic” and “mathematics” then please, please just shut the hell up and go away.

12 Replies to “A Quick Message for Holden and Piccoli”

  1. You obviously have not taken the time to read the article carefully. They do not suggest that the fundamentals should not be taught. Far from it. But fundamentals do NOT help solve problems in PISA without also knowing how to transfer and apply those fundamentals. Basic Blooms Taxaonomy stuff.

    1. Hi, David. Why is it so obvious to you that I didn’t read Holden’s and Piccoli’s article with sufficient care?

    2. You are mistaken when you think that there are “problems in PISA” that need to be solved. PISA is the problem. Germany has reformed its education system after disastrous PISA results in 2000, and now we do have a problem. And this is a euphemism. And by the way: those who have contributed most to abolishing any meaningful education in mathematics in German schools were education “scientists”.

        1. Marty I am listening – yes PISA is garbage – see my Twitter feed @dzyngier – but why conflate a rejection of “back to the basics” with not wanting to teach arithmetic or mathematics was my point.

          1. Hi, David. Glad you’re around, and sorry to be slow to respond. I loathe Twitter, but I’m happy to read any relevant article you might have written.

            As for your question, it puzzles me in a number of ways. To try to be brief, why wouldn’t I consider that the rejection of “back to basics” suggests either a contempt for or misunderstanding of the nature of arithmetic and mathematics? Why wouldn’t I be concerned about an anti-BTB op-ed that uses the expression “numeracy” five times, but never “arithmetic” or “mathematics”?

            To go back to my question for you, what makes you think I didn’t read Holden’s and Piccoli’s piece with sufficient care? How did I misrepresent them? You note that H & P don’t suggest that “fundamentals” not be taught, but I never suggested otherwise. What I suggested was, amongst other things, that H & P exhibited no idea of what the fundamentals are.

  2. “Back to basics” or as one particular state government once decided to call it “Forward to fundamentals” is fundamentally problematic unless there is a consensus on what the so called “basics/fundamentals” actually are (times tables, anyone?) and it is here that I believe the attention needs to be – not reinventing a national “curriculum”, interdisciplinary (STEM) rubbish or popular press having a good old teacher bashing session. The basics need to be defined and defined properly, before any further discussion has any meaning.

    end rant

    1. Thanks, RF. Yes, clearly there is confusion about the meaning of “basics”, which suggests how distorted maths education has become. I’d suggest an imperfect but useful guide is the following: when a Year 7 maths teacher cries out to her class, “How the Hell did you not learn that in primary school?”, she’s bemoaning the absence of the basics.

  3. I am usually sympathetic to the content Marty’s posts, but I don’t approve of the Trump-like denigration of others.

    1. Hi, Marc. Obviously I go in for plenty of Trumplike denigration on this blog (to which you haven’t objected previously), but I don’t see that I’ve done it here.

      As it happens, I’ve always liked Piccoli. (I knew nothing about Holden before writing.) I didn’t watch closely, but he seemed to be an excellent education minister, clearly the best in the country. I always wondered how the Nationals wound up with someone so smart and sharp. And then that idiot Berejyklian replaced him. (Please excuse the Trumplike denigration.)

      But I think Holden’s and Piccoli’s piece was woefully ignorant, and dangerous. I think there was one argument they had worth considering, but which was secondary to my point, and there were other aspects of their piece well worth attacking, but which were also secondary.

  4. I see Marty’s point. He showed his good manners by saying “please shut the hell up” instead of just “shut the hell up.”

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