Why Mathematics Education Must Change

The revisions to Australia’s mathematics curriculum will be out soon, and it appears that the fix may be in. This fix will, of course, fix nothing; our guess is that things are about to get much worse.

As reported in yesterday’s SMH, Australia’s major league Maths Ed groups have released a “Joint Statement on Proposed Maths Curriculum”. Cosigned by AMSI, AAMT and MERGA, as well as AAS and ATSIMA, the statement is titled Why Maths [sic] Must Change. The statement is a triumph of modern educational ignorance.

The statement begins by noting “the proposed revisions to the Australian maths curriculum” are forthcoming, and “the importance of getting it right”. We are then told what “getting it right” means. The statement is poorly written and vague, inappropriately and inaccurately colloquial, but the message is clear enough:

“More than ever, our society needs students who are adaptable, resilient, responsive to challenges and able to handle unfamiliar situations. It is not enough to have knowledge โ€“ they must have the skills to take that knowledge and apply it to solve unknown problems, and do it quickly.”

Yes, the cure for our maths ed ills is yet more problem-solving, yet more overhyped exploration. And, this is to be contrasted with the alternative, a focus on “knowledge”. The writers are so proud of this ridiculous straw man that they repeat it:

We need education systems and curricula that help deliver students to society who are up for such a challenge โ€“ just having knowledge is no longer enough. Instead, the abilities to problem-solve, mathematise, hypothesise, model are all skills that add worth to acquired knowledge. Mathematics learning cannot sit in silos that focus on content and procedures. Instead, it must be something that gives the knowledge purpose.

We expect no better from AAMT or MERGA, but what about AMSI? Aren’t they like mathematicians, or something? Do AMSI’s glorious leaders really believe this nonsense? Do they really believe that school mathematics is, or was ever, a purposeless “silo” of knowledge-acquisition? Do they honestly think that the problem with Australia’s mathematics education, the reason, for example, why the majority of secondary students have no proper concept of or facility with fractions, is because there has been too much focus on content and procedure? Do they really imagine that these fraction-deficient students can nonetheless boldly venture forth to “solve unknown problems”?

The idea is, of course, absurd. The whole statement is absurd, a mission statement from the very same constructivist, discipline-hating, technique-hating ignorants who have been selling this snake oil for decades, and who are one of the major reasons why Australian mathematics education is now such a disaster. And, of course, their suggested cure for the problem they very much helped create is more of the same snake oil.

There is more in the statement. There is the predictable pointing to Australia’s woeful but irrelevant PISA scores, and the predictable silence on Australia’s woeful and highly relevant TIMSS scores. The writers express the hope, indeed the promise, that PISA results will improve. Which may well be true; it is the mathematics education, and the education generally, that will suffer.

We will remark upon one more, very troubling line from the statement:

As such, the suggested revisions in the curriculum are not just welcomed …

What, exactly, are these “suggested revisions”, and how do the cosigners of this statement know the revisions are “welcomed”? There are strong indications of what ACARA intends, and that what they intend will be awful. As far as we are aware, however, ACARA has yet to make any proposed revisions available for public comment.

What this implies, assuming that the above line is not simply more poor wording, is that the drafters, and perhaps the cosigners of the statement, are privy to ACARA’s inner workings, and that they are pleased with them. As we wrote, it appears that the fix is in.

Anything that will please the cosigners of the statement Why Mathsย Must Change will be a disaster for Australian mathematics education, and it seems as if the cosigners have reason to be pleased. God help the rest of us.

35 Replies to “Why Mathematics Education Must Change”

    1. I pretty much expect AAS to be stupid when it comes to mathematics education. But I don’t expect AMSI to be stupid, just inept.

      1. Why do you expect AAS to be stupid when it comes to math ed? Do they have some kind of track record I’m ignorant of…?

        1. To begin, AAS are the bootlickers who welcomed Christian Porter to the fold. So, on general principle, fuck ’em.

          But, more generally, and whatever their other merits, it is naive to expect any science organisation to get it right on mathematics education. They’re the winners in this idiotic STEM game, and are simply too ready to regard mathematics as just a little necessary arithmetic. Their gut reaction is almost always to see Mathematics as Science’s bitch.

          Which is intrinsic to this disgraceful statement. It is entirely predictable that AAS would screw this up.

          1. Hmmmm. Well, there are some mathematicians among their Fellows, so I did have hope that they would be reasonable when it came to mathematics (by e.g. asking their Fellows). But perhaps that was naive.

  1. Teachers are warned about the dangers of teaching to the test. Yet it seems that we are being urged to teach mathematics in order to improve PISA rankings.

    (I wish people would take the time to write “mathematics” rather than abbreviate it. I find the abbreviations of the name of my subject as insulting.)

    1. I’m happy with teaching to the test, as long as the test is not stupid. PISA is stupid. But yes, in any case there is something contradictory about these promoters of Great Mathematical Adventure simultaneously fussing about test scores.

      As for the “maths” abbreviation, I’m fine with it in a suitably casual setting. A formal statement such as this is most definitely not that setting, and their use of the term is unprofessional and gauche. And also wrong. They use “maths” to stand for “mathematics education”, which is doubly disgraceful. The entire statement, apart from being appalling in substance, is casual and clumsy, and embarrassing. Again, I expect nothing better from groups like AAMT and MERGA. But what the hell was AMSI thinking?

      1. I interpret the use of the phrase “teaching to the test” to imply teaching without explanation; e.g. to find the inverse of a function, first you interchange x and y etc. Just do it!

        So long as we do well in PISA, NAPLAN et cetera, all is fine.

        Of course, “teaching to the test” might also involve teaching for understanding. However, I think that this is not the normal meaning of the phrase.

        1. Then you’re not making sense, or at least you’re not owning up to what you believe. Of course, as you say, “teaching to the test” can include teaching for understanding. So then, why should teachers be “warned” about teaching to the test? The answer is, they shouldn’t.

          PISA is a bad test, and you shouldn’t teach to it. NAPLAN is a bad test, and you shouldn’t teach to it. TIMSS is a good test, and it is fine to teach to it. VCE Specialist and Methods are bad tests, and any teacher who doesn’t teach to them should be sacked.

          In summary, “teach to the test” is useless as a one-liner guide for what to do or not do.

          1. Of course. Tests don’t necessarily have to suck. I don’t know why this is so hard to understand.

            Even if the test is not directly testing much explanation, it may be optimal test-wise to prepare students for that test with decent explanation. Tests don’t have to be dripping with in your face “explain” stuff to be good tests.

  2. “…are all skills that add worth to acquired knowledge.”

    I would agree IF (and this is a BIG IF) knowledge was there to begin with.

    In the absence of knowledge (which is what happens when you explore using technology before actually understanding what is happening) I could liken the situation to building a beach-house on a sand-dune.

      1. I like to think there is *some* knowledge in the minds of students by the time I’ve finished with them. Undoubtedly not enough to give them a computer simulator and say “solve this”, but hopefully something.

        A sand dune was chosen as the example because it lacks permanent structure, much like the proposed curriculum.

  3. I don’t understand why this push for reform deals only with years F-10 but ignores Years 11 and 12. My observation is that the expectations of VCE (in Victoria) have a trickle down effect which influence Year 10 and, to a lesser extent, Years 9, 8, … . Also, teachers of Years 11 and 12 students have an interest in what goes on in the lower years. This is evident in Bendigo where students from all the government 7-10 schools tend to complete years 11 and 12 at one senior secondary college. Any thoughts on this?

    1. That’s a good question. Note that VCE is already pretty screwed up in the manner these clowns want for K-10, and that VCAA is screwing up VCE further,. But that doesn’t answer your question.

      Maybe ACARA realises there’s no accepted national curriculum in senior years, although it’s far from obvious that ACARA is capable of that level of humility.

      1. ACARA does, in some way, publish a curriculum for Years 11 and 12. Problem is, I don’t know any states that use this in its exact form. In Victoria this extends to using the name Further Mathematics Units 3&4 whereas ACARA uses the title General Mathematics Units 3&4.

        Based on a very brief reading of what is available online (some states make their documentation easier to find than others… VICTORIA, you could learn from NSW…) WA seems to be the closest to ACARA descriptors in terms of curriculum, but the style of assessment is very different in each state and this tells me the interpretation of ACARA’s “standards” or “framework” is entirely different in each state, despite it being a “national curriculum”.

        Oh well…

        1. (RF: You should read the various rules for calculators in exams!)

          When I am in charge … we will have one Department of Education, one Minister of Education (with several assistant ministers), one national curriculum, and one set of external examinations.

    1. I might be wrong, but wasn’t there one of these only recently from which we got the “literacy and numeracy skills test” for graduating teachers?

      And we all know how that went…

      …except we don’t, because follow-up studies either weren’t done or the findings are impossibly difficult to find.

      1. I recall going to a seminar where the speaker listed many such reviews. It would be interesting to see how many of the recommendations have been adopted. Anyway, I have started on my submission for this latest one – I can’t help myself.

    2. So after several reviews and input from ‘experts’, it’s still not known how to do those two things. So \displaystyle another review is needed.

      And some of the names on this panel of ‘experts’ are interesting – appearances are very deceiving and the expectations that arise from those appearances often don’t match reality. This will be \displaystyle another exercise in self-serving propaganda and marketing.

      It’s fucked that there’s no interest in how to \displaystyle retain good teachers … Let’s attract and train the best and then watch them burn out and leave after 3 years. But maybe these idiots think teachers are like buses …

      1. I will add one further remark:

        Ethical and moral standards are higher than legal standards, but some corporate mentalities are not Principled enough to acknowledge this. It always concerns me when such corporate mentalities get appointed to ‘expert’ advisory panels.

  4. There seems to be an almost infinite appeal of the “even better” with standards based recommendations. Like even though we haven’t got basics down, we’re going to do higher level skills. Just to sort of avoid the subject of the failure to learn the basics. Then again education is full of fluffheads.

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