The title is accurate, although it requires explanation. But, first things first.
We’ve been sitting on details of this story for weeks, waiting for aspects to become clear. Or, mostly, waiting for the Australian Academy of Science to admit that they screwed up and to correct their screw up. There is still no clarity or admission, but there may never be. So, we will write what we know and are permitted to reveal.*
On March 31, the joint statement Why Maths Must Change was released to the world. Poorly argued, garishly colloquial and intrinsically poisonous, this statement was widely interpreted as an endorsement of the draft mathematics curriculum. Whether or not that is the case is farcically contentious.
The draft mathematics curriculum appeared on April 29, a month after the joint statement. The joint statement was also couched almost completely in general terms, of what the signers wished to see in the draft. All in all, permitting a semi-plausible deniability that the joint statement is an endorsement of the draft curriculum. Of course, to confirm what the joint statement means and implies, one would seemingly just need to ask the institutions that signed on.
Five institutions signed the joint statement, three of which were absolutely no surprise and of whose opinion we couldn’t care less on this issue. AAMT, which we understand is the ringleader here, is the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers; we have never and will never expect a sensible statement from this group. ATSIMA is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mathematics Alliance, and we know nothing of their general work. Aboriginal education is obviously a disaster, and we hope to learn more about various efforts to improve it. But, in regard to the joint statement ATSIMA seems, at strained best, just another teacher group. MERGA is the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia; it is the professional association of maths ed researchers, and it seems exactly the kind of group that Douglas Adams would have thrown onto Golgafrinchan Ship B.
That leaves the two puzzling signers, AMSI and AAS.** The Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute, Australia’s key institute for mathematics research, have now formally revised their position, effectively disowning the joint statement. In particular, AMSI have called for ACARA to “halt the current review process”.
And then there was one.
The Australian Academy of Science is a highly prestigious organisation, with a few Fellows elected each year. The mathematician Fellows include Tony Guttmann and Alan Welsh, both of whom signed the open letter, and Ole Warnaar, the President of AustMS. As well as providing a cosy home for Very Big Shots, AAS has a number of outward reaching subgroups, including a schools education program, and the National Committee for Mathematical Sciences. NCMS is chaired by Alan Welsh, it also lists Ole Warnaar as a member, and has as its primary goal “to foster mathematical sciences in Australia”; as such, NCMS appears to be the main group responsible for AAS policy towards mathematics education.
So, how did AAS come to sign the joint letter, and does the joint letter constitute an endorsement of the draft curriculum?
We are in the midst of a protracted exchange with AAS, the key parts of which we include below. The exchange has been frustrating and absurd.*** it began on June 25, when we contacted AAS with a number of questions (see below). AAS’s reply came a week later, on July 2:
“The joint statement was issued on 31 March before the public consultation period for the Australian Curriculum review, not in response to it. The statement noted the importance of the development of mathematical skills and the application of these skills to problem-solving. The Australian Academy of Science is reviewing the revised curriculum document that is out for consultation, in order to consider our response to it.” [emphasis added]
As the correspondence indicates, this reply was inadequate for a number of reasons, but we first dealt with the kernel of clear declaration contained within. In our reply on the same day, we wrote:
“I will begin with my second question, which the [AAS media] statement … does appear to answer. I take it that, as of July 2, AAS has not endorsed the proposed revisions to the mathematics curriculum, and in particular that AAS does not accept the joint statement of 31/3 to be any such endorsement.” [emphasis added]
We indicated to AAS our intention to write this, and we have given them ample to correct or clarify the above, and anything else. They have not responded.
So, with AAS’s statement of July 2, and with their so-far unwillingness to correct the natural interpretation of this statement, it should be accepted that, before July 2, AAS did not endorse the draft mathematics curriculum. It is implied by AAS’s stated public position that anybody suggesting otherwise is making stuff up.
Of course this is by no means the end of the story. AAS’s reasons for and manner of signing the joint statement are as yet totally unexplained. AAS’s actual position on the draft curriculum, earlier and now, are as clear as mud; AAS was most recently quoted in a July 8 article, but the quotation is slippery. We also have no idea whether AAS made a formal submission to ACARA, or who may have contributed to or signed off on this submission. We are endeavouring to clarify all this, and we hope to write more tomorrow.
*) We are seeking further knowledge and further permissions. Of course we will update this post or write a new post if and when either is forthcoming.
**) Notably, the Australian Mathematical Society, the professional association for Australian mathematicians, did not sign onto the joint statement. We do not know whether AustMS was approached to sign, a remarkably tricky question to answer.
***) We have been instructed that any statement from AAS should be labelled as having come from “an Academy spokesperson”. We will just note that practicality determined we go through AAS’s media office. That office has been friendly and attentive throughout; it is not their fault that they’ve been instructed to pass on obfuscating nonsense.
Email to AAS, June 29
Dear [media person],
My name is Marty Ross. I just talked to you on the phone. I am a mathematician who takes an interest in and writes upon educational matters.
I am enquiring about a joint public statement that AAS signed, which was released on 31 March:
This is a “statement on [the] proposed mathematics curriculum”, and includes the line
“As such, the suggested revisions in the curriculum are not just welcomed, …”
It is therefore, and in total, not unreasonable to read the joint statement as an endorsement of the revisions currently proposed for the Australian mathematics curriculum. I think it is also fair to say that the statement has been widely understood in this manner, both by the general public, and by mathematics and mathematics education professionals.
Here are my questions to AAS regarding the draft revisions and the joint statement.
1) Was NCMS consulted before AAS signed on to the joint statement?
2) Does AAS endorse the proposed revisions to the Australian mathematics curriculum?
3) If not, does AAS intend to provide a media release to clarify and/or to correct the public record?
Thank you very much.
Kind Regards, Marty
Email from AAS, July 2
AAS replied with pleasantries, and the statement above, but nothing else.
Email to AAS, July 2 (and there has been no subsequent reply from AAS]
Dear [media person],
Thank you for your reply. I understand the manner in which I should attribute this statement and any subsequent statement from AAS.
Unfortunately, AAS’s statement [above] raises more questions than it answers. I will indicate my current understanding and ask (and re-ask) some questions. I will also indicate my current understanding, upon which I intend to write. AAS is welcome to clarify anything that I have written, and I sincerely hope that this is done, but I do not intend to wait another week for a response.
I intend to write on this Monday evening. Of course I will carefully consider anything AAS wishes to share before then, and I am happy to discuss this by phone if that is preferable.
I will begin with my second question, which the statement below does appear to answer. I take it that, as of July 2, AAS has not endorsed the proposed revisions to the mathematics curriculum, and in particular that AAS does not accept the joint statement of 31/3 to be any such endorsement.
Now, I will ask my first question again:
1) Was NCMS consulted before AAS signed on to the joint statement?
As it stands, my understanding is that NCMS was not consulted. I also note that AAS has ignored a direct question to confirm or to deny this.
Next, I will ask my third question again:
3) Does AAS intend to provide a media release to clarify or correct the public record?
As it stands, I have no indication that AAS intends to do so, and in particular to do so before public consultation on the draft revisions closes on July 8. As such, AAS has indicated no intention to take responsibility for the public interpretation of the joint statement of 31/3, and in particular for the bold statement that AAS signed on to, that “… the suggested revisions in the [mathematics] curriculum are … welcomed …”.
To possibly allow AAS to clarify this in part, please let me ask a follow-up question:
4) Does AAS intend to make its response to the proposed revisions publicly available, and if so will that be before or after the closing of public submissions on July 8?
As it stands, I note that AAS has not indicated that they intend to make their submission to ACARA publicly available, although that would presumably help clarify the joint statement of 31/3.
Finally, I will note and inquire about two puzzling aspects of AAS’s statement below.
AAS notes that the joint statement was “not in response to [the public consultation period for the Australian curriculum review]”. This sentence makes no sense as written. The joint statement is advocating, and in one line applauding, certain aspects of a curriculum. It is also clear that the proposed curriculum revisions have turned out to be very strongly in line with what the joint statement was advocating/applauding. The statement also appeared on 31/3, presumably long after the draft revisions had taken shape.
5) What was the purpose of the joint statement?
6) Was the person/persons from AAS who agreed to AAS signing the joint statement aware of the nature of and/or detail fo the draft revisions? If so, how?
As it stands, I can conceive of no other purpose for the joint statement other than as preemptive support for the draft revisions, from people sufficiently aware of the nature of those revisions.
The other puzzling aspect is that the joint statement “noted the importance of the development of mathematical skills …”. However, the phrase “mathematical skills” is never used in the joint statement. The term “skills” is used six times, and on my reading all six uses are concerned with the skill of applying mathematics to problem-solving, not what is typically referred to by mathematicians and teachers as “mathematical skills”.
7) Will AAS indicate precisely what they mean by “mathematical skills”, and how the joint statement notes the important of the development of these skills?
Thank you again. as I indicated, I look forward to any further clarification AAS may be provide, and I am more than happy to discuss this by phone. Also as indicated, I intend to write upon this Monday evening.
Kind Regards, Marty