Maths Experts Do Not Reaffirm Support For Curriculum Changes

A few weeks ago, the Sydney Morning Herald published a report by Lisa Visentin and Anna Prytz, with the pithy title,

Maths experts reaffirm support for curriculum changes as leading group sounds alarm

The “leading group” refers to AMSI, which indeed sounded the alarm, calling for a halt of ACARA’s review of the mathematics curriculum. The claim, however, that “maths experts” reaffirmed support for the curriculum changes is, in a word, bullshit. Obviously AMSI did not do so, but also, to a reasonable approximation, no one did.

It would be simplest to note that Visentin and Prytz do not understand the meaning of the phrase “maths experts”. More accurately, they do not appear to understand anything. Visentin and Prytz’s report is centred around the “Why maths must change” joint statement. AMSI signed and then, belatedly but wisely, renounced this idiotic statement, and the report briefly but mostly accurately records AMSI’s concerns. Pretty much everything else in their report is vague and tendentious nonsense.

Visentin and Prytz sought comment from the other groups that had signed the joint statement. These comments, and the people who made them, need to be considered with great care, but Visentin and Prytz failed to do this and, in at least one instance, appear to have badly distorted the provided comment. Not counting AMSI, four groups signed the joint statement, and Visentin and Prytz obtained comment from three of them. (We do not know why there was no comment from the ringleading Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers, but perhaps referring to such a group as “maths experts” would have been an idiot bridge too far.) We shall take a careful look at the quoted comments of these three groups, and Visentin and Prytz’s framing of these comments.

Visentin and Prytz’s report begins

“Maths experts insist a greater emphasis on problem solving must be included in the national curriculum …”

Then, after briefly noting AMSI’s concerns,

“Other groups that signed the statement recommitted … to the need to teach students problem solving.”

And, already, Visentin and Prytz’s report is garbled to the point of no return.

For the thousandth time, mathematicians love proper, mathematical problem solving and they would love to see more in the national curriculum. But, the draft curriculum content referred to as “problem solving” is not mathematical problem-solving; it is pointless, undirected, real-world exploratory nonsense. Moreover, this pointless, undirected, real-world exploratory nonsense is, insanely, intended to be used to teach basic facts and skills. It is garbage.

In brief, the dichotomy is not of problem-solving and not-problem-solving; the dichotomy is of mathematics and garbage. Still, at times people vote for the garbage. So, back to Visentin and Prytz.

Visentin and Prytz begin their report proper by quoting Professor Catherine Attard, president of the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia. MERGA signed the joint statement and Professor Attard appears to speak in part for herself and in part as a representative of MERGA’s members. According to Visentin and Prytz,  Professor Attard “did not agree with all of the proposed curriculum changes” but, nonetheless,

“The general feeling from mathematics education researchers is that we absolutely have to have the focus on problem solving.”

This is a ridiculous stance, and it has ridiculous companions, but to what extent does Attard’s/MERGA’s stated position above amount to active support for the changes in draft curriculum, God only knows. In any case, MERGA, the professional body for mathematics education academics, is decidedly not a group of “maths experts”. There is also no evidence that Professor Attard could reasonably be referred to as a “maths expert”.*

The one person quoted, other than AMSI Director Tim Marchant, who might reasonably be referred to as a maths expert is Professor Chris Matthews, chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mathematics Alliance. ATSIMA, which signed the joint statement, is not remotely a body of “maths experts”, but for this discussion we’ll accept that Professor Matthews is such a maths expert.**

It seems clear that Professor Matthews and ATSIMA continue to support the joint statement and the related changes in the draft curriculum. Professor Matthews is quoted,

“The way we see it is this new curriculum with its core principles are pushing a more of a holistic view of mathematics where you also still get that how-to approach to mathematics. But it also looks at how mathematics relates to the world we live in. It gets children to look at situations in their life and see it through a mathematics lens, which I support.”

This is pedagogical twaddle, and it is not entirely clear why Professor Matthews advocates such twaddle. Visentin and Prytz note that Professor Matthews was a member of an advisory group on the curriculum review, and we’ll also note that the draft curriculum contains about a hundred kilos of ATSI elaborations. Nonetheless, we’ll grant Visetin and Prytz this one, multi-hatted, maths expert.

And then there was one: the curious case of AAS.

Foolishly, the Australian Academy of Science signed the joint statement, and they have been ducking for cover ever since.*** As we have noted, AAS have denied that their signing of the joint statement constitutes an endorsement of the draft curriculum, which means that they cannot be “reaffirming” any such support. We have also noted that AAS’s signing of the joint statement was apparently arranged by educational/administrative people within the AAS, and without the consultation of appropriate AAS fellows, i.e. maths experts. Any position attributed to AAS on the national curriculum should only be considered in the light of this background.

In any case, what, now, is AAS’s purported position? According to Visentin and Prytz,

The Australian Academy of Science … said it continued to support the inclusion of problem solving concepts in the curriculum as a way to develop students’ basic maths skills[emphasis added]

Bullshit. There is not a snowflake’s chance in Hell that AAS would, at least now, declare support for “problem-solving” as a way to develop basic maths skills, which is indeed a central and horrifying aspect of the draft curriculum. What Visentin and Prytz presumably mean is that AAS support building upon basic skills with problem-solving or whatnot. Visentin and Prytz quote in part an AAS statement:

“In order to help deliver students to society who have knowledge and are able to problem-solve, mathematise (the process of seeing the world using mathematics by recognising, interpreting and representing situations mathematically), hypothesise, and model, this fundamental mathematics knowledge should also be combined with application to problem solving.”

This mushy statement, by another AAS mystery writer, is highly regrettable, leaning towards support for the worst elements of the draft curriculum. Nonetheless, as with Professor Attard’s statement, the actual support for the draft is far from clear cut. And, as with Professor Attard’s statement, there is no basis to attribute this statement to “maths experts”.

It is also notable that Visentin and Prytz chose to not quote the AAS statement in full, leaving out the first sentence:****

“The Australian Academy of Science recognises the importance of developing foundation mathematical understandings and skills and supports their inclusion in the national curriculum.”

This clear and important sentence is not sufficient reason to absolve AAS, but it most certainly helps. Why ever would Visentin and Prytz have left it out?

And there you have it. One ACARA-matey “maths expert”, some vague support for something, and buckets of nonsense. Great job, guys.


*) Professor Attard is Professor of Mathematics Education at Western Sydney University, with a background in primary teaching and a PhD in mathematics education.

**) Professor Matthews is an Associate Dean at University of Technology Sydney, has a PhD in applied mathematics, and coauthored a number of research papers before investing his energy in indigenous education. It is reasonable for Visentin and Prytz to have implied that Professor Matthews is a maths expert. Without wishing to be picky or elitist, it is not obvious, however, what “maths expert” might mean, or if Professor Matthews might properly fall in that category. In general, we would suggest that to qualify as such a “maths expert”, having a PhD in mathematics is close to necessary but not remotely sufficient.

The point of appropriate expertise in contrast to official qualification is also not remotely moot. Visentin and Prytz quote an ACARA spokesperson, that the draft revisions were developed “with extensive consultation and input from subject experts in mathematics, including qualified mathematicians …”. This statement is presumably intended to be clear, sufficient and comforting; it is none of these.

***) A gentle word of advice to the AAS leadership. You cannot sign an overtly political statement and then, when called on the statement’s origins and absurdity, pretend that you can revert to an above-it-all society of boffins. Own your conduct.

****) The strange wording in the SMH article suggested to us that the AAS quotation was incomplete. We requested the full statement from AAS, but they have decided to treat us as if we have small pox. The full statement was provided to us by a reporter.

8 Replies to “Maths Experts Do Not Reaffirm Support For Curriculum Changes”

  1. “We requested the full statement from AAS, but they have decided to treat us as if we have small pox.”

    Whoever in the AAS is issuing these statements obviously has enough rat cunning to know that they’ve already shot themselves in both feet and want to minimise any further damage. It is very telling that all the AAS statements are from mystery writers. One would have to assume that such statements got approval from the top, which is where the buck surely stops. Unless there are rogue elements within AAS doing their own thing with impunity.

    And ACARA’s statement
    “with extensive consultation and input from subject experts in mathematics, including qualified mathematicians …”
    is the oldest trick in the book. Just because you consult, doesn’t mean that you follow the advice of the consultant.

    VCAA can quite correctly say that it consulted with me before releasing its final draft of the Mathematics Stupid Design. It’s true, VCAA did consult with me (and with many others, via the on-line feedback process). But I will astonished if anything I said gets used. That won’t stop VCAA from making a similar statement to ACARA down the track …

    1. I don’t think they’re being cunning. I think, as I wrote, they stumbled into taking a political, and awful, position, and they have since been trying to pretend otherwise.

    1. Actually, I suspect their agenda is mostly just creating a story, independent of accuracy or merit. The Australian got the scoop on AMSI’s defection, so they then knee -jerk to the opposite. But the maths Ed snake oil was also probably easy for them to swallow.

  2. The mass media is an unreliable source of information. Journalists write their stories according to strict deadlines. The 7pm news must be presented at 7pm. The morning’s edition of the papers must appear in the morning. This is why I ignore the mass media.

    1. Bullshit. Visentin and Prytz were under no time pressure. They rushed it because they wanted to, and they screwed it up because they understood bugger all, and because they cared bugger all that they understood bugger all.

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