The Origins of “Why Maths Must Change”

Many months ago, and many months too late, we submitted an FOI application, seeking documents from ACARA. We were interested in the origins of the statement Why Maths Must Change, signed onto by five prominent mathematics and mathematics education organisations in support of ACARA’s draft mathematics curriculum. We had previously written of our sea-bed low opinion of the statement, but we had also been puzzled by aspects of the statement. In particular, although WMMC has no declared link to ACARA, and although ACARA has to our knowledge never made any public reference to the statement, we had suspected that ACARA was involved in the production of WMMC.

Indeed, this appears to have been the case.

Our FOI application is still underway, so we won’t go into much detail for the time being. The question of the existence and degree of ACARA’s involvement is an important one, however, and we believe information already supplied by ACARA is sufficient to raise serious questions about ACARA’s conduct.

Why Maths Must Change was released on 11 April last year and, by a not-strange not-coincidence, the statement was in the news immediately. The statement’s obvious purpose was to sway public opinion on the draft mathematics curriculum, but the precise motivation for the statement and the timing of its release, necessitating a pseudo-hypothetical framing, were confusing. At that stage the draft curriculum was a week away from being released. So, although WMMC was clearly intended as pre-emptive support or defence of the draft curriculum, the statement was necessarily framed, except for one tell-tale line, in general terms. At least some of the confused nature of this statement is explained by the statement’s geneis, a month earlier.

On 10 March last year there appeared an article in The Australian titled Big ideas for mathematics fail the test. Written by Rebecca Urban, the article reported on dispute within ACARA and included some leaked, and controversial, material from the draft curriculum. If nothing else, Urban’s report indicated that the draft curriculum, which was scheduled for release only a month later, was progressing anything but smoothly. Urban’s article concluded with motherhood “No comment” comments from ACARA CEO, David de Carvalho.

The following is an outline of what appears to have occurred after Urban’s article appeared. It is based upon ACARA’s responses so far to our FOI application, and upon conversations with relevant third parties.

  • On 12 March, there was an email exchange between “ACARA” and “AAMT”. (Throughout, we do not know the identity of the individuals involved in such exchanges.)
  • That same day, presumably after the ACARA-AAMT exchange, there was an email to “maths stakeholder groups” (the phrase ACARA has employed in their responses to our FOI request). ACARA was included in this email and there are indications that ACARA was the author of the email. The subject title of that email was “Statement in response to The Australian article”.
  • Attached to this 12 March email was a first draft of the Why Maths Must Change statement, although not bearing that title. This first draft was very similar to the final, released WMMC statement, except for lacking two closing paragraphs, for closing with just the AAMT logo, and for having a different introduction. The first sentence of this first draft reads,

There has been much commentary this week about the proposed revisions to the Australian Curriculum Mathematics.

  • It thus seems clear that the initial purpose of the statement that was eventually released a month later was to provide a quick public response to Urban’s article. It also appears that ACARA was involved from the beginning, and from the beginning was facilitating the signing on of groups to the statement.
  • The next day, 13 March, ACARA had in its possession, and possibly produced, a second draft of the statement. This second draft included the two closing paragraphs and a less date-specific introduction. Notably, this second draft also closed with six logos and accompanying short bios, of the five organisations that eventually signed onto WMMC, together with those of the Australian Maths Trust.
  • On 15 March and 16 March, ACARA participated in a number of email exchanges, both internally and with “stakeholder groups”, and involving a number of drafts of the statement. In the final draft of March 16, AMT’s logo and bio do not appear.
  • Given AMT’s cosiness with ACARA on other aspects of the draft curriculum review, we would not be surprised if AMT had at some point been part of the WMMC plans; indeed, we were always a little puzzled that AMT had not signed onto WMMC. It is notable that AMT was, at least at some point and in some manner, a part of the discussions around WMMC and for that to then have ceased. We contacted AMT, to see if they wished to enlighten us; they politely replied with a “No comment” comment. To be clear, we do not know what discussions, if any, ACARA had with AMT regarding WMMC.
  • What we have been reliably told, however, is that the Australian Mathematical Society was not part of any WMMC discussions. That is, for the purposes of WMMC and, it seems, generally, ACARA did not consider the professional body of Australian mathematicians to be a “maths stakeholder group” of sufficient standing.
  • After 16 March, ACARA appears to have engaged in little or no discussion around statement drafts, either internally or with stakeholder groups, until the release of the final Why Maths Must Change statement, on 11 April. We do not know the reasons behind the timing of the release.

 

That is the story as we currently understand it. In brief, it appears that ACARA was intimately, fundamentally involved in the genesis of and/or production of and/or promotion of the statement Why Maths Must Change. The final, published statement, however, provides absolutely no indication of ACARA’s participation. Moreover, as far as we are aware, ACARA has never made public reference to the statement, much less acknowledge their apparently deep involvement in the statement’s appearance.

There is plenty about this story we do not yet know, and perhaps some of the story to come will shine a better light on ACARA. It is difficult, however, for us to imagine how. It is difficult for us to imagine how ACARA can justify what appears to be the clandestine participation in a publicity scheme to support their own work, and which originated, quite pointedly, as a plan to counter the negative effect of a specific newspaper report.

It seems obvious, at least to us, that ACARA has serious questions to answer.

2 Replies to “The Origins of “Why Maths Must Change””

  1. ACARA – Thin-skinned and sensitive, us-against-the-world, nobody understands us. Under-handed and deceitful.
    ACARA – We’re going to give everyone what WE want to give them, whether they like it or. Even if we have to (try and) trick everyone with deceitful and under-handed stunts. Because we’re the only ones that are right, anyone who disagrees with us is wrong.

    ACARA appears to have engaged in an under-handed ploy. Very interesting that it could not be up-front, but seems to prefer working from the shadows, trying to manipulate and con everyone.
    And extremely interesting that “ACARA did not consider the professional body of Australian mathematicians to be a “maths stakeholder group” of sufficient standing”. Presumably because it did not buy the snake oil that ACARA is desperately trying to sell. It looks like ACARA’s definition of a stake-holder is any group that agrees with ACARA.

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