Sure, there are line balls and judgement calls. Unfortunately, education reporters demonstrably have no sense of where the lines are, nor how to make the necessary judgements. Greg Ashman is not a maths expert. Eddie “Too Much” Woo is not a maths expert. Peter “The Not So Great” Sullivan is definitely not a maths expert. Yes, these people might – or might not – be smart. These people might – or might not – be reasonable people to quote on a maths ed issue. But they are not remotely maths experts. And, it matters.
Yesterday, there was another report on the the education Ministers’ meeting and ACARA’s Top Secret redraft of their appalling draft of the Australian curriculum. By Donna Lu, the Guardian‘s “science writer”, the report is better than Jordan Baker’s recent stenographic nonsense. Not good, but better.
The focus of Lu’s report has clearly been determined by, and distorted by, the “maths experts” Lu chose to interview and/or to quote. Lu’s experts were teacher-blogger-principaler-PhDer Greg Ashman, educational psychologist John Sweller, “emeritus professor of STEM education” Peter “the Not so Great” Sullivan, and AMSI Director Tim “The Magician” Marchant. Of these, Marchant is the only maths expert, and the only person who is even close.*
Lu’s report is overwhelmingly focussed upon the debate over inquiry learning, which, on the one hand, is reasonable and important. ACARA’s absurd denials notwithstanding, ACARA’s maths draft is dripping with inquiry learning, and, ACARA’s implausible denials notwithstanding, it’s a very safe bet that ACARA’s Top Secret redraft is still dripping with inquiry learning. This is appalling, a major reason why the draft curriculum (and the current curriculum) is so, so awful. As such, it was very good for Lu to quote her “maths experts” at some length. This gave Ashman an ample and well-used opportunity to push back strongly against Sullivan’s nonsense.** (Ashman has followed up the Guardian report with an excellent blog post.)
On the other hand, there is another hand. Inquiry learning is indeed a huge reason why the draft curriculum is so awful, but there are other, equally huge reasons. These other concerns are almost entirely overlooked in Lu’s report.
Lu’s report notes and quotes from the open letter:
Last June, dozens of mathematicians, maths educators and educational psychologists took issue with revisions to the proposed curriculum. In an open letter to the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, they criticised the draft curriculum as having “little practical value as a guiding structure”, and took issue with “a push toward a central role for ‘problem-solving’ and inquiry-based learning”.
“We do not believe that a curriculum document should mandate a specific method of mathematics teaching, and it is especially concerning that the draft curriculum is extensively mandating learning through ‘exploring’ and ‘problem-solving’,” the letter said.
Lu also notes that Ashman “played a key role in the open letter”. This is inaccurate.
The back story to the open letter, and to the entire guerrilla war against ACARA’s curriculum, is incredible. Literally. We cannot tell that story now,*** but it is worth making a few remarks on the production of and the nature of the open letter.
To begin, Greg Ashman played much more than a “key role” in the creation of the open letter. Ashman, more than any other person, is responsible for the open letter. Without Ashman the letter simply would not have existed. And, without the open letter a focussed opposition to ACARA would likely never have formed. If, as is still possible, ACARA’s nonsense is finally rejected, it is to Australian mathematicians’ shame that so much of the credit must go to a Ballarat physics teacher.
The other aspect of the open letter worth noting is that the letter’s expressed concerns are far more extensive than Lu suggests, going way, way beyond the draft curriculum’s emphasis on inquiry learning. In brief, mathematicians’ concerns were, and are, less on the way the curriculum is to be taught than what is to be taught. Mathematicians’ primary concern is that the content of the draft maths curriculum is a bucket of dog poo. It is a far secondary concern whether the kids are supposed to explore that bucket themselves, or whether the poo is to be flung at them. As it turned out, a large amount of the work polishing and finalising the open letter was in the balancing, to everyone’s reasonable satisfaction, the inquiry learning concerns with the this-is-dog-poo concerns.
Of course, Ashman and Sweller and their colleagues are allowed to have their agenda, and to a decent extent we share that agenda. Moreover, as exhibited by Lu’s article, the promotion of this agenda is a powerful weapon against the nonsense of ACARA and of their fellow travellers. But other weapons are required, and this is typically overlooked, particularly by education reporters.
The effect of this ignoring of mathematicians and their concerns is not simply to over-raise the platform of education nitwits. The effect is to make the genuine maths experts and genuine mathematical issues invisible. It licenses education reporters to minimise, or to ignore entirely, the opinion of those who know what mathematics is and thus might have a decently valuable opinion of what mathematics is worth teaching and how it might effectively be taught. This exclusion is currently so knee-jerk and so total that a newspaper can plan a forum on the current “maths wars” and not invite a single representative of the majority group that launched that war. This is Kafka-level absurd.
For decades Australian mathematicians have been thus excluded, including self-excluded, from meaningful participation in school mathematics education, and the disastrous consequences are obvious. Mathematicians’ re-inclusion cannot guarantee the repair of Australia’s mathematics education. But their continued exclusion guarantees that the disaster will continue, and will almost certainly worsen.
**) Tim the Magician also pushed back, but Tim appears to suffer from bouts of Stockholm syndrome, and he tends to pull his punches.
***) It is best left for when we’re safely ensconced in a country without extradition treaties.
Today ABC reported on their investigation. Apparently
“Media releases written by politicians’ staff are being presented as news stories in regional Australia”
Yep, reporters are supposedly just copy-pasting the juicy bits of the media release and, voilà, they have their story. And, yep, it’s definitely an issue for “regional Australia”. When you’re in a hick town like Sydney, you’re just stuck with it.