Education Reporters, and Their Struggle with “Maths Experts”

Dear Jordan and Lisa and, now, Donna, it’s really not that hard: a “maths expert” is an expert in maths.

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.


*) Of course, just because you’re a maths expert doesn’t mean you can’t also screw up.

**) 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.


UPDATE (17/02/22)

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.

13 Replies to “Education Reporters, and Their Struggle with “Maths Experts””

  1. Hi,

    In the business world an “expert ” of application/software/hardware XYZ is defined as developers who flys to your managers office from more than 1000 km away on a tax deductible ticket whose chargeable rate is 10 times their actual rate and 100 times that of your own developers.

    On a good day their actual implementation knowledge etc is no worse than the developers in your own office .

    Try to avoid anyone with nefarious titles such as consultant etc

    Steve R

    1. Steve, I don’t think they fly in. Their mode of transport is the gravy train. At least, that’s how education ‘experts’ usually travel.

      And when they arrive, it’s snouts to the trough time.

  2. I wonder if you are too hard on journalists. If I were a journalist looking to do a story on education then a university education faculty might seem like a good place to start. I think Sullivan is a pretty astute pick too because my minions tell me he is very influential with the ACARA ‘maths experts’.

    Of course, I take your broad points about mathematicians being ignored and why this is a bad thing. However, when mathematicians *are* interviewed they are often quite guarded in what they say. I suspect they are labouring under the misconception of reasonableness in others.

    I am concerned about content issues as well as teaching methods and I agree content issues need to be addressed by mathematicians. However, having worked in education, I view the generation of the poo as intrinsically linked to its method of delivery. The reason there is little actual mathematical content and endless pattern-making activities with no clear purpose is because the designers think they are building mathematical thinking skills *in the abstract* and that the way this is done is through exploration and problem solving.

    1. Hi, Greg. as you know, I’m generally pretty hard on people and, more, institutions. Someone’s gotta do it. If so many others were not so gullible and so soft, I’d not be so hard. Am I too hard on journalists? Maybe, but you’d have to work pretty hard to convince me.

      Lisa Visentin has been a compliant megaphone and mouthpiece for ACARA and their mates. Jordan Baker’s report was woeful, a classic example of unchallenged stenography. And, stenography about a disgracefully invisible document, the disgracefulness of which seemed to be totally unapparent to Baker. That’s the story, that ACARA won’t show the public what they’re up to, after their original draft was rightly hammered. But, is there a reporter that has indicated that they give a shit? You want to defend the silence on this?

      Donna Lu’s report was significantly better than Baker’s, but it had problems. I think I indicated fairly the way Lu’s report was good, while also indicating some of (and definitely not all of) the significant ways in which her report was definitely not good. Of course it is reasonable for Lu to include Sullivan. But the guy is not within a parsec of being a “maths expert”. As I tried to make clear, I don’t think this is just a turf war. I think the mislabelling of people like Sullivan, and yourself, as maths experts actively perverts the debate.

      I agree, and I indicated, that mathematicians don’t always, or typically, help their own cause. In particular, Tim the Magician did a significantly worse job than you in Lu’s report; that might have been due to the focus of Lu’s report and the questions Tim was asked, but I think it was likely as much or more due to Tim. More generally, the fact that mathematicians are now invisible in education debates is at least as much mathematicians’ fault as anybody else’s. You can’t go MIA for twenty years and then whine about not being noticed.

      Of course I am aware that you are also concerned about content issues, and I agree that there is a strong link between the content and delivery. Still, quite legitimately, we have our own emphases. Lu mirrored your emphasis and, in doing so, ignored a huge chunk of the open letter (which, amusingly, she linked to on my site.) In and of itself, Lu’s discussion of the inquiry debate was very good, but as a mirror into the issues with the draft curriculum, I think her report was seriously unbalanced. It seems pretty obvious why it was unbalanced.

      1. I get you and I think we pretty much agree. The letter was about much more than teaching methods and yet teaching methods became the focus of reporting. This may be due to my evangelism or perhaps it just fires the popular imagination more. I suppose I am coming from the perspective of someone who has also been trying to get journalists to write about the woeful science draft and having absolutely no impact at all with approximately zero articles written. Perhaps I am grateful for some interest – any interest – and the fact that I get interviewed flatters my ego.

        1. Ha! Greg, of course it’s your evangelism that is responsible. You are intelligent, well-spoken and well-written, and you obviously have contacts. Reporters talk to you and of course you push what you regard as most important, and fair enough. And, even if I’m frustrated by what I regard as too much inquiry-talk, at the expense of other important matters, I’m grateful for you for hammering this line. Any and all hammering of ACARA is good hammering.

          It is interesting, and depressing, that you’ve had so little luck with the equally appalling science draft. Perhaps the weight of the mathematicians and the focus of the open letter is the difference. In which case, scientists’ dereliction of duty can rightfully be blamed for a lot of this.

      2. My theory for why mathematicians aren’t involved is that they are mostly affiliated to organisations. For example, a University or an institute such as AMSI.

        The affiliation means that they are very circumspect in what they say. In some ways, they see their hands as tied.

        This is unfortunate because the affiliation is a two-edged sword – affiliation gives them credibility, but it also ‘gags’ them.

        A ‘free-lance’ mathematician – able to speak out – has no credibility unless they were known from a previous affiliation. How many of them are floating around? Not too many. I’d consider Marty one of only a very small handful.

        Teachers in public schools are effectively ‘gagged’ from making any statements to the media.

        So, in many ways, it’s the organisations that control the narrative that gets reported. Universities, AMSI, schools need to get on the front foot and let the real experts speak freely. Not just let them speak, ENCOURAGE them to speak.

        PS – Greg, I feel your pain. The draft VCE Stupid Designs for the sciences such as Chemistry is diabolical. Where’s the Chief Scientist in the debate? The Physics Stupid Design has been diabolical for years (I remember the old days when you had to use g = 10, because apparently physics students were too dumb to type 9.8 into a calculator. At least that idiocy was corrected in a subsequent Stupid Design)

        1. John, I think that is only partly true. Obviously someone like Tim Marchant, as a Director of AMSI, has to be more diplomatic. Although, in the past people in Marchant’s position have been much more outspoken. But i think the main thing is that:

          (a) There has developed a professional class of Mathematics Education Academics, who see themselves, and are generally seen, as the Keepers of school mathematics.

          (b) Mathematicians have not fought against (a) and, largely, have not concerned themselves with what happens in schools. Why they are so little concerned is interesting, and I have my theories. But the fact that mathematicians have by and large vacated the field seems undeniable.

          1. Regarding (a), one could argue that the genesis of this was the demise of the VUSEB in the mid 70’s and the creation of VISE and it’s descendants (up to VCAA). Certainly, I think it can be argued that the development of
            “a professional class of Mathematics Education Academics, who see themselves, and are generally seen, as the Keepers of school mathematics”
            has flourished under VCAA.

            As for (b), the frog in the boiling pot comes to mind. But what I find really hypocritical is these same mathematicians moaning and whinging about the mathematical standards of students entering university and the need for so many mathematics ‘bridging’ subjects in 1st year.

          2. I’m not a mathematician but I think I have something in common with them – I like the mathematics that mathematicians do. It’s perhaps strange to say, but it seems that school mathematics (sometimes and in some contexts anyway) is designed both by and for people who don’t particularly like the mathematics that mathematicians do. I am not confident to say what the goal of school mathematics is. This makes it hard to have a confident opinion. I wonder if that’s part of it. People might say, “that idea for how to teach is all very well for you! You like this stuff! But most people don’t and we should be designing things for them!”

            1. wst, you are close enough to being a mathematician. And you are correct. School mathematics is presented as and typically taught in an apologetic “We know you hate this, but …” manner. This makes things way, way worse.

  3. Mathematicians come in all shapes and sizes. I think it is a net good to include them.

    One point that comes to mind is that some may not say or participate much because of a (perceived or otherwise) lack of expertise. Which is sadly funny.

    1. Huh. Of course it is a net good to include mathematicians. It is pure insanity not to.

      As to some mathematicians’ lack of expertise, it is not always simply a matter of perception, or in any sense funny. Being a competent, or even excellent, mathematician is no guarantee that you can contribute anything of worth to a curriculum debate.

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