Tony Guttmann is a Very Big Shot. Tony is Emeritus Professor at the University of Melbourne and he can claim a dozen or so honorary letters: AM, FAA and so on. Tony was a valiant warrior during Curriculum War II, and he was The Hero of Curriculum War I, which was fought out in the early 90s. CWI was fought over the National Statements and Profiles, a proto-curriculum produced by CURASS, the precursor of ACARA. Nearing the end of CWI, Tony wrote an explanatory article for the MAV’s journal, Vinculum. (It was the pre-Pravda era.) Tony’s article is, for us at least, fascinating; both the parallels and the perpendiculars to CWII are striking. We reproduce Tony Guttmann’s article here, with Tony’s kind permission.
THE NATIONAL STATEMENTS AND PROFILES – WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?
Anthony J. Guttmann
Vinculum, September, 1993
Following the meeting of the Australian Education Council (AEC) in Perth in early July, the widely discussed Profiles were referred back to the States for each State to decide how, and to what extent, they might be incorporated into the curricula of the individual States.
This matter has attracted widespread discussion, both before and after the meeting, with the current query being “what happens now?”. I became involved through a petition circulated by electronic mail primarily to all Professors and Heads of Department at Australian tertiary institutes, drawn up by my colleagues and myself at The University of Melbourne. This specifically addressed our concern with the Mathematics Profiles. As a result, a petition attracting about 400 signatures was sent to all State ministers of Education, as well as the Federal minister for Schools, Mr. Ross Free and the DEET Minister, Mr. Kim Beazley. Similar concerns were expressed by other subject groups, notably the scientists, the physical education group, the performing artists, the humanities, and the language groups. Throughout my involvement, I have been asked a number of questions with considerable frequency, and I thought it might be useful to try and answer the most frequently asked questions.
1. What are the mathematicians really objecting to?
Our main objection is to a diminution of standards and to the fact that, without involving teachers and subject experts in any meaningful way, the writers have set out to change radically both the nature and expectations of school mathematics. In attempting to achieve agreement among the States, it appears that some elements common to all States were incorporated, plus isolated additional elements. This approach is the basis behind the “lowest common denominator” charge frequently levelled at the profiles. A hodge-podge of quasi-mathematical activity has been inserted.
Assoc. Prof. Terry Gagen, of the University of Sydney, has worked through the latest level 6 profiles (aimed at year 10), and concluded that there is no material there that is not already included in the existing NSW syllabus to year 8. It is thus hard to reach any other conclusion but that the Profiles represent a dropping of existing standards by about two years.
There are other problems too. (i) Many of the problems simply make very little sense. As an example I cite an exercise in which students are to tie donuts on a string and attempt to eat them. This exercise apparently is meant to teach probability. (li) Some examples are just plain wrong. An example is an exercise to prove two non-congruent triangles congruent – a “solution” was also given! (iii) More seriously, the piece-meal approach to topic inclusion means that some important topics are left out. Io this regard, I note Prof. Gagen’s observation that the formula for the solutions of a quadratic equation has been excluded – the writers instead propose that each is effectively unique, and that finding solutions is an exploratory activity using a calculator!
There is also the question of ideology. A number of examples involve issues that are controversial, that people hold deeply felt beliefs about, and that could cause unnecessary tensions in classroom discussions. I refer to such topics as the chronological evolution of the life of Jesus Christ, Mohammed and the Mabo decision – all of which are included in the latest version of the Mathematics Profiles. If one wishes to see greater evidence of the ideology and so called politically correct thinking of the writers of the National Statements and Profiles, a browse through the Society and Environment documents should clarify this.
Finally, there is the concern that there is too great an emphasis on activity and too little on core learning. While many examples of this could be given, it is more a global criticism, and citing a few examples would not be fair. Rather, reading the National Statement and associated Profiles is necessary to see this.
2. How broadly based has the consulting process been?
CURASS is the Curriculum and Assessment Committee of the AEC, and was responsible for the National Statements and Profiles. There was no consultation at the outset as to the aims or rationale of the project. Writers (who are still anonymous) were chosen apparently without consultation with professional societies or other expert bodies. It is not known what brief was given to these writers. Written requests to CURASS from professional bodies seeking to clarify these important matters remain, to this day, unanswered.
A single meeting of the Steering Committee with AMSC (Australian Mathematical Sciences Council) members was held in Sydney in February 1992. Following that meeting, the written concerns of the AMSC were never addressed, and the Steering Committee never met again.
Leading up to the July AEC meeting, in response to much adverse publicity and press comment, three distinct sets of Mathematics Profiles were produced in the space of five weeks. Some of these were shown to the Universities, but they were superseded before they could even be read in some cases.
In the National Statement, an Appendix thanks a number of people for their valuable contributions. This includes a few professional mathematicians. In almost all cases the “contribution” was a vigorous attack on the document! These people were then listed as “consultants”, thereby conveying a totally incorrect impression of widespread consultation and approval by professional mathematicians.
3. To what use will the Profiles be put?
This is perhaps the most frequently asked question. My answer is that I don’t know, and that nobody else does either! Statements from CURASS are, like the Profiles themselves, time dependent. Today’s answer may well be “inoperative” tomorrow. Quotes from various versions of the profiles claim their use to be “..to allow teachers to decide on the levelness (sic) of their pupils”, ” … to inform curriculum development” to “… establish a consistent language across States for talking about Mathematics” and “. to permit teachers to report on the progress of their students to parents and systems”.
It is difficult to draw a coherent view from these various threads. This highlights a major defect in the project. How can something be sensibly designed before its purpose is decided?
4. Isn’t it the case that this is NOT a National Curriculum, but just a framework within which the States can work?
That is the claim of those who are defending the exercise. It is usually followed by a statement along the lines that the States can set up their own curricula within the framework of the National Statement and Profiles. In my opinion this is just sophistry. As the stated purpose is to achieve uniformity across States, the degree of flexibility available to individual States is severely circumscribed.
It should be noted also that some State systems had begun to insist that their curricula should conform with Profiles even before the July AEC meeting.
5. Aren’t you and your colleagues just objecting from a narrow, university based viewpoint?
It is true that the universities are concerned that no one will be able to do their existing courses if the proposed system is introduced, and that is cause for the gravest concern. But, as noted above, the proposed Profiles represent a drop in standard by around two years, and that cannot be to anyone’s long-term benefit.
Mr. Beazley has been urging adoption of the National Statements and Profiles project on the grounds that it is essential if Australia is to remain internationally competitive. Just how the dropping of our average standards by two years is going to achieve this has never been made clear!
6. Times have changed, and most young people now complete high school. Surely the curriculum must change to reflect this?
It is certainly true that times have changed. In my day, 15% of students completed year 12 in Victoria, now only 15% don’t complete year 12. However, I take it as axiomatic that today’s youth are entitled to the best education that meets the needs of their abilities and aspirations. This enshrines the core philosophy of “equality of opportunity”. We do a disservice to those who have no interest or ability in mathematics by forcing them to study it beyond a minimal level necessary to function effectively in society. Similarly, we do an equal disservice to those of our youth who are talented at Mathematics, display a high degree of ability thereat, and intend to use Mathematics in their professional life. Such is the disparity in the needs and aspirations of these two groups that a single syllabus for all is entirely inappropriate. This view is gaining increasing recognition. In Victoria from 1994 there will be three distinct VCE Mathematics streams. In the ACT there are separate colleges for the final high school years, where students may chose tertiary subjects, vocational subjects, or a mixture of both.
In short, given the huge and welcome increase in year 12 retention rates, it would seem more appropriate to introduce a greater diversity of streams of study, rather than try and design a single curriculum to meet the needs of an increasingly heterogeneous group.
7. What about the competencies question? Key industry groups are very unhappy.
The National Industry Education Forum, the ACTU and the Business Council of Australia all expressed disappointment that, at the July ABC meeting, the key competencies recommended by the Mayer committee had also not been adopted, but had rather been referred back to the States. Indeed, in The Australian on July 7 the director of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Mr. David Nolan is quoted as saying that “Employers are sick and tired of schools turning out students who have inadequate levels of literacy and numeracy”, and this is then linked to a criticism of the Coalition states and the NT for rejecting the Mayer key competencies.
In fact it is because of grave doubts that the Profiles project could deliver a uniform level of competence desired by these groups that they were rejected. A uniform level of competence is unacceptable if it is too low a level. Thus the industry groups and the academics are arguing the same case – that of adequate standards. The industry groups should therefore be applauding the decision.
8. Surely a National Curriculum is a good thing?
It has been frequently suggested that a National Curriculum is, like motherhood, a good thing, and that no rational person could object to this concept. The reason given is that, with increasing population mobility, students are sometimes forced to repeat work, or find themselves skipping work, when they move from one system to another. This argument certainly has some force, but is not overwhelming. One could mount the same argument for a world language. Yet it would founder on political reality, plus concerns about loss of identity. There is something to be said for diversity.
There are other concerns. Will the curriculum be of an adequate standard to meet the need of all students? Recently in Victoria, with the Higher School Certificate being replaced by the VCE, we had effectively a new syllabus. Would people be happy if this had been the National syllabus? It was because comparisons with other States could be made that inadequacies in the VCE were seen and addressed.
A national curriculum makes social engineering much easier. The selective rewriting of history by various nations is too well known to warrant labouring. Mathematics is less subject to such sanitisation, but is not immune. Hitler banned the teaching of “Jewish mathematics”, whatever that is. While the risk of such abuses must be slight in Australia, the existence of a diverse State run education system adds an additional safeguard.
Finally, the question of central control of education. I take the view that additional responsibility should be earned, not just given. Consider the track record of governments, both Labor and Coalition, over the last 20 years, particularly with regard to the economy. More recently, look at the upheaval wrought in the tertiary education sector by the recent spate of enforced amalgamations. Can one really say, “Well, the Federal government have done a really good job there – let’s give them education to run too”?
Clearly, it makes some good sense to identify common features in curricula across the States, and to seek to ensure that there are no major discrepancies. This needs to be done without compromising quality, and may still include a degree of diversity. However it is noteworthy that a curriculum mapping exercise was carried out only a few years ago, and it was concluded that no major discrepancies in curricula exist.
9. Aren’t the teachers in favour of the project?
There is no simple answer to this. The leaders of certain teacher’s organizations have expressed support, but the individual teachers who have contacted me have been most unhappy with the project. Of course it may be argued that the latter are a self-selecting group. However it should be known that DEET has funded the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers (AAMT) to conduct further work on the National Statement. While there is nothing improper in this, indeed the AAMT is well-placed to comment on aspects of the National Statement (though why no similar grants to other groups with an equally strong interest and involvement?), it does reflect on the impartiality of the comments emanating from the AAMT. Despite this, the AAMT has supported the concerns expressed by the AMSC.
10. Well, where to now?
Can the project be rescued? When in 1907 G.H. Hardy was trying to reform the Tripos system that had retarded Pure Mathematics in England for perhaps 50 years, he commented that “..the system is vicious in principle, and that the vice is too radical for what is usually called reform. I do not want to reform the Tripos but to destroy it.” Have we reached this point? My view is that, with the current project we have. The flaws in the planning stage, exacerbated by those introduced during execution, render it unsalvageable.
However some of the aims are worthwhile, notably a greater degree of co-operation between the States on syllabus content. But this is just one of a number of problems facing the school system, and considering just one problem in isolation is likely to introduce as many problems as it remedies. Any future project should, in my view, have a clearly defined aim. In particular, a statement as to the nature of the alleged problem would seem to be an essential prerequisite to any such project. A second requirement is the full involvement of a group of people who have been carefully chosen for their subject and educational expertise – experts, experienced teachers and others.
Following the revolution that has seen most of our young people proceed to year 12, it is now appropriate to rethink the entire educational system with a view to catering for the legitimate needs and aspirations of this heterogeneous group. The introduction of National Statements and Profiles will do nothing to address the problems of bored youth who are being taught material irrelevant to their needs and interest – a comment that applies with equal force at both ends of the educational spectrum.
Australia has in the past enjoyed an educational system of which we as a nation can be reasonably proud. If our economic and social decline is to be arrested, it is essential that adequate, even generous attention and support be paid to our educational system.