A bit over a week ago, the Australian arm of Oxford University Press, in collaboration with the Australian Maths Trust, released a White Paper: The knowledge and skills gap in Australian primary mathematics classrooms. Yeah, it’s in the “well, duh” category of reports, on the massive range of student mathematics levels, which primary school teachers must then manage. But, still, the report can’t be a bad thing, can it? Well, …
OUP’s press release was dutifully stenographed by the media, in this rare instance a positive (in sum, just). Unfortunately, The Age‘s Adam Carey attempted to add some value. After noting the horrors flagged in the OUP report, Carey remarks,
The results follow the development of a new Australian curriculum beginning next year that emphasises greater mastery of maths problems in the early years.
It is unclear how a statement can be simultaneously irrelevant, meaningless and antipodally wrong but, somehow, Carey has produced it. Carey’s and the others’ reports also quote various OUP-promoted “leaders” saying irrelevant, leadery things. Still, the key message is there: some primary school students know bugger all mathematics in comparison to other primary school students.
OUP’s paper is based on a survey of a couple hundred primary school teachers. A small sample, and there is no clarity or analysis, but the teachers’ message is clear enough. The report notes, for example, that 30% of Year 5 teachers claim a 5+ year range of knowledge/skills of the students in their classroom. There are a number of such statistics, simultaneously horrifying and old news to anyone who has been paying attention.
Such statistics are the Big Message of OUP’s paper, and already there is a problem: referring to such differences as a “gap” hilariously undersells the problem. If, for example, we are told that some of the men in a room are two metres taller than other men there, it doesn’t suggest these other men are short; it suggests these other men are flatworms.
Yeah, sure, you can have tall men, and you can have “accelerated” kids. Asian kids and fellow travellers will commonly be above Australia’s woeful year levels. Nonetheless, the claim – and truth – of a 5+ year gap in a Year 5 class doesn’t imply that some students are way behind; it implies that some students are learning very close to nothing in primary school.
Why this is happening is of course the critical question. The OUP paper acknowledges the question in its conclusion:
This paper presents several potential reasons why there is a knowledge and skills gap in Australian [primary]* mathematics classrooms …
Except, OUP’s paper presents nothing of the sort. The paper fleshes out the problem, and considers the difficulty of teachers’ task of dealing with the problem, both of which are reasonable and important. But the paper never considers the much, much more important issue of the source of the problem. The paper never acknowledges the Elephant Truth of a poor curriculum pseudo-taught with poor techniques to students who have not been taught to pay attention, and with no expectation, much less demand, of mastery at even the low levels proffered. Without such acknowledgment, OUP’s report dissolves into meaninglessness. It then becomes meaninglesser.
OUP’s report is “complemented” by four articles, written by “some of Australia’s leading mathematics educators”. These articles are intended to “provide practical implications for teaching mathematics to primary students”, whatever that means.
Pride of place goes to AMT’s Janine Sprakel. Unsurprisingly, Sprakel promotes problem solving, at which AMT excels, and which has absolutely zero relevance to the knowledge and skills gap. Perhaps if AMT hadn’t been so busy playing footsies with ACARA, they could have addressed the reasons for the unpreparedness of students to tackle any but the most trivial of problems. But, such is the cosy way of edu-industry.
The second article, by teacher Annie Facchinetti, is better. Facchinetti offers various suggestions, some good and some bad, on differentiating in the classroom. It is all too vague, and the vapour of wishful thinking hangs thick in the air, but at least Facchinetti is attempting to offer plausible strategies. It gets much worse.
The third article is by teacher and big shot Peter Maher, who writes on the importance of engaging students. Teachers should supposedly do this by presenting the mathematics in “real-world situations”. For example,
A study of fractions, a topic that can appear dry and rather esoteric to children, can come alive when applied to recipes and the time divisions in games.
Uh, thanks Peter, but that’s not how anyone learns to be adept with fractions. Students learn to be adept with fractions by doing hundreds of carefully crafted exercises on fractions. Claim it to be “dry” and “esoteric” if you like, although that is highly contestable. It is also necessary.
The final article is by Peter “The Not So Great” Sullivan, who wants to ensure that all students are included in “rich learning activities”, and “open-ended” and so forth. Sullivan’s usual nonsense, with absolutely no bearing on the issue at hand, the non-attainment of fundamental knowledge and skills. Of course, since TNSG was lead writer of ACARA’s current, woeful curriculum, it would be preferable to not hear from TNSG for a while, or ever again.
It seems that Oxford University Press tried to do a good thing, they tried to score a meaningful goal. Their build-up was impressive. And then, with the goalmouth wide open, they did a Lewandowski.
*) The paper refers to “secondary mathematics classrooms”, seemingly a cut and paste error from OUP’s similar 2021 report on secondary schooling.