Arena: Do the Maths

A few months ago, I asked blog readers for suggestions for what had gone wrong with mathematics education. Plenty of discussion ensued, and it was very enlightening.

The purpose of that blog post was to help with the writing of an article. Guy Rundle had suggested that I write something on mathematics education for the magazine Arena. The article has now appeared (and in print). The introduction to the article is below and the full article can be read at Arena. Thank you to Guy for the opportunity, thank you all for your suggestions, and thank you to my secret crack team of hypercritical editors. (I have no idea of the significance of Arena’s graphic, but that’s cool, and it’s cool.)




In memory of Jeff, my brother and teacher


I am, or at least was, a mathematician. I lectured and I proved theorems. With my friend and colleague Burkard Polster, I also devoted many years to the popularisation of mathematics. We were good; Burkard still is.

Burkard and I were busy. We engaged endlessly with teachers and their students, and with the general public. For 111 years we wrote a ‘Maths Masters’ column for The Age newspaper, amounting to 11111111 columns (the reader is invited to puzzle over that, or to just accept that it means ‘a lot’). The Maths Masters’ motivation and mantra was ‘to do whatever they can to convince whomever they can that mathematics is beautiful and fun’. We took hold of many whomevers over the years, and we convinced a decent few.

While Burkard was, and still is, happy to continue along this path, I slowly began to change direction. I became disillusioned with the underlying state of school mathematics, convinced that ‘beautiful’ and ‘fun’ were not enough and not the point. My ‘popularisation’ work became more polemical, and Burkard and I began to resemble the cartoon characters Ren and Stimpy, appealing to our audiences, and now the education authorities, in very different ways. These days I am, in the main, an angry blogger. I try to change people’s attitudes not with beauty and fun but with strong and pointed critique. I get less public praise, but I am more comfortable with what I do.

In this article, I will try to explain my disillusionment. I will try to describe the manner in which school mathematics education has lost its meaning and proper purpose, and the causes of this. The reader is invited to extrapolate to other disciplines.

(The rest of the article is accessible at Arena.)

6 Replies to “Arena: Do the Maths”

  1. Marty, nice summation of why things have gone so badly wrong:

    “The power of education academics has continued to grow, and they are now much more closely wedded to the bureaucrats … The current domination of the mathematics curriculum, and teacher training, by education academics is [bad] because of the second, intertwined force. With mathematics education academics now in possession of their own world, they are generally much less connected than they once were to the world of mathematics; they are less adept at and less interested in it. This lack of mathematical expertise encourages and necessitates an emphasis on other, non-mathematical concerns, laying the fertile ground for constructivist obfuscation. Much more time is spent in apologising for and avoiding the difficulty of mathematics than is ever spent addressing that difficulty, or in demonstrating the beauty and the power that can result from proper effort.”

    And nice summation of a simple and obvious solution:

    “In February 2022, there appeared a federal report into Initial Teacher Education (ITE). Among the report’s numerous trivial and beside-the-point recommendations, one stands out. Recommendation 13 is concerned with the lack of teaching experience of education academics. It states that:

    higher education providers should prioritise recent classroom experience for academic staff in ITE to ensure they are keeping up to date with contemporary teaching practices.

    This is wrong. What ITE academics should be doing is raiding nursing homes, ripping the respirators off ex-teachers and demanding that the codgers use their dying breaths to impart their soon-to-be-lost wisdom.”

    Your simple solution will never happen, because Governments refuse to accept that the education academics and bureaucrats are the main cause of the education calamity. Governments will continue consulting these ideological snake oil sellers, continuing to ask the people who caused the problem how to fix it. The problem is going to get worse and worse. How many more decades of proof are needed until the Govt (and schools!!) tells the education academics and bureaucrats to f%&! off. But by then, none of the old guard will be left.

      1. Probably not. But I wondered how my school could adopt some of their ideas even though the backgrounds of students at my school are vastly different from those at Reddam House.

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