*The following is our complete Arena article, which we announced a couple weeks ago. It includes footnotes and references and links that didn’t make it into the Arena version. *

# DO THE MATHS

### WHY MATHEMATICS EDUCATION IS FAILING OUR KIDS

#### MARTY ROSS

*In memory of Jeff, my brother and teacher*

**HOW TO LOSE FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE**

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;^{1} Burkard still is.^{2}

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.^{3} 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.

**GIVE WAR A CHANCE**

When professional mathematicians as a body declare a school mathematics curriculum to be nonsense, this need not be accepted as unassailable truth. It is reasonable to ask for evidence and argument. But that is not the first step. The first step is to acknowledge that this declaration means something.

In April 2021, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), the statutory authority responsible for all things educationy, published a draft national curriculum up to Year 10 for public discussion. ACARA’s draft was amateurish and radical, and it ignited a curriculum war. I helped instigate the mathematics front of that war by co-writing an open letter, subsequently signed by many prominent mathematicians.^{4} Formal statements from peak mathematician associations soon followed, including a call for a halt of the curriculum review process.^{5}

Pressure from Alan Tudge, then federal Minister for Education, forced ACARA to give grudging consideration to mathematicians’ concerns.^{6} Following some token consultation, ACARA produced a redraft, which was then approved by the federal and state education ministers, with the new curriculum to be implemented in 2023.^{7}

With the war lost, mathematicians did not comment publicly on the new mathematics curriculum. Privately, they have expressed to me their dismay, with both the process and the final product: not one has suggested that ACARA’s belated changes were sufficient to make the curriculum remotely acceptable; not one has indicated that the new mathematics curriculum is an improvement over the current, already impoverished one.^{8}

**LET X=X**

I cannot possibly convey here all that is wrong with ACARA’s curriculum and, more generally, with mathematics education. Noting a very few of its shortcomings will have to suffice. One of its fundamental failings is the treatment of algebra, by which measure the new curriculum falls short by a country mile.

Algebra is the beating heart of mathematics. It is the naming of the quantity being hunted, setting the stage for its capture. It is how we signify pattern and how we express the relationship between quantities. You want to understand something else, probability or statistics or geometry? Algebra is essential. Algebra is how Descartes captured geometry, and how Newton and Leibniz captured calculus.

A fundamental insight is that algebra is simply arithmetic, just with numbers we don’t know. The current curriculum states this clearly, in a Year 7 instruction to ‘Extend and apply the laws and properties of arithmetic to algebraic terms and expressions’. By contrast, ACARA’s new curriculum instructs Year 7s to ‘generate tables of values from visually growing patterns or the rule of a function; describe and plot these relationships on the Cartesian plane’.

This is pointless, and it is not algebra, except in the most trivial sense. It is substituting data entry and graphical busywork for the critical practice of algebraic skills. The curriculum is choked with such nonsense, strangling the few stray instructions that might otherwise engender proper study. The term ‘algebra’ and the critical discipline of algebra have been distorted to meaninglessness.

**THE TIMES TABLES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN’**

There is, to recoin a phrase, no royal road to algebra. A mastery of algebra requires practice and memorisation and struggle. And preparation. Prior to the arithmetic of numbers we don’t know comes the arithmetic of numbers we do. In order to understand a/b = c/d, we must first understand 4/6 = 6/9. This is the work of primary school. It is work undone.

The (continued) undermining of arithmetic was a widely reported aspect of ACARA’s draft curriculum, an aspect then stenographically reported as ‘fixed’ in the approved, ‘back to basics’ redraft. The reports were absurd. Notwithstanding ACARA’s surrender on a few key points, the new curriculum gives no proper weight to written skills, with the traditional methods for arithmetic barely present and nothing good or even coherent in their place.

The treatment of mental skills is little better. Automatic recall of the multiplication tables is critical to all the arithmetic that follows: a student cannot apply 4 x 9 if they are struggling simultaneously to remember it or calculate it. The multiplication tables were mangled in the draft curriculum and then fixed, but only up to a point, where they are referred to as ‘multiplication facts’.^{9} This is weird and telling. Much worse, the tables (still) only reach 10 x 10, rather than the traditional 12 x 12. This matters. We have 60 minutes in an hour and 360 degrees in a circle for a reason. Having natural multiples and factors and fractions readily at hand is critical for the learning of arithmetic.

The ignorant decision to exclude 12 turns out to not matter, however, since few students even get to 10. The large majority of primary school students do not learn their multiplication tables. This is because, clear curriculum direction notwithstanding, the very large majority of primary school teachers do not consider the tables important, much less mandatory. Teachers have been fed other ideas.

**THE THINK SYSTEM**

ACARA’s new curriculum is a large but entirely predictable step down. Modern education is steeped in grandiose perversion, with innovative but misconceived practices working not to improve but to undermine fundamental processes of understanding. There is Higher Order Learning, and 21st Century Skills, and Flipped Classrooms, and Child-Centred Learning, and Discovery Learning, and Inquiry Learning, and Play Based Learning, and on and on and on. Underlying almost all of this is the philosophy of constructivism.

Built upon the tautology that we only understand what we understand, constructivism claims that students must construct this understanding through their own experience. Constructivist approaches are to be contrasted with the boring old practice of directly teaching students, and in particular the teaching of clear facts and skills. Always lurking is the boogieman of Rote Learning. This boogieman in particular has frightened teachers away from orderly ‘tables’ and into embracing isolated ‘facts’.

There is a proper and important role for mathematical exploration, but that role in primary education is limited. It took thousands of years for civilisation to come up with the crystal concepts and truths and techniques of ‘elementary’ mathematics. Constructivism is the slowest and most painful and least successful method of mastering these fundamentals.

Not everyone, however, sees this as a drawback. A teacher focused on students’ Higher Order Thinking may have little concern for the lowly basics. Mistakenly. Rather than basic facts and skills being opposed to deeper thinking, the basics are the foundation for deeper thinking. Before twenty-first century skills, whatever these might be, there must come a mastery of seventeenth-century skills.

**YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT?**

Hand in hand with constructivism goes problem-solving, one of the great con jobs of mathematics education. Mathematicians love the idea of problem-solving, since it is a one-word definition of what they do. Mathematicians love to see children working on authentic, well-structured problems, with clear mathematical content and purpose. But school problems are different. School ‘problems’ are typically poorly defined, open-ended explorations with no measure of or concern for success, and with students ill-prepared for a venture of any significance. These problems are all the worse for almost invariably being about something other than mathematics, about a largely fictitious Real World. Thus, rather than a carefully crafted problem about prime numbers and factors, students ‘explore’ or ‘model’ the painting of walls and the graphing of mortgage rates. Students are presented with pseudo-problems that require little thought and inspire less.

ACARA and the education authorities regard the Real World as a great selling point. Hence the new curriculum has a stream on ‘Space’ rather than geometry. Hence NAPLAN has a test on ‘Numeracy’ rather than arithmetic. Hence the mandating of statistics way beyond its very limited pedagogical worth. Hence the unceasing focus on STEM, which reduces mathematics to an instrumentalist, utilitarian skill set. This all fits in well enough with the neoliberal notion of education as training, but it is otherwise reductive, and it erodes the basis for mathematical thinking. Real Worldness in school is almost invariably contrived, and thus as boring as dirt, because we simply need very little mathematics for our everyday lives.

Such Real Worlding also feeds back to devalue and to poison the teaching of mathematics. The critical point of mathematics, the source of its incredible power, is that it removes the distracting noise of the world. Mathematics abstracts from messy reality to create something much simpler, something that can be analysed and honed and generalised. And yes, mathematics then gives back, providing indispensable tools for the understanding of real-world phenomena. But the mastery of these tools is beyond the scope of school mathematics for any but the most banal of real-world situations. What results is simply the glorification of noise—the presentation of noise as the central topic of mathematics education. It is absurd, and disastrous.

**THE MEDIUM IS THE MESS**

Eddie Woo is Australia’s mathematics teacher superstar. Thanks to his incredibly successful Wootube channel, Eddie is adored by pretty much everyone. I am less adoring.

The problem is not with Eddie Woo, who is undeniably engaging and who teaches in the main in an effectively direct, traditional manner. The problem is with the electronic medium, which encourages passive acceptance rather than active contemplation. Even when a mathematics video is done clearly and correctly, and that is not always the case (including on Wootube),^{10} only a small fraction of those viewing will follow in any meaningful manner. The vast majority will simply be tricked into believing they understand more than they do.

Mathematics education wastes untold time and energy and goodwill on electronic media: students watch videos instead of reading; they ‘move’ shapes on screens instead of shifting physical blocks; they push calculator buttons instead of computing on paper; they ‘prove’ statements by pressing Solve or Graph on their handheld computers.^{11} Education has reframed Magritte’s playful reminder of reality to be an insidious falsehood: a teacher can now present a picture of a pipe and declare, ‘Yes, that is indeed a pipe’.

Plenty are fooled by constant references to ‘visual learners’ and ‘digital natives’, but there is no fooling reality. The perverting effect of these media is that students are not required to think or to reflect. They need never pay proper attention, to a teacher or even to their own thoughts. The electronic media stimulate and entertain, occupying the space where contemplation might have occurred. In his 1986 book *Amusing Ourselves to Death*, Neil Postman wrote on the effect of television on education: ‘The name we may properly give to an education without prerequisites, perplexity and exposition is entertainment’. That is where we are, except that now television, and much worse, are in and are intrinsic to the classroom.^{12}

**HOW TO SUCCEED IN EDUCATION WITHOUT REALLY TRYING**

Few students can succeed in any meaningful sense in the current environment. If they do, it is largely as a result of their own conscientiousness, or as the gift of a maverick teacher who, ignoring all contrary instruction, has chosen to teach. Or else the parents have taken the reins, either teaching at home or resorting to the burgeoning black market of tutoring.

With few students succeeding, it is important that this lack of success be neither measured nor mentioned. Mastery is no longer a goal, much less a requirement. Instead, students are encouraged to ‘go at their own pace’, even if that pace is glacial. Education wizards wax lyrical about setting problems with ‘a low floor and high ceiling’, failing to mention that few students ever leave the floor. Students’ reports do not report. Clear and critical truth is forbidden.

Primary schools do not test, unless one counts NAPLAN, and one should not; two tests in seven years, on numeracy rather than mathematics, is meaningless. In junior secondary school there are tests, but the tests are gamed. A parent may believe that 70/100 on a Year 8 maths test is pretty good, but the parent is typically unaware that the test likely consists of 60 per cent that is trivial, 40 per cent that checks basic facts and skills, and 0 per cent of anything requiring deeper thought; that 70/100, therefore, likely indicates 10/40 on the basics, which should ring the alarm bells but does not. Eventually, the nature of the game is clear, but by then it is too late, with the misguided student’s only option for senior mathematics being to continue with the poorest of the very poor offerings.^{13}

Education authorities must claim success, however, and they do so by redefining it. The measure now is not students’ mastery of mathematics, but how students feel about mathematics classes. ACARA’s curriculum does not once refer to mastery but repeats the nauseating phrase ‘positive dispositions’ with equally nauseating regularity. Education academics write endlessly about ‘maths anxiety’ and ‘growth mindset’. The message is that students are neither to be fed nor annoyed, merely pleased and pacified. What matters, à la Postman, is that students be entertained. Ironically, it is likely that the lack of core skills leads to the very ‘anxiety’ that education academics are so keen to avoid. After more than two decades of innovative methods, new technologies and student-centered pedagogy, all indications are that ‘maths anxiety’ is increasing, not declining.

**THE PAST IS A FOREIGN COUNTRY**

And the name of that country is Singapore. For instance.

Asian countries dominate TIMSS, the international test of school mathematics. Asia even dominates PISA, the anti-algebraic non-test created specifically so that Western countries would feel better about themselves. Even if one wishes to concentrate upon ACARA’s snake-oil games, it turns out that attention to the basics is the way to go.^{14}

Australia once did much better, although that was long ago and is largely forgotten. The powerful forces of entertainmenting have been at work for many decades. Moreover, there are two intertwined forces, one political and one philosophical, which have directly perverted mathematics education.

First, the political. Historically, for good and bad, Australian mathematics education was carefully controlled by education bureaucrats under the guidance of mathematicians.^{15} In the 1970s, teachers started to be given more autonomy.^{16} Also around that time, a fourth group, of education academics, was beginning to emerge as a force.^{17} Since then, and with varying overlaps and alliances, these four groups have tussled over the nature and control of mathematics education.^{18} All-out war broke out in the early 1990s, with the bureaucrats attempting to wrest control from the other three groups.^{19} The bureaucrats failed, but the downward slide was well underway. The power of education academics has continued to grow, and they are now much more closely wedded to the bureaucrats. ACARA’s current mathematics curriculum was very much the work of education academics, and the new curriculum even more so.

The current domination of the mathematics curriculum, and teacher training, by education academics need not be bad, but it is 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. It is telling that not a single mathematics education academic has said a public word in opposition to ACARA’s draft curriculum or the approved redraft. They are made naked by their silence.

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.

Students are not learning, and one of the things they are not learning is not mathematics. We are a million miles from sane mathematics education.

### REFERENCES

1. See our website qedcat.com. (Back)

2. See Burkard’s Mathologer YouTube channel. (Back)

4. The open letter is here, and the list of signatories is here. (Back)

6. For an analysis of ACARA’s empty and arrogant defence of their draft, see here and, more generally, here. (Back)

7. The website for the new Australian Curriculum is here. (Back)

8. The website for the previous Australian Mathematics Curriculum is here. (Back)

9. In launching their draft curriculum, ACARA made a preemptive attempt to assure the public that multiplication tables ‘will always have a place in the mathematics classroom’ (*The Australian*, 29 April 2021). Instead of referring to the times tables, however, ACARA referred to ‘time tables’, and elsewhere (in a now deleted FAQ) to ‘timetables’. One needn’t be Freud to glean ACARA’s true thoughts. (Back)

10. See, for example, this video. (Back)

11. The unceasing emphasis on image has also helped destroy the traditional and critically important medium of textbooks. Almost without exception, modern school texts are unreadable: bloated, error-strewn, poorly worded, calculator-pandering and infantilising. (Back)

12. In his 1992 book, *Technopoly*, Postman considers the effect of computers and, more generally, society’s failure to deal with technology honestly or successfully. (Back)

13. Victoria’s senior mathematics subjects were once excellent and are now a disgrace. In particular, every year the VCE mathematics exams contain numerous non sequiturs, ambiguities and outright errors. In 2022, Burkard and I met with representatives of the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority to discuss this, where we offered to have the exams vetted for free by a competent mathematician (not demanding it be one of us). Our offer was immediately rejected. The disrepair of senior mathematics appears to be similar in most states, with the exception of NSW. (Back)

14. As background to its draft curriculum, ACARA made a laughable attempt to present Australia’s mathematics education as being on a par with Singapore’s. See here. (Back)

15. M. A. (Ken) Clements, *Mathematics for the Minority*, Deakin University Press, 1989. (Back)

16. Alan Barcan, “Public Schools in Australia from the Late 1970s to the Late 1980s: the Seeds of Change”, *Education Research and Perspectives*, **37**, 2010, 1-37. (Back)

17. M. A. (Ken) Clements, “The National Curriculum in Australia*, Education Research and Perspectives*, **23**, 1996, 61-92. (Back)

18. Nerida Ellerton and M. A. (Ken) Clements, “Reshaping School Mathematics in Australia 1788-1988”, *Australian Journal of Education*, **32**, 1988, 387-405. (Back)

19. Nerida Ellerton and M. A. (Ken) Clements, *The National Curriculum Debacle*, Meridian Press, 1994 (Back)

An excellent way to start the year: keep it going.

Is there one too many “not”s in your last sentence?

Thanks very much, Tony. No, there’s not too many “not”s, just too much cute style. (I was never happy with the closing of the article, but was too tired to fix it.)

I spent a number of years trying to advise the “leaders” of the school that constructivist learning plays a VERY minor roll in building the foundation of mathematics in schools. Maybe in other subjects in the curriculum, but not mathematics.

I’m yet to find a student who has managed to determine the fundamental theorem of Calculus by themselves…

I often wonder why my maths classes are so busy… and why students tell me they love it because “I teach everything properly…” and not just show them one method and say “go and do the questions”…

Students often complain that they’re not taught enough… or clearly enough. Or that it seems like their teacher doesn’t understand… I give their teacher the benefit of the doubt (saying maybe you misinterpreted them), however, it is regularly coming to my attention that many of them don’t know what they’re doing! Their worked solutions show a lack of understanding and are regularly completely wrong. Even when students question them, they still think they’re correct.

I think that anyone who wishes to teach mathematics should do an undergraduate degree and then a postgraduate degree for teaching. This way they don’t get these misguided ideas on how mathematics should be taught. They also experience a much higher level of appreciation of mathematics and won’t think that students can guide their own learning and teach themselves…

P.S. Marty you taught me quite a few subjects at Monash… and I may have kicked your arse on the squash courts a few times

😛

Huh. We’ll discuss the squash later. First, edit your comment: way too many pronouns, so it’s not properly clear when you’re referring to students and when you’re referring to teachers.

“however, it is regularly coming to my attention that many of them don’t know what they’re doing! Their worked solutions show a lack of understanding and are regularly completely wrong. Even when students question them, they still think they’re correct.”

This is a consequence of several factors, including:

1) Shortage of maths teachers,

2) Poor quality of ITE,

3) Retirements of capable and experienced maths teachers.

It is going to get worse.

Reference 13: “… In 2022, Burkard and I met with representatives of the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority to discuss this, where we offered to have the exams vetted for free by a competent mathematician (not demanding it be one of us). Our offer was immediately rejected.”

And one of the consequences of this rejection – Specialist Maths Exam 2 and all of its significant errors.

Were any reasons for this rejection given by VCAA? I’m guessing hubris, incompetence and the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

And at this meeting, did VCAA have any self-awareness and offer insight into why errors keep appearing on its maths exams year after year after year?

VCAA gave reasons, of course, but not good reasons, of course, since there were none.

I’ll be writing more about this later in the year. For now, I’ll leave it be.

I look forward to later in the year. I wonder if VCAA might re-visit the offer made by Burkard and yourself in light of the disastrous 2022 Specialist Maths Exam 2. Surely it cannot continue to claim a competent exam writing process (which it undoubtedly attempted to do in rejecting your offer).

Another problem does not seem to get much airing. A student can leave school and go straight into a BEd to become a teacher. This will involve some mathematics education units – but not necessarily any mathematics units. They then get a job teaching in a school, and because they have done some mathematics (the reference to education is dropped), they end up teaching mathematics. They are probably assigned to teaching lower secondary mathematics subjects (say Years 7 or 8), or perhaps even upper secondary mathematics such as the new Foundation Mathematics, or General Mathematics.

In what sense do you think this problem does not get much airing?

At the risk of pre-empting Terry’s reply …

Is this issue raised in the ITE Review? Has anyone seen it raised in the media? Are there (m)any teachers that have an awareness of this?

I think this is one of the ugly secrets of ITE.

Often I have seen reports about the low ATAR required to get into a teaching course. This is not the case for people who do a degree such as BSc or BA and then go on to MTeach: their ATAR (if they had one) is irrelevant. The reports are about people who go straight into a BEd. These reports suggest a lack of understanding of the pathways in system.

To some extend this tendency is understandable. Just as a student interested in engineering will probably try to enter an engineering course, or a student interested in nursing will probably try to enter a nursing course, so too a student interested in teaching will probably try to enter an education course.

This sounds like a good idea: https://www.latrobe.edu.au/school-education/preparing-educators/alternative-pathways/nexus-program

Names are important. I had a Year 11 student who told me that he was particularly interested in history and politics. I suggested that he could do an Arts degree. “But I can’t even draw!”

You are saying it’s “another issue” as if it were not addressed in what I wrote. I agree, I could have covered it in more depth. But I could have covered *everything* in more depth, and the article was already at 3000 words (with a 2,000 word limit).

Your article was excellent. I have shared it with several colleagues. My comment was not intended as a criticism of your article.

Sorry to be off topic…

Does anyone know where we can get a copy of the formula sheets for the new study design…?

I always copy and laminate them for my students, but can’t… cause I can’t find it!

Nothing to be found, yet. VCAA are drip feeding resources at a glacial rate, just when teachers have time to process and react. VCAA have released to resources so far, both on proof and both substandard. Maybe it has improved its ‘quality assurance’ process, and have had to go back and significantly improve resources that might have otherwise been released by now …? But I would have thought the formula sheet would have been released by now. Another example of incompetence and living in the magic faraway tree.

Fine. I wasn’t being thin-skinned, or at least hope I wasn’t. I’m always happy (well, willing) to receive criticism.

But the thing is: *nothing* is aired sufficiently, or much at all, if by “aired” you mean by the official authorities: by ACARA or by AMSI or by VCAA or by MERGA or by MAV or by AAMT or by AAS or by Education Faculties or by the Heads of Maths Group or by Education Reporters. None of them have a goddam clue.

Here, on this blog, it gets talked about. Where else? Ever?

I agree with Terry’s endorsement of this article.

Marty, have you considered trying to get this article published (with permission of Arena) as an opinion piece in, say, The Age? It is the sort of article that deserves a much wider audience (an audience that might even be able to apply some embarrassing pressure).

Thanks, John. It’s a tricky one, which I won’t let trick me.

I always knew that writing for Arena was not the same as writing for Time Magazine. But if GRundle asks you to write something, you do. But, I’m also not going to work to get it published elsewhere. I’d like to see the thing have more exposure, but I can’t see that it’s worth an ounce of my work. I don’t see that any prominent publishers get it, and I’m not going to bother trying to get them to get it.

Marty, John and other frequent commenters,

Happy New Year 2023. Wish you all have a peaceful, cheerful and healthy year ahead.

The labor government is so far doing a OK job to attract and stabilize nursing students, but have not been sufficiently addressing the shortage of teacher force. Needless to say supporting or attracting Maths teachers. Let’s see what will happen in 2023.

“ 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.”

As usual, despite your strong sense of humour with a bit sarcasm seasoned in…very true. Old wisdoms (and resources, inc. exams, textbooks, syllabi) tend to be thrown away.

And wouldn’t some of these ITE experts on their way to nursing home – it’s sad, isn’t it?

“ …Education academics write endlessly about ‘maths anxiety’ and ‘growth mindset’. The message is that students are neither to be fed nor annoyed, merely pleased and pacified. What matters, à la Postman, is that students be entertained…”

Well, I wonder what kids do in y1-6 maths classrooms. Seems that they are too indulged with no homework, no test, but mostly play-based or project-based type of learning activities…Many students later moving to y7 don’t even know how to rule up a page or they don’t vertically align their equal signs. Correct me if I am wrong but I have been observing this overall deteriorating situation as others have in the past, probably. just like what Worm suggested – many kids didn’t get taught enough nor taught properly.

It feels like rolling a snow ball, and turning it into a bigger and unstoppable spherical object …crushing whose future pathway?

Has anyone read any of the books by Kjartan Poskitt? If so, what do you think of them?

I had to look him up. My brother Jeff found a bunch of the Murderous Maths books in England, years ago. They were cute, but they seemed noisy, and it felt like they were more impressive than useful. I’ve just looked again and I feel the same way. I’m just not sure which kids might learn from them better than from more traditional texts.

My math-loving good-reading nerdy kid liked these when he was in primary school. In my opinion, roughly the right amount of text, drawing, seriousness, and sillyness. In this general vein, he also liked The Number Devil.

Thanks, A II. I can believe it. I guess the question is, who is the intended audience? If it’s kids who love maths anyway then, sure, I can see them being fun. If it’s other kids, I doubt they’d be appealing.

I loved those books in primary school! Probably they are only good for kids who like maths anyway, but I found that I learned way more maths from the books (after reading them several times over) than from all of primary school. They’d also set me onto working at problems (eg. Looking for a formula for the area of a trapezium knowing all 4 sides but not the height) which I was largely unsuccessful at at the time but were a good experience of Doing Maths anyway. I still give a lot of credit to these books for my interest/ability in maths today.

Now that I’m a bit older I have some constructive criticism for them, eg. it’d be good to have some more derivations/proofs of things rather than just presenting a rule and moving on. And of course they’re not that efficient, since good chunks of them are just there to entertain. (But they’re way more efficient than primary school, which was also far less entertaining!)

Thanks, aps. Your opinion on these books is much more valuable than mine. But, with no slight intended, I’m beginning to doubt you were, or are, a standard kid. I think my point still holds, that for kids already mathsy the books make be of (great) interest, but I can’t see they have much purpose or relevance to more general education.

Yes, I agree. But I don’t think they were really designed to be relevant to general education (since they market themselves as ‘maths they don’t teach you in school’, although that would be true of any book with maths in it), and I think they achieve what they were designed to.

On a side note, I think you might find their distaste for calculators interesting.

Sure. But my article is about general education. People (Terry) can respond however they wish, but if a response is largely irrelevant to the post, it’s reasonable to make that point.

To read someone defending times tables is music to my ears. I would even go a stage further back and include the repetitive learning of basic addition of tens and units this coupled with tables give a firm foundation for progress with maths

Thanks, Anonymous. I, and I’m pretty sure all the regulars at this blog, would agree with you. The times tables are essential, but are also a symbol of a more general essentialness.

The times tables are a good focus for these debates/wars, because it is a simple fact that education clowns actively discourage the learning of the tables. And if the clowns can’t get that right, there is no need to listen to them any further. It is a perfect one-item test of pedagogical competence. (The test is of necessity, not sufficiency.) See also here.

Hello from a land down under (where women glow and men plunder But that’s another point…), happy new year and thank you for article and comments.

I have just spent a good time on them.

Although it is focused on your educational system, I must sadly admit that it is quite relevant to those in old Europe, that my findings are the same for all the countries where I have taught mathematics for 30 years.

The problem may not be global, but it clearly affects all Western countries.

The problemn is maybe political and the aim is maybe no longer science and the understanding of the World, but simply the manufacturing of consumer morons.

The wheel seems to be turning… And only those who stay on the axis will have little to do…

Once again, thank you for this analysis which puts words to the facts, I will stay on your blog and read the other articles 🙂

Thanks. Good luck and good continuation.

Thanks for the kind words, P. F. .

Obviously the issues are doubly global: it is not just Australia, and it is not just mathematics. If I were smarter or more scholarly or something, I might be better able to write sensibly about the deeper doom. But at least sticking to local matters (most of the time) means I can more easily get into specifics and can properly rip things to shreds.

*slow claps*. Wow amazing.

So many punchy statements. Thank you for writing the things I have felt, thought and said for the short years of learning mathematics, learning how to teach mathematics, teaching mathematics, and when I got my research degree in maths, and still today in my current role as maths “content creator” for a publishing company. I am not alone in being grumpy about the state of how mathematics is delivered and taught.

I’m from Texas and taught middle school and high school there and then moved to Australia and was ‘shooketh’ by the ambiguity of their curriculum. I’m not condoning the Texas maths curriculum, but it was a real culture shock. I’d be interested to hear your take on the texas mathematics curriculum, as they differ from the US common core standards and from ACARA.

Thanks for the kind words, texas.

I really know nothing of Texas (or CC) education. I taught at Rice for three years, and some of my favourite students were guys who fought and clawed their way out of decaying Panhandle towns and the like. But Rice taught me almost nothing about regular kids at regular Texas (or other) schools. And, it was thirty years ago.

Occasionally I’ll give prominent clowns like Boaler a whack. But in general it’s simpler to stick to local issues, where I’m surer of my feet. Having said that, if you want to provide information, in a comment or an email, with indications of what might be of interest to the blog, i’m happy to look.

Very well done. Must have been a lot of work to assemble this and hone it. And I agree with the sentiments.

Thanks, and yes.

Dear Marty,

Thanks for this article. I feel power and feel that I am not alone. I can be named as ‘education academics’ as I have a PhD in maths education, and I am doing STEM education research now. However, I fully agree with your critique of this article. Maybe due to my East Asian background, I strongly believe that to learn well in mathematics, you need to work hard and you need to struggle. Thanks again Marty.

cheers

Jiqing

Thanks for your kind words, Jiqing. As you’d be hugely aware, there is a massive amount of research and discussion on the very different approach to mathematics education in Asia.