New Cur 30: The Complete Pain Words


I am not a good writer. Primarily, I use the monkey-typewriter method: if you rewrite a sentence sufficiently many times then you’ll eventually wind up with something at least serviceable. Then, if you rewrite a paragraph sufficiently many times … And so on. It is not a very efficient method.

Even if not efficient, however, the method works well enough for me. Of course I’m not creating great literature, but I don’t think it’s too boastful to claim that I get my ideas across clearly enough and engagingly enough.

Less monkeyishly, my writing style is fuelled mainly by an undergraduate humour and a stubbornness to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, steered by the lessons and the spirit of the famous style guides, such as Strunk & White and Gowers. These guides are expressly not about creating great art, but rather about lowering your eyes to a much more achievable goal: recognising your intended readers and getting your ideas across to those readers in a clear, uncluttered manner. The powerful message of these guides is that anyone can write well enough, if they simply recognise the proper goal and work sufficiently hard to achieve it.

In the editions of the The Elements of Style to which he contributed, E. B. White quotes and then comments upon a key paragraph from William Strunk‘s original:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.”

There you have a short, valuable essay on the nature and beauty of brevity — fifty-nine words that could change the world. 

Sir Ernest GowersThe Complete Plain Words has an even pithier summary, in an epigraph, a quotation from historian G. M. Young, to the Prologue:

“The final cause of speech is to get an idea as exactly as possible out of one mind into another. Its formal cause therefore is such choice and disposition of words as will achieve this end most economically.”

In his revision to The Complete Plain Words, Sir Bruce Fraser expressed it about as economically as possible:

Be simple. Be short. Be human.

The Complete Plain Words is even more specifically aimed than The Elements of Style, having famously originated as a booklet for UK civil servants. Which brings us, finally, to the Australian Mathematics Curriculum.



I have already whacked some of the larger aspects of the curriculum writing, as well as some of the structural aspects. Here I want to consider a smaller aspect: the phrasing of the curriculum content descriptors. These descriptors comprise the core of the curriculum, the part that the teachers have no choice but to read and to decipher. It is thus in this part, more than any other, that the writing must be clear and clean. Of course, I have already indicated dozens of poorly written descriptors, in particular in the Awfullnesses post. But the focus was almost always on the poor content; here, I will focus on the poor language.

I will start at the very beginning, as Mary Poppins sang, with Foundation Number. The first descriptor is,

name, represent and order numbers including zero to at least 20, using physical and virtual materials and numerals (AC9MFN01)

Is this OK? Well, adequate, maybe. It’s clear enough that the kids are supposed to learn the numbers from zero 0 to 20. But why not just,

Learn the numbers from 0 to 20.

OK, for ideological reasons ACARA wants to be more detailed and explicit in the descriptors. But “physical and virtual materials and numerals” is very clunky conjuncting, and the three listed activities don’t match the three listed aids: the kids will be “using” none of the aids in naming numbers. Here’s a suggested alternative:

Learn the numbers from 0 to 20, including their names, order, physical representations and representations with numerals. 

Is this not clearly better?

On to the next descriptor:

recognise and name the number of objects within a collection up to 5 using subitising (AC9MFN02)

The preposition “within” is a poor choice, since it distracts from considering the collection as a whole, which is the entire point. Then, “collection of up to 5” hangs there, and it should be “five” not 5. Finally, does one really require the five dollar word “subitising”? Here’s a suggested alternative:

Identify the number of objects in a group of up to five objects.  

On it goes. Here are the remaining four descriptors, and suggested alternatives:

quantify and compare collections to at least 20 using counting and explain or demonstrate reasoning (AC9MFN03)

Identify and compare the number of objects in groups of up to twenty objects. 

partition and combine collections up to 10 using part-part-whole relationships and subitising to recognise and name the parts (AC9MFN04)

Combine and partition groups of up to ten objects, identifying and naming the sizes of the parts and the whole. 

represent practical situations involving addition, subtraction and quantification with physical and virtual materials and use counting or subitising strategies (AC9MFN05)

Represent and analyse problems with physical materials, using counting, addition and subtraction.

represent practical situations involving equal sharing and grouping with physical and virtual materials and use counting or subitising strategies (AC9MFN06)

Represent problems of equal sharing, using number recognition and counting.

I don’t for a minute claim that these rewrites are perfect. But they seem unarguably a damn sight better, and they were the product of about three minutes’ contemplation. And, sure, maybe I skimped a little, with a little detail here or there left out. But it was ACARA’s idiotic idea to shove everything but the kitchen sink into the content descriptors. If that then means the content descriptors are unwritable, it just implies that ACARA screwed up earlier on. Which of course they did. And also later on.

Even accepting the needlessly bloated content, the descriptors are a muddy mess. What are “practical situations”? Is the intention that the kids use counting or (subitising strategies), or that they use (counting strategies) or (subitising strategies)? What even are “subitising strategies”? Isn’t subitising that you either get the number or you don’t? So what could be a strategy for that? To peek when you think the things are not looking?

Every single descriptor is like this. Every descriptor is muddied by vague and inaccurate words, by clumsy grammar, and by imprecise direction and goals. The kids must forever “communicate” and consider “questions” of unstated character, describe “features” and “investigate” god knows what, and “reason” in god knows what manner. The meaningless and excruciating “situations” occurs 136 times.

With absolute honesty, I do not believe the Curriculum contains a single content descriptor that could not be improved with two minutes’ thought from a half-competent mathematical editor. For most descriptors, a monkey with a typewriter would have an even money shot. It is astonishing, and it is a disgrace.

The Curriculum writing is a disaster. There is nowhere a single hint of even an attempt to be simple or short or remotely human. For the writing alone, and for so many other reasons, the Australian curriculum should be discarded.

25 Replies to “New Cur 30: The Complete Pain Words”

  1. It’s been said that grammar is simply a courtesy to the reader. Guess this shows how much ACARA respects their audience.

  2. When it comes to style and writing my favourite quote is the by Pascal Blaise “Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.” , in English “I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”

  3. I like your dropping of virtual in the first descriptor. There is no virtual representation that we can sense that doesn’t have a physical way for us to know of it. Unless they mean something we remember which they don’t.

    But I would drop physical representation too.
    Do people really learn to distinguish 17 from 19 by their physical representation or do they learn to count 17 or 19 objects?
    I am sure we could all learn to distinguish 17 objects from any other amount without counting but is that what they mean?

    My guess is what is usually taught is how to accurately count from 1 to 20 items. Whether these are on a screen, physical objects, sounds, something in a picture, or a memory, or taps on the shoulder.

    1. Thanks, Stan. It’s so hard to to separate the idiocy of the content from the idiocy of the wording. Above, I tried to stick mostly to rewording, rather than also recontenting, although of course both are much needed. As such, I cheated a little by leaving out “virtual”. But it is clumsy to include “virtual”, requiring another comma to then separate out the numerals bit. So, I said “Screw it, not my idea, not my job” and left it out.

      i think your objection to virtual materials still being manifested physically is too sophistic, although of course I agree the entire virtual commandment is nuts. On the other hand, I’m perfectly fine with and would encourage kids playing with blocks and (in my dreams) Cuisenaire rods, and whatever. Numbers are not intuitive, and anything that provides that intuition is a good thing. If, however, Year 6 kids are still doing blocks, and pizza fractions, then we got a problem.

      For similar reasons, I think starting with 0 rather than 1 is a very questionable move.

      1. I agree, it was a way to point out virtual is unnecessary. On the one hand I can imagine some software does a fine job here. On the other it shouldn’t be needed and at the learning to count age less screen time should win any argument.
        I can also imagine a software sales person insisting virtual be stuck in everywhere in case someone thought without that software solutions were not intended. Sticking it everywhere also helps the software sale person argue that all of it can be done with software.

        I don’t see why the curriculum document has to help the sales pitch here.

  4. I am sure that many of you will agree that Marty is an excellent writer.

    I think it was Halmos who recommended his way of writing a book. Write chapter 1; review it and re-write it; write chapter 2; review chapters 1 and 2 and re-write them; write chapter 3; review chapters 1, 2 and 3 and re-write them; etc.

    I tried this spiral approach when writing a longish paper – before there were word processors.

    1. Thanks very much, Terry. I don’t agree. But, whatever the worth of my writing, I can promise it is only by the methods I suggested above. In brief: caring enough that it be good. This post, for example, had 66 revisions (plus a hell of a lot of offline pondering). That’s what it takes, at least for me.

  5. I wonder what kind of virtual materials they want kids to use in order to learn to count up to twenty. Counting on fingers or, dare I say it, imagining and counting in your head is just so obsolete and savage these days. Kids _must_ be sat in front of a computer screen and be forced to look at virtual circles on a random website to learn to count.

    This is a genuine question by the way, how in the hell are virtual materials going to help kids learn to count?

        1. No [it is probably not encouraged and probably not outright forbidden], but you can wear open-toed shoes and count that way.

          [the exams being in the Summer…]

          And what you are allowed to do in class you are allowed to do in the exam – or getting to and from the examination building.

        1. Curious as to why you don’t like them. I always thought they seem a pretty decent way to lock in the Base 10 number system. Surely adding different colours would distract?

          1. Thanks, YT. I don’t think the colours distract, but rather the opposite. That’s at least my memory as a kid. Having Orange = 10, Red = 2, etc gives the numbers some feeling of solidity. And, I’m just not convinced that a bunch of white doesn’t simply blend into nothingness. Yeah, you have a 100 square and a 1000 cube, but i think the value of blocks to get across base ten has pretty much petered out by then.

            Of course any blocks are better than shoving the little monsters in front of a computer screen.

  6. Wasn’t it the reprobate postulate Maria from the Sound of Music who sang:

    “Let’s start at the very beginning
    a very good place to start
    When you read you begin with ABC
    When you count you begin with one – two – three”.

    [at least I do not remember Poppins and *her* “let’s start at the very beginning – in any of the books I have read or in the movie].

    And then we get into “Do-Re-Mi” and all the moments of solfège notation and ear-reading.

    Of course writing a song – let alone all the songs in a musical or opera – is a skill on its own!

    Counting strategies to check what they subitised?

    A practical situation might be in Oprah where “I get a car; you get a car; everyone in the audience gets a car”.

    The part relation is when they are sitting on the back seat and measuring the length of the seatbelts.

    Back to Poppins – I remember Movie Poppins said “Spit-spot!”

      1. As one of the characters in CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY said: “That would be cheating”

        [a journalist? Or maybe Slugworth?]

        I did search for “Let’s start at the very beginning”

        which did not necessitate me clicking on any link.

        And then something wrinkled.

  7. My question is how the Australian Curriculum works in the real world, especially at primary level. As a secondary teacher, I never refer to the Curriculum as I would always use a textbook (except for a current remedial class that forced me to try and read the Curriculum to work out what I should teach in my tailored course).

    However I understand primary schools rarely use textbooks. And I can’t imagine that many teachers can make sense of the Australian Curriculum. How do they muddle through?

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