Barney’s Rubble

I’m late to this, but I’m late to everything these days. (Next week: my take on whether Barbie or Oppenheimer is the better movie.*) A few months ago, I wrote about the ACT literacy and numeracy inquiry. The primary concern of the inquiry is the SES inequity of ACT schools, with the immediate suspect for this inequity being the high level of school independence within the ACT system. The inquiry was conducted by an Expert Panel, chaired by “distinguished university educator”, Professor Barney Dalgarno. The submissions (including my small offering) are here. Now, from a few weeks ago, the Final Report is available, accompanied by an Executive Summary and a Community Summary. In general, the Report appears to have been well received, with the ACT Government also agreeing “in principle” to the acceptance of the Report’s recommendations. I am less receptive.

The Final Report contains eight recommendations (pp 2-3), based upon fourteen “findings from the evidence” (pp 14-21). Half of these recommendations are straight motherhood: “a culture of high expectations”, “a proactive approach to engage with students, family and the community”, and so on. Of the more substantive recommendations, two directly address, and attack, the level of independence of ACT schools: Recommendation 1 calls for “a system-wide approach” and Recommendation 3 calls for a “consistent and centrally supported curriculum”. Which is great. Now, with luck, ACT can be just as good as Victoria.

There is no great benefit to consistency if it means being consistently bad. To be sure, there is some benefit: better that a central authority produces tripe than exhausted teachers waste their weekends doing so. But centralisation cannot be a proper fix unless Central Command knows what they’re doing. Which brings us to the final two recommendations.

Recommendation 5 promotes “consistent assessment and diagnostic tools”. Which might be a good thing depending upon what is intended. A key driverlessness of Australian education is the dearth of proper testing, particularly in primary schools; there is little value in having “a culture of high expectations” if there is never an evaluation of whether these high expectations are being met. So, if ACT intended to institute decent testing, something like NAPLAN but not sucking, that would be excellent. Unfortunately this is not evidently the case. The Report goes on at length about the value of (formative and summative) assessment (p114-122), but with little made concrete.

We are left with one recommendation, which is where the meat can be found (p 157):


The Directorate should develop a consistent approach to teaching in ACT public schools that aligns with an evidence-informed teaching framework applicable across all curriculum areas. Such a framework is needed to underpin the consistent and specific approaches to literacy and numeracy education.

The problem with promoting “evidence-informed teaching”, of course, is that education academia has produced “evidence” for anything and everything, including the polar opposites of anything and everything. As such, the descriptor “evidence-informed” serves no purpose other than as incantation, to magically transform one’s declarations from opinion into Holy Truth. The question is, then, what does the Expert Panel regard as “evidence-informed teaching”? The recommendation continues:

 The evidence-informed teaching framework and the consistent approaches to literacy and numeracy education should be based on the Panel’s findings. 

The Final Report thus indicates the Panel’s meaning of “evidence informed teaching”, in the Research Summary chapter (pp 53-151). There is also explicit discussion of literacy, of course, but for us maths guys the important sections are on School Teaching Strategies (pp 66-76) and Numeracy Education (pp 98-108).

School Teaching Strategies is summarised as follows (p 151):


There is clear evidence about the most effective teaching strategies and approaches. These approaches improve the quality of learning for all students. The following teaching approaches are best supported by evidence for use in classroom settings on a regular basis to ensure students learn effectively:

• consistent routines
• explicit teaching
• scaffolding
• multiple exposures and guided practice
• questioning and checking for understanding
• cooperative and collaborative learning
• feedback
• differentiation
• guided inquiry
• self-regulation and metacognitive strategies.

The Report discusses at length the meaning (for the Panel) of these many “teaching approaches”, including references to the “evidence”. What to make of it all?

First, the trivia and the nonsense. A number of the approaches are of the “well, duh” variety, which is fine and perhaps understandable, if pointless: any teacher who does not yet appreciate, for example, the critical importance of routine and questioning will not be assisted by a report declaring it thus. Other approaches are of active concern. There is obviously an important role for “cooperative and collaborative learning” but it is oversold and is a Trojan Horse for nonsense (and the linked “evidence” is dubious). The discussion of “differentiation” is a mess, probably because differentiation is invariably a mess; a single teacher simply cannot simultaneously teach the multiplication algorithm to half the class and repeated addition to the other half. It seems clear that the Panel contemplated declaring something meaningful on differentiation but, for whatever reason, they squibbed it.

These obvious and nonsense approaches, however, are simply cover for the central debate: explicit versus inquiry. So, as is suggested by the finding, is the Panel having a bet each way? Yes and no and yes. The Report includes “guided inquiry” as an “evidence-informed” approach and waffles the standard waffle when doing so. Nonetheless, it is clear that the Panel’s sympathies (in sum) side with explicit teaching. Explicit teaching is in the front row whereas inquiry is relegated to the cheap seats, and even then the strong emphasis is on guided inquiry. Greg Ashman is probably the guy to indicate the point at which “guided inquiry” is simply explicit teaching under a face-saving name.

The Report’s strong emphasis on explicit teaching is very good, and is seemingly the reason why the Report has been well received. It is not clear to me, however, that the message the Panel intended to send will be the message received. There appears to be enough in the Report that undermines itself, so that any teacher of a mind to continue inquiring away will see license do so. I am guessing that there will be many such teachers, supported by many similarly minded schools.

Finally, we have Numeracy Education, the other section guiding the Panel’s recommendation on “evidence-informed” teaching of mathematics (pp 98-108). It will come as no surprise that this section is bad. It is why we’re here.

With its focus on “numeracy” rather than mathematics, the review sets off on the wrong, lame foot, and it never locates the right foot; there is little sense exhibited of what mathematics is; there is not a single mention of “arithmetic” in the entire document. The discussion has early labelled sections, hammering the supposed importance of “Authentic Tasks and Real-World Problem” and “Problem-Solving Strategies”. Of course such “real-world” tasks are inquiry-fest time suckers and are invariably inauthentic or trivial or both. And the “problem solving”, which could be good, is always mathematical dishwater, with Tony Gardiner and his kin nowhere in sight.

To be fair, a later section on “Evidence-Informed Numeracy Teaching” has a decent emphasis on explicit teaching. There is also a pleasing promotion of the should-be-obvious Concrete-Representational-Abstract  (aka Concrete-Pictorial-Abstract) framework for early primary teaching. These parts are quieter, however, and the early loud parts are loudly stupid.

This stupidity comes through loud and clear in the summary finding (pp 107-108). The part on preschool amounts to suggesting the kids play with blocks, which is fine. The high school part is a generalist nothing, presumably the product of the mathematical weakness of the “Expert” Panel. The concern is the “findings” on primary teaching, for which the Expert Panel believes, strongly and wrongly, that they know what they’re talking about:


6b. Primary Numeracy

Teachers should:

focus on foundational numeracy concepts (e.g. number sense, place value, patterning, algebraic, additive, multiplicative, proportional thinking, geometric properties, chance, representing data) through activities involving concrete manipulatives
regularly draw upon the concrete-representational-abstract (CRA) approach to progress from concrete manipulatives, to visual representations, and on to abstract representations within mathematical procedures
teach foundational concepts through and alongside problem solving to develop reasoning, mathematical communication and fluent application of core mathematical facts, operations, and strategies
ensure children are able to describe their problem solving strategies orally to demonstrate understanding of the foundational concepts
continue to revisit foundational numeracy concepts as new procedural mathematical skills are taught.

Is fluency there? Yeah, but you gotta squint to see it. What you don’t have to squint to see is the emphasis on “problem-solving”. The idea of teaching the basics “through and alongside problem solving” is utter madness, and exactly the kind of madness that the Report’s purported emphasis on explicit teaching was supposedly a call to end. It is then madness piled upon madness to emphasise “communication”, to demand that the just-learning-this-stuff kids “describe their problem solving strategies orally”.

There’s a plausible guess for the source of all this nonsense, but it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that the recommendation-finding on numeracy thoroughly undermines any general call from the Report for explicit teaching. Whatever happens with literacy, the result of this Report is that ACT’s teaching of mathematics will still suck. And of course it will still suck the worst for the kids least likely to have alternative, sane resources. It’ll be the lower SES kids who’ll be really screwed. As always.


*) I don’t care. I’ve seen neither movie and I doubt either is very good.

8 Replies to “Barney’s Rubble”

  1. There was a great UK report awhile ago that used the term evidence sprinkled to describe the use of facts to give an impression of the use of evidence in establishing a position when in fact it was merely there to given the impression of evidence based decision making.
    Sorry I’ve looked and can’t find it anymore but it was well written and the term is a useful one.

    Their analysis was that the best reports were detectable by their coverage of any counter arguments to the authors conclusions.
    I still find that a useful heuristic. If I can easily find key evidence they missed then the report is probably crap.

    1. Thanks, Stan. I think your heuristic is a good one. By that heuristic, the section of the report on school teaching strategies could be a lot worse. There is some reasonable discussion of various approaches, and doesn’t come across as dogmatic. But it still feels like a game, that they’re simply getting where they want to go. Then, where they want to go in the numeracy teaching section, which is not close to the same place, is simply crazy.

  2. I have adopted my own take on problem solving. It goes like this. In our daily lives we experience problems of all types to be solved. What will I have for dinner? How do I deal with a difficult situation in my life – financial, personal, social, or physical? Can I fix that lock that continually resists being opened? My interest in chess serves up problems for me every day!

    Every subject at school provides tools for solving problems – history, English, science, cooking, sport – and mathematics too. When you think about this, it is clear that over 13 years, school provides a students with a wealth of experience in problem solving in many different contexts. Ideally, students should graduate from school with an enthusiasm for solving problems. Mathematics is just one tool in the tool box, albeit an important one.

    1. Good for you. How would you “teach foundational concepts through and alongside problem solving”?

      1. Problem solving, per se, is not something that I can teach. I can teach students how to solve problems in algebra, or trigonometry.

  3. At least it uses the term ‘evidence-informed’, rather than ‘evidence-based’ – a minor point, but something.

    The trend away from fluency is not just in maths – it’s in a lot of places eg history
    (dates), medicine (anatomy downgraded). Is there anything more general that investigates this trend?

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