ACARA’s Illiterature Review

A few weeks ago we wrote about ACARA‘s review of the Australian Curriculum. The mathematics component of ACARA’s review appears to be at least partially in the hands of some loose cannons – the Center for Curriculum Redesign – which ACARA seems now to regret having hired. CCR is still on our to-whack list, but ACARA’s general documentation for their review is also worth scrutiny, particularly the document we consider in this post. In all, it makes a fine example of how hundreds of pages on best practising and evidence-basing and world benchmarking can amount to little more than manipulative blather.

The main webpage for ACARA’s curriculum review consists of overview: welcoming videos, motherhood declarations, the terms of reference, a timeline and the like. The substantive basis for the review then appears on a separate page, Program of Research. It is the documents on this PoR page that we’ll be analysing.

The PoR provides links to six documents. Four of these documents are long “comparative studies” of the current Australian Curriculum with other curricula: in turn, British Columbia, Finland, Singapore and New Zealand. A fifth document then attempts to summarise these four comparative studies, indicating the “key findings”. We intend to write about the Key Findings and the Australia-Singapore Comparative Review in future posts.

The subject of this post is the sixth and final PoR document, a “Literature Review“. Listed first and subtitled “contemporary approaches to comparative education research”, the Literature Review purports to give the theoretical grounding for the application of the substantive curriculum comparisons that follow. The Literature Review begins

“This paper explores developments in the field of comparative education research, including references to methodological approaches that may inform the design and focus of ACARA’s program of research and international comparison (2017-2020)”

And, the Literature Review closes with a final, one-sentence paragraph:

“A critical consideration is the fact that curriculum is only one part of the educational equation.”

Ignoring the questionable grammar, how did the Literature Review get from A to Z, and what does it mean? The Review is dense with jargon and name-dropping, as literature reviews tend to be, and we’ll attempt to give some sense of the Review below. But already ACARA’s main, double-barrelled message is pretty clear:

Regardless of what other countries are doing, ACARA has license to do what they want and, whatever subsequently happens, it is not their fault.

That is bad enough, but things are much, much worse.

The Literature Review begins by noting that international comparisons are all the rage, in education and everything. In particular there are major international tests – the ridiculous PISA, and the not-ridiculous TIMSS, and PIRLS – which invite such comparisons, and which tend to be the focus of media reports, and of subsequent social and political reaction.

The Literature Review continues by discussing this trend, meandering from authority to authority. There are few endorsed conclusions but there is plenty of gaming, with the Review hovering around two implied concerns. Firstly, and presumably the central purpose of the Review, it is suggested that more general national differences make educational comparisons fundamentally difficult:

This area of research has become increasingly contested, however, insofar as there are perceptions of a focus on systemic improvement without a concomitant appreciation of socio-cultural (and other) context, philosophy of education and capacity to effect change. The risks posed by inadequate consideration of local issues are raised in discussions of the ‘rationality and irrationality of international comparative studies’ (Keitel & Kilpatrick, 1999).

Secondly, the focus upon international tests may result in an excessive focus on “literacy and numeracy”, narrowing the comparison of curricula:

… some researchers [claim] that ‘international comparison bolsters an evaluation mandate that promotes a superficial global awareness while stifling originality by displacing the core objectives of education’ (Hebert, 2012, p. 18). This reflects a view that comparative research must move beyond mere comparison of scores (e.g. PISA), and that more studies are needed in areas such as creativity, talent, ethical sensibilities and also in relation to values and attitudes more relevant to the needs of 21st century students (Hebert, 2012).

This leads to a consequent concern, that a “league table” focus on international comparison can result in pressure to “teach to the test”, thus narrowing the curriculum itself:

“In rejecting evaluation mandates, Hebert (2012) observes that literacy and numeracy often overshadow other education objectives (e.g. creativity, ethics, knowledge of history, etc.) central to educational systems as a consequence of ‘unbalanced policy-making’.”

Although containing a kernel of truth, there is plenty to criticise in ACARA’s statements, not least the disingenuous “some people say” framing. What, indeed, is the purpose here of a “literature review”? The only value for such preliminary documents is to determine the basis of the curricula comparisons to come, and a sequence of unsubstantiated claims from unendorsed authorities cannot possibly provide a proper basis. If ACARA has determined the basis of their curriculum review, which of course they must, then they are obligated to take their stand and to state it clearly. The implausible deniability inherent in ACARA’s literature review is ridiculous and cowardly.

As for ACARA’s concerns, well, yes, and no. Sure, there are good reasons for rural Peru to not compare themselves too critically to South Korea; it is much less clear, however, why Australia, with about the same GDP as South Korea and with half the population, should flinch from such a comparison. And true, the league tables don’t necessarily make even a superficial comparison easy; if South Korea is ranked third on some test with a score of 607 and Australia is tenth with a 517, that of itself tells us nothing. If, however, only 61% of Year 8 Australian students can figure out the fourth, very easy angle of a quadrilateral, while 86% of Korean students can do the same (p 181), that suggests something. And, if the same relative failure occurs question after question, that suggests a lot.

On ACARA’s concerns about the narrowing of the curriculum and of curriculum comparisons, one can only wish it were so. ACARA’s “values and attitudes more relevant to the needs of 21st century students” is undefined and undefinable; it is meaningless twaddle. And, whatever the place of “creativity” and “ethical values” and so forth in a curriculum, it can only be meaningful coming on top a solid foundation of reading and writing and mathematical sense. The deep and proper teaching of the three Rs, and establishing the necessary classroom culture in which to do it, is the critical basis of any coherent curriculum, as it has always been.

Ironically, while ACARA’s conscious undermining of international comparisons is strained and weak, ACARA also fails to raise other, much more substantial concerns. To begin, ACARA doesn’t even consider the possibility that international tests can intrinsically, on their merits, be awful; this is regrettable, since the only rational response to the question of how to use PISA scores for international comparison, or anything, is “Don’t”. Further, even if the test is not awful, it is not automatic that using the test results for comparison is necessary or particularly enlightening. What, for example, if less than half of Year 8 Australian students can give the prime factorisation of 36 in answer to a multiple choice question (p 6)? What if less than half of the same cohort can rewrite \boldsymbol{\frac{4}{14}} as \boldsymbol{\frac{\Box}{21}}, again in a multiple choice question (p 14)? Does one really need to look to how Korean kids are doing to recognise that something is seriously screwed up in Australia?

It is arguably worse than that. International comparisons, even those based upon intrinsically good tests, may not be just unnecessary but also misleadingly optimistic. What if, as there is reason to believe, the tests are getting dumber? What if, as there is reason to believe, the entire World is getting dumber?  Australia coming a constant tenth in a dumbing world is not a constant; it is a decline, and possibly a steep decline.

ACARA’s simultaneous failure to grasp the clear benefits and the genuine flaws of international comparison education is entirely predictable. It stems from ACARA’s inability to contemplate, let alone declare, a simple, objective basis for a coherent and productive school curriculum. If ACARA had any such ability then they would realise that, rather than current Australia being compared to other places, it should be compared to other times, to other centuries. If one wallows in a nonsense-swamp of 21st century idolatry, it is impossible to contemplate that anything might have been done better, and much better, in an earlier time. Such is ACARA’s blinkered thinking and such is Australia’s fate, and the fate of the World.

We could go on. ACARA’s Literature Review contains much more, and almost nothing. We could point out further, monumental flaws in the Review, but there is probably no need. We’ll simply note that nothing in the Review could assist in making useful international comparisons of education. And, much more importantly, there is nothing in the Review that could assist in the creation of a simple, coherent and productive school curriculum.

ACARA’s review of the Australian Curriculum is destined to be a disaster. The review will undoubtedly leave Australia with the same bloated, baseless, aimless idiocy that it has now. ACARA, and the educational authorities with which they consort and upon which they rely, are congenitally incapable of anything else.

ACARA is Confronted With the Big Ideas

In this column, ACARA will be playing the role of the Good Guy.

Now that we have your attention, we’ll confess that we were exaggerating. ACARA is, of course, always the Bad Guy. But this column also contains a Worse Guy, a bunch of grifters called Center for Curriculum Redesign. ACARA appears to be fighting them, and fighting themselves.

Last week, The Australian‘s education reporter, Rebecca Urban, wrote a column on ACARA’s current attempts to revise the Australian Curriculum (paywalled, and don’t bother, and it’s Murdoch). The article, titled Big ideas for mathematics curriculum fails the test, begins as follows:

Plans for a world-class national school curriculum to arrest Australia’s declining academic results are in disarray after a proposal to base the teaching of mathematics around “big ideas” was rejected twice.

So, apparently Australia has plans for a world-class curriculum.1 Who knew? At this stage we’d be happy with plans for a second rate curriculum, and we’d take what we got. But a curriculum based upon “big ideas”? It’s a fair bet that that’s not aiming within cooee of first or second. We’ll get to these “big ideas”, and some much worse little ideas, but first, some background.

The sources of this nonsense are two intertwined and contradictory undertakings within ACARA. The first undertaking is a review of the Australian Curriculum, which ACARA began last year, with a particular emphasis on mathematics. On ACARA’s own terms, the Review makes some sense; if nothing else, the Australian Curriculum is unarguably a tangled mess, with “capabilities” and “priorities” and “learning areas” and “strands” and “elaborations” continually dragging teachers this way and that. The consequence, independent of the Curriculum being good or bad, is that is difficult to discern what the Curriculum is, what it really cares about. As such, the current Review is looking for simplification of the Curriculum, with emphasis on “refining” and “decluttering”, and the like.

This attempt to tidy the Australian Curriculum, to give it a trim and a manicure, is natural and will probably do some good. Not a lot of good: the current Review is fundamentally too limited, even on its own terms, and so appears doomed to timidity.2 But, some good. The point, however, is the current Review is definitively not seeking a major overhaul of the Curriculum, much less a revolution. Of course we would love nothing more than a revolution, but “revolution” does not appear in the Terms of Reference.

The hilarious problem for ACARA is the second, contradictory undertaking: ACARA have hired themselves a gang of revolutionaries. In 2018, ACARA threw a bunch of money at the Center for Curriculum Redesign, for CCR “to develop an exemplar world-class mathematics curriculum”. ACARA’s “oh, by the way” announcement suggests that they weren’t keen on trumpeting this partnership, but CCR went the full brass band. Their press release proudly declared the project a “world’s first”, and included puff quotes from then ACARA CEO, Bob the Blunder, and from PISA king, Andreas Schleicher. And the method to produce this exemplar world-class, ACARA-PISA-endorsed masterpiece? CCR would be

“applying learnings from recent innovations in curriculum design and professional practice …”

And the driving idea?

“… the school curriculum needs to allow more time for deeper learning of discipline-specific content and 21st century competencies.”

This grandiose, futuristic snake oil was an idiot step too far, even for the idiot world of Australian education, and as soon as the ACARA-CCR partnership became known there was significant pushback. In an appropriately snarky report (paywalled, Murdoch), Rebecca Urban quoted ex-ACARA big shots, condemning the ACARA-CCR plan as “the latest in a long line of educational fads” and “a rather stealthy shift in approach”. Following Urban’s report, there was significant walking back, both from Bob the Blunder, and from the then federal education minister, Dan “the Forger” Tehan. But revolutionaries will do their revolutionary thing, and CCR seemingly went along their merry revolutionising way. And, here we are.

Urban notes that the proposal that ACARA has just rejected – for a second time – placed a “strong focus on developing problem-solving skills”, and she quotes from the document presented to ACARA, on the document’s “big ideas”:3

Core concepts in mathematics centre around the three organising ideas of mathematics structures approaches and mathematising [emphasis added] …Knowledge and conceptual understanding of mathematical structures and approaches enables students to mathematise situations, making sense of the world.”

Mathematising? Urban notes that this uncommon term doesn’t appear in ACARA’s literature, but is prominent in CCR’s work. She quotes the current proposal as defining mathematising as

“the process of seeing the world using mathematics by recognising, interpreting situations mathematically.”

So, all this big ideas stuff appears to amount to the standard “work like a mathematician”, problem-centred idiocy, ignoring the fact that the learning of the fundamentals of mathematics has very, very little to do with being a mathematician.4 Really, not a fresh hell, just some variation of the current, familiar hell.

So, why write on this latest version of the familiar problem-solving nonsense? Because what has reportedly been presented to ACARA may be far, far worse.

Most sane people realise that before tackling some big idea it is somewhat useful to get comfortable with relevant small ideas. In this vein, before the grand adventure of mathematising one would reasonably want kids to engage in some decent numbering and algebra-ing. You want the kids to do some mathematising nonsense? Ok, it’s dumb, but at least make sure that the kids first know some arithmetic and can handle an equation or two.  And this is where the proposal just presented to ACARA seems to go from garden-variety nonsense to full-blown lunacy.

Recall that the stated, non-revolutionary goal of the current Review is to clarify and refine and declutter the Australian Curriculum. Along these lines, the proposal presented to ACARA contained a number of line-item suggestions to accompany the big ideas. Urban quotes some small beer suggestions, such as the appropriate stage to be recognising coin denominations, the ordering of the months and the like. But, along with the small beer, Urban documents some big poison, such as the following:

\color{red}\mbox{\bf Year 4} \quad\boldsymbol{-}\quad  \left(\aligned&\mbox{\bf recognise represent and order numbers}\\ &\mbox{\bf to at least tens of thousands}\endaligned\right) \quad \mbox{\bf Not essential at year level}

Christ. If students don’t have a handle on ten-ing by the end of Year 4 then something is seriously screwed. At that stage the students should be happily be zooming into the zillions, but some idiots – the same idiots hell bent on real world problem-solving – imagine tens of thousands is some special burden.

The next poison:

\color{red}\mbox{\bf Year 5} \quad\boldsymbol{-}\quad \mbox{\bf Using fractions to represent probabilities} \quad  \left(\aligned&\mbox{\bf students are not ready,}\\ &\mbox{\bf promotes procedural knowledge} \\ & \mbox{\bf over conceptual understanding} \endaligned\right)

Here, the idiots are handed a gun on a platter, which they grab by the muzzle and then shoot themselves. There is absolutely zero need to cover probability, or statistics, in primary school. Its inclusion is exactly the kind of thoughtless and cumbersome numeracy bloat that makes the Australian Curriculum such a cow. But, if one is going to cover probability in primary school, the tangible benefit is that it provides novel and natural contexts to represent with fractions. Take away the fractions, and what is this grand “conceptual understanding” remaining? That some things happen less often often than other things? Wonderful.

One last swig of poison, strong enough to down an elephant:

\color{red}\mbox{\bf Years 7-10} \quad\boldsymbol{-}\quad \mbox{\bf Solving equations algebraically} \quad  \left(\aligned&\mbox{\bf Not essential for all students,}\\ &\mbox{\bf especially for more complex equations.} \\ & \mbox{\bf Technology can be used as a support} \endaligned\right)

On the scale of pure awfulness, this one scores an 11, maybe a 12. It is as bad as it can be, and then worse.

PISA types really have a thing about algebra. They hate it. And, this hatred of algebra demonstrates the emptiness of their grand revolutionary plans. Algebra is the fundamental mechanics of mathematical thought. Without a solid sense of and facility with algebra, all that mathematising and problem-solving is fantasy; it can amount to no more than trivial and pointless number games.

The teaching of algebra is already in an appalling, tokenistic state in Australia. It is woefully, shamefully underemphasised in lower secondary school, which is then the major source of students’ problems in middle school, and why so many students barely crawl across the finish line of senior mathematics, if they make it at all.

What is “more complex equations” supposed to mean for 7 – 10 algebra? The material gets no more complicated than quadratics, so presumably they mean quadratics, the hobgoblin of little saviours. True, this material tends to be taught pointlessly and poorly. But “complex”? Simply, no. It amounts to little more than AB = 0 implying that either A or B is 0, a simple and powerful idea that many students never solidly get. The rest is detail, not much detail, and the detail is just not that hard.

Of course, a significant reason why algebra is taught so, so badly is that it is almost universally taught and tested with “technology”, from calculators to nuclear CAS weapons, to online gaming of the kind that that asshole Tudge is promoting. And all of this is “used as a support”? That idea of “support”, just as stated, is bad enough, bringing forth images of kids limping through the material. But all this technology is much worse than a crutch; it is an opiate.

It is a minimal relief if ACARA has rejected the current proposal, but we have no real idea what is going on or what will happen next. We don’t how much much poison the proposal contained, or even who concocted it. We don’t know if the rejection of this proposal amounts to a war between CCR and a new, more enlightened ACARA, or a civil war within ACARA itself.5 We should find out soon enough, however. ACARA has promised to release a draft curriculum by the end of April, giving them a month or so to come to terms with the truly idiotic ideas that they are being presented. ACARA has a month or so to avoid becoming, yet again and still, Australia’s educational laughing stock.

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1) We really wanted to slip “Urban myth” into the title of this post, but decided it would have been unfair. Yes, “world class” required quotation marks, or something. It seems, however, that Rebecca Urban was just carelessly, or perhaps snidely, repeating a piece of ACARA puffery, which is not the focus of her report. In general, Urban tends to be less stenographic than other education (all) reporters; she is opinionated and, from what we’ve seen, she seems critical of the right things. We haven’t seen evidence that Urban knows about mathematics education, or is aware of just how awful things now are, but we also haven’t seen her repeat any of the common idiocies.

2) We hope to write on the Curriculum Review in the next week or so, give or take a Mathologer task.

3) The proposal just presented to ACARA is not publicly available, and Urban appears to have only viewed snippets of it. It is not even clear, at least to us, who are the authors of the proposal. We’re accepting that Urban’s report is accurate as far as it goes, while trying to avoid speculating on the much missing information.

4) Urban’s report includes some good and critical, but not sufficiently critical, quotes from teacher and writer, Greg Ashman.

5) David de Carvalho, ACARA’s new CEO, appears to be an intelligent and cultured man. Maybe insufficiently intelligent or cultured, or insufficiently honest, to declare the awfulness of NAPLAN and the Australian Curriculum, but a notable improvement over the past.

Alan Tudge, Annotated

Alan Tudge, the Federal Minister for Education and Youth is, of course, an asshole. He is a nasty, down-punching, vindictive, glass-jawed, born to rule shithead. But, is Tudge an idiot?

Yesterday, Minister Tudge gave a major policy speech – Being our best: Returning Australia to the top group of education nations. The title indicates the subject, and a very smart teacher-friend of ours suggested Tudge’s speech was “quite good”. So, we read it. Our feelings are mixed.

What follows is Minister Tudge’s speech,* with our brief thoughts – critical and supportive – interlaced. At the end, we give a quick summary of our thoughts.

 

My argument today is that we are not yet living up to this aspiration of a world class education system set out in [the Alice Springs Mparntwe] Declaration where every child is reaching their potential. In fact, based on international benchmarks, we have moved further away from it over the last twenty years.

I want to take you through the evidence of this and outline where I believe we need to focus to lift school standards and realise the aspiration of that Declaration. There are many great reforms already in place, but more will need to be done.

We should set ourselves a new goal of being back amongst the world’s best within a decade.

We will only achieve this if we work together. The Australian Government does not run schools, and no state or sector can achieve this goal alone. My approach will always be to work collaboratively with those who share the ambition of a world-class education system that provides opportunities for every student.

I have spent two decades involved in schools policy in some form – from working with Dr Brendan Nelson when he was Education Minister, to assisting with some of the toughest schooling challenges in remote communities as Noel Pearson’s Deputy Director, to being a founder of Teach for Australia, and then in parliament, as a member of the Parliamentary Education Committee and as the Prime Minister’s Parliamentary Secretary looking after indigenous affairs.

We know very little about it, but our understanding is that Teach for Australia is a very good thing. (EDIT 13/03/21: And maybe not. See the comments below.)

Noel Pearson’s work on education seems worth evaluating and difficult to evaluate, and we won’t attempt it here. We have not much liked anything we have read by Pearson, and he may be a fool. But, at least Pearson doesn’t suffer other fools, and he’s put his heart and soul into trying something different. We’re open-minded.

I have learnt that there is no silver bullet in education. However, I have also learnt that there is good evidence of what works, and that if we are focused, amazing things can be achieved. This is about our children and our nation’s future so what can be more important!

Where I want to start the discussion today, however, is on school funding. I have watched or been involved in the funding debate for many years and I am pleased that the school funding wars are now over.

Yes. We lost.

Funding for schools has increased by 38% in real per capita terms over the last decade. The School Resourcing Standard model for funding schools has been agreed by the Commonwealth with all State and Territory governments.

Since 2013, the Australian Government’s school funding has increased in nominal terms by 80% to a record $23.4 billion, and we have committed a further 40% increase to reach $32.8 billion by 2029. From 2013 to 2029, government schools funding will increase the most by 193%, catholic schools by 109% and independent schools by 161%.

Scotch College gets an eighth polo field

The federal funding is locked in and agreed through to the end of the decade. The states and territories will need to live up to their side of the bargain also, but with record funding to all schools, our focus is now on how to use the money not how much schools should get or the distribution between the sectors.

Tudge really is an asshole. The federal funding of private schools is obscene.

I mentioned at the outset that over the last two decades, international benchmarks suggest we are moving away from the ministerial aspiration of a world class education system. Our standards have dropped in both absolute terms and relative to other countries.

Consider the evidence, as provided by the most authoritative international assessments: the OECD’s PISA tests of 15 year olds.

Since 2000, Australia’s performance in reading has declined by 26 points, or the equivalent of nine months of schooling.

In maths, we have fallen 33 points since 2003, or by 14 months of schooling.

Tudge is, of course, unaware that PISA’s testing of mathematics is garbage. No one should pay any attention whatsoever to PISA.

In science, we have fallen 24 points since 2006, or by 11 months of schooling.

This decline has been consistent across different groups of students. Our top students are less likely to score in the highest achievement bands and our lower performing students are more likely to have fallen below the proficient standard. The problem is not a growing divide in student results; it is a decline in performance across the board.

As our student results have fallen, we have dropped behind more and more countries.

In the early 2000s, we ranked 4th internationally in reading, 8th in science, and 11th in maths. By 2018, we had fallen to 16th in reading, 17th in science and 29th in maths.

We are being significantly outcompeted in our neighbourhood. For example, Australian students are now, on average, about one and a half years behind Singaporean students when it comes to reading and science, and three years behind on maths.

But it is not just the Asian tigers that have leapt ahead of us. The UK, Canada and New Zealand – all countries we used to outperform in education – are now ahead of us on all three assessment domains.

If this was our economy, this decline would be a national topic of conversation. Perhaps the lack of attention is because the decline has been gradual rather than sudden. But when viewed over a twenty-year period, it is profound – and it will have consequences for our long-term productivity and competitiveness if we cannot lift our education performance.

Two other international tests do not show quite the decline as PISA. TIMMS (which covers mathematics and science) and PIRLS (which covers reading literacy) have shown slight upticks recently. Our performance in TIMSS in 2019, especially in Year 8, was promising and perhaps an early indicator of a turnaround. I hope this is the case.

A false hope. TIMSS is an excellent international test of Year 4 and Year 8 mathematics (and science), and our education overlords should really, really really be paying attention to what it tests and Australia’s (woeful) performance. But “Australia” did not improve in 2019: all of the improvement indicated by the Year 8 TIMSS results was in New South Wales.

There is no consensus as to why our performance has declined over the last twenty years.

It is certainly not because of a decline in funding. As outlined, our funding has gone up considerably in real per capita terms while at the same time our standards have declined.

Nor is it class sizes which have steadily declined over the past few decades and are now considerably smaller than other countries that significantly outperform us. Moreover, many of our schools are now brand new, with facilities that older generations look at with envy.

But these things don’t have as much of an impact as what happens inside the classroom. The quality of the teaching, the rigour of the curriculum and the discipline in the classroom matter most.

Tudge is correct, and this is hugely important. The blowing of money on polo fields and technological snake oil hasn’t helped, and Tudge ignores the massive and insane administrative-accountability burden that has been placed upon teachers. Nonetheless, he is correct. KKK.

So how do we get Australia back to being amongst the best in the world?

The first step has been done; state and territory ministers, along with the former federal minister, have agreed the ambition to be world class.

Whoa. Big first step. Let’s all be sure to catch our breath.

But we should go further.

Really? That first step was just so helpful, maybe that’s enough.

We should set ourselves a 2030 target to be again amongst the top group of nations across the three major domains of reading, maths and science. We used to consistently be in the top group, which means we can get there again.

Fine. By what measure of success? PISA results? TIMSS results? 

I will be taking this to the next Education Ministers Meeting in April.

Such a target would then become a guiding principle and place urgency to the task.

Ten years is a reasonable, while ambitious, timeframe to again be amongst the top nations. By achieving the goal, we would be living up to the aspiration of giving Australian students the opportunity to achieve their best.

We have many building blocks already in place to achieve the target.

For example, there are already great initiatives in place across a variety of areas and I commend the state education ministers and Minister Tehan and Birmingham for these. This includes accreditation of initial teacher education courses, the Year 1 phonics check, the national unique student identifier, a new education evidence institute, and many more reforms.

Great to see phonics noted. The teaching of reading in primary schools is arguably worse and more damaging than the teaching of arithmetic.

I will continue to work with the state and territory ministers to implement these initiatives. They will make a considerable impact.

I will also prioritise new reform areas in the months ahead to accelerate our progress.

Building on our progress to date, my focus and the Government’s focus will be on three areas: quality teaching, particularly initial teacher education, curriculum and assessment. In addition, I will be leading a continued focus on indigenous students, particularly those in remote communities, whose level of educational attainment remains catastrophically poor.

Let me start with quality teaching.

We have tens of thousands of passionate teachers who transform our children’s lives, giving them skills that they seem to magically acquire. After parents, they are frequently the most important person in a child’s life, and in some cases, the most important person.

Quality teaching is by far the most important in-school factor in determining student performance. If we get this right, we will achieve our goal.

Tudge is correct.

Consider: a student with a teacher in the top 10% of effectiveness achieves in a half a year what a student with a teacher in the bottom 10 percent achieves in a year. That is, a good teacher has twice the impact of a poorer teacher on student learning.

What does this even mean? How does one begin to quantify “effectiveness” and “achievement” and “impact”? This numerology suggests that Tudge has no clue how to evaluate the quality of a teacher or their teaching.

Most of the challenge of quality teaching lies with the states and the non-government education authorities who employ the teachers and run the schools. They manage the issues associated with salaries, conditions, hiring, and firing. There is still much work to do on this front to better reward the brilliant teachers and to more easily let go the ones who are better suited in alternative careers.

The federal government’s main leverage over quality teaching is its funding of universities to deliver Initial Teacher Education courses, and through the provision of high-quality teacher professional development.

All teacher professional development is pointless and a waste of everybody’s time, as a matter of fact and, pretty much, of necessity. Teachers learn by teaching, then reflecting, then teaching again, and that’s pretty much it. KKK.

Our Initial Teacher Education courses play two central roles – selecting the future teacher workforce and then training that workforce.

Top-performing education systems set high standards for who becomes a teacher. They know and apply Michael Barber’s maxim that, ‘the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers’.

Finland, for example, rigorously assesses potential teachers through standard school leaver exams, additional tests of critical thinking, and mock teaching activities. Only one in 10 applicants make the grade. Singapore has a similar level of selectiveness.

Once selected, top-performing systems ensure that teachers are rigorously trained, equipped with the skills, confidence and knowledge to be highly effective from day one in the classroom. The best ITE courses are focused on practical capabilities, essential content knowledge, and proven pedagogical strategies rather than fads. For example, primary teachers in Singapore are rigorously trained in systematic and explicit teaching of grammar – a key to great literacy teaching.

This is sounding better. We’re not convinced that Finland is the great role model it is sometimes presented as, but at least Tudge is saying the right words. The noting of teaching grammar, which is currently non-existent in primary schools, is particularly good to see.

In Australia, we have made real inroads into the task of raising standards in the selection and training of our teachers in the last few years.

No we haven’t.

Guided by the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG) recommendations, every initial teacher education course must now be assessed and accredited. This is a big breakthrough that over time will be fundamental to improving student outcomes.

We very much doubt it. Before reading Tudge’s speech we had not heard of the TEMAG report or the Government response. To us, it appears to be very much the standard swill.

Further, every teaching student now sits a test before graduation to ensure they have personal literacy and numeracy skills that are in the top 30 per cent of the adult population. If they do not pass the test, they cannot enter the classroom to teach.

ACER’s literacy and numeracy test is pointless and evil. We haven’t yet written on this obscenity, but it is on the list.

In addition, we have invested in Teach for Australia, a proven model that I helped found, that supports an accelerated pathway into the classroom for top graduates from non-teaching faculties.

We have made good progress, but there is still room for improvement.

We are still not consistently attracting the best students into teaching.

So you’re gonna offer teachers more money and make the job less shithouse? Or, is that suggestion too weirdly free market for you?

Moreover, some teachers are still graduating from their courses insufficiently prepared to teach in a classroom either because there has been too much focus on theory at the expense of practice, or because evidence-based teaching methods are not taught. I hear this consistently from school principals and graduates alike.

The OECD data backs this up: teachers in Australia feel less well prepared than the OECD average across curriculum content, pedagogy, managing student behaviour and monitoring student development.

La Trobe University has recently offered a short course in teaching phonics to existing teachers. A thousand teachers have signed up already. It is great that they offer this course and teachers are keen to learn, but it is an indictment on some education faculties that they were not taught this in the first place given how clear the evidence is.

The next evolution of reforms is needed, to build from the TEMAG reforms. I will soon be launching a review to help shape such reforms. This review will investigate where there is still further work to do to ensure that all ITE courses are high-quality and adequately prepare our teachers to be effective from day one.

This has been talked about for almost two decades now, going back to the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy in 2005, so l will be impatient with education faculties that are not implementing evidence-based practices. It is the kids that miss out!

This is very good to read, but the weak point is the term “evidence-based”. What counts as evidence, and who will evaluate the evidence? Think of the craziest education idea, and you’ll be able find “evidence” to back it, and an education “authority” claiming to be convinced by that evidence.

Further, for many of the changes that a sane person would make, is any evidence required or helpful? Does anyone need evidence, for example, that if kids aren’t sitting still and paying attention to a teacher then they’ll learn bugger all? Sure, Tudge needs “evidence” for political reasons, but to appreciate the major educational and cultural changes required, all one needs is a sense of history, a pair of eyes and a brain. 

 

I will also be looking for mechanisms to enable school principals and expert teachers to have a greater input over the content and delivery of teacher education courses in a similar way that practitioners and employers are in medicine and law.

We need to find additional pathways to attract outstanding students to teaching, including talented mid-career professionals.

This is very good. Intended or otherwise, it is more viewing teaching as vocational rather than professional.

Twenty years ago, when our standards were higher, a person could be trained to become a teacher through a one-year Diploma. Now it takes a minimum of a two year Masters. It would be a rare mid-career person who could afford to take two years off work. Shorter pathways are required.

For everyone. The push from a 1-Year Graduate Diploma to a 2-year Masters was monumentally stupid: needless, costly torture to trainee teachers, and almost certainly lowering teaching standards.

We need a system that recognises that many professionals have deep expertise and relevant experience that would make them highly impactful teachers. I would love to see more engineers and accountants, for example, using their mathematical expertise to help us address our critical shortage of maths teachers.

In the end, the quality of teaching is the most important factor in student outcomes. It is my most important priority when it comes to schooling.

That Tudge listed this as his first and most important priority is very good.

My second area of focus will be on the Australian Curriculum, which is currently under review by ACARA.

Tudge is presumably unaware that ACARA is run by clowns.

This is an opportunity for us to take a step change improvement and put us on the pathway to again being amongst the top nations.

The Alice Springs Declaration sets the objective of ‘promoting [a] world-class curriculum’. It is the right objective: without a world-class curriculum, we will not achieve world-class learning outcomes.

The curriculum sets the standard for the student outcomes we expect – and so our curriculum must reflect our aspiration to be among the best in the world again.

This can be done by benchmarking our curriculum standards against top performing countries like Singapore and using this analysis to set our expectations for student learning.

As with “evidence-based”, benchmarking is easily gamed and is effectively pointless, except for political purposes.

Education Ministers have given ACARA the job of refining, updating and decluttering the content across the current curriculum. By the start of next year, we will have a more streamlined, coherent, focused Australian Curriculum available to be implemented in our schools.

Signs are that this updating of the Curriculum will make things even worse. We hope to write on this in the next day or so.

We will not bridge the three-year gap between us and Singapore overnight, but my hope would be that our revised national curriculum will put us on a pathway over the next decade that will see Australia rise to the top tier of global reading, maths and science standards.

Within the national curriculum content, I would like to see greater focus put towards the fundamentals of reading, mathematics and civics and citizenship. These are the building blocks which underpin other content areas and set individuals up for a greater contribution in our society and democracy.

Yes! Finally, the three Rs! Reading, mathematics and … civics.

Jesus H. Christ. A proper classroom culture (not ScoMoFo’s fucking “Australian values” bullshit) is critical, coming before the three Rs.  But it’s not a goddam area of learning, it’s the way you create a medium for learning. 

Tudge’s push for “fundamentals” is very welcome, but he really screwed up the dismount.

I will have more to say on these content areas in the months ahead including how we can use technology better (particularly in maths teaching) to make up for teacher shortages in particular areas.

He means Mathletics, or some other brand of dog shit. Inevitably, this will be monumentally stupid and monumentally damaging.

We will need a renewed push in reading where too many are transitioning to secondary school without the fundamental reading skills.

Good.

We need to improve the knowledge that young people have of our society and our democracy.

Start with Peter Dutton and your other goon mates, you turd.

My third priority area will be assessment.

John Hattie’s research tells us that effective assessment and feedback influences student achievement as much as prior cognitive ability – that’s a significant effect that should make us sit up and pay attention. It’s clear that assessment empowers teachers – putting student data at their fingertips to personalise learning plans and address areas of weakness.

Our uninformed understanding is that Hattie is a bit of an idiot. But, good assessment is good.

This is why our national annual assessment of student progress – NAPLAN – is so important.

And bad assessment is bad. NAPLAN is garbage.

We must protect NAPLAN, and not give in to those who call for less accountability and less information for teachers and parents.

At the same time, we will continue to refine the NAPLAN tests to ensure they are optimised to provide the information that schools, teachers, parents and policymakers need to lift school standards. The shift to online assessment will be completed in 2022, which will help deliver results faster. This year, we will assess other opportunities to adjust the tests or their implementation.

A national, lower-year testing scheme for arithmetic and spelling-grammar and comprehension would be valuable and worth the effort. We cannot see how the idiocy of NAPLAN could ever morph into that. 

NAPLAN assessments must be supported by a range of other assessments. Great teachers use formative assessment on a daily or weekly basis to assess student learning and identify where more instruction and support is required.

We will do more to embed formative assessment in every classroom in the country. The Online Formative Assessment trial, initiated under the National Schools Reform Agreement, is being developed now.

This trial has great potential to increase the effectiveness of classroom teaching by making robust assessment quick and easy for teachers to regularly complete. It is critical that this trial delivers on its great promise, and I will be monitoring its progress closely and supporting its implementation.

I will also be looking into how we can develop a repository of proven assessment tools that teachers and parents can use, in classrooms and at home, to see how children are performing.

It’s not clear what this all means, but it sounds bad. Good teachers will always have their own methods, of varying degrees of formality, of assessing their students, suitable to the topic and the students. Perhaps Tudge is proposing to offer assistance for this, but it sounds more declarative and needlessly micromanaging.

Finally, I will continue the Government’s priority on indigenous students, particularly those in remote areas. This has been a long term commitment of mine, as it has been for many Australians. There are no simple solutions, but I do think we can do more. I particularly want to see a greater focus on the early years so that kids don’t start school from behind.

And you know, whatever the intention it’ll change almost nothing.

School education is a topic that every person has experience with, a view on, and every Australian should have an interest in. We have all been through the schooling system and many of us have children, nieces, nephews or grandchildren still in the system.

Overall, our school system works well. But as a whole we can do better to ensure that we deliver on our ultimate goal of ensuring that every child reaches their potential.

I am optimistic that we can lift Australian school standards to put us among the world’s best education systems again. And, more importantly, I am confident that we know what it will take to achieve this goal.

We will see.

*) We cut out a statement Tudge gave on sexual assault in schools, as well as the opening, boilerplaterish part of his speech.

 

SUMMARY

OK, does anybody else have whiplash?

After reading Tudge’s speech, we wrote to our teacher-friend and graded it a D+, maybe a C. After reflecting and writing and reflecting, we’re probably willing to raise that to a C+ or B. Although containing a number of genuine idiocies, the speech is focused upon flagging genuine problems with Australian education, and suggests some plausible approaches to at least alleviate those problems. As such, we cannot see that Tudge’s proposals will end up causing much harm, and they may even do some good.

But not much good. At best, Tudge will be relying upon the evidence and the experts to implement changes. But, as we have queried above, which evidence and which experts?

The reality is, Tudge will be relying upon half-wits at ACER and ACARA and the like, along with God knows which academic nitwits. And what is the alternative? Who can you think of in Australia, who has both the educational clout and proper sense-knowledge-intelligence to make a decent go of Tudge’s proposals? Is there a single person?

Tudge’s speech is good in sum, but Tudge doesn’t understand the depth or the fundamental sources of the problem. To go properly into that is another, long, post. We’ll just make one note: any proposal for education reform that doesn’t begin with a blanket ban of computers in the primary classroom is not a serious proposal.

Yep, C+ is probably about right.

Shuffling NAPLAN’s Deckchairs

We’re late to this, but it’s gotta be done.

Some State education ministers, unhappy with NAPLAN, commissioned a review, which appeared a couple weeks ago. The Review considers many contentious aspects of NAPLAN, but we’ll focus upon “numeracy”, NAPLAN’s homeopathic proxy for mathematics. We’ll leave others to debate “literacy” and the writing tests, and the timing and reporting and so forth.

So, what might the Review entail for the Son-of-NAPLAN testing of mathematics? Bugger all.

Which was always going to happen. For all the endless public and pundit whining about NAPLAN, which is what prompted this latest Review, none of the criticism has been aimed at the two elephants: the Australian Curriculum, which underpins NAPLAN, is a meatless mass of gristle and fat; and “numeracy” is not mathematics, is not arithmetic, and is barely anything. The inevitable consequence is that NAPLAN amounts to the aimless testing of untestable fuzz. As Gertrude Stein would have put it, there is no there there to test.

This misdirection of the Review was locked in by the terms of reference. No mention is made of “mathematics” or “arithmetic”. The single reference in the Terms to “numeracy” is a deadpan call for “the most efficient and effective system for assessing key literacy and numeracy outcomes”, as if this were a clear and unproblematic and worthy goal. It is no surprise, therefore, that the Review gives almost no attention to arithmetic and mathematics, and the meaning(lessness) of numeracy, and indeed works actively to avoid it.

The Review includes a capsule summary of the Numeracy tests, a superficial comparison to PISA and TIMSS, and Australia’s relative performance over time on these tests (pp 34-42). There is no proper exposition, however, of the nature of the tests. There is nothing reflecting the hard fact that NAPLAN and PISA are pseudomathematical garbage. TIMSS, on the other hand, is decidedly not garbage, so what does the Review do with that? That is interesting.

In what could have been a beacon paragraph, the Review compares the Australian Curriculum with expectations on TIMSS:

“… The Australian Curriculum emphasis on knowing and applying is similar to TIMSS but the Australian Curriculum does not appear to cover some of the complexity that is described in the TIMSS framework under reasoning. It seems likely, too, that a substantial number of TIMSS mathematics items are beyond Australian Curriculum expectations for achievement, especially at the Year 4 level.”

In summary, the emphasis on “knowing and applying” mathematics in the Australian Curriculum is just like TIMSS, as long as you don’t really care how much students know, or how deeply they can apply it, or how successful you “expect” them to be at it. Yep, two peas in a pod.

What does the Review then do with this critical paragraph? Nothing. They just drone ahead. Here is the indication that their entire Review is doomed to idiot trivialities, but they can’t see it, or won’t admit it. They see the smoke, note the smoke, but it doesn’t occur to them, or they just can’t be bothered, or it wasn’t in their idiot Terms, to look for the damn gun.

Finally, what of the recommendations proposed by the Review? There are two that concern the testing of numeracy and/or mathematics. The first, Recommendation 2.2, is that authorities

“Rename the numeracy test as mathematics …”

Huh. And what would be the purpose of that? Well, supposedly it would “clarify that [the test] assesses the content and proficiency strands of the Australian Curriculum: Mathematics”. Except, of course, and as the Review itself acknowledges, the Numeracy test doesn’t do anything of the sort. And, even to the minimal extent that it does, it just points back to Elephant Number One, that the Australian Curriculum is not a properly sound basis for anything.

The isolated suggestion to rename a test is of course a distracting triviality. Alas, not all of the Review’s recommendations are so trivial. Recommendation 2.3 proposes a new test, for

“… [the] assessment of critical and creative thinking in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) …”

Ah, Yes. Let’s test whether ten-year-old Tommy is the new Einstein.

This is a monumentally stupid recommendation. Is Jenny the next Newton? Maybe. But can she manipulate numbers and expressions with sufficient speed and accuracy to hold, let alone mould, a substantial mathematical thought in her head? Just maybe you might want to test for that first? Is Carol the new Capote? Then perhaps first teach her the basics of grammar, first teach her how to construct a clear and correct sentence. Then you can think to tease out all the great works inside her. Is Fritz another Mozart? Gee, I dunno. How are his scales? And on and on.

This constant, idiot call for the teaching of and, worse, the testing of “higher order” thinking, this mindless genuflection to reasoning and creativity, is maddening. It ignores the stubborn fact that deeper thought and creativity in any discipline can only be built upon the craft, upon the basic knowledge and skills of that discipline. The Review’s call is even worse for that, since STEM isn’t a discipline, it’s just a foggy con job.

This Godzilla versus Mothra battle is never likely to end, nor likely to end well. On the one side are the numeracy nuts, who can’t see the value of skills independent of some ridiculous application. On the other side are the creativity clowns, who ludicrously denigrate “the basics”, and ludicrously paint NAPLAN as the basics they’re denigrating. Neither side exhibits any understanding of what the basics are, or their critical importance. Neither side has a clue. Which means, unless and until these two monsters somehow destroy each other, we’re all doomed.

Tootering Your Own Horn

Eddie Woo is reportedly concerned about private tutoring. His warning comes courtesy of SMH‘s education editor, Jordan Baker, in an article entitled ‘Be very, very careful’: Experts raise warning on private tutoring. The article begins,

Maths teachers including high-profile mathematician Eddie Woo have sounded an alarm on private tutoring, warning that bad tutors could be “fatal” to students’ future in the subject.

Eddie said it, so it must be true. And, Baker quotes another expert, the chief executive of the Australian Tutoring Association, Mohan Dhall:

I am absolutely dismayed at the lack of creativity and lack of real-world applicability most tutors bring to maths …The main problem stems from this idea that they focus on the outcome – ‘this is what students need to know’, rather than ‘this is what kids need to learn to be interested and engage’.

Finally, Baker quotes expert Katherin Cartwright, a lecturer in mathematics education at The University of Sydney. Cartwright, according to Baker, is concerned that poor tutoring could lead to a lack of confidence:

If it becomes about skill and drill and speed, and it becomes an anxious, emotional issue for students, then they are not going to like it, and they will not want to take it further.

Yep, of course. The most important consideration when framing an education is to be sure to never make a student anxious or emotional. Poor, fragile little petals that they are.

Baker’s fear-mongering is nonsense. Almost every line of her article is contentious and a number contain flat out falsehoods. Beginning with the title. Woo and Dhall and Cartwright are “experts” on the issues of tutoring? According to whom? Based on what? Perhaps they are experts, but Baker provides no evidence.

OK, we could concede Baker’s point that Eddie is a mathematician. Except that he isn’t and we don’t. Not that it matters here, since most mathematicians are unlikely to know much about the role of tutoring in Australian education. But the false and pointless puffery exemplifies Baker’s unjustified appeals to authority.

What of the declared concerns of Baker’s “experts”? Cartwright is supposedly worried about “skill and drill and speed”. This in contrast to school, according to Baker:

Most schools no longer emphasise speed and rote learning when teaching maths, and now focus on students’ understanding of key concepts as part of a concerted effort to improve engagement in maths across the system.

This hilarious half-truth undercuts the whole thrust of Baker’s article. It is true that many schools, particularly primary schools, have drunk the educational Kool-Aid and have turned their maths lessons into constructivist swamplands. But that just means the main and massive job of competent Year 7 maths teachers is to undo the damage inflicted by snake-oilers, and to instil in their students, much too late, an appreciation of the importance of memory and skill and efficient technique. Such technique is critical for formal success in school mathematics and, which is sadly different, for the learning of mathematics. Baker seems entirely unaware, for example, that, for better or worse, Year 12 mathematics is first and foremost a speed test, a succession of sprints.

As for Dhall, does he really expects tutors to be more offering of “creativity” and “real-world applicability”? Dhall seems blissfully unaware that most “real-world” applications that students must suffer through are pedagogically worthless, and are either trivial or infinitely tedious. Dhall seems unaware that some subjects have warped “applicability” into a surrealist nightmare.

And Eddie? What worries Eddie? Not much, as it happens, but too much. Eddie’s quoted comments come from a NSW podcast, which appears to have been the genesis of Baker’s piece; stenographic fluffing is of course the standard for modern reportage, the cheap and easy alternative to proper investigation and considered reflection.

Eddie’s podcast is a happy public chat about teaching mathematics. Eddie is demonstrably a great teacher and he is very engaging. He says a number of smart things, the half-hour podcast only being offensive for its inoffensiveness; Eddie, or his interviewer, was seemingly too scared to venture into a deep public discussion of mathematics and the sense of it. The result is that, except for the occasional genuflection to “pattern”, Eddie may as well have been talking about turtle farming as teaching mathematics.

Eddie’s comments on tutoring are a very minor part of the podcast, a response in the final question time. This is Eddie’s response in full:

When I think about external tuition – again just like before this is a really complex question – there is tuition and then there is ‘tuition’. There is some which is enormously helpful to individual students to come in at a point of need and say “you have got gaps in your knowledge, I can identify that and then help you with those and then you can get back on the horse and off you go, fantastic”. There are other kinds of tuition which are frankly just pumping out an industrial model of education which parents who are very well intentioned and feel like they cannot do anything else, it is like “at least I can throw money at the problem and at least they are spending more time on maths hopefully that will help”. Maybe it does and maybe it is making your child hate maths because they are doing it until 9pm at night after a whole day? That to me is heartbreaking.

I think that students need to be very, very careful and parents need to be very, very careful about how they experience mathematics. Because yes the time is a worthwhile investment, it is a practical subject, but if you are just churning through, often tragically learning things which actually are just machine processes. I have students come to me and they say “I can differentiate, I am really good at that, I am only fifteen years old”. You don’t need to know what differentiation is, but they come to me with this ability to turn a handle on this algorithm this set of steps. Just like me; I don’t know how to bake, but I can follow a recipe. I have no idea what baking powder does or why 180 degrees Celsius is important but I can follow steps. That is okay for a cake because you can still eat it at the end, but that is fatal for mathematics because you don’t know why you are doing any of the things that you are doing. If that is what you are, you are not a mathematician, you are a machine and that is not what we want our children to become. We have to be careful.

Eddie says plenty right here, touching on various forms of and issues with tutoring, and school teaching. The issues do not get fleshed out, but that is the nature of Q & A.

Eddie also gets things smugly wrong. Sure, some tutoring might be characterised as “industrial”. But more so than schools? How can mass education not be industrial? This isn’t necessarily bad: mostly, it just is. Unless, of course, little Tarquin’s parents have the time and the money to arrange for individual or small-group lessons with an, um, tutor.

All the concerns Baker and her experts raise about tutoring apply as much or more so to school education and, as a matter of business necessity, are largely a reflection of school education. And, how do tutors and tutoring companies deal with this? Some well, some poorly. But mostly with industry, which is not a dirty word, and with good and honest intent.

Baker notes the underlying issue, seemingly without even realising it:

However, Australian students’ performance in maths has either stalled or declined on all major indicators over that period, and academics have raised concerns about students arriving at university without the maths skills they need.

Why do parents employ tutors? Having enjoyed and suffered forty years of tutoring, in pretty much all its forms, we can give the obvious answer: there’s a zillion different, individual reasons. Some, as Eddie suggests, are looking for a little damage control, the filling of gaps and a little polishing. Some, as Eddie suggests, think of mathematics, falsely, as a syntactic game, and are looking for lessons in playing that dangerously meaningless game. Some believe, correctly or otherwise, that their teacher/school is responsible for little Johnny’s struggling. Some are trying to get darling Diana into law school. Some are hothousing precious little Perry so he/she can get a scholarship into Polo Grammar or Mildred’s College for Christian Ladies.

But, underlying it all, there is one obvious, central reason why parents employ tutors: parents are unsatisfied with the education their child receives at school.

Why are parents unsatisfied? Are they right to be? Of course, it depends. But, whatever the individual analyses, the massive growth of the tutoring industry indicates a major disconnect, and either a major failing in schools’ performance or a major blindness in parents’ expectations, or both.

That would be a much more worthwhile issue for Baker, and everyone, to consider.

Feynman on Modernity

We plan to have more posts on VCAA’s ridiculous curriculum review. Unfortunately.

Now, however, we’ll take a semi-break with three related posts. The nonsensical nature of VCAA’s review stems largely from its cloaking of all discussion in a slavish devotion to “modernity”, from the self-fulfilling prediction of the inevitability of “technology”, and from the presumption that teachers will genuflect to black box authority. We’ll have a post on each of these corrupting influences.

Our first such post is on a quote by Richard Feynman. For another project, and as an antidote to VCAA poison, we’ve been reading The Character of Physical Law, Feynman’s brilliant public lectures on physical truth and its discovery. Videos of the lectures are easy to find, and the first lecture is embedded above. Feynman’s purpose in the lectures is to talk very generally about laws in physics, but in order to ground the discussion he devotes his first lecture to just one specific law. Feynman begins this lecture by discussing his possibly surprising choice:

Now I’ve chosen for my special example of physical law to tell you about the theory of gravitation, the phenomena of gravity. Why I chose gravity, I don’t know. Whatever I chose you would’ve asked the same question. Actually it was one of the first great laws to be discovered and it has an interesting history. You might say ‘Yes, but then it’s old hat. I would like to hear something about more modern science’. More recent perhaps, but not more modern. Modern science is exactly in the same tradition as the discoveries of the law of gravitation. It is only more recent discoveries that we would be talking about. And so I do not feel at all bad about telling you of the law of gravitation, because in describing its history and the methods, the character of its discovery and its quality, I am talking about modern science. Completely modern.

Newer does not mean more modern. Moreover, there can be compelling arguments for focussing upon the old rather than the new. Feynman was perfectly aware of those arguments, of course. Notwithstanding his humorous claim of ignorance, Feynman knew exactly why he chose the law of gravitation.

This could, but will not, lead us into a discussion of VCE physics. It suffices to point out the irony that the clumsy attempts to modernise this subject have shifted it towards the medieval. But the conflation of “recent” with “modern” is of course endemic in modern recent education. We shall just point out one specific effect of this disease on VCE mathematics.

Once upon a time, Victoria had a beautiful Year 12 subject called Applied Mathematics. One learned this subject from properly trained teachers and from a beautiful textbook, written by the legendary J. B. “Bernie” Fitzpatrick and the deserves-to-be-legendary Peter Galbraith. Perhaps we’ll devote some future posts on Applied and its Pure companion. It is enough to note that simply throwing out VCE’s Methods and Specialist in their entirety and replacing them with dusty old Pure and Applied would result in a vastly superior, and more modern, curriculum.

Here, we just want to mention one extended topic in that curriculum: dynamics. As it was once taught, dynamics was a deep and incredibly rich topic, a strong and natural reinforcement of calculus and trigonometry and vector algebra, and a stunning demonstration of their power. Such dynamics is “old”, however, and is thus a ready-made target for modernising zealots. And so, over the years this beautiful, coherent and cohering topic has been cut and carved and trivialised, so that in VCE’s Specialist all that remains are a few disconnected, meat-free bones.

But, whatever is bad the VCAA can strive to make worse. It is clear that, failing the unlikely event that the current curriculum structure is kept, VCAA’s review will result in dynamics disappearing from VCE mathematics entirely. Forever.

Welcome to the Dark Ages.

VCAA Puts the “Con” into Consultation

As we have written, the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority is “reviewing” Victoria’s senior secondary maths, which amounts to the VCAA attempting to ram through a vague and tendentious computer-based curriculum, presented with no evidence of its benefit apart from change for the sake of change. Readers can and should respond to the VCAA’s manipulative questionnaire before May 10. In this post we shall point out the farcical nature of VCAA’s “consultation”, as evidenced by VCAA’s overview and questionnaire.

The overview begins by framing VCAA’s review with the following question:

What could a senior secondary mathematics curriculum for a liberal democratic society in a developed country for 2020–2030 look like?

This is peculiar framing, since it is difficult to imagine how a society being “liberal” or “democratic” or otherwise has any bearing on the suitability of a mathematics curriculum. Why would a good curriculum for China not also be good for Victoria?

One could easily write off this framing as just jingoistic puffery; neither word reappears in VCAA’s overview. It is, however, more insidious than that. The framing is, except for the odd omission of the word “suitable”, identical to the title of the Wolfram-CBM paper promoting “computer-based mathematics” in general and Wolfram-CBM in particular. This paper is the heavy propaganda gun VCAA has procured in furtherance of its struggle to liberate us all from the horrors of mathematical calculation. Though the Wolfram-CBM paper never states it explicitly, this makes clear the purpose of the framing:

“[L]iberal” and “democratic” and “developed” amounts to “rich enough to assume, demand and forever more have us beholden to the omnipresence of computers”.

The VCAA overview continues by noting the VCAA’s previous review in 2013-2014 and then notes the preliminary work undertaken in 2018 as part of the current review:

… the VCAA convened an expert panel to make recommendations in preparation for broad consultation in 2019.

Really? On whose authority does this anonymous panel consist of experts? Expert in what? How was this “expert panel” chosen, and by whom? Were there any potential or actual conflicts of interest on the “expert panel” that were or should have been disclosed? How or how not was this “expert panel” directed to conduct its review? Were there any dissenters on this “expert panel”?

The only thing clear in all this is the opacity.

The overview provides no evidence that VCAA’s “expert panel” consists of appropriately qualified or sufficiently varied or sufficiently independent persons, nor that these persons were selected in an objective manner, nor that these persons were able to and encouraged to conduct the VCAA review in an objective manner. 

Indeed, any claim to breadth, independence or expertise is undermined by the constrained formulation of the questionnaire, the poverty of and the bias in the proposed curriculum structures and the overt slanting of the overview towards one particular structure. Which brings us to the issue of consultation:

There is no value in “broad consultation” if discussion has already been constrained to the consideration of three extremely poor options.

But, “consult” the VCAA will:

The VCAA will consult with key stakeholders and interested parties to ensure that feedback is gained from organisations, groups and individuals.

Well, great. The writer of this blog is a keenly interested stakeholder, and an individual well known to the VCAA. Should we be waiting by the phone? Probably not, but it hardly matters:

The VCAA has provided no indication that the consultation with “key stakeholders” and “interested parties” will be conducted in a manner to encourage full and proper critique. There is very good reason to doubt that any feedback thus gained will be evaluated in a fair or objective manner.

The overview then outlines three “key background papers” (links here). Then:

… stakeholders are invited to consider and respond to the consultation questionnaire for each structure.

Simply, this is false. Question 1 of VCAA’s questionnaire asks

Which of the proposed structures would you prefer to be implemented for VCE Mathematics?

Questions 2-8 then refer to, and only to, “this structure”. It is only in the final, catch-all Question 9 that a respondent is requested to provide “additional comments or feedback with respect to these structures”. Nowhere is it possible to record in a proper, voting, manner that one wishes to rank the Wolfram-CBM Structure C last, and preferably lower. Nowhere is there a dedicated question to indicate what is bad about a bad structure.

The VCAA questionnaire explicitly funnels respondents away from stating which structures the respondents believe are inferior, and why.

The good news is that the manipulativeness of the questionnaire probably doesn’t matter, since the responses will be presumably just be considered by another VCAA “expert panel”.

The VCAA overview gives no indication how the responses to the questionnaire will be considered and provides no commitment that the responses will be made public.

The VCAA overview goes on to provides outlines of the three structures being considered, which we’ll write upon in future posts. We’ll just comment here that, whereas Structures A and (to a lesser extent) B are laid out in some reasonable detail, Structure C looks to be the work of Chauncey Gardiner:

What is written about Structure C in the VCAA overview could mean anything and thus means nothing. 

True, for a “detailed overview” the reader is directed to the Wolfram-CBM paper. That, however, only makes matters worse:

A 28-page sales pitch that promotes particular software and particular commercial links is much more and much less than a clear, factual and dispassionate curriculum structure, and such a pitch has absolutely no place in what VCAA describes as a “blue-sky” review. By giving prominence to such material, the VCAA fails to treat the three proposed structures in anything close to a comparable or fair manner. 

If there were any doubt, the overview ends with the overt promotion of Structure C:

The distinctive proposal … contain[s] aspects which the Expert Panel found valuable … There was support for these aspects, indeed, many of the invited paper respondents [to the 2018 paper] independently included elements of them in their considerations, within more familiar structures and models.

Nothing like putting your thumb on the scales.

It is entirely inappropriate for a VCAA overview purportedly encouraging consultation to campaign for a particular structure. A respondent having “included elements” of an extreme proposal is a country mile short of supporting that proposal lock, stock and barrel. In any case, the cherry-picked opinions of unknown respondents selected in an unknown manner have zero value. 

Though woefully short of good administrative practice, we still might let some of the above slide if we had trust in the VCAA. But, we do not. Nothing in VCAA’s recent history or current process gives us any reason to do so. We can also see no reason why trust should be required. We can see no reason why the process lacks the fundamental transparency essential for such a radical review.

In summary, the VCAA review is unprofessional and the consultation process a sham. The review should be discarded. Plans can then be made for a new review, to be conducted in the professional and transparent manner that Victoria has every right to expect.

Reviewing the VCAA Review – Open Discussion

The VCAA is currently conducting a “review” of VCE mathematics. We’ve made our opinion clear, and we plan to post further in some detail. (We’ll update this post with links when and as seems appropriate.) We would also appreciate, however, as much input as possible from readers of (especially critics of) this blog.

This post is to permit and to encourage as much discussion as possible about the various structures the VCAA is considering. People are free to comment generally (but carefully) about the VCAA and the review process, but the intention here is to consider the details of the proposed structures and the arguments for and against them. We’re interested in anything and everything people have to say. Except for specific questions addressed to us, we’ll be pretty much hands-off in the comments section. The relevant links are

Please, go to it.

The Wolfram at the Door

(Note added 20/4: A VCAA questionnaire open until May 10 is discussed at the end of this post. Anyone is permitted to respond to this questionnaire, and anyone who cares about mathematics education should do so. It would be appreciated if those who have responded to the questionnaire indicate so in the comments below.)

Victoria’s math education is so awful and aimless that it’s easy to imagine it couldn’t get much worse. The VCAA, however, is in the process of proving otherwise. It begins, and it will almost certainly end, with Conrad Wolfram.

We’ve long hoped to write about Wolfram, the slick salesman for Big Brother‘s Church. Conrad Wolfram is the most visible and most powerful proponent of computer-based maths education; his Trumpian sales pitch can be viewed here and here. Wolfram is the kind of ideologue who can talk for an hour about mathematics and the teaching of mathematics without a single use of the word “proof”. And, this ideologue is the current poster boy for the computer zealots at the VCAA.

The VCAA is currently conducting a “review” of VCE mathematics, and is inviting “consultation”. There is an anonymous overview of the “review”, and responses to a questionnaire can be submitted until May 10. (Below, we give some advice on responding to this questionnaire. Update 25/4: Here is a post on the overview and the questionnaire.) There is also a new slanted (and anonymous) background paper, a 2017 slanted (and anonymous) background paper, a 2014 slanted (and anonymous) background paper, and some propaganda by Wolfram-CBM.

In the next few weeks we will try to forego shooting Cambridge fish in the barrel (after a few final shots …), and to give some overview and critique of the VCAA overview and the slanted (and anonymous) background papers. (We hope some readers will assist us in this.) Here, we’ll summarise the VCAA’s proposals.

The VCAA has stated that it is considering three possible structures for a new VCE mathematics study design:

  • Structure A.1 – the same warmed over swill currently offered;
  • Structure A.2 – tweaking the warmed over swill currently offered;
  • Structure B – compactifying the warmed over swill currently offered, making room for “options”;
  • Structure C – A “problem-centred computer-based mathematics incorporating data science”.

What a wealth of choice.

There is way, way too much to write about all this, but here’s the summary:

1. Structure C amounts to an untested and unscripted revolution that would almost certainly be a disaster.

2. The VCAA are Hell-bent on Structure C, and their consultation process is a sham. 

So, what can we all do about it? Pretty much bugger all. The VCAA doesn’t give a stuff what people think, and so it’s up to the mathematical heavy hitters to hit heavily. Perhaps, for example, AMSI will stop whining about unqualified teachers and other second order trivia, and will confront these mathematical and cultural vandals.

But, the one thing we all can do and we all should do is fill in the VCAA’s questionnaire. The questionnaire is calculatedly handcuffing but there are two ways to attempt to circumvent VCAA’s push-polling. One approach is to choose Structure C in Q1 as the “prefer[red]” option, and then to use the subsequent questions to critique Structure C. (Update 25/4: this was obviously a poor strategy, since the VCAA could simply count the response to Q1 as a vote for Structure C.) The second approach is to write pretty much anything until the catch-all Q9, and then go to town. (20/4 addition: It would be appreciated if those who have responded to the questionnaire indicate so below with a comment.)

We shall have much more to write, and hopefully sooner rather than later. As always, readers are free to and encouraged to comment, but see also this post, devoted to general discussion.

The Crap Aussie Curriculum Competition

The Evil Mathologer is out of town and the Evil Teacher is behind on sending us our summer homework. So, we have time for some thumping and we’ll begin with the Crap Australian Curriculum Competition. (Readers are free to decide whether it’s the curriculum or the competition that is crap.) The competition is simple:

Find the single worst line in the Australian Mathematics Curriculum.

You can choose from either the K-10 Curriculum or the Senior Curriculum, and your line can be from the elaborations or the “general capabilities” or the “cross-curriculum priorities” or the glossary, anywhere. You can also refer to other parts of the Curriculum to indicate the awfulness of your chosen line, as long as the awfulness is specific. (“Worst line” does not equate to “worst aspect”, and of course the many sins of omission cannot be easily addressed.)

The (obviously subjective) “winner” will receive a signed copy of the Dingo book, pictured above. Prizes of the Evil Mathologer’s QED will also be awarded as the judges see fit.

Happy crap-hunting.