Little Steps for Little Minds

Here’s a quick but telling nugget of awfulness from Victoria’s 2017 VCE maths exams. Q9 of the first (non-calculator) Methods Exam is concerned with the function

    \[\boldsymbol {f(x) = \sqrt{x}(1-x)\,.}\]

In Part (b) of the question students are asked to show that the gradient of the tangent to the graph of f” equals \boldsymbol{ \frac{1-3x}{2\sqrt{x}} } .

A normal human being would simply have asked for the derivative of f, but not much can go wrong, right? Expanding and differentiating, we have

    \[\boldsymbol {f'(x) = \frac{1}{2\sqrt{x}} - \frac32\sqrt{x}=\frac{1-3x}{2\sqrt{x}}\,.}\]

Easy, and done.

So, how is it that 65% of Methods students scored 0 on this contrived but routine 1-point question? Did they choke on “the gradient of the tangent to the graph of f” and go on to hunt for a question written in English?

The Examiners’ Report pinpoints the issue, noting that the exam question required a step-by-step demonstration …. And, [w]hen answering ‘show that’ questions, students should include all steps to demonstrate exactly what was done (emphasis added). So the Report implies, for example, that our calculation above would have scored 0 because we didn’t explicitly include the step of obtaining a common denominator.

Jesus H. Christ.

Any suggestion that our calculation is an insufficient answer for a student in a senior maths class is pedagogical and mathematical lunacy. This is obvious, even ignoring the fact that Methods questions way too often are flawed and/or require the most fantastic of logical leaps. And, of course, the instruction that “all steps” be included is both meaningless and utterly mad, and the solution in the Examiners’ Report does nothing of the sort. (Exercise: Try to include all steps in the computation and simplification of f’.)

This is just one 1-point question, but such infantilising nonsense is endemic in Methods. The subject is saturated with pointlessly prissy language and infuriating, nano-step nitpicking, none of which bears the remotest resemblance to real mathematical thought or expression.

What is the message of such garbage? For the vast majority of students, who naively presume that an educational authority would have some expertise in education, the message is that mathematics is nothing but soulless bookkeeping, which should be avoided at all costs. For anyone who knows mathematics, however, the message is that Victorian maths education is in the clutches of a heartless and entirely clueless antimathematical institution.

The Treachery of Images

Harry scowled at a picture of a French girl in a bikini. Fred nudged Harry, man-to-man. “Like that, Harry?” he asked.

“Like what?”

“The girl there.”

“That’s not a girl. That’s a piece of paper.”

“Looks like a girl to me.” Fred Rosewater leered.

“Then you’re easily fooled,” said Harry. It’s done with ink on a piece of paper. That girl isn’t lying there on the counter. She’s thousands of miles away, doesn’t even know we’re alive. If this was a real girl, all I’d have to do for a living would be to stay at home and cut out pictures of big fish.”

                       Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless you, Mr. Rosewater

 

It is fundamental to be able to distinguish appearance from reality. That it is very easy to confuse the two is famously illustrated by Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (La Trahison des Images):

The danger of such confusion is all the greater in mathematics. Mathematical images, graphs and the like, have intuitive appeal, but these images are mere illustrations of deep and easily muddied ideas. The danger of focussing upon the image, with the ideas relegated to the shadows, is a fundamental reason why the current emphasis on calculators and graphical software is so misguided and so insidious.

Which brings us, once again, to Mathematical Methods. Question 5 on Section Two of the second 2015 Methods exam is concerned with the function V:[0,5]\rightarrow\Bbb R, where

\phantom{\quad}  V(t) = de^{\frac{t}3} + (10-d)e^{\frac{-2t}3}\,.

Here, d \in (0,10) is a constant, with d=2 initially; students are asked to find the minimum (which occurs at t = \log_e8), and to graph V. All this is par for the course: a reasonable calculus problem thoroughly trivialised by CAS calculators. Predictably, things get worse.

In part (c)(i) of the problem students are asked to find “the set of possible values of d” for which the minimum of V occurs at t=0. (Part (c)(ii) similarly, and thus boringly and pointlessly, asks for which d the minimum occurs at t=5). Arguably, the set of possible values of d is (0,10), which of course is not what was intended; the qualification “possible” is just annoying verbiage, in which the examiners excel.

So, on to considering what the students were expected to have done for (c)(ii), a 2-mark question, equating to three minutes. The Examiners’ Report pointedly remarks that “[a]dequate working must be shown for questions worth more than one mark.” What, then, constituted “adequate working” for 5(c)(i)? The Examiners’ solution consists of first setting V'(0)=0 and solving to give d=20/3, and then … well, nothing. Without further comment, the examiners magically conclude that the answer to (c)(i) is 20/3 \leqslant d< 10.

Only in the Carrollian world of Methods could the examiners’ doodles be regarded as a summary of or a signpost to any adequate solution. In truth, the examiners have offered no more than a mathematical invocation, barely relevant to the question at hand: why should V having a stationary point at t=0 for d=20/3 have any any bearing on V for other values of d? The reader is invited to attempt a proper and substantially complete solution, and to measure how long it takes. Best of luck completing it within three minutes, and feel free to indicate how you went in the comments.

It is evident that the vast majority of students couldn’t make heads or tails of the question, which says more for them than the examiners. Apparently about half the students solved V'(0)=0 and included d = 20/3 in some form in their answer, earning them one mark. Very few students got further; 4% of students received full marks on the question (and similarly on (c)(ii)).

What did the examiners actually hope for? It is pretty clear that what students were expected to do, and the most that students could conceivably do in the allotted time, was: solve V'(0)=0 (i.e. press SOLVE on the machine); then, look at the graphs (on the machine) for two or three values of d; then, simply presume that the graphs of V for all d are sufficiently predictable to “conclude” that 20/3 is the largest value of d for which the (unique) turning point of V lies in [0,5]. If it is not immediately obvious that any such approach is mathematical nonsense, the reader is invited to answer (c)(i) for the function W:[0,5]\rightarrow\Bbb R where W(t) = (6-d)t^2 + (d-2)t.

Once upon a time, Victorian Year 12 students were taught mathematics, were taught to prove things. Now, they’re taught to push buttons and to gaze admiringly at pictures of big fish.