Leading By Example

What a month. It’s raining mendacity.

Today, the ridiculous AMSI-AAMT-MERGA statement received further press coverage, this time in a report from education stenographer, Suzan Delibasic (paywalled, Murdoch):

“Leading experts are calling for a maths curriculum overhaul, with a major review set to focus on fixing declining academic results.”

Once the stage has been set with straight-faced paraphrasing of AMSI-AAMT-MERGA nonsense, Delbonis’s report consists of quotes from three of these “leading experts”, beginning with AAMT‘s CEO, Allan Dougan:

“The whole idea of a maths class where the teacher teaches the content and the students practise it 300 times, that’s what we’re moving away from.”

300 times? If a kid is assigned 30 exercises as practice, the school will call Child Services. 3 times is much closer to the current mark, particularly in primary school, where the real damage is being done.

We have no idea where Dougan dredged up his Dickensian dream, but of course it has nothing to do with reality. The reality is that decades of “leading experts” killing the teaching of technique, of denigrating proper practice is a huge part of why Australian mathematics education is currently a disaster. Dougan apparently imagines the cure is less practice than the trivial amounts that currently exist.

To illustrate the point, Dougan provides his own, striking example:

“[Dougan] said one problem-solving task could involve year 6 students taking part in an activity called It All Adds Up, where each letter of the alphabet is given a dollar value” 

“Letter A is $1 to Z being $26. You can start asking students open questions such as finding a four-letter word that costs $50 —the success of this task is how they approach it and how they think about problem solving.”

Looks like a fun game. How about VOID? Or CLOT? Do I win?

Seriously, Year 6? As an add-on activity for Year 2, maybe Year 3, sure. But if you imagine it reasonable to expect Year 6 students to gain anything from such an addition game, then your sense of appropriate skill level bears no relation to reality. And even for Year 2 or Year 3 students, it’s a game, which by definition cannot be the main game. You learn addition by practising addition – the carefully structured 30 times thing – not by the occasional random sum in the middle of a game.

Our second Leading Expert is AMSI‘s Director, Tim Marchant:

“Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute director Professor Tim Marchant said he was concerned by the shortage of qualified maths teachers.”

“The data shows about 50 per cent of schools have maths classes taught by teachers that aren’t qualified in maths,”

Well, it wouldn’t be AMSI if they weren’t punching down, whining about unqualified teachers. But Professor Marchant also considers classroom activities:

Prof Marchant said group activities in the classroom helped learning and made maths “fun” … He suggested hands-on learning experiences including using Rubik’s cubes to help with problem solving.

Rubik’s cubes. Not enough games, not enough “fun”, that’s the problem.

Once upon a time, we had hope that AMSI would be a genuine force for improving Australian mathematics education. Now, we’d be happy if AMSI would just shut up, stop signing ridiculous statements and go away.

Our final Leading Expert is Peter Sullivan, Emeritus Professor of Education at Monash University:

“The revised curriculum needs to be simply written so teachers can understand and comprehend it; we want the big ideas clearly articulated,”

That’s Peter the Great there, the guy who led the writing of the current Australian mathematics curriculum.

Leading Experts. The “experts” part is debatable, but the “leading” is absolutely clear. These people are leading Australia to an even deeper level of educational Hell.

Why Mathematics Education Must Change

The revisions to Australia’s mathematics curriculum will be out soon, and it appears that the fix may be in. This fix will, of course, fix nothing; our guess is that things are about to get much worse.

As reported in yesterday’s SMH, Australia’s major league Maths Ed groups have released a “Joint Statement on Proposed Maths Curriculum”. Cosigned by AMSI, AAMT and MERGA, as well as AAS and ATSIMA, the statement is titled Why Maths [sic] Must Change. The statement is a triumph of modern educational ignorance.

The statement begins by noting “the proposed revisions to the Australian maths curriculum” are forthcoming, and “the importance of getting it right”. We are then told what “getting it right” means. The statement is poorly written and vague, inappropriately and inaccurately colloquial, but the message is clear enough:

“More than ever, our society needs students who are adaptable, resilient, responsive to challenges and able to handle unfamiliar situations. It is not enough to have knowledge – they must have the skills to take that knowledge and apply it to solve unknown problems, and do it quickly.”

Yes, the cure for our maths ed ills is yet more problem-solving, yet more overhyped exploration. And, this is to be contrasted with the alternative, a focus on “knowledge”. The writers are so proud of this ridiculous straw man that they repeat it:

We need education systems and curricula that help deliver students to society who are up for such a challenge – just having knowledge is no longer enough. Instead, the abilities to problem-solve, mathematise, hypothesise, model are all skills that add worth to acquired knowledge. Mathematics learning cannot sit in silos that focus on content and procedures. Instead, it must be something that gives the knowledge purpose.

We expect no better from AAMT or MERGA, but what about AMSI? Aren’t they like mathematicians, or something? Do AMSI’s glorious leaders really believe this nonsense? Do they really believe that school mathematics is, or was ever, a purposeless “silo” of knowledge-acquisition? Do they honestly think that the problem with Australia’s mathematics education, the reason, for example, why the majority of secondary students have no proper concept of or facility with fractions, is because there has been too much focus on content and procedure? Do they really imagine that these fraction-deficient students can nonetheless boldly venture forth to “solve unknown problems”?

The idea is, of course, absurd. The whole statement is absurd, a mission statement from the very same constructivist, discipline-hating, technique-hating ignorants who have been selling this snake oil for decades, and who are one of the major reasons why Australian mathematics education is now such a disaster. And, of course, their suggested cure for the problem they very much helped create is more of the same snake oil.

There is more in the statement. There is the predictable pointing to Australia’s woeful but irrelevant PISA scores, and the predictable silence on Australia’s woeful and highly relevant TIMSS scores. The writers express the hope, indeed the promise, that PISA results will improve. Which may well be true; it is the mathematics education, and the education generally, that will suffer.

We will remark upon one more, very troubling line from the statement:

As such, the suggested revisions in the curriculum are not just welcomed …

What, exactly, are these “suggested revisions”, and how do the cosigners of this statement know the revisions are “welcomed”? There are strong indications of what ACARA intends, and that what they intend will be awful. As far as we are aware, however, ACARA has yet to make any proposed revisions available for public comment.

What this implies, assuming that the above line is not simply more poor wording, is that the drafters, and perhaps the cosigners of the statement, are privy to ACARA’s inner workings, and that they are pleased with them. As we wrote, it appears that the fix is in.

Anything that will please the cosigners of the statement Why Maths Must Change will be a disaster for Australian mathematics education, and it seems as if the cosigners have reason to be pleased. God help the rest of us.