See the Evil Mathologer and the Evil Marty, December 3

On Tuesday December 3, the Australian Mathematics Society will hold a free education afternoon at Monash University, Clayton, as part of their annual conference. The talk details are below, and full details (except for the lecture theatre, TBD) are here. You aren’t required to register, but you can do so here (and it is appreciated if you do).

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1:30 Joanna Sikora: Advancing Women in Australian Mathematics: context, challenges and achievements

This talk reviews recent research undertaken by social scientists on women in mathematics. First, adopting a life-course perspective it summarises findings on the persisting gap in vocational interest in mathematics among adolescent boys and girls, including its potential to widen over time. Systematic differences between boys and girls in the choice of basic and advanced mathematics for ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank) are discussed. Next, the consequences of these choices for tertiary education specialisations and availability of suitably qualified male and female graduates are considered.

Following this introduction, the talk summarizes research on underrepresentation of women in mathematics departments in Australia and across the world. The focus is on structural and institutional process which, over the course of individual careers, can amount to significant disadvantage even in the absence of overt discrimination. Topics discussed include cultural stereotypes that link perceptions of brilliance and academic talent with masculinity, gender differences in professional capital, i.e. peer esteem, accorded to male and female mathematicians, the gender gap in rates of publications and impact, documented bias in student evaluations and factors that enable success in establishing international collaborations. The talk concludes by summarizing the literature on practical steps that we can take to improve gender equity.

2:20 Julia Collins and Katherine Seaton: Knitting and Folding Mathematics

Mathematical thinking is not confined to mathematicians, but one place you may not expect to find it is in the world of crafts. Even the most maths-anxious knitters will display an astonishing familiarity with concepts from geometry, topology, number theory and coding, while modern origami artists are turning to mathematical algorithms to create models previously thought to be unfoldable. This talk will highlight a number of surprising connections between maths and craft, and will be followed by a hands-on session facilitated by Maths Craft Australia where people can create some mathematical craft for themselves. (Knitting/crochet needles and origami paper will be provided, but participants are also encouraged to bring their own! Knitting in the audience is strictly encouraged.)

2:45 Afternoon Tea

3:10 Marty Ross: How I teach, why the Mathologer is evil, and other indiscrete thoughts

In this shamelessly narcissistic talk I will reveal the One True Secret to teaching mathematics. Along the way I will explain why you can and should ignore STEM, calculators, Mathematica, iPads, the evil Mathologer, constructivism, growth mindset, SOLO, Bloom, flipping classrooms, centering children, lesson plans, skeleton notes, professional standards and professional development and many other modern absurdities.

3:35 David Treeby: How to Instil Mathematical Culture in Secondary Education

Over the past few decades, mathematicians have ceded the educational space to two groups: mathematics educators and technology companies. This has had a dire effect on what mathematics is taught and how it is taught. The result is a commodified brand of distorted mathematics. This talk will focus on how some well-resourced schools have resisted these changes, and how broad and equitable change will require the support of working mathematicians and their professional bodies.

4:00 Burkard Polster: Mathologer: explaining tricky maths on YouTube

In this session I’ll talk about my experience running the YouTube channel Mathologer and I’ll give you a sneak peek of the video that I am currently working on.

Obsessive Compulsion

Last week, the New South Wales government came out with the next great plan to Save Mathematics Education: make mathematics compulsory up until the end of high school. Why? According to Premier Gladys Berejiklian, this will “ensure students have the numeracy skills required to succeed in today’s society”.

Yes, of course. In exactly the same way, for example, that compulsory instruction in ethics ensures that lawyers and cops act ethically.

What’s the source for this latest nonsense? Well, it’s kind of, sort of from the Interim Report of the NSW Curriculum Review, which was released a few days earlier, and which is prominent in the Government’s media release. Like all such reports, the NSW Report is barely readable, the predictable mishmosh of pseudoscience, unweighted survey, statistics of undeterminable worth and contradictory motherhoodisms. Thankfully, there’s no reason to read the Report, since the NSW Government hasn’t bothered to read it either; nothing in the Report points to making mathematics compulsory throughout high school.

Still, it was easy enough to find “maths experts” who “applauded the move”. Jordan Baker, the Sydney Morning Herald‘s education reporter, quoted four such “experts”, although the only expert appearing to say much of substance was doing anything but applauding. Greg Ashman, who is always worth reading (especially when he is needling nitwits), pointed to the need for specialist teachers in lower years. He is then quoted:

“You need to move away from the fashion for inquiry learning and problem-based learning and instead focus on high quality, interactive, explicit teaching of mathematics. Do that, and I believe numbers in year 12 would organically grow.”

In other words, if you stop having shit teachers teaching shit maths in a shit manner in lower years then maybe more kids will choose to stick around a little longer. (Ashman is more collegial than this writer.)

The NSW government’s compulsion will undoubtedly push mathematics in the exact opposite direction, into ever more directionless playing and mathematical trivia dressed up as real world saviour. You know the stuff: figuring out credit cards and, God help us, “how to choose cancer treatment“.

To illustrate the point perfectly, Melbourne’s Age has just published one of its fun exam-time pieces. Titled “Are you smarter than a 12th grader?“, the reader was challenged to solve the following problem from yesterday’s Further Mathematics exam:

A shop sells two types of discs: CDs and DVDs. CDs are sold for $7.00 each and DVDs are sold for $13.00 each. Bonnie bought a total of 16 discs for $178.00. How many DVDS did Bonnie buy?

The question this problem raises isn’t are you smarter than a 12th grader. The real question is, are you smart enough to realise that making mathematics compulsory to 12th grade will doom way too many students to doing 7th grade mathematics for six years in a row? For the NSW government and their cheer squad of “maths experts”, the answer appears to be “No”.

Wollongong the Craven

It would appear that the Ramsey Centre‘s Degree in Western Civilisation will now be a thing. This comes after the ANU rejected the idea out of concerns about Ramsey’s autocratic meddling. And, it comes after Sydney University shot itself in the foot by censoring its own academics. But, the University of Wollongong is hellbent on offering Ramsey’s Bachelor of Arts in Western Civilisation. This comes with the news that the University Council overruled Wollongong’s academic senate because, after all, what would those silly academics know about academic integrity?

Jillian Broadbent, UoW’s chancellor, claimed that the council had “full respect for the university’s academic process”. If only Broadbent had a modicum of respect for the meaning of English words.

Underlying all of this is the question of the meaning of “Western civilisation”. UoW advertises that in Ramsey’s degree a student will:

Learn how to think critically and creatively as you examine topics in ethics, aesthetics, epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of religion and political philosophy.” 

The irony is palpable. But, at least it makes clear what is meant by “Western civilisation”. It means the power of a business-bloated gang to use Orwellian language while ramming through the selling out of a public institution to rich bigots.

We intend these words, of course, with the fullest of respect.

I Know I Am, But What Are You?

A while ago we had cause to meet with a school principal. The principal happened to have a PhD in mathematics education, and it was on that basis that they began the conversation: “As a fellow mathematician …”. It will come as no great surprise that our association with the principal ended soon after.

The principal was doubly wrong: no, of course they are not remotely a mathematician; but, neither are we. Once upon a time, yes, but not now. We are no longer seriously engaged in mathematical research, in trying to discover the facts and the nature of mathematical truth.

But, to the principal and the principle. Of course it doesn’t matter whatsoever if a principal is not a mathematician. What matters a great deal, however, is if a principal falsely imagines that they are. If a school principal does not understand what it means to be a mathematician then they cannot possibly understand what a mathematician might offer to their school, or to education in general.

Such a lack of understanding, an ignorance of what it means to think deeply about mathematics, is now endemic in Australian mathematics education. The consequence is that mathematicians are treated as inferior teachers and education academics, merely as weirdos with relevant training a proper subset of that of the education pros. The consequence is that clear and informed and deep mathematical thought is marginalised to the point of non-existence. The consequence is a pointless mathematics curriculum taught using painfully bad textbooks by poorly trained teachers and administered by organisations with no respect for or understanding of the nature of mathematical thought.

Mathematicians can be arrogant and annoying, and wrong. But mathematics education without the deep and continued involvement of good and serious mathematicians is pure insanity.

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.

It’s Time to ATAR and Feather the Labor Party

Tanya Plibersek, Australian Labor’s Shadow Minister for Education, has just been reaching out to the media. Plibersek has objected to the low ATAR sufficient for school leavers to gain entry to a teaching degree, and she has threatened that if universities don’t raise the entry standards then Labor may impose a cap on student numbers:

We [should] choose our teaching students from amongst the top 30 per cent …

This raises the obvious question: why the top 30 per cent of students? Why not the top 10 per cent? Or the top 1 per cent? If you’re going to dream an impossible dream, you may as well make it a really good one.

Plibersek is angry at the universities, claiming they are over-enrolling and dumbing down their teaching degrees, and of course she is correct. Universities don’t give a damn whether their students learn anything or whether the students have any hope of getting a job at the end, because for decades the Australian government has paid universities to not give a damn. The universities would enrol carrots if they could figure out a way for the carrots to fill in the paperwork.

The corruption of university teaching enrolment, however, has almost nothing to do with the poor quality of school teachers and school teaching. The true culprits are the neoliberal thugs and the left wing loons who, over decades, have destroyed the very notion of education and thus have reduced teaching to a meaningless, hateful and hated profession, so that with rare exceptions the only people who become teachers are those with either little choice or little sense or a masochistically high devotion to civic duty.

If Plibersek wants “teaching to be as well-respected as medicine” then perhaps Labor could stick their neck out and fight for a decent increase in teachers’ wages. Labor could fight for the proper academic control of educational disciplines so that there might be a coherent and deep Australian curriculum for teachers to teach. Labor could fight against teachers’ Sisyphean reporting requirements and against the swamping over-administration of public schools. Labor could promise to stop, entirely, the insane funding of poisonously wealthy private schools. Labor could admit that for decades they have been led by soulless beancounters and clueless education hacks, so as much as anyone they have lost sight of what education is and how a government can demand it.

But no. Plibersek and Labor choose an easy battle, and a stupid, pointless battle.

None of this is to imply that Labor’s opponents are better. Nothing could be worse for education, or anything, than the sadistic, truth-killing Liberal-National psychopaths currently in power.

But we expect better from Labor. Well, no we don’t. But once upon a time we did.

Update (27/02/19)

Tanya Plibersek has announced a new Labor policy, to offer $40,000 grants for “the best and the brightest” to do teaching degrees, and to go on to teach in public schools. Of course Plibersek’s suggestion that this will attract school duxes and university medal winners into teaching is pure fantasy, but it’s a nanostep in the right direction.