Foundation Stoned

The VCAA is reportedly planning to introduce Foundation Mathematics, a new, lower-level year 12 mathematics subject. According to Age reporter Madeleine Heffernan, “It is hoped that the new subject will attract students who would not otherwise choose a maths subject for year 12 …”. Which is good, why?

Predictably, the VCAA is hell-bent on not solving the wrong problem. It simply doesn’t matter that not more students continue with mathematics in Year 12. What matters is that so many students learn bugger all mathematics in the previous twelve years. And why should anyone believe that, at that final stage of schooling, one more year of Maths-Lite will make any significant difference?

The problem with Year 12 that the VCAA should be attempting to solve is that so few students are choosing the more advanced mathematics subjects. Heffernan appears to have interviewed AMSI Director Tim Brown, who noted the obvious, that introducing the new subject “would not arrest the worrying decline of students studying higher level maths – specialist maths – in year 12.” (Tim could have added that Year 12 Specialist Mathematics is also a second rate subject, but one can expect only so much from AMSI.)

It is not clear that anybody other than the VCAA sees any wisdom in their plan. Professor Brown’s extended response to Heffernan is one of quiet exasperation. The comments that follow Heffernan’s report are less quiet and are appropriately scathing. So who, if anyone, did the VCAA find to endorse this distracting silliness?

But, is it worse than silly? VCAA’s new subject won’t offer significant improvement, but could it make matters worse? According to Heffernan, there’s nothing to worry about:

“The new subject will be carefully designed to discourage students from downgrading their maths study.”

Maybe. We doubt it.

Ms. Heffernan appears to be a younger reporter, so we’ll be so forward as to offer her a word of advice: if you’re going to transcribe tendentious and self-serving claims provided by the primary source for and the subject of your report, it is accurate, and prudent, to avoid reporting those claims as if they were established fact.

The NAPLAN Numeracy Test Test

The NAPLAN Numeracy Test Test is intended for education academics and education reporters. The test consists of three questions:

Q1. Are you aware that “numeracy”, to the extent that it is anything, is different from arithmetic and much less than solid school mathematics?

Q2. Do you regard it important to note and to clarify these distinctions?

Q3. Are you aware of the poverty in NAPLAN testing numeracy rather than mathematics?

The test is simple, and the test is routinely failed. NAPLAN is routinely represented as testing the “basics”, which is simply false. As a consequence, the interminable conflict between “inquiry” and “basics” has been distorted beyond sense. (A related and similarly distorting falsity is the representation of current school mathematics texts as “traditional”.) This framing of NAPLAN leaves no room for the plague-on-both-houses disdain which, we’d argue, is the only reasonable position.

Most recently this test was failed, and dismally so, by the writers of the Interim Report on NAPLAN, which was prepared for the state NSW government and was released last week. The Interim Report is short, its purpose being to prepare the foundations for the final report to come, to “set out the major concerns about NAPLAN that we have heard or already knew about from our own work and [to] offer some preliminary thinking”. The writers may have set out to do this, but either they haven’t been hearing or they haven’t been listening.

The Interim Report considers a number of familiar and contentious aspects of NAPLAN: delays in reporting, teaching to the test, misuse of test results, and so on. Mostly reasonable concerns, but what about the tests themselves, what about concerns over what the tests are testing? Surely the tests’ content is central? On this, however, at least before limited correction, the Report implies that there are no concerns whatsoever.

The main section of the Report is titled Current concerns about NAPLAN, which begins with a subsection titled Deficiencies in tests. This subsection contains just two paragraphs. The first paragraph raises the issue that a test such as NAPLAN “will” contain questions that are so easy or so difficult that little information is gained by including them. However, “Prior experimental work by ACARA [the implementers of NAPLAN] showed that this should be so.” In other words, the writers are saying “If you think ACARA got it wrong then you’re wrong, because ACARA told us they got it right”. That’s just the way one wishes a review to begin, with a bunch of yes men parroting the organisation whose work they are supposed to be reviewing. But, let’s not dwell on it; the second paragraph is worse.

The second “deficiencies” paragraph is concerned with the writing tests. Except it isn’t; it is merely concerned with the effect of moving NAPLAN online to the analysis of students’ tests. There’s not a word on the content of the tests. True, in a later, “Initial thinking” section the writers have an extended discussion about issues with the writing tests. But why are these issues not front and centre? Still, it is not our area and so we’ll leave it, comfortable in our belief that ACARA is mucking up literacy testing and will continue to do so.

And that’s it for “deficiencies in tests”, without a single word about suggested or actual deficiencies of the numeracy tests. Anywhere. Moreover, the term “arithmetic” never appears in the Report, and the word “mathematics” appears just once, as a semi-synonym for numeracy: the writers echo a suggested deficiency of NAPLAN, that one effect of the tests may be to “reduce the curriculum, particularly in primary schools, to a focus on literacy/English and numeracy/mathematics …”. One can only wish it were true.

How did this happen? The writers boast of having held about thirty meetings in a four-day period and having met with about sixty individuals. Could it possibly be the case that not one of those sixty individuals raised the issue that numeracy might be an educational fraud? Not a single person?

The short answer is “yes”. It is possible that the Report writers were warned that “numeracy” is snake oil and that testing it is a foolish distraction, with the writers then, consciously or unconsciously, simply filtering out that opinion. But it is also entirely possible that the writers heard no dissenting voice. Who did the writers choose to meet? How were those people chosen? Was the selection dominated by the predictable maths ed clowns and government hacks? Was there consultation with a single competent and attuned mathematician? It is not difficult to guess the answers.

The writers have failed the test, and the result of that failure is clear. The Interim Report is nonsense, setting the stage for a woefully misguided review that in all probability will leave the ridiculous NAPLAN numeracy tests still firmly in place and still just as ridiculous.

MoP 2 : A One-Way Conversation

We’re not particularly looking to blog about censorship. In general, we think the problem (in, e.g., Australia and the US) is overhyped. The much greater problem is self-censorship, where the media and the society at large can’t think or write about what they fail to see; so, for example, a major country can have a military coup, but no one seems to notice. Sometimes, however, the issue is close enough to home and the censorship is sufficiently blatant, that it seems worth noting.

Greg Ashman, who we had cause to mention recently, has been censored in a needless and heavy-handed manner by Sasha Petrova, the education editor of The Conversation. The details are discussed by Ashman here, but it is easy to give the story in brief.

Kate Noble of the Mitchell Institute wrote an article for The Conversation, titled Children learn through play – it shouldn’t stop at pre-school. As the title suggests, Noble was arguing for more play-based learning in the early years of primary school. Ashman then added a (polite and referenced and carefully worded) comment, noting Noble’s failure to distinguish between knowledge that is more susceptible or less susceptible to play-based learning, and directly querying one of Noble’s examples, the possible learning benefits (or lack thereof) of playing with water. Ashman’s comment, along with the replies to his comment, was then deleted. When Ashman emailed Petrova, querying this, Petrova replied:

“Sure. I deleted [Ashman’s comment] as it is off topic. The article doesn’t call for less explicit instruction, nor is there any mention of it. It calls for more integration of play-based learning in early years of school to ease the transition to formal instruction – not that formal instruction (and even here it doesn’t specify that formal means “explicit”) must be abolished.”

Subsequently, it appears that Petrova has also deleted the puzzled commentary on the original deletion. And, who knows what else she has deleted? Such is the nature of censorship.

In general we have a lot of sympathy for editors, such as Petrova, of public fora. It is very easy to err one way or the other, and then to be hammered by Team A or Team B.  Indeed, and somewhat ironically, Ashman had a post just a week ago that was in part critical of The Conversation’s new policy towards climate denialist loons; in that instance we thought Ashman was being a little tendentious and our sympathies were much more with The Conversation’s editors.

But, here, Petrova has unquestionably screwed up. Ashman was adding important, directly relevant and explicitly linked qualification to Noble’s article, and in a properly thoughtful and collegial manner. Ashman wasn’t grandstanding, he was contributing in good faith. He was conversing.  Moreover, Petrova’s stated reason for censoring Ashman is premised on a ludicrously narrow definition of “topic”, which even on its own terms fails here, and in any case has no place in academic discourse or public discourse.

Petrova, and The Conversation, owes Ashman an apology.

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 are here (and the lecture theatre details are below). You aren’t required to register, but you can do so here (and it is appreciated if you do).

UPDATE The talks will take place in Lecture theatre G81 of the Learning & Teaching Building (the bus stop side of Clayton campus). There’s a map of Clayton campus here.

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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.