The Undeniable Presence of the Bull

Calvin Trillin is one of my favourite writers. Trillin is very much an American writer, essentially unknown in Australia and even in America you have to be the type to want to read his style of journalism and humour. But we of the type love his writing, and the man himself, regarding him as a national treasure. Trillin writes beautifully, with an E. B. White-ish gentleness and elegance, but can also be incredibly funny, particularly about food and eating. To quote one of a thousand passages, here is Trillin in the foreword to his Tummy Trilogy:

From the point of view of a traveling man with a strong interest in immigrants being able to get a toehold in this country by starting family restaurants, the pre-1965 immigration policy was a matter of simple madness: we were basically shutting out the Chinese while letting in as many Englishmen as wanted to come, even if they were dragging their overcooked vegetables behind them. … I have previously acknowledged, when helicopters were snatching people from the grounds of the American embassy compound during the panic of the final Vietcong push into Saigon, I was sitting in front of the television set shouting, “Get the chefs! Get the chefs!”

(A few years ago, Trillin got walloped for a similarly self-centred, ethnic-focussed ditty, which was antipodally misread by a multitude of humourless assholes. The episode was very minor in the scheme of the current offendedness mania but it was about as idiotic as such episodes get and Trillin was defended by no one of stature.)

That is all by way of introduction and this post is not about Trillin. It is about just one great Trillin line and why it has come to mind. In one section of Travels with Alice, Trillin is in Barbados with his wife, Alice, lamenting the difficulty of getting good food in the Caribbean, dreaming of the Italian West Indies and its fabled island, Santa Prosciutto.

Somehow I always arrive for my first visit on a Caribbean island confident that I am going to find something decent to eat. When we arrived in Barbados, Alice reminded me that even my most frenzied efforts in the Caribbean tend not to be fruitful. …

“Don’t forget the bullfoot soup,” she said, referring to a native dish on St. Thomas whose name, I’m afraid, described it with unfortunate precision. 

“Well, I’m sure at least that it was authentic,” I said. “It tasted pretty much the way you’d imagine something called bullfoot soup tasting. And there was, of course, the undeniable presence of the foot …”

Which brings us to the International Congress on Mathematical Education.

ICME-15 is on in Sydney right now, with roughly a million maths ed people having flocked in, all now congratulating each other on their brilliant insights. Unsurprisingly, I’ve paid the Congress little mind, but I’ve caught glimpses out of the corner of my eye and one cannot help but ponder. Surely, with a million people sharing their hard work and deep thoughts, there must be something there, right? But then I remember.

I ponder what four decades of mathematical ignorance might produce, and what we have is much as one would imagine. One needn’t bother listening to what these people say. Look instead, always, at what they have produced. It is bull. It is undeniable.

Grattan, Ashman and the Legislative Council Inquiry

Last year, Victoria’s Legislative Council Legal and Social Issues Committee launched an “Inquiry into the state education system in Victoria“. As we wrote last year, it was never clear what the purpose of the inquiry was other than to stir up trouble for the Labor Government. Not that that is necessarily a bad thing. The inquiry wrapped up its hearings a couple weeks ago, with the intention to report in October, and a couple things seem worth noting. Continue reading “Grattan, Ashman and the Legislative Council Inquiry”

Can Students Do Their Homework Anymore?

A couple months ago, we had a post on homework, and the research of some educations clowns arguing that homework can “lead to the compounding of intergenerational negative mathematical dispositions and identities”. And so on. This included parents whining about the incomprehensibility of their Year 3 kids’ homework. Whatever. Back on Planet Earth, where Year 3 homework is comprehensible or, preferably, non-existent, there are questions of what homework is and what it should be. To this end, frequent commenter Terry Mills has asked,

I would like to know what sort of homework policies are used in other schools, particularly, but not only, for mathematics.

So, how does your school mandate or constrain homework? And although Terry doesn’t ask, how should your school mandate or constrain homework? How much do teachers pay attention to any such rules?

And, here’s your song:

Continue reading “Can Students Do Their Homework Anymore?”

A Non-Post on Indigenous Mathematics

A few weeks ago, ANU Science published a puff piece:

Maths has no borders: Professor Rowena Ball brings Indigenous mathematics to ANU

Professor Ball is an ANU mathematician and the article was a promotion of Mathematics Without Borders, a “research and teaching initiative” led by Ball. In particular, the article promoted a special topics course at ANU created and taught by Ball and fellow ANU mathematician, Hongzhang Xu, the course being “based on the Mathematics without Borders research program”. The article is bad in all the ways one can imagine.

Continue reading “A Non-Post on Indigenous Mathematics”

Can’t Do My Homework Anymore

It’s not a clever title but it leads into a great Fleetwood Mac song, guaranteeing one worthwhile feature of the post:

On with the post, which concerns a study conducted by academics at the University of South Australia and Nova Scotia’s St. Francis Xavier University, reported in their 2023 paper, Mathematics homework and the potential compounding of educational disadvantage. The study was announced a month ago in a UniSA media release, Numbers do not add up for maths homework, and was accompanied by the subsequent Educator report, Maths homework causing more harm than good – study. This all sounded like nonsense, so I took a quick look at the paper. I gagged, considered the work required to even skim the nonsense and decided to ignore it. Then frequent commenter Dr. Mike lobbed a Science Alert report at us, Math Homework Can End Up Doing More Harm Than Good, Study Shows. A third temptingly silly headline made me ponder further but I still decided to ignore it. Then then on the week-end Greg Ashman wrote a little about the study in his weekly curios. At which point I decided “to Hell with it”, and here we are. Continue reading “Can’t Do My Homework Anymore”

NSW’s Requisite Sense and Nonsense

This one is old, and older, but it should still be done. First off, a couple weeks ago NESA issued a media release, notifying people that mathematics would continue to be optional in NSW senior high school. This was the new Labor government’s killing off of a 2019 Gladys plan to make senior mathematics compulsory. Why the reversal? Because, as we wrote at the time, the original plan was really, really stupid. Continue reading “NSW’s Requisite Sense and Nonsense”

Boaler Gets Called for Chucking

A few days ago, Stanford University received an anonymous complaint against Jo Boaler, the Nomellini-Olivier Professor of Education at Stanford. The complaint, which was first reported in the Washington Free Beacon, consists of a 100 page document, a compilation of Boaler’s alleged transgressions. The story was then picked up by Stephanie Lee at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The inspiration for the complaint, and a good deal of its substance, appears to be Brian Conrad‘s critique of citations in the California Mathematic Framework (and see also this), in which Boaler and her work played a significant role. The “Executive Summary” of the complaint summarises it,

This complaint alleges that Dr. Jo Boaler has engaged in reckless disregard for accuracy through citation misrepresentation, asks that Stanford investigate, and if the allegations are confirmed, take appropriate disciplinary action.

What to make of it all? To be honest, I don’t much care.

Continue reading “Boaler Gets Called for Chucking”

A Secondary School From the 1970s

Obviously, “school behaviour” is being very much discussed these days, and I recently posted on the absurdity of the idea that a “behaviour curriculum” might be a meaningful way to address this. Pondering while writing the post, and then pondering the many very interesting comments in response, I’ve thought some about my own school education in the 60 and 70s, and the culture of my schools at the time. My primary school education, at the local Macleod State School, was in the main pretty traditional, which was both bad and, mostly, good. There were no straps although in the early years there were still “rulers” and some other needlessly authoritarian impulses, but mostly it was sensible and meaningful, disciplined in the good sense, and human; I have written a little about Macleod State, here and here and here. My secondary education, however, was different in important ways. By the 70s, the cultural revolution of the time, which I touched upon in this post, had begun to significantly affect schools. So here, for whatever it is worth, is some of my ponderings of that time of change (all with the caveat that these are fifty year old memories). It is simply reminiscing. There may be a moral in there but, if there is, I’m not sure what it is. Continue reading “A Secondary School From the 1970s”

The Obtuseness of a “Behaviour Curriculum”

I’m way, way late to this one and classroom behaviour is not my department. Anyone willing to announce to their class “I used to be an axe murderer and if you don’t learn how to solve linear equations then I’m going to kill you” should probably not be pronouncing too loudly on this stuff. But the behaviour thing got up my nose recently, and what’s a blog for if not to get things out of your nose? Continue reading “The Obtuseness of a “Behaviour Curriculum””