An AMT Coda

A few months ago, I wrote about the Australian Maths Trust and their recently held competition, the AIMO. AMT’s CEO, Nathan Ford, had demanded an alteration to an AIMO question at the last minute, based upon an absurd and absurdly argued concern about “gender contexts”. Ford’s behaviour resulted in the writer of the AIMO question resigning from his volunteer role on the AIMO committee and all his paid work at AMT. This post is a coda to that shameful episode. Continue reading “An AMT Coda”

AMT’s Gender Fetishism

A few weeks ago, the Australian Intermediate Mathematics Olympiad took place. Administered by the Australian Maths Trust, the AIMO is a high level mathematics competition and serves as a testing ground for invitation to even higher level programs. It is a serious and important competition.

The AIMO paper is the creation of a committee, consisting mostly of volunteers. After this year’s paper was finalised, proofread and ready for the printer, AMT’s CEO, Nathan Ford, vetoed a question on the paper. This is the question that Ford vetoed:

There are 10 boys and 10 girls learning a traditional dance. They are to be arranged into 10 boy-girl pairs. To avoid height mismatches, each boy is assigned a number from 1 to 10 in ascending order of heights, and each girl is assigned a number from 1 to 10 in ascending order of heights. A boy may partner with a girl if and only if their numbers differ by no more than 1. For example, Boy 4 may partner with Girls 3, 4 or 5, but not 2 and not 6. How many ways can the boys and girls be partnered for this dance?

Regular readers can guess where this is going, but we’ll spell it out.

In an email to the chair of the AIMO committee, Ford noted his “concerns about the gender context” of the above problem:

“The expectations around gender contexts have changed significantly in society and amongst school leadership, teachers and students. As we serve these students and teachers, we need to be responsive and sensitive to these expectations.”

Ford then noted the existence of guidance for organisations such as AMT:

“For example, both the Australian Government and the Australian Council for Educational Research have issued specific guidance on presenting gender contexts.”

We shall pause to note that the Australian Government Style Manual to which Ford refers seems to have absolutely no bearing on the AIMO question at issue. As for the second document, it is strained to characterise it, as Ford does, as specific guidance issued by ACER; the document is simply a comment piece by one UK-based ACER research fellow. Moreover, as we have argued, this comment piece is utterly absurd, offering guidance for nothing more than an overtly political and highly perverse crusade.

Ford gave the AIMO committee chair the non-choice of either de-sexing the question himself, or of accepting a revised question that Ford and AMT employees had constructed. Here is the revised question that Ford presented, which, according to Ford, includes “an equivalent context which achieves the same goal while ensuring we are as inclusive as possible”:

Two local sports teams, the Tigers and the Lions, are coming together for some practice. There are 10 Tigers and 10 Lions. They are to be arranged into 10 Tiger–Lion pairs. To make the game as competitive as possible, we want to avoid height mismatches. So, each Tiger is assigned a number from 1 to 10 in ascending order of heights, and each Lion is assigned a number from 1 to 10 in ascending order of heights. A Tiger may be paired up with a Lion if and only if their numbers differ by no more than 1. For example, Tiger 4 may pair up with Lions 3, 4 or 5, but not 2 and not 6. How many ways can the Tigers and Lions be paired up?

The AIMO chair refused to change the original question, which he noted received “acclaim” from the more than a dozen people who vetted the AIMO paper, and which he argued was entirely unproblematic in terms of any gender issue. The chair also refused to endorse Ford’s replacement question, which he regarded as “artificial and confusing”. The chair also objected strongly to the manner and the timing of this demanded change to the AIMO paper.

It is fair to say that Ford ran roughshod over the chair’s concerns, and those of the writer of the original, vetoed question.* Ford barrelled through to include the revised question on the AIMO paper. To our knowledge, no one on the AIMO committee, excepting a single AMT employee, voiced either private or public support for Ford’s change. The chair and the question writer consequently disassociated themselves from the AIMO paper. The question writer, a long-standing and highly respected AIMO volunteer, was so upset by Ford’s contemptuous response that he resigned from the AIMO committee, and has also resigned from his other, paid work for AMT.

We emailed Ford, indicating that we were writing this post and offering Ford the opportunity to discuss the matter or to make a statement. This is Ford’s response, in its entirety:

“One of the 2023 AIMO problems was changed prior to the competition date. 

The change was contextual, not mathematical. 

It was made in the interests of inclusivity and in support of the diverse cohort of students and teachers the Trust serves.” 

Readers can make of this episode what they will, but our opinion should be obvious. We believe that there was zero argument to change the original question and that the revised question, while adequate, is clearly inferior. We believe Ford acted foolishly and arrogantly and rudely. It seems clear to us that Ford owes the AIMO committee, and the chair and the question writer in particular, a sincere apology. If Ford were not to provide this, we believe the AMT Board should then act accordingly.

 

*) Disclaimer: the question writer is a colleague and good friend of ours.

ACER’s Guide to Gender Correctness

ACER, which began life ninety years ago in Camberwell as a tiny educational research institute, is now a worldwide, um, thing. Courtesy of ACER’s UK branch, we have a very informative guide, titled,

The assessment community has promoted gender stereotyping for decades. How can we stop?

The guide, written by a single ACER “Research Fellow”, is labelled as a comment piece. As such, the guide presumably does not rise to the level of ACER policy. Nonetheless, it’s there on ACER’s website and it seems fair for ACER to take the credit.

Continue reading “ACER’s Guide to Gender Correctness”

What is a Matt Walsh?

OK, courtesy of Elon Musk, we’ve now watched What is a Woman, by professional stirrer, Matt Walsh. The video has been viewed, or at least clicked on, over 160 million times, and it has been reviewed, well, pretty much nowhere. That, in and of itself, says a hell of a lot.

We have our views, about Walsh and his film, but that can wait. Our lines are open.

Continue reading “What is a Matt Walsh?”

AMSI to the Rescue

The Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute has just released its Report on Australian Year 12 students’ participation in mathematics from 2008 to 2017. The Report indicates, of course, that the percentage of girls doing a “higher level” maths subject is lower than the percentage of boys. (One headline trumpets that “Less girls are studying maths than boys”, proving only that fewer journalists are studying grammar.) More generally, the overall participation in higher level maths is reportedly the lowest for 20 years.

Gee.

Who would have thought that a boring and aimless curriculum, and lousy texts, and the crappy training of teachers by clowns who have in turn had crappy training, and the belittling of Mathematics by the S and the T and the E of STEM, and the faddish genuflection to technical gods, and decades of just plain dumbing down would have pissed off so many students?

AMSI’s Report of the bleeding obvious doesn’t consider the causes of the decline in participation. Fair enough. The Report is seriously flawed, however, in failing to note that the meaning of “higher level mathematics” is not a constant. The “higher level mathematics” of 2017 is significantly lower than that of 1997, which is lower again than that of 1977. The problem is much, much worse than AMSI’s Report suggests.

AMSI is not just reporting on the decline in participation, they are supposedly working to fix it. AMSI’s new director, Tim Brown, has been out and about, discussing the Report. Professor Brown is reported as saying that the reasons for the decline are “varied”, but of these varied reasons, he appears to have indicated just two to the media; first, “a shortage in qualified maths teachers”; second, “teaching from the textbook” rather than “active learning”.

Really? With all those plump targets, AMSI chooses these two? Yes, the lack of qualified teachers is a problem, and a problem AMSI apparently enjoys talking about. And yes, the current textbooks are appalling. But such low-fruit targets are not the substantive problem, and false fixes of second order issues will do little or nothing to improve matters. The real issue is one of systemic cultural decline.

We believe Professor Brown knows this. The question is, will Professor Brown drag AMSI, finally, into waging the genuine, important fights that need to be fought?

The Oxford is Slow

Last year, Oxford University extended the length its mathematics exams from 90 to 105 minutes. Why? So that female students would perform better, relative to male students. According to the University, the problem with shorter exams is that “female candidates might be more likely to be adversely affected by time pressure”.

Hmm.

There’s good reason to be unhappy with the low percentage of female mathematics students, particularly at advanced levels. So, Oxford’s decision is in response to a genuine issue and is undoubtedly well-intentioned. Their decision, however also appears to be dumb, and it smells of dishonesty.

There are many suggestions as to why women are underrepresented in mathematics, and there’s plenty of room for thoughtful disagreement. (Of course there is also no shortage of pseudoscientific clowns and feminist nitwits.) Unfortunately, Oxford’s decision appears to be more in the nature of statistical manipulation than meaningful change.

Without more information, and the University has not been particularly forthcoming, it is difficult to know the effects of this decision. Reportedly, the percentage of female first class mathematics degrees awarded by Oxford increased from 21% in 2016 to 39% last year, while male firsts increased marginally to 47%. Oxford is presumably pleased, but without detailed information about score distributions and grade cut-offs it is impossible to understand what is underlying those percentages. Even if otherwise justified, however, Oxford’s decision constitutes deliberate grade inflation, and correspondingly its first class degree has been devalued.

The reported defences of Oxford’s decision tend only to undermine the decision. It seems that when the change was instituted last (Northern) summer, Oxford provided no rationale to the public. It was only last month, after The Times gained access to University documents under FOI, that the true reasons became known publicly. It’s a great way to sell a policy, of course, to be legally hounded into exposing your reasons.

Sarah Hart, a mathematician at the University of London, is quoted by The Times in support of longer exams: “Male students were quicker to answer questions, she said, but were more likely to get the answer wrong”. And, um, so we conclude what, exactly?

John Banzhaf, a prominent public interest lawyer, is reported as doubting Oxford’s decision could be regarded as “sexist”, since the extension of time was identical for male and female candidates. This is hilariously legalistic from such a politically wise fellow (who has some genuine mathematical nous).

The world is full of policies consciously designed to hurt one group or help another, and many of these policies are poorly camouflaged by fatuous “treating all people equally” nonsense. Any such policy can be good or bad, and well-intentioned or otherwise, but such crude attempts at camouflage are never honest or smart. The stated purpose of Oxford’s policy is to disproportionally assist female candidates; there are arguments for Oxford’s decision and one need not agree with the pejorative connotations of the word, but the policy is blatantly sexist.

Finally, there is the fundamental question of whether extending the exams makes them better exams. There is no way that someone unfamiliar with the exams and the students can know for sure, but there’s reasons to be sceptical. It is in the nature of most exams that there is time pressure. That’s not perfect, and there are very good arguments for other forms of assessment in mathematics. But all assessment forms are artificial and/or problematic in some significant way. And an exam is an exam. Presumably the maths exams were previously 90 minutes for some reason, and in the public debate no one has provided any proper consideration or critique of any such reasons.

The Times quotes Oxford’s internal document in support of the policy: “It is thought that this [change in exam length] might mitigate the . . . gender gap that has arisen in recent years, and in any case the exam should be a demonstration of mathematical understanding and not a time trial.” 

This quote pretty much settles the question. No one has ever followed “and in any case” with a sincere argument.