VCAA’s SAC of Roaming


One type of educational horror that we haven’t yet written about are SACs, those internal assignmenty-examinationy things that make every second week of Year 12 studies a living hell. It is a tricky topic since SACs are school-based, often teacher-specific, and our primary goal is to attack inept authority. In that regard, schools and beleaguered teachers are in a weird middle ground, part victim and part villain, and they already have plenty of critics. Nonetheless, SACs are the sea in which students and teachers swim (or sink), and mathematics SACs are typically appalling; the overwhelming majority of mathematics SACs that we see are pointless, anti-mathematical, error-strewn blivits. So, something has to be written about such SACs of shit. And, we have a plan.

Our hand has been forced a little, however, by an email we received from a VCE student. The student is taking Mathematical Methods CBE, the trial version of Methods that uses Mathematica instead of CAS, and the student wrote about a recent Mathematica-based SAC at their school. We then asked a teacher at the school about the SAC, and they confirmed the students’ report.

This then is the students’ story, exactly as written to me.

I’m not sure of how many other students you know that are doing CBE methods but my sac today served pretty well to show how awful things can go, so a new perspective is always welcome right?

Starting from the top, we have school-provided laptops with Mathematica preinstalled. So we go in, and we have to utilise this thing called a palette which takes control of Mathematica (I have many complaints against the palette) and downloads the SAC from some remote server. No problems here right? Well, I’d imagine 200 people simultaneously downloading an item from a server would MAYBE just MAYBE cause some congestion in the network. Hell breaks loose here, a class has their file downloaded and enters reading time while the other 4 or so classes are in utter chaos. The downloader is failing over and over while also saying it succeeded. This goes on for a good half an hour before the teachers collectively decided that the sac would be rescheduled to Thursday. The class that began reading? Oh, they just stop. God knows what they could have done, taken photos of the sac with a snipping tool, copied the files over, the possibilities are endless. This whole thing is almost appalling yet terrifying because this is what I’ll have to do at the end of the year. I’ve got a load of other concerns, among the unending variety of methods to do a question with Mathematica and how an assessors report would assign marks, to which our official VCAA quiz provided pissant “solutions” that were often wrong.

Anyway, my slightly irritated take on the abhorrent state of the CBE system, which I thought may be interesting to you.

To that, the teacher at the school added the following:

[The former Head of mathematics at the school] made a deal with the devil and agreed to the school doing Methods CBE. I don’t feel the consultation process valued the feedback from myself and other teachers – it was always going to happen despite the misgivings of other teachers. I can’t help but think that my feelings on the issue is the reason I’m not teaching Maths Methods this year (for the first time in 9 years). There are many problems with this deal – it makes my blood boil. The current head of maths is a very decent guy and has done a fantastic job dealing with the mess he inherited.

I heard that the SAC was a disaster and actually saw events unfolding from afar – like watching a car crash in slow motion. Blind Freddy could have seen what was going to happen. As I left school, I saw the VCE coordinator and the current Head of Maths running around grim faced.

All of the student’s concerns are legitimate. Furthermore, the SAC was meant to run until 4.45 pm, so many students will have made alternative and inconvenient arrangements to accommodate this and now they have to do it all over again. Not to mention what it’s done to the stress levels of many students. Not to mention the time and resources that had to be expended re-writing the SAC. At every stage VCAA have washed their hands of CBE problems and left the school to do its dirty work, using the students as the guinea pigs.

Further,

1. The palette provided by VCAA had a bug.

2. The VCAA server failed. VCAA are trying to blame the school for both errors and no apology has been given. Re: The server fail. VCAA said that the school should have downloaded from the server prior to the SAC starting (which is not practical). VCAA are saying everything worked fine at the other CBE schools (which all have small student cohorts as opposed to our school’s cohort of over 200, which makes a big difference).

That’s it. Our own point of view is that SACs are all but guaranteed to be awful and Mathematica in the classroom is all but guaranteed to be awful. Here, however, those predictable awfulnesses are beside the point. The point here is VCAA’s Trumplike level of incompetence combined with VCAA’s Trumplike unwillingness to accept responsibility.

VCAA Puts the “Con” into Consultation

As we have written, the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority is “reviewing” Victoria’s senior secondary maths, which amounts to the VCAA attempting to ram through a vague and tendentious computer-based curriculum, presented with no evidence of its benefit apart from change for the sake of change. Readers can and should respond to the VCAA’s manipulative questionnaire before May 10. In this post we shall point out the farcical nature of VCAA’s “consultation”, as evidenced by VCAA’s overview and questionnaire.

The overview begins by framing VCAA’s review with the following question:

What could a senior secondary mathematics curriculum for a liberal democratic society in a developed country for 2020–2030 look like?

This is peculiar framing, since it is difficult to imagine how a society being “liberal” or “democratic” or otherwise has any bearing on the suitability of a mathematics curriculum. Why would a good curriculum for China not also be good for Victoria?

One could easily write off this framing as just jingoistic puffery; neither word reappears in VCAA’s overview. It is, however, more insidious than that. The framing is, except for the odd omission of the word “suitable”, identical to the title of the Wolfram-CBM paper promoting “computer-based mathematics” in general and Wolfram-CBM in particular. This paper is the heavy propaganda gun VCAA has procured in furtherance of its struggle to liberate us all from the horrors of mathematical calculation. Though the Wolfram-CBM paper never states it explicitly, this makes clear the purpose of the framing:

“[L]iberal” and “democratic” and “developed” amounts to “rich enough to assume, demand and forever more have us beholden to the omnipresence of computers”.

The VCAA overview continues by noting the VCAA’s previous review in 2013-2014 and then notes the preliminary work undertaken in 2018 as part of the current review:

… the VCAA convened an expert panel to make recommendations in preparation for broad consultation in 2019.

Really? On whose authority does this anonymous panel consist of experts? Expert in what? How was this “expert panel” chosen, and by whom? Were there any potential or actual conflicts of interest on the “expert panel” that were or should have been disclosed? How or how not was this “expert panel” directed to conduct its review? Were there any dissenters on this “expert panel”?

The only thing clear in all this is the opacity.

The overview provides no evidence that VCAA’s “expert panel” consists of appropriately qualified or sufficiently varied or sufficiently independent persons, nor that these persons were selected in an objective manner, nor that these persons were able to and encouraged to conduct the VCAA review in an objective manner. 

Indeed, any claim to breadth, independence or expertise is undermined by the constrained formulation of the questionnaire, the poverty of and the bias in the proposed curriculum structures and the overt slanting of the overview towards one particular structure. Which brings us to the issue of consultation:

There is no value in “broad consultation” if discussion has already been constrained to the consideration of three extremely poor options.

But, “consult” the VCAA will:

The VCAA will consult with key stakeholders and interested parties to ensure that feedback is gained from organisations, groups and individuals.

Well, great. The writer of this blog is a keenly interested stakeholder, and an individual well known to the VCAA. Should we be waiting by the phone? Probably not, but it hardly matters:

The VCAA has provided no indication that the consultation with “key stakeholders” and “interested parties” will be conducted in a manner to encourage full and proper critique. There is very good reason to doubt that any feedback thus gained will be evaluated in a fair or objective manner.

The overview then outlines three “key background papers” (links here). Then:

… stakeholders are invited to consider and respond to the consultation questionnaire for each structure.

Simply, this is false. Question 1 of VCAA’s questionnaire asks

Which of the proposed structures would you prefer to be implemented for VCE Mathematics?

Questions 2-8 then refer to, and only to, “this structure”. It is only in the final, catch-all Question 9 that a respondent is requested to provide “additional comments or feedback with respect to these structures”. Nowhere is it possible to record in a proper, voting, manner that one wishes to rank the Wolfram-CBM Structure C last, and preferably lower. Nowhere is there a dedicated question to indicate what is bad about a bad structure.

The VCAA questionnaire explicitly funnels respondents away from stating which structures the respondents believe are inferior, and why.

The good news is that the manipulativeness of the questionnaire probably doesn’t matter, since the responses will be presumably just be considered by another VCAA “expert panel”.

The VCAA overview gives no indication how the responses to the questionnaire will be considered and provides no commitment that the responses will be made public.

The VCAA overview goes on to provides outlines of the three structures being considered, which we’ll write upon in future posts. We’ll just comment here that, whereas Structures A and (to a lesser extent) B are laid out in some reasonable detail, Structure C looks to be the work of Chauncey Gardiner:

What is written about Structure C in the VCAA overview could mean anything and thus means nothing. 

True, for a “detailed overview” the reader is directed to the Wolfram-CBM paper. That, however, only makes matters worse:

A 28-page sales pitch that promotes particular software and particular commercial links is much more and much less than a clear, factual and dispassionate curriculum structure, and such a pitch has absolutely no place in what VCAA describes as a “blue-sky” review. By giving prominence to such material, the VCAA fails to treat the three proposed structures in anything close to a comparable or fair manner. 

If there were any doubt, the overview ends with the overt promotion of Structure C:

The distinctive proposal … contain[s] aspects which the Expert Panel found valuable … There was support for these aspects, indeed, many of the invited paper respondents [to the 2018 paper] independently included elements of them in their considerations, within more familiar structures and models.

Nothing like putting your thumb on the scales.

It is entirely inappropriate for a VCAA overview purportedly encouraging consultation to campaign for a particular structure. A respondent having “included elements” of an extreme proposal is a country mile short of supporting that proposal lock, stock and barrel. In any case, the cherry-picked opinions of unknown respondents selected in an unknown manner have zero value. 

Though woefully short of good administrative practice, we still might let some of the above slide if we had trust in the VCAA. But, we do not. Nothing in VCAA’s recent history or current process gives us any reason to do so. We can also see no reason why trust should be required. We can see no reason why the process lacks the fundamental transparency essential for such a radical review.

In summary, the VCAA review is unprofessional and the consultation process a sham. The review should be discarded. Plans can then be made for a new review, to be conducted in the professional and transparent manner that Victoria has every right to expect.

Reviewing the VCAA Review – Open Discussion

The VCAA is currently conducting a “review” of VCE mathematics. We’ve made our opinion clear, and we plan to post further in some detail. (We’ll update this post with links when and as seems appropriate.) We would also appreciate, however, as much input as possible from readers of (especially critics of) this blog.

This post is to permit and to encourage as much discussion as possible about the various structures the VCAA is considering. People are free to comment generally (but carefully) about the VCAA and the review process, but the intention here is to consider the details of the proposed structures and the arguments for and against them. We’re interested in anything and everything people have to say. Except for specific questions addressed to us, we’ll be pretty much hands-off in the comments section. The relevant links are

Please, go to it.

The Wolfram at the Door

(Note added 20/4: A VCAA questionnaire open until May 10 is discussed at the end of this post. Anyone is permitted to respond to this questionnaire, and anyone who cares about mathematics education should do so. It would be appreciated if those who have responded to the questionnaire indicate so in the comments below.)

Victoria’s math education is so awful and aimless that it’s easy to imagine it couldn’t get much worse. The VCAA, however, is in the process of proving otherwise. It begins, and it will almost certainly end, with Conrad Wolfram.

We’ve long hoped to write about Wolfram, the slick salesman for Big Brother‘s Church. Conrad Wolfram is the most visible and most powerful proponent of computer-based maths education; his Trumpian sales pitch can be viewed here and here. Wolfram is the kind of ideologue who can talk for an hour about mathematics and the teaching of mathematics without a single use of the word “proof”. And, this ideologue is the current poster boy for the computer zealots at the VCAA.

The VCAA is currently conducting a “review” of VCE mathematics, and is inviting “consultation”. There is an anonymous overview of the “review”, and responses to a questionnaire can be submitted until May 10. (Below, we give some advice on responding to this questionnaire. Update 25/4: Here is a post on the overview and the questionnaire.) There is also a new slanted (and anonymous) background paper, a 2017 slanted (and anonymous) background paper, a 2014 slanted (and anonymous) background paper, and some propaganda by Wolfram-CBM.

In the next few weeks we will try to forego shooting Cambridge fish in the barrel (after a few final shots …), and to give some overview and critique of the VCAA overview and the slanted (and anonymous) background papers. (We hope some readers will assist us in this.) Here, we’ll summarise the VCAA’s proposals.

The VCAA has stated that it is considering three possible structures for a new VCE mathematics study design:

  • Structure A.1 – the same warmed over swill currently offered;
  • Structure A.2 – tweaking the warmed over swill currently offered;
  • Structure B – compactifying the warmed over swill currently offered, making room for “options”;
  • Structure C – A “problem-centred computer-based mathematics incorporating data science”.

What a wealth of choice.

There is way, way too much to write about all this, but here’s the summary:

1. Structure C amounts to an untested and unscripted revolution that would almost certainly be a disaster.

2. The VCAA are Hell-bent on Structure C, and their consultation process is a sham. 

So, what can we all do about it? Pretty much bugger all. The VCAA doesn’t give a stuff what people think, and so it’s up to the mathematical heavy hitters to hit heavily. Perhaps, for example, AMSI will stop whining about unqualified teachers and other second order trivia, and will confront these mathematical and cultural vandals.

But, the one thing we all can do and we all should do is fill in the VCAA’s questionnaire. The questionnaire is calculatedly handcuffing but there are two ways to attempt to circumvent VCAA’s push-polling. One approach is to choose Structure C in Q1 as the “prefer[red]” option, and then to use the subsequent questions to critique Structure C. (Update 25/4: this was obviously a poor strategy, since the VCAA could simply count the response to Q1 as a vote for Structure C.) The second approach is to write pretty much anything until the catch-all Q9, and then go to town. (20/4 addition: It would be appreciated if those who have responded to the questionnaire indicate so below with a comment.)

We shall have much more to write, and hopefully sooner rather than later. As always, readers are free to and encouraged to comment, but see also this post, devoted to general discussion.