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”.

Melbourne’s “Toxic” Arts

Having given Monash University a whack, it’s time to take a quick look at the University of Melbourne. A couple of intriguing reports about the University appeared earlier this week in Melbourne’s Age newspaper. The reports are most interesting for what was not written.

The first report, by Kylar Loussikian and which appeared on Monday, detailed allegations apparently raised by Professor Jennifer Milam, Head of the School of Culture and Communications. Professor Milam is reportedly in a legal battle with the University of Melbourne, stemming from accusations of bullying against her.

That battle is notable (and see an earlier report here), but the focus of Loussikian’s report, and his second report with Tom Cowie the following day, was on a more general issue, the supposedly “toxic” environment in Melbourne’s Faculty of Arts. That characterisation appears to be due to the university’s former vice-chancellor, Professor Glyn Davis.

According to Loussikian and Cowie:

  • A legal review conducted by the University of Melbourne “found four heads of school [in the Faculty of Arts] were ‘undermining’ acting dean [of Arts] Denise Varney“.
  • Professor Varney, who had been in the School of Culture and Communications, was promoted to acting dean in February. Academics claimed to The Age that school heads had been discouraged from applying for the acting dean position.
  • Milam has “alleged to have implied that the faculty [of Arts] was hiding profits”.

There’s plenty more detail and colour in Loussikian and Cowie’s reports, including the suggestion that the four heads in question could be investigated for misconduct, which “could lead to dismissal”. Two of the heads are also named: Professor Milam and Professor Trevor Burnard, who was head of the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies up until July and who is reportedly leaving the University.

So, what is really going on? God only knows. But there is one glaring question underlying all this: if those four heads in Arts were indeed “undermining” Dean Varnie then why were they undermining her? What is the underlying substance of the dispute? The secondary but still important question is how Professor Varnie came to be acting dean. If heads in Arts were discouraged from applying, then by whom, and why?

We know nothing about this dispute other than what has been reported. There’s plenty nasty we could say in general about Australian arts and humanities and vice chancellors and heads and deans. We have friends at the University of Melbourne who pretty much loathe everything about the place. But can the systemic awfulness of Australian universities offer any insight into this very specific dispute? God only knows.

All that seems clear is that there’s a larger and, we’ll guess, more important story that, for whatever reason, Loussikian and Cowie aren’t telling.

INTHITS 2: Franzen Need

There are two types of climate denialism. The first type, practised by Liberals and Republicans and Murdoch hacks, is to deny the science, to deny that humans have been and are continuing to heat the planet in an unsustainable manner. The second type, practised by pretty much everyone else, is to deny the politics and the psychology, to deny that human society appears incapable of altering its behaviour sufficiently to deal with scientific reality.

The New Yorker has just published an essay by Jonathan Franzen on this second type of denialism, on the refusal to confront our current and impending death. Franzen’s essay is gentle, heartfelt, pleading and depressing. The essay, along with its author, has also been condemned far and wide.

Franzen’s essay has not convinced me that we are doomed. Much more convincing has been the vicious and fundamentally empty response, which does nothing so much as to prove Franzen’s point.

The Moon Landing Hoax Hoax

July 20th was the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s walking on the moon. Well, maybe.

I still have vivid-grainy memories of watching Armstrong’s first steps. A random few students from each class in Macleod State School were selected to go to the library to watch the event on the school’s one TV. I was not one of the lucky few. But Mr. Macrae, our wonderful Grade 4 teacher, just declared “Bugger it!”, determined which student in our class lived closest to the school, and sent out a posse to haul back the kid’s 2-ton TV. We then all watched the moon landing, enthralled and eternally grateful to Mr. Macrae.

But did it really happen?

There have been plenty of questions and questioners, suggesting that the moon landings were faked. How, for example, is the flag in the above photo flapping, given there is no atmosphere to flap it? Then, there is the fake photo of astronauts playing golf on the moon. And the lack of stars in moon photos. And the killer radiation that didn’t kill. And the strange links to Stanley Kubrick. And on and on.

Can all this evidence of doctoring be discounted? Did Man really walk on the moon?

The answers, of course, are Yes and Yes.

The idea that the moon landing was faked is completely ridiculous, and it takes a wilful stupidity to believe it. Which includes about 5% of Americans, and 10% of millenials. (The funniest take is that Kubrick did indeed stage the moon landings, but he was such a perfectionist that he went to the moon to do it.)

There is more to this story, however, than a bunch of conspiracy clowns and gullible slobs. As the brilliant Matt Taibbi writes, there is, indeed, plenty of sleight of hand going on.

The important question is why so many people are willing to believe something so patently false? The answer must be some combination of an inability to discern truth with a lack of concern for truth. And why might that be? Well, just perhaps one factor is an extended history of media and government authorities willing to misdirect and to obfuscate and to flat out lie about everything else. Just perhaps people don’t trust authorities because authorities have abused people’s trust for too long. As Taibbi writes:

“… the flowering of conspiracy theories has an obvious correlation, to a collapse of trust in institutions like the news media and the presidency. … It’s simple math. You can only ask the public to swallow so many fictions before they start to invent their own. The moon story is a great illustration.”

Which is a huge problem. It doesn’t matter a damn if people believe moon landing conspiracy crap. But if they believe that crap then they’ll also believe, more easily, climate change conspiracy crap. And then, an authority that has lost authority is powerless to convince them otherwise. And then, we’re doomed.

But at least we can laugh at the dumb slobs while the Earth goes down in flames.

WitCH 18: Making Serena Pointless

We have lots of catching up to do, WitCHes to burn and whatnot. However, we’ll first try to get in a few quick topical posts (give or take a couple weeks …). This first one is half-post, half-WitCH. We had planned it as a post, but it then seemed worth letting readers have a first whack at it; as always, readers are welcome and encouraged to comment below.

Serena Williams was back at Wimbledon this year, for the ninety-fifth time, almost grabbing her eighth title. This phenomenal athlete was also the subject of some media fluff, of the type that always accompanies these events. It was reported, pretty much everywhere, that

“One in eight men think that they could score a point off Serena Williams”.

Oh, those silly, silly men.

Twitter, of course, lit up over these “delusional” men and the media gleefully reported the ridicule, and more often than not piled on. A rare few articles gave tepid consideration to the idea that the men weren’t delusional, and none more than that.

The Serena fluff came courtesy of British polling firm YouGov, popular with those comforted by the illusion that someone cares what they think. Specifically, YouGov asked:

“Do you think if you were playing your very best tennis, you could win a point off Serena Williams?”

YouGov announced the result of the poll on Twitter, with catchy headline and accompanying graph:

“One in eight men (12%) say they could win a point in a game of tennis against 23 time grand slam winner Serena Williams”

Note that 3% of women also answered that they could win a point; we could see nothing in the media reports questioning, much less ridiculing, this percentage. (The missing percentages correspond to people who answered “don’t know”.)

On the YouGov website, the poll is also broken down by age and so on, but there is little information on the nature of the polling. All we are told is:

“1732 [Great Britain] adults were questioned on 13 Jul 2019. Results are weighted to be representative of the GB population.”

OK, so now the WitCH aspect. What is wrong with the poll? What is wrong with the reaction to it and the reporting of it? As always, feel free to respond in the comments. (You might try to keep your answers brief, but it won’t be easy.)

Finally, to state explicitly what should be obvious, we are not in any way having a go at Serena Williams. She is a great athlete, and throughout her career she’s had to put up with all manner of sexist and racist garbage. We just don’t believe the YouGov poll is such an example, or at least so clearly so.

Tootering Your Own Horn

Eddie Woo is reportedly concerned about private tutoring. His warning comes courtesy of SMH‘s education editor, Jordan Baker, in an article entitled ‘Be very, very careful’: Experts raise warning on private tutoring. The article begins,

Maths teachers including high-profile mathematician Eddie Woo have sounded an alarm on private tutoring, warning that bad tutors could be “fatal” to students’ future in the subject.

Eddie said it, so it must be true. And, Baker quotes another expert, the chief executive of the Australian Tutoring Association, Mohan Dhall:

I am absolutely dismayed at the lack of creativity and lack of real-world applicability most tutors bring to maths …The main problem stems from this idea that they focus on the outcome – ‘this is what students need to know’, rather than ‘this is what kids need to learn to be interested and engage’.

Finally, Baker quotes expert Katherin Cartwright, a lecturer in mathematics education at The University of Sydney. Cartwright, according to Baker, is concerned that poor tutoring could lead to a lack of confidence:

If it becomes about skill and drill and speed, and it becomes an anxious, emotional issue for students, then they are not going to like it, and they will not want to take it further.

Yep, of course. The most important consideration when framing an education is to be sure to never make a student anxious or emotional. Poor, fragile little petals that they are.

Baker’s fear-mongering is nonsense. Almost every line of her article is contentious and a number contain flat out falsehoods. Beginning with the title. Woo and Dhall and Cartwright are “experts” on the issues of tutoring? According to whom? Based on what? Perhaps they are experts, but Baker provides no evidence.

OK, we could concede Baker’s point that Eddie is a mathematician. Except that he isn’t and we don’t. Not that it matters here, since most mathematicians are unlikely to know much about the role of tutoring in Australian education. But the false and pointless puffery exemplifies Baker’s unjustified appeals to authority.

What of the declared concerns of Baker’s “experts”? Cartwright is supposedly worried about “skill and drill and speed”. This in contrast to school, according to Baker:

Most schools no longer emphasise speed and rote learning when teaching maths, and now focus on students’ understanding of key concepts as part of a concerted effort to improve engagement in maths across the system.

This hilarious half-truth undercuts the whole thrust of Baker’s article. It is true that many schools, particularly primary schools, have drunk the educational Kool-Aid and have turned their maths lessons into constructivist swamplands. But that just means the main and massive job of competent Year 7 maths teachers is to undo the damage inflicted by snake-oilers, and to instil in their students, much too late, an appreciation of the importance of memory and skill and efficient technique. Such technique is critical for formal success in school mathematics and, which is sadly different, for the learning of mathematics. Baker seems entirely unaware, for example, that, for better or worse, Year 12 mathematics is first and foremost a speed test, a succession of sprints.

As for Dhall, does he really expects tutors to be more offering of “creativity” and “real-world applicability”? Dhall seems blissfully unaware that most “real-world” applications that students must suffer through are pedagogically worthless, and are either trivial or infinitely tedious. Dhall seems unaware that some subjects have warped “applicability” into a surrealist nightmare.

And Eddie? What worries Eddie? Not much, as it happens, but too much. Eddie’s quoted comments come from a NSW podcast, which appears to have been the genesis of Baker’s piece; stenographic fluffing is of course the standard for modern reportage, the cheap and easy alternative to proper investigation and considered reflection.

Eddie’s podcast is a happy public chat about teaching mathematics. Eddie is demonstrably a great teacher and he is very engaging. He says a number of smart things, the half-hour podcast only being offensive for its inoffensiveness; Eddie, or his interviewer, was seemingly too scared to venture into a deep public discussion of mathematics and the sense of it. The result is that, except for the occasional genuflection to “pattern”, Eddie may as well have been talking about turtle farming as teaching mathematics.

Eddie’s comments on tutoring are a very minor part of the podcast, a response in the final question time. This is Eddie’s response in full:

When I think about external tuition – again just like before this is a really complex question – there is tuition and then there is ‘tuition’. There is some which is enormously helpful to individual students to come in at a point of need and say “you have got gaps in your knowledge, I can identify that and then help you with those and then you can get back on the horse and off you go, fantastic”. There are other kinds of tuition which are frankly just pumping out an industrial model of education which parents who are very well intentioned and feel like they cannot do anything else, it is like “at least I can throw money at the problem and at least they are spending more time on maths hopefully that will help”. Maybe it does and maybe it is making your child hate maths because they are doing it until 9pm at night after a whole day? That to me is heartbreaking.

I think that students need to be very, very careful and parents need to be very, very careful about how they experience mathematics. Because yes the time is a worthwhile investment, it is a practical subject, but if you are just churning through, often tragically learning things which actually are just machine processes. I have students come to me and they say “I can differentiate, I am really good at that, I am only fifteen years old”. You don’t need to know what differentiation is, but they come to me with this ability to turn a handle on this algorithm this set of steps. Just like me; I don’t know how to bake, but I can follow a recipe. I have no idea what baking powder does or why 180 degrees Celsius is important but I can follow steps. That is okay for a cake because you can still eat it at the end, but that is fatal for mathematics because you don’t know why you are doing any of the things that you are doing. If that is what you are, you are not a mathematician, you are a machine and that is not what we want our children to become. We have to be careful.

Eddie says plenty right here, touching on various forms of and issues with tutoring, and school teaching. The issues do not get fleshed out, but that is the nature of Q & A.

Eddie also gets things smugly wrong. Sure, some tutoring might be characterised as “industrial”. But more so than schools? How can mass education not be industrial? This isn’t necessarily bad: mostly, it just is. Unless, of course, little Tarquin’s parents have the time and the money to arrange for individual or small-group lessons with an, um, tutor.

All the concerns Baker and her experts raise about tutoring apply as much or more so to school education and, as a matter of business necessity, are largely a reflection of school education. And, how do tutors and tutoring companies deal with this? Some well, some poorly. But mostly with industry, which is not a dirty word, and with good and honest intent.

Baker notes the underlying issue, seemingly without even realising it:

However, Australian students’ performance in maths has either stalled or declined on all major indicators over that period, and academics have raised concerns about students arriving at university without the maths skills they need.

Why do parents employ tutors? Having enjoyed and suffered forty years of tutoring, in pretty much all its forms, we can give the obvious answer: there’s a zillion different, individual reasons. Some, as Eddie suggests, are looking for a little damage control, the filling of gaps and a little polishing. Some, as Eddie suggests, think of mathematics, falsely, as a syntactic game, and are looking for lessons in playing that dangerously meaningless game. Some believe, correctly or otherwise, that their teacher/school is responsible for little Johnny’s struggling. Some are trying to get darling Diana into law school. Some are hothousing precious little Perry so he/she can get a scholarship into Polo Grammar or Mildred’s College for Christian Ladies.

But, underlying it all, there is one obvious, central reason why parents employ tutors: parents are unsatisfied with the education their child receives at school.

Why are parents unsatisfied? Are they right to be? Of course, it depends. But, whatever the individual analyses, the massive growth of the tutoring industry indicates a major disconnect, and either a major failing in schools’ performance or a major blindness in parents’ expectations, or both.

That would be a much more worthwhile issue for Baker, and everyone, to consider.

A Quick Word on Julian Assange

 

Either you are horrified by the persecution of Julian Assange or, like Lisa Millar and Patricia Karvelas and Peter Greste and Michael “Gold Star” Rowland, you support the fascistic, war-mongering motherfuckers out to get him. There is no middle ground.

Update (31/07/19)

ABC’S Four Corners has just aired a 2-part program on Julian Assange. It is well-made, interesting and, in keeping with modern journalistic style, entirely without self-awareness and entirely off the fucking point.