MitPY 13: Trigonometry and Wolfram Alpha

This MitPY comes from frequent commenter, John Friend:

Dear Colleagues,

I gave a CAS-FREE question to my Specialist students whose first part was to solve (exactly) the equation \boldsymbol{\cot 2x = \sec x}. I solved it two different ways and got two different answers that are equivalent. I’ve attached my calculations.

I checked my answers using Mathematica, which lead to my question: Mathematica gives a third different but equivalent answer (scroll down to real solutions). How has Mathematica got this answer?

It may be that Mathematica ‘used’ my Method 2, got my tan answer and then for some arcane reason ‘manipulated’ this answer into the one it finally gives. If so, I can ascribe the answer to a Mathematica quirk. But it may be that Mathematica is using a method unclear to me that leads to its answer. If so, I’m curious.

Any thoughts are appreciated.

Click to access Calculations.pdf

The VCAA Draft and its Third Rail

We’ve looked a little more closely at VCAA’s Draft for the new mathematics VCE subjects. Yes, the time for feedback has ended, unless it hasn’t: the MAV are offering a Zoom session TODAY (Thursday 25/3) for members. God knows how or why. But in any case, it’ll be a while before VCAA cements the thing in place: plenty of time to ignore everyone’s suggestions.

The following are our thoughts on the Draft and Overview. It will be brief and disorganised, since there is no point in doing more; as we wrote, the content doesn’t matter as much as the fact that, whatever content, VCAA will undoubtedly screw it up. Still, there are some clear and depressing points to be made. We haven’t paid much specific attention to what is new nonsense, and what is the same old nonsense; nonsense is nonsense.


  • The draft looks like a primary school book report. Someone at VCAA really should learn \LaTeX.
  • “Computational Thinking” is meaningless buzzery, and will be endemic, insidious and idiotic. It will poison everything. Every step of Methods and Specialist is subject to the scrutiny of Outcome 3:

“On completion of this unit the student should be able to apply computational thinking and use numerical, graphical, symbolic and statistical functionalities of technology to develop mathematical ideas, produce results and carry out analysis in practical situations requiring problem-solving, modelling or investigative techniques or approaches.”

“Statistical functionalities of technology”. And, there’s way more:

“key elements of algorithm design: sequencing, decision-making, repetition, and representation including the use of pseudocode.”

“use computational thinking, algorithms, models and simulations to solve problems related to a given context”

“the role of developing algorithms and expressing these through pseudocode to help determine and understand mathematical ideas and results”

“the purpose and effect of sequencing, decision-making and repetition statements on relevant functionalities of technology, and their role in the design of algorithms and simulations”

“design and implement simulations and algorithms using appropriate functionalities of technology”

This will all be the same aimless, pseudo-exploratory, CAS-drenched garbage that currently screws VCE, but much, much worse. Anybody who signs off on this idiocy should hang their head in shame.

  • CAS shit will now be worse than ever.
  • There should be no CAS exam, at all.
  • There should be no bound notes permitted in any exam.
  • Don’t write “technology”. It is pompous and meaningless. If you mean “CAS” then write “CAS”.
  • SACs have always been shit and will always be shit. The increased weight on them is insane.
  • The statistics is the same pointless bullshit it always was.
  • The presence of “proof” as a topic in Specialist highlights the anti-mathematical insanity of VCAA and ACARA curricula: proof has zero existence elsewhere. Much of what appears in the proof topic could naturally and engagingly and productively be taught at much lower levels. But of course, that would get in the way of VCAA’s constructivist fantasy, now with New and Improved Computational Thinking.



  • Not including integration by substitution is still and will always be the most stupid aspect of Methods.
  • Dilations must be understood expressed as both “parallel to an axis” and “from an axis”? But not in terms of the direction the damn points are moving? Cute.
  • The definition of independent events is wrong.
  • The demand that, for the composition \boldsymbol{f\circ g}, the range of \boldsymbol{g} must be a subset of the domain of \boldsymbol{f} is as pedantic and as pointless as ever.
  • “literal equations” is the kind of blather that only a maths ed clown could think has value.
  • The derivative of the inverse is still not in the syllabus, and everyone will still cheat and use it anyway.
  • “trapezium rule” is gauche but, more importantly, what is the purpose of teaching such integral approximation here? Yes, one can imagine a reasonable purpose, but we’ll lay odds there is no such purpose here.



  • The killing of mechanics is a crime.
  • The inclusion of logic and proof and the discrete topics could be good. But it won’t be. It will be shallow and formulaic and algorithmised, and graded in a painfully pedantic manner. Just imagine, for example, how mathematical induction will be assessed on exams: “Students often wrote \boldsymbol{n} instead of \boldsymbol{k}. Students should be aware of the proper use of these variables.”
  • There is no value here in “proof by contrapositive”, and it is confusing. Proof by contradiction suffices.
  • They’re really including integration by parts? Incredible.
  • The inclusion of cross products and plane equations makes some sense.

A Choice of Difficults

You have a choice. The two questions below come from different exams:

Each question was (arguably) last year’s most difficult exam question on the most difficult mathematics subject in that state. Each question was effectively allocated just under 20 minutes to complete (11/100 x 180 and 13/80 x 120).

Now, you must choose: which question is better, in any sense of the word “better”?


NSW  (Formula Marking guide and sample solution are here.)


VIC  (Briefly discussed here, marking guide and sample solution are in your dreams.)

VCAA’s Draft Feedback Due TODAY

We’ve been remiss in not writing further on VCAA’s draft for the new mathematics VCE subjects. It’s just, for reasons we’ll explain briefly here and flesh out elsewhere, we’ve struggled to face up to this new nonsense.

But, feedback is due TODAY (midnight? – see links below), and we really oughta say something. So, here are our brief thoughts and then, after that, why we believe none of it really matters:

  • “Computational thinking and algorithms” is pure snake oil.  Inevitably, it will be nothing but wafer-thin twaddle for the training of data monkeys.
  • The increased weight on these meaningless, revolting SACs is insidious.
  • If we read it correctly, more weight will be placed on the non-CAS Methods/Specialist exams; it is not remotely close to enough, but it is good.
  • Statistics was and is and will always be an insane topic to emphasise in school.
  • Foundation Mathematics: Who Cares?
  • General Mathematics: Who Cares?
  • Mathematical Methods: same old swill.
  • The deletion of mechanics from Specialist Mathematics is criminal, but the topic had already been so bled to meaningless that it hardly matters.
  • In principle, the inclusion in SM of “logic” and “proof and number” and “combinatorics” is a good thing. We’ll see.
  • Similarly, in principle the making of SM12 presumed knowledge for SM34 is good; in practice, it is almost certainly bad. Currently, a good teacher at a good school will take the freedom in SM12 to go to town, to show their students some genuine mathematics and real mathematical thought. In the future, that will be close to impossible, and SM12 will likely become as predictable and as dull as MM12 (and MM34 and SM34).

And now, why doesn’t any of it matter? Because, fundamentally it doesn’t matter what you teach, it matters how you teach. What matters is the manner in which you approach your subject and your students, and none of that will change in other than a microscopic manner. Nothing in VCAA has changed, nothing in the general culture of Victorian education had changed. So, why the Hell would twiddling a few dials on utterly insane subjects assessed in an utterly insane manner make any meaningful difference?

Everything VCAA touches, they will turn to shit. That will continue to be true until there is a fundamental cultural shift, in VCAA and generally.

I hate this place.


  • The current (pre-COVID) study design (pdf) is here.
  • The draft for the new study design (word) is here.
  • The key changes overview (work) is here.
  • The link for feedback (until March 9, 2021) is here.

WitCH 56: Fuzzy Dots

Has it occurred to anyone else that these WitCHes are a blogging Ponzi scheme? As long as we keep posting new WitCHes, no one bugs us about not polishing off the old WitCHes. What the hell; we’ll keep going until someone calls the Blog Cops. And, to continue with the scheme, this WitCH comes from the Cambridge text Specialist Mathematics 1 & 2, in the section titled Linear Diophantine equations. Happy hunting.

MitPY 11: Asymptotes and Wolfram Alpha

This MitPY comes from frequent commenter, John Friend:

Dear colleagues,

I figured this was as good place as any to ask for help. I’m writing a small test on rational functions. One of my questions asks students to consider the function \displaystyle f(x) = \frac{x^3 + x}{x^2 + ax - 2a} where a \in R and to find the values of a for which the function intersects its oblique asymptote.

The oblique asymptote is y = x - a so they must first solve

\displaystyle \frac{x^3 + x}{x^2 + ax - 2a} = x - a … (1)

for x. The solution is \displaystyle x = \frac{2a^2}{(a+1)^2} and there are no restrictions along the way to getting this solution that I can see. So obviously a \neq -1.

It can also be seen that if a = 0 then equation (1) becomes \displaystyle \frac{x^3 + x}{x^2} = x which has no solution. So obviously a \neq 0.

When I solve equation (1) using Wolfram Alpha the result is also \displaystyle x = \frac{2a^2}{(a+1)^2}. But here’s where I’m puzzled:

Wolfram Alpha gives the obvious restriction a + 1 \neq 0 but also the restriction 5a^3 + 4a^2 + a \neq 0.

a \neq 0 emerges naturally (and uniquely) from this second restriction and I really like that this happens as a natural part of the solution process. BUT ….

I cannot see where this second restriction comes from in the process of solving equation (1)! Can anyone see what I cannot?


WitCH 49: Trigged Again

The question below is from the second 2020 Specialist exam (not online), and was flagged by commenter John Friend in the discussion here. John has spelled out the problems, but the question is bad enough to warrant its own post, and there’s arguably a little more to be said.