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“Maths as Latin Mass” in Australia

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Down under, the Australians are going through many of the same arguments about mathematics education that we are here in the US. In this column from The Age, Marty Ross — who holds a PhD in mathematics from Stanford — lambastes the Australian mathematics education community in ways that might seem eerily familiar to those who follow the similar issues in America. Quote:

[H]ere is an exercise from a current Victorian year 9 maths text: a farmer has 2C cows and 3H horses. The exercise is to find the square of the sum of the farmer’s animals.

The Victorian texts are not uniformly that pointless or that bad. But not much is good. Definitions are clumsy, problems are contrived, natural connections and beautiful insights are overlooked. The texts do not reflect a mathematical culture.

It is not just the textbooks. Teachers are poorly trained; the curriculum is moribund, rife with silly, contrived applications; and everywhere there is pointless calculation. And calculators – the cane toads of education.

Is there still proof? Proof is the source of the power of mathematics, the reasoning and the understanding: it’s what holds the discipline together. But it is practically dead. The very little proof that remains is meaningless and ritualised: maths as Latin Mass.

How did it get this bad? Primarily, it results from the failure to involve mathematicians, the people for whom mathematics is their life’s blood. The simple fact is, many of those responsible for mathematics education do not know sufficient mathematics to do the job.

There are lots more “ouch” moments in the article. Ross concludes by saying:

What do I want from a national curriculum? I want a dodecahedron in every classroom, and beautiful diagrams to ponder. I want students to know why there are infinitely many prime numbers, and for them to realise no one knows about twin-primes. I want them to know what the golden mean is, and why it is irrational, and why we care. I want pattern and play and beauty. And I want the times tables.

Is teaching any of the above useful? It is exactly as useful as teaching Harry Potter and Shakespeare.

Mathematicians do mathematics because it is fun and it is beautiful. If the curriculum is not written in that spirit, and if teachers are not trained in that spirit, then we are doomed. We will have yet another generation devoted to gradgrinding students into hating mathematics.

I’ll agree on many of these points — especially why mathematicians are motivated to do mathematics, the criticism about the lack of proof in the math curriculum, and to some extent Ross’ critiques of the mathematical background of mathematics education people. But what do you think — is Ross’ assertion that fun and beauty form the proper basis for a mathematics curriculum really sound? I mean, I’d like all my students to know about the infinitude of primes too, but does that sort of thing make a reasonable organizing principle for an entire curriculum?

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Shortages in SMET fields: Not just for Americans

The Australians are also facing critical shortages of students choosing to study science, math, engineering, and technology (SMET) fields:

“It is no exaggeration to say that the relative decline in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics capability and literacy of South Australian school students is a very serious situation that requires decisive remedial action by the government,” said Engineers Australia state president Bill Filmer.

“There is an urgent need for reprioritisation in schools, staffing and curricula to overcome this problem to enable South Australia to be more competitive in the knowledge-based economy.”

The report also identified the lack of training in science given to primary school teachers as a key issue and questioned their commitment to teaching science. [Emphasis added]

As to that last sentence above, insofar as I can understand the teacher education curriculum in Australia from a little bit of Googling, the curriculum for primary teachers does seem awfully lightweight on the math and science end. The curriculum at the University of South Australia has students take a three-course sequence in “Studies in Science, Mathematics, and Society and Environment Education”, and the course descriptions go like this:

[For the first course] This course engages students with constructivist perspectives of student learning; social constructivist pedagogies including interactive approaches to teaching; thinking and working mathematically scientifically, environmentally and socially from socially inclusive and critical perspectives; planning for learning in mathematics, science and society and environment; key concepts embedded in sorting and classifying, pattern, number, living things, interdependence and ecologically sustainable components of Years 3 to 9 curriculum.

[Second course] This course engages students with constructivist perspectives of student learning and focuses on interactive approaches to teaching and student questions; thinking and working mathematically, scientifically, socially and environmentally from socially inclusive and critical perspectives; planning for learning in Mathematics, Science and SOSE; student centred inquiry; equity (fair trade) governance (political, social and economic systems); key concepts embedded in spatial sense and geometric reasoning, energy systems, matter and fair tests, personal footprints, democratic participation and poverty as aspects of the Years 3 – 9 curriculum.

[Third course] This course engages students with constructivist perspectives of student learning and focuses on interactive approaches to teaching and student questions; thinking and working mathematically, scientifically, socially and environmentally from socially inclusive and critical perspectives; planning for learning in Mathematics, Science and SOSE; student centred inquiry; the SOSE value of social justice and equity through refugees and Indigenous Australians; key concepts embedded in measurement, earth systems (soils and weather), plant and animal relationships as aspects of the Years 3 – 9 curriculum.

Like I said, it seems light on the actual science and math content, but the students will certain get lots of social justice issues and a bias towards constructivism as the religion pedagogy of choice. Perhaps I don’t understand Australian culture as I should, but if I were a student being taught by someone thoroughly drilled in this kind of thing, I probably wouldn’t like math or science either. And if I were a teacher who wanted to teach math and science because, well, I really liked math and science, I would be a little put off by the back seat that the actual disciplines take to all this constructivism and social justice stuff.

It would be interesting to take the countries who are having these kinds of problems in one column, and the countries that are eating our lunch in SMET fields in the other column, and compare how science and math teachers are trained in each column.

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