A small victory

The Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute changes course on the draft mathematics curriculum


The Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI) is a peak body that represents universities, government agencies and professional societies. In May, it added its endorsement to a statement released by the Australian Association of Mathematics Teacher (AAMT), titled, “Why Maths Must Change”. The statement was in support of proposed changes to the Australian Curriculum: Mathematics that I have criticised (e.g. here and here) and that has led to over 200 people signing a letter opposing these changes that I helped to organise.

Today, AMSI publicly released its submission to the consultation on these changes and this submission represents a distinct change of heart:

“AMSI initially endorsed the revised draft curriculum in our joint statement. However, there is now an opportunity to comment on the draft curriculum, and we have revised our position, following extensive consultation with representatives of our member organisations…

…Some members welcomed the stronger emphasis on problem solving and inquiry, mathematical modelling and computational thinking... However, members expressed considerable concern at the manner in which these had been implemented in the current curriculum, in particular noting the open-ended nature of many of the proposed inquiries was at odds with effective mathematical problem solving. Members also expressed concerns that this new emphasis comes at the expense of mastery and fluency. Mastery of mathematical approaches is needed before student problem solving can be effective.”

So, that’s something of a win and tells us plenty about the seriousness and integrity of an organisation that is prepared to publicly change its mind.

AMSI list a number of specific concerns that I share, including the silly concept of ‘mathematising’ and the pushing back of linear equations, as well as the reasoning given for many of these changes which, against the available evidence, argues that understanding must precede procedural knowledge. AMSI also note the breaking of the link between fractions and decimals, a valid concern that had not been on my radar, although they don’t address the watering-down of times tables.

AMSI calls for a halt to the current review process and the initiation of a fresh approach, “involving a range of teachers, education experts and discipline experts.”

This is the tricky part.

David D. Carvalho, the head of ACARA, the body that released the draft curriculum, is neither silly or malevolent. The draft curriculum was clearly ACARA’s best effort at developing something that would improve mathematics education in Australia. The difficulty is who a body like ACARA must approach when they want to review a mathematics curriculum. They have to approach mathematics education experts, which seems perfectly reasonable and legitimate until you realise that mathematics education experts are overwhelmingly wrong.

And it’s not just experts. Many unenlightened teachers - the kind who, unlike you, do not read this blog - have strange ideas about mathematics teaching that are not based on evidence. After all, it was the AAMT who released the initial statement endorsing the draft. Again, this is unsurprising when you consider the fact that teachers are trained by the same experts who tend to be wrong about everything. Anywhere ACARA turns, they will find someone under the influence of a bad idea or misconception.

I don’t know exactly how you fix it, although I have a few ideas. What ACARA should not do is ask mathematics education experts to design 95% of any new draft - complete with baked-in concepts like ‘mathematising’ - and then include teachers, mathematicians and others in a tightly controlled ‘consultation’ in which they are able to potentially influence 5% of the end result.

Commenting on AMSI’s change of heart to Rebecca Urban in The Australian, the federal education minister, Alan Tudge, warned, “I certainly won’t be supporting any curriculum documents which water down standards and are not based on evidence.”

Time to grab some sensible maths teachers, a blank sheet of paper and get to work.