France is Bacon

If knowledge is power then just how powerful is the new draft Australian curriculum?

It was Francis Bacon, the English enlightenment philosopher, who claimed that ‘knowledge is power’. What better demonstration is there of this simple truth than the news that China is about to launch the first section of its new space station. Science and technology have come together to make a statement of global significance.

Recently, I had the chance to examine a Year 5 maths textbook from Shanghai. Chinese textbooks are different to Australian ones. Ours tend to focus on activities and problems whereas this textbook was full of lengthy explanations and diagrams, with plenty of practice at each step. Another notable difference was that the content the Year 5 Chinese students were studying was closer to what Australian students study in Year 7. So, the news that the new draft Australian maths curriculum has watered down some content by, for example, removing linear equations from Year 7 and punting it into Year 8 is a concern.

It was never going to be the case that a government instruction to ‘declutter’ the curriculum was going to remove any of the 24 pages of waffle that sit in the curriculum document before you get to any of the actual content. Instead, it was always going to be the case that actual content would be cut, and not incidental content either. The logic seems to be to make way for more ‘problem solving’, as if there is a type of maths teaching that somehow does not involve solving problems. Writing in The Australian, David de Carvalho makes a couple of assertions to support this case:

“Mathematics, in particular, is an area that we have identified needed additional work. The basics of learning mathematics – such as our time tables – will always have a place in the mathematics classroom. But we also need to ensure that our young people know how to apply that knowledge to solve real world problems. Our declining results in the OECD PISA tests show that this ability to transfer knowledge from one context to another is an area we need to strengthen.

PISA tells us that when it comes to mathematics, while Australian students are not bad at knowing the “what”, they are not so good at the “why” of mathematics; that is, being able to think mathematically and see how mathematical concepts can be applied in different situations. They are good at knowing the rules of mathematics, but not good at understanding the reasons for those rules.”

I would like to know the evidence that shows that, “while Australian students are not bad at knowing the “what”, they are not so good at the “why” of mathematics.” I looked into a similar claim made a few years ago in Scientific American and found it did not really stack-up, although the source data was unavailable. Secondly, assuming this is true, on what evidence are we basing the idea that focusing on ‘problem solving’ will fix it?

The innovation in this new draft maths curriculum is to integrate the problem-solving waffle into the actual curriculum statements - they were previously separate and the concern was that teachers might ignore them. So, we have statements such as, “Students will learn to describe, follow and create algorithms involving a sequence of steps and decisions to investigate numbers including odd and even numbers and multiples of 2, 3, 5 and 10 using computational thinking to recognise, describe and explain emerging patterns.”

Despite de Carvalho’s claims to the contrary, such statements effectively prescribe an inquiry learning teaching style. This is not about rising above the ongoing debate between inquiry learning, where students figure things out for themselves with help from the teacher, and explicit teaching, where new concepts are fully explained, this is about taking the inquiry learning side and backing it to the full. And this is despite the fact that there is no body of evidence to support inquiry learning, despite it being promoted by educationalists for over a hundred years.

At times, the mathematics curriculum descends into the absurd, such as when it promotes something called ‘mathematising’ that includes such concepts as ‘making choices’ and ‘visualising’. If anyone can explain how we can teach children to make choices or visualise in any other way than we do when we teach them how to solve a specific type of maths problem, then I would be extremely interested. But, I suspect they cannot. So, we have vague, unteachable things in our curriculum while specific, teachable content like linear equations gets punted down the field.

It gets even worse when you look at the science curriculum. Pretty much every content description starts either with ‘explore’ (Years K-3) or ‘investigate’ (Years 4-10). This is a plain and explicit direction to use inquiry learning and to suggest otherwise is frankly gaslighting. Instead of simply teaching students about forces, we must “investigate and represent balanced and unbalanced forces, including gravitational force, acting on objects, and relate changes in an object’s motion to its mass and the magnitude and direction of forces acting on it.” The idea that we would be doing this in order to somehow improve our PISA results is bonkers. The 2015 round of PISA investigated the effect of different teaching styles on science performance and found, “After accounting for students’ and schools’ socio-economic profile, in 56 countries and economies, greater exposure to enquiry-based instruction is associated with lower scores in science.” I wrote about these finding here.

So, the federal education minster, Alan Tudge, who on Tuesday was calling for a v-shaped recovery in our PISA results, has been presented with a curriculum that, if followed, is likely to do the opposite.

I have not yet reviewed the History and Social Studies (HASS) curriculum properly, but it is still following the ‘expanding horizons’ model debunked by Kieran Egan in 1980. Moreover, Rebecca Urban in The Australian is reporting the stripping out of ancient history, which is precisely the reverse of the kind of change we need to make if we want a knowledge-rich curriculum. Urban also notes that aspects of whole language reading instruction, including predictable texts, will be retained, despite these lacking any evidence base.

There is an internet meme about someone who, as a child, hears the quote, ‘Knowledge is power - Francis Bacon’ but interprets it as, ‘Knowledge is power, France is bacon’.

If ‘knowledge is power’ is a statement worthy of a high quality curriculum, the best you can say about this attempt is ‘France is bacon’.