Why I will not be helping ACARA
The latest twist in the tale of the mathematics curriculum
Do you want to know a secret? On Tuesday 15 March I could be heading to Sydney to help the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) fix its draft maths curriculum, but I am not and I will explain why.
First, a reminder. Last year, ACARA released a draft of a new version of the Australian Curriculum. The draft was bad. Perhaps the worst offending subject was science — science content is already only one of three strands, but the draft proposed rewriting every content statement to begin either with the word ‘explore’ or ‘investigate’ in order to further promote inquiry learning.
However, the mathematics draft was also poor. Key content such as times-tables and linear equations were delayed, the voguish concept of ‘mathematising’ was introduced, learning through problem solving was emphasised and a whole load of ‘elaborations’ were brought into the body of the curriculum that described investigative activities with no clear purpose. I haven’t finished. The vague strand of ‘space’ was introduced with what appeared to be the purpose of enabling the specification of content that could not be described as geometry, and primary students would now be doing ‘algebra’ — not the dictionary definition of algebra, where letters are used to represent numbers, but anything vaguely related to number patterns was now considered to be ‘algebra’ in inverted commas.
It was as if the draft had been written by Peter Sullivan, a professor emeritus at Monash University who is in favour of ‘student-centered structured inquiry’. While Professor Sullivan and others are entitled to their views, it is not the most effective approach to maths teaching and I do not want an Australian Curriculum that requires me to use it.
In response to the draft, I was involved in organising an open letter signed by hundreds of mathematicians, scientists, maths teachers and concerned individuals, and this letter was submitted to the consultation process. The Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI), after initially endorsing the draft, changed its view and called for a rewrite. The federal education minister expressed concerns.
In response, ACARA wrote a new draft that appears to have reversed some of the worst changes and that was discussed by state and federal education ministers on 4 February. It still failed to gain their full backing and ACARA was asked by Stuart Robert, the federal education minister, to makes revisions and consult a list of experts in doing so.
One of ACARA’s initial justifications for the draft was that in emphasising problem-solving, it was following the lead of Singapore, a higher performing education system than Australia. Comparisons like this are fraught. Many things vary between Singapore and Australia, not just the curriculum documentation. However, even if we were to naively accept this principle, there are key elements of the Singapore maths curriculum that are at odds with the draft.
For instance, Singaporean students learn their times-tables earlier than Australians do under our currently enacted curriculum. And the Singaporean curriculum lists sets of operations that students must be able to do “without calculator” — yes, it is printed in bold. Perhaps that’s why Stuart Robert asked ACARA to consider, “being clear about which operations students need to be able to do without a calculator.”
The list of experts ACARA was asked to consult has not been made public, but I know one name that was on it — mine.
On 2 March, I was contacted by ACARA and invited to an event in Sydney on 15 March that will include invited experts and, “the Mathematics and F-12 Curriculum Reference Group members that have been involved throughout the Australian Curriculum Review process,” with the purpose to, “find a solution that is acceptable to all.”
So, I would need to ask my boss for permission to attend, go to Sydney and tell all the people who wrote the draft curriculum exactly what is wrong with it. That would be awkward, but as a public-spirited individual I would be prepared to consider it.
What I am not prepared to consider is signing the ‘Deed of Confidentiality’ that’s required in order for me to receive an embargoed copy of the current revision of the curriculum — the version considered by ministers on 4 February — and a prerequisite to my attendance. In signing this deed, I would be legally bound to keep confidential, “any information (whether or not in a material form and whether disclosed before or after the date of this deed) of whatever kind that is owned or held by ACARA; or disclosed or revealed by ACARA to the Recipient, or received, accessed or obtained by the Recipient from ACARA or any agent, employee or servant of ACARA.” I would need to agree that, “The Recipient acknowledges that any breach of this deed may cause damage to ACARA.”
Why would I sign such a document and put myself at risk of legal sanction if I accidentally left a copy of the draft on a train? Moreover, this deed would appear to bind me in perpetuity to keep all future ACARA documents — and even conversations — confidential, whether related to the draft mathematics curriculum or not.
It is worth mentioning that people send me embargoed materials all the time without asking me to sign legal deeds. I get copies of reports prior to publication, from a range of sources. I have never released anything that I have been asked to keep confidential. I like to think this is because I am noble and just, but the reality is that if I were to release confidential information, people would stop trusting me and would stop sending me stuff. It is not in my interests to do so.
And yet ACARA are treating their revised maths curriculum like it’s the plans for a nuclear submarine. This behaviour forms part of a pattern. When I was originally briefed on the draft last year, I was whizzed through a PowerPoint presentation of ACARA talking points and was not given an actual copy of the draft to look at. And it is not just disreputable bloggers — respected journalists received the same treatment.
This may have something to do with why the draft mathematics curriculum has been an unrelenting public relations disaster for ACARA.
Still, I would have been prepared to offer my help. But I am not silly.