Sunday, December 22, 2013

Dumbing it down with Donnelly

Kevin Donnelly is the "go to" pundit for newspapers and television commentary about the supposed dumbed down and politically correct school curriculum in Australia (curricula really; doesn't matter which, it's all dumbed down and politically correct). He even wrote a book about it. But, in fact, it is Donnelly who deliberately dumbs things down with his straw man mischaracterisations.

Donnelly simply trots out the same few facile points over and over and seemingly has fooled the media, and now apparently the federal government, into thinking he is an expert in educational standards. (To be fair to the media, he is the "Director" of Education Standards Institute. On a completely unrelated note, I'd like to take this opportunity to announce that I am now the CEO and Lord Commander of the Institute of Standards for Sciolism. The standards are pretty high in News Corp publications...)

The latest example is his attack on the Australian Curriculum which, along with the journalist who wrote this article, either shows a complete lack of understanding or is a deliberate misrepresentation.

Donnelly, who typifies a LAME self promoter, was quoted as saying:
...the existing curriculum was "a mile wide and an inch deep" and demanded more "academic rigour".
I don't take issue with Donnelly stating that the curriculum should focus on rigour and depth. But this is a non-statement when it comes to education. Who doesn't say or believe this? Who doesn't want to "raise the standards", have "rigour" in maths and science, and have "high quality teachers", for example?

Where is the evidence for the lack of rigour? The article seems to go on to provide it:
In every subject - from science to physical education - children must study Aboriginal culture, environmental sustainability and Australia's engagement with Asia, under the national curriculum forged by the former Labor government.
Politically correct red alert! The article gives some examples from maths:
And Year 4 kids learning about fractions will "investigate the use of fractions and sharing as a way of managing Country: for example taking no more than half the eggs from a nest to protect future bird populations.'
Year 10 statistics involves "investigating biodiversity changes in Australia since European occupation."
Shock and horror. I can't believe the curriculum would force teachers to focus on such non-core mathematics!

But of course, the writer,'s "Social Editor"... has stacked the deck and cherry picked examples. She fails to disclose these statements are from the content elaborations, which are not mandatory. These are just some examples of how content descriptions, that are mandatory, could be taught.

Could... not must.

The actual content descriptions that are to be taught, related to these examples, are, in Year 4:
Count by quarters halves and thirds, including with mixed numerals. Locate and represent these fractions on a number line (ACMNA078)
And in Year 10:
Investigate and describe bivariate numerical data where the independent variable is time (ACMSP252)
This sounds like maths to me... The other non-mandatory elaborations associated with these, in respective order, are:
Year 4: converting mixed numbers to improper fractions and vice versa
Year 10: constructing and interpreting data displays representing bivariate data over time
Yet more maths.

As far as rigour goes, I'll give a couple more examples from the curriculum:
Foundation: Subitise small collections of objects (ACMNA003) 
Year 3: Recall multiplication facts of two, three, five and ten and related division facts (ACMNA056) 
Year 6: Multiply decimals by whole numbers and perform divisions by non-zero whole numbers where the results are terminating decimals, with and without digital technologies (ACMNA129) 
Year 8: Extend and apply the distributive law to the expansion of algebraic expressions (ACMNA190) 
Year 10: Expand binomial products and factorise monic quadratic expressions using a variety of strategies (ACMNA233)
The curriculum is published online here: The curriculum includes achievement standards which have samples of student work associated with them. Judge the depth and rigour of mathematics for yourself.

There are about 280 content descriptions (i.e. must be taught) in the curriculum in total. The article does not cite a single one of these as an issue.

The article cites a total of five non-compulsory (that is, they can be completely ignored) elaborations as examples of what they see as politically correct or woolly statements. There are about 420 elaborations in total, which are just examples!

This in not to say the curriculum is perfect or that there aren't issues with education in Australia. There clearly are. The devil is in the detail and as per usual, Donnelly (and the journalist) are clearly short on such detail. Worse than that, either through intellectual ineptitude or bankruptcy they incompetently or deliberately paint a false picture; straight forward examples of a straw man and observational selection with some stacking the deck.

The article calls for more rigour and depth in the school curriculum... The irony. How about some more rigour and depth in discussions about education, instead of the usual superficial generalities and "go to" punditry? We won't make any progress in "raising educational standards" if the basis of our decision making is false and self-serving.
Source: Education Minister Christopher Pyne questions teaching Aboriginal and Asian culture in maths classes - Herald Sun.