Equally group work, online investigations and problem-solving activities are good and definitely have their place in the teaching of maths.
But if used to the exclusion of all else, students will miss out in some areas. It isn’t reasonable to expect maths students to solve ‘real-world’ problems or do ‘authentic’ assessment tasks if their arithmetic and algebra skills are weak or non-existent.
The same goes for assessment. Today, articles bemoaning Australia’s declining performance on internationally accepted tests like TIMMS and PISA appear alongside other articles railing against the NAPLAN process, ATAR scores and the worth of using letter grades in assessment at all.
And shrill demands for higher standards for prospective teachers are published in tandem with worrying statistics about how short we are of teachers – particularly STEM teachers – and how efforts must be made to redress this situation. This happens literally every day.
Governments of all stripes want to save money on education if possible. The Federal Government blames the states and vice versa.
Teachers' unions ask for pay rises to attract better student teachers into the profession and diminished face-to-face teaching hours so they can keep up with the mandatory documentation requirements that are part of the gig these days.
There is always tension over education in the political sphere.
Every issue in education plays to at least two fairly separate audiences, and they are usually irreconcilable.
Private schools only have a win at the expense of state and Catholic schools. Tertiary wins and secondary and primary lose funding to pay for it. City schools are where most teachers want to live so regional schools miss out.
And yet, every day thousands of schools and tens of thousands of teachers try their best to teach millions of Australian students.
And thousands of principals find ways of solving the problems unique to their own schools and bring their schools’ bifurcated audiences together, maybe not perfectly but at least reasonably well.
Society needs to make its mind up what it wants from education, and what it is prepared to make compromises about in order to get it.
When parents send their children to school, they expect the school to care for their safety and educate them.
They expect the school to tell them how the children are getting on academically and socially from time to time, and to alert them quickly if there is a problem, especially if they might be able to help the school to solve it.
These are reasonable minimum expectations for parents and they create a roadmap for schools to follow. If parents and the school agree on these baseline expectations, the audience becomes supportive and the school and its students prosper.
The fact that it is the students who are meant to be the main beneficiaries of all this educational effort sometimes creates difficulties.
Humans between the ages of five and 18 are not always very committed to being educated.
Even the ones who are, don’t all respond to the same educational program.
They prefer some subjects to others, most of them dislike at least one or are a loss to see the point of it. The girl who loves drama and dance may not be so flash on geography or science.
It’s possible to be adept at both English literature and maths but think legal studies and art are a waste of time. And it’s okay to think that way.
We ought to expect students to have their own interests and to resent how often the responsibilities of school get in the way.
The student audience isn’t just bifurcated ― it is impossibly fragmented. We ought to expect teachers to understand and manage these bifurcations in the audiences that are their classrooms, and mostly, they do.
Some days better than others for sure, and some teachers better than others. But most times, students learn things at school and the expectations of their parents are not disappointed.
But the media don’t cover stories like this much. For a headline, you need a bifurcated audience.
So don’t hold your breath while you wait for a decision on how best to spend a few billion dollars on assessment or teacher training or resolution of the city/country or private/public/Catholic schooling issues.
Experts will continue to come and go and the journalists that quote them and the hot air will go on forever.
Remember that when next you read an opinion piece about education … including this one.