Research not bad, but not stellar

As reported by the Australian, the Australian Innovation System Report 2010 ranks physics, geosciences, space sciences, environment and mathematics among Australia’s strongest research fields (as measured by impact factor of publications), with the country as a whole ranked 16th among OECD countries.   (via Birgit Loch)

A national strategy for mathematics in Australia

The Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute has just placed on its web site a strategy paper entitled “A national strategy for mathematics in Australia” to combat the shortages of maths graduates and teachers in Australia, authored by Hyam Rubinstein (chair of the National Committee for the Mathematical Sciences).  The paper has a number of specific recommendations for the federal government on this issue, in particular suggesting a number of inducements to increase the pool of available and qualified maths teachers, and to leverage AMSI’s existing expertise and resources in this area.

[Thanks to Jan Thomas for the link. See also the article “Support of Australian maths a growing imperative” at the Funneled Web.]

Maths trust calls for teaching shakeup

In a brief item for ABC news, Peter Taylor of the Australian Mathematics Trust notes declining enrolments in advanced mathematics in Australian schools and universities, and calls for an increased emphasis on problem-solving skills in maths classes in schools that go beyond the current curriculum.

Coincidentally, in the recent article “Is the sky still falling?” in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, it was observed that maths enrollments in US colleges have grown modestly in the last ten years in absolute terms, but have declined substantially relative to total enrollments, possibly because in the US, enrollment in maths is tied to a large extent to enrollments in engineering, which has fluctuated quite a bit in recent years.  (The study also recommends developing alternatives to the standard calculus courses as entry points to a maths program.)

[Thanks to Margaret Smith for the first link.]

Maths majors in Australia in decline

Over at the Funneled Web, fellow contributor Peter Hall reports on the continued decline in the number of maths majors in Australian universities, and a related decline in the number of high school students taking advanced maths courses.

[Update, Dec 9: By coincidence, the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) on fourth and eighth grade mathematics ability was released today.  According to the report, fourth grade achievement in Australian students has improved somewhat (just behind the United States, Germany, and Denmark, and just ahead of Hungary, Italy, and Australia), but eighth grade achievement has slipped (below Armenia, but above Sweden).]

National Curriculum in Mathematics

The National Curriculum Board has just initiated its public consultation period for its draft proposed curriculum on mathematics (concurrently with similar consultations on science, history, and English), as reported on recently in the Australian, the Courier-Mail, the Age, and elsewhere.  The draft, which is to be implemented in 2011, draws upon the National Declaration of Educational Goals for Young Australians, the National Numeracy Review discussed earlier on this blog, as well as the report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel from the US.  Proposals include making maths a compulsory topic all the way to Year 12 (but offering a range of levels to take maths after Year 10), to encourage the use of computers and other digital technologies, to teach numeracy skills concurrently with more traditional mathematical topics, and avoid repetition or low-level activities that do not stimulate thought or inquiry.  On the other hand, the draft also notes the need to keep the curriculum simple and streamlined, with the key themes and topics being made clear to both teachers and students, and to avoid alienating a significant number of students with complexity; one can err by being too ambitious as well as by not being ambitious enough.

The consultation period ends at the end of Term 4 (which, I assume, means mid-December).

The National “Numeracy” Review

[This post is authored by Judy Mousley – Ed.]

I was asked by Terry to write a guest article for the blog in my capacity as President of MERGA, but the words below have been written in a personal capacity. I encourage other MERGA members to add their thoughts, as those below are certainly not representative of anyone’s ideas but mine.

Another “numeracy” review!

The report of the National Numeracy Review (Commonwealth of Australia, 2008), becoming known as the Stanley report after the chair of the review panel, is yet another federal effort that will have little impact, largely because it has little to say that provides specific direction for the teaching and learning of mathematics. It includes many motherhood statements that have been used throughout my 15 years or primary and secondary teaching and 25 years as an academic, without articulating how curriculum and assessment guidelines can give teachers new understandings and actions that would be needed to bring about significant change. Merely stating that teaching people to be “truly numerate, involves considerably more than the acquisition of mathematical routines and algorithms” fails to challenge the status quo in Australian schools where teachers spend most of their time focusing the acquisition of mathematical routines and algorithms.

The report wastes much space discussing the meaning of “numeracy”. This is not unusual, as attempts to define the term have been made in at least five national reports in the last decade. In most other countries, the term is hardly used and people do not know what numeracy is. Those few countries where the term is used, such as England (where it was concocted in 1959 as an analogue of literacy), have varied interpretations (see, for example, Commonwealth of Australia, 2000; Groves, Mousley & Forgasz, 2003; and Willis, 1998). The Stanley report claims that numeracy is the ability to use mathematics but, as it points out, most people think of numeracy as “the basics”. This lack of clarity and agreement illustrates the folly of using “numeracy” to name (and hence shape) a major review of mathematics teaching and learning. It must be recognised by federal and state governments that it is Mathematics that is taught in schools, mathematics curricula that state or federal bodies need to outline for the use of teachers and textbook authors, and mathematics education that needs content and time guidelines. The use of any term other than “mathematics” in reviews, guidelines, professional development and the media muddies the picture for teachers, curriculum developers, parents and others. While Australians are discussing what “numeracy” means, the rest of the world is focusing on better ways to teach mathematics, the content of teacher education courses and the time given to mathematics in these, as well as what research tells us about children understanding and learning mathematics. The 2003 TIMSS results showed that Australian results have slipped down from their comparatively high position, and I await the release of the next round of results at the end of 2008 with interest.

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Gazette Issue 3 (July 2008) now online

Issue 3 of the Gazette for 2008 is now available online.

Many Gazette readers will, no doubt, have experienced the `culture of numbers’ that has resulted from the growing reliance on quantitative methods to measure the quality of academic research.  In this issue we are very pleased to include a report from the International Mathematics Union on citation statistics, a considered response from those who “professionally ‘deal with numbers'” on the use of numerical measures in research assessment. Let’s hope it will trigger some constructive discussions both within the mathematical community and in the broader academic world.

Also in this issue, we are sad to report that this is the last installment of the excellent Style Files series written by Tony Roberts. Tony’s column has proved to be an invaluable resource not only for improving writing styles but for also passing these skills on to students. We have published all the columns together in a stand-alone series for download on the Gazette website so this resource remains easily accessible for all our readers.

Finally, we are always looking for contributions to our Maths@work and Classroom Notes series. If you are working on mathematics in government, industry or business, or you have something to contribute on mathematics education, we’d be very interested to hear from you.

We hope you enjoy this issue.

Birgit, Rachel and Eileen

Citation statistics

There is an interesting new report “Citation statistics“, jointly produced by the International Mathematical Union (IMU), International Council of Industrial and Applied Mathematics (ICIAM), and the Institute of Mathematical Statistics (IMS), on the use and abuse of various citation statistics (such as impact factors and h-indices) as proxies for research quality.  (One of the authors, incidentally, is Peter Taylor from the University of Melbourne, not to be confused with Peter Taylor from the Australian Mathematics Trust.)  The press release for the report is available here. The basic message is that these statistics can supplement expert judgement of the quality of one’s research, but cannot substitute for that judgement, despite being more a “objective” metric, as they are subject to various artificial distortions.  (For instance, a typical paper in the life sciences is cited six times more frequently than one in maths or computer science, due to a variety of factors, including the different academic cultures of these disciplines.)

Of course, expert evaluation by someone knowledgeable in the subject matter is a scarce resource, and it is still very tempting to rely on these statistics in the absence of such judgment.  I once was involved in applying for a large Australian grant that was open to all sciences.  One of the reviewers commented that the proposers (who were all mathematicians) had significantly fewer publications than those from competing proposals, particularly those in the life sciences (though my own publication count of 150 or so papers was deemed “acceptable”).   While statistics such as impact factors are intended to remove some of the distortions coming from using raw publication count as a measure of research quality and output, they are still far from perfect, especially when it comes to comparisons across disciplines.  (For the record, our proposal was not funded, though this was probably a result of many other factors than the above comment.)

[Via The Funneled Web and the Australian Mathematical Society.]

Maths in the UK

Student numbers are consistently drifting from high- to medium-level mathematics courses, and migrating from there to the lowest level.  The nation needs mathematics, and mathematicians, to keep up with its traditional commercial rivals, and also with newer competitors such as China and India; yet the mathematics economy is losing out.  It’s cool to drop out of mathematics at school, but no-one would be proud of being unable to read.

Sound familiar?  Yes, it could easily be a paraphrasing of current concerns in Australia, but it’s actually a precis of a recently released report on mathematics in the UK, “The value of mathematics“, written for the UK think-tank Reform by Laura Kounine, John Marks and Elizabeth Truss.  Started by a current Conservative MP and a former head of the Political Section in the Conservative Research Department, Reform includes among its executives and advisors the Rector of Imperial College, London, a British Liberal Democrat politician, and the former CEO of Vodafone.

The report lays the blame at the door of declining academic standards in schools, and a drift away from rigorous approaches to teaching mathematics.