Wednesday, June 16, 2021

There’s a lot at stake as the maths wars erupt

A new maths curriculum, released by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority in April has revived the “maths wars”. They are being waged alongside the “history wars” and the “reading wars”, also reinvigorated by the authority’s April curriculum releases.

One side argues that the way we used to teach, emphasising memory and mastery, was more effective, while the other contends that new ways of teaching will leave students better equipped to deal with the modern world. These arguments go back at least a century – actually much longer – and have become intertwined with ideology. In the middle of the last century, many of the old ways of teaching were swept aside because they were suspected of being authoritarian, perhaps even causing authoritarian tendencies. As US academic Miles Simpson argued in his 1972 paper, “education will reduce authoritarianism only when the educational system emphasises cognitive rather than rote learning or is manned by non-authoritarian teachers”. Children forced to chant their times tables and Latin declensions were out; investigative learning was in. The anti-authoritarians characterised memorisation as rote-learning, devoid of understanding.

Each of the curriculum wars has its own particular slant. In maths the debate is over whether to instil knowledge through repetition or encourage a problem-solving approach. Greg Ashman, head of Mathematics and head of research at Ballarat Clarendon College in Victoria, arcs up at the term “rote learning”. Ashman is one of a group of maths professors and teachers who penned an open letter to curriculum authority chief executive David de Carvalho expressing profound concerns with the emphasis in the current draft curriculum on open-ended enquiry, “without the systematic building of coherent knowledge”. The letter laments that learning “the basics” is delayed and devalued. “The content of the mathematics curriculum, even for the lower years, is the result of millennia of human endeavour across cultures around the world,” the letter writers argue, “It is neither fair nor realistic to expect students to retrace this journey with a few pointers and inquiries in a few hours per week.”

The letter points out that Singapore, a country praised by the Australian authority for its emphasis on problem solving, has an early focus on basics. In my personal experience, Australia is unusual in not expecting children to memorise the foundations. Many years ago I was moved from Year 2 in an Australian school to Year 2 in a German school, where the children all had their times tables up to 12 off by heart already. I taught my son counting by leaps and made a game of times tables as soon as he could count, but a society which relies on parents to teach the basics can’t rely on equitable outcomes.

The maths wars are still in their infancy, while the reading wars are almost concluded. “Parents notice reading failure and start to engage professionals,” says Ashman, “In contrast, we don’t place such a premium on maths. It’s socially acceptable to say ‘I was never very good at maths’ in a way that few would casually remark ‘I was never very good at reading’.”

But evidence didn’t prevail in the reading wars overnight. The dispute here revolves around whether small children should learn to break words down into chunks in order to be able to sound out unfamiliar words – the phonic approach – or whether they should learn sight-recognition of whole words. According to Dr Jennifer Buckingham, now researcher and director of strategy at Multilit, the evidence has long been in. She has been working on the problem since 2000 – intensively since 2013. After all those years, phonics checks are finally becoming part of the curriculum and there is a widespread acceptance that the evidence overwhelmingly points to the use of phonics. Meanwhile, untold numbers of children will have fallen through the cracks. I know of two girls who struggled to learn to read until they were finally put into the Multilit program in years 3 and 4 respectively. Imagine the education they have missed out on in the interim. They may never make up for that lost time.

The “history wars” have been framed as a debate over recognising the Indigenous experience of colonisation, but historian Greg Melleuish is more concerned that focusing on a right and a wrong version of history will leave students unequipped to encounter the world. “What you learn if you study history is that people are flawed – they set out to do one thing and end up with another result. History should tell you something about the complexity of human nature.” Melluish is concerned that the way history is now taught is encouraging authoritarianism. “Studies indicate that the more educated a person is, the more dogmatic they are. You need to teach history properly to counter dogmatism.”

It was an unfortunate coincidence that, just as the curriculum authority was poised to release the latest draft curricula, my son’s school sent out a newsletter quoting Vladimir Ilyich Lenin: “Learning is never done without errors and defeat.”

Lenin’s errors and defeats cost many innocent lives. The Russian revolutionary’s “errors” included mass famine. He presided over the Red Terror, purging political opponents and social undesirables. Between several hundred thousand and several million deaths are attributed to him.

Without the basics, the danger is that our ignorance can lead us back to authoritarianism.


Australian resources minister attacks ‘green activists’ for trying to ‘cripple’ fossil fuel companies

Keith Pitt urges oil and gas producers to fight back against groups such as Greenpeace by quantifying the sector’s contribution to the economy

Australia’s resources minister, Keith Pitt, is urging oil and gas producers to turn the “spotlight” on environmental groups campaigning against an expansion of the fossil fuel industry on climate change grounds.

Pitt will use a speech to the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association conference in Perth on Wednesday to rail against “activism” that “ignores the fact that resources development in Australia is carried out safely and responsibly and that Australia’s economy was built off the back of the resources sector”.

According to speech notes circulated by his office in advance, the resources minister will declare it is “clear that the courts and bureaucratic processes are being used by green activists to delay major projects and potentially cripple companies”.

He will single out Greenpeace for special mention. Citing figures from the charities commission, Pitt will say Greenpeace “raised more than $18.5m in donations and bequests and $1.1m in government grants in 2019-20 in Australia alone”.

“Nearly 25% of expenses related to fundraising and 39% were in staff costs – so rather than protecting the environment they are mostly focussed on protecting themselves,” Pitt will say.

Greenpeace Australia Pacific chief executive David Ritter hit back. “The very reason that millions of Australians support the work of Greenpeace is to take the action on climate change that minister Pitt’s government has not only resoundingly failed to do, but actively blocked for the past seven years.

“Greenpeace is a movement of people. If these climate-wrecking oil and gas giants at this conference want to rise to minister Pitt’s challenge and attack the people of Australia for caring about nature and the future of our kids, we are ready. Because for as long as big climate polluters threaten the future, we will stand in their way.”

The resources minister will argue demand for LNG is growing in the face of global pushback from environmental and shareholder groups and Australia intends to remain at the “forefront of the LNG sector” for decades.

He will tell the conference the government plans to develop the North Bowen and Galilee basins in central Queensland for gas extraction. “We know that the Bowen Basin is a major coal-producing area but it also has immense potential for gas”.

Pitt will urge oil and gas producers to fight back against “green activists” by putting “facts” before the Australian public, including quantifying the sector’s economic contribution to the country “and indeed facts about the activist’s campaigns – the spotlight should be on those organisations for a change”.

The resources minister will also flag concern about banks and insurers stepping back from financing fossil fuel projects. Pitt triggered a parliamentary inquiry, chaired by fellow Queensland National George Christensen, after a public commitment from ANZ to step back from business customers with material thermal coal exposures – market signalling that sparked consternation within the Nationals.

After the ANZ’s statement last October, the agriculture minister, David Littleproud, called for a boycott of the bank, and the deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, declared the bank’s plan “virtue signalling”. Christensen has previously denied the link between climate change and the severity of natural disasters.

In the wake of the ANZ fracas, Pitt originally instructed the joint standing committee on trade and investment growth to grill financial regulators, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission and the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority, as well as the banks, about their plans to pull back on lending or insuring mining projects because of climate change.

But the inquiry stalled after the joint standing committee – in a rare rebuke – deferred making a decision about whether to proceed with Pitt’s original ministerial referral. The stalling reflected a view among some Liberals that the inquiry should not be a witch-hunt against banks managing carbon risk.

Pitt subsequently broadened the terms of reference, asking the committee to investigate finance for all export industries. He said the adjustment was a strengthening of the original terms of reference.

The banks and their lobbying arm, the Australian Banking Association, have used new submissions to Pitt’s parliamentary inquiry to implicitly rebut claims from senior Nationals that their actions amount to moral posturing or virtue signalling.

The major banks and the ABA have pointed out that current carbon risk practices – namely, disclosing information relating to climate exposures and calculating the potential risk of climate change on their balance sheets – are requirements driven by international governance setting bodies, of which Australian regulators and Australian companies are members.

Pitt will tell the APPEA conference on Wednesday the inquiry led by Christensen will “inquire into and report on the approach and motivations of our financial institutions regarding their investment in Australia’s export industries”.

APPEA has used its submission to the inquiry to argue that environmental groups have “over recent years focused their activism on shareholders and finance sources, like superannuation funds, banks, and other lending facilities” – and have been able to exploit an “information asymmetry”.

The submission says since 2017, shareholder activist groups collectively have submitted 92 resolutions “pertaining to climate change, governance (to facilitate greater shareholder climate change activism) or political lobbying (as it pertains to climate change)” – with nearly 40 resolutions relating to APPEA member activities.

APPEA contends this activity “conveniently ignore[s] the body of evidence that demonstrates the role that natural gas is playing in delivering lower carbon energy security to growing population centres, particularly in our own region” and commitments by the gas industry to the United Nations sustainable development agenda.

APPEA is the peak national body representing upstream oil and gas explorers and producers active in Australia. Member companies account for more than 90% of Australia’s petroleum production.


Australian grain exports doing well -- without China

SEEDING is close to completion across Australia with above average rainfall in Western Australia setting up the season.

Assuming this season is above average, and we have a large exportable grain surplus, it is worth having a look at where Australian grain exports have gone this season.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics export data from October 2020 to the end of March 2021 have Australian canola exports at 2,059,399 metric tonnes with an additional one million tonnes expected to be exported to the end of the marketing year (September 2021).

Of the estimated 3mt destined for export, Europe is expected to take the lions share of 2.4mt.

Most canola exports have made their way into Europe (as seen on the map) due to low production in the European Union (EU) last year.

Australia has been able to capitalise on this supply gap in the EU while also diversifying its export destinations having picked up business into the likes of Ukraine, Romania, and the United Arab Emirates.

The European Union Monitoring Agricultural Resources (MARS) recently revised EU canola (rapeseed) yield estimates higher despite recent cold spells.

Even with increased production this season, European harvest is unlikely to impact remaining Australia canola exports as very little canola is left unsold.

At a global level, oilseed supply is very low while demand is increasing as feed demand rises and biofuel production ramps back up.

These supply and demand fundamentals have elevated Australian forward canola prices to record highs during May.

In the past couple of weeks old and new crop prices have come off their highs due to volatility in offshore oilseed futures, however the supportive drivers are still there underpinning the market.

These decile 10 prices and favourable seasonal conditions have seen a record canola crop planted this year with Western Australia alone estimated to have planted 1.5 million hectares.

If Western Australia can average 1.5 t/ha for canola, then it will reach record production.

While there is still plenty of time left in the season, here's hoping the 2021-22 season is one for the record books.

Australian wheat and barley export tonnage is expected to be above average in the 2020-21 season with strong international feed demand driving exports.

Australian wheat exports are currently anticipated to reach 21.5mt for the 2020-21 marketing year according to Australian Crop Forecasters' recent supply and demand report.

Barley exports are already exceeding estimates with 7mt set to be exported by the end of September.

Approximately half of this is destined for Saudi Arabia, whose insatiable demand has provided an important export destination for Australia, somewhat replacing the tonnage that used to go to China, albeit feed barley not malt.

South East Asia has also been an important market with Australian barley exports up 92 per cent year-on-year into this region.

This increased demand for barley is primarily due to the high cost of other feed grains (corn), which has made barley an attractive substitute.

The same goes for Australian wheat with increased demand from the South East Asian region seeing over half of Australia's wheat exports end up there.

The 2021-22 season is looking favourable for Australian grains with good weather, strong pricing and robust international demand providing optimism.




No comments: