Discussion of my contact with the UK Royal Society ACME with respect to my books "Elegance with Substance" and "Conquest of the Plane"

Thomas Cool / Thomas Colignatus 
August 4 2011 

The Royal Society of the United Kingdom has set up the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME). Retrieved from their mission page today: 

"The purpose of having an independent Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME) is to enable an effective and constructive partnership between Government and the mathematics community. ACME aims to inform and advise the Department for Education in order to assist in its drive to raise standards and promote mathematics at all levels within education. It seeks to complement and enhance, rather than replace, consultative procedures and aims for positive progress rather than routine opposition to change.

The aim of ACME is to act as a single voice for the mathematics education community to government, in the sense that it aims to provide an authoritative, credible, balanced and coherent position, which inevitably will not always represent the diverse views that might exist across the mathematics education community

The Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME), was established in January 2002, by the Royal Society and the Joint Mathematical Council of the UK with the explicit backing of all major mathematics organisations. ACME is currently supported by the Department for Education, the Royal Society, the Wellcome Trust, the Gatsby Foundation and a range of other organisations across the STEM landscape." (STEM = Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics)

My books Elegance with Substance (EWS) and Conquest of the Plane (COTP) represent dramatically different new approaches to mathematics education. 

There is something seriously amiss in mathematics education. See this paper by Hung-Hsi Wu published in the Notices of the Amer. Math. Soc. 58 (2011), 372-384. Obviously EWS and COTP don't fully agree with Wu, for example on fractions, but they present an answer to some major problems.

Misguided views in and on mathematics can be very costly, see my contribution to the Royal Economic Society Newsletter July 2011 (my text).

EWS has been written as an econometrician and math teacher, with a focus on both math itself and its position in the economy. COTP has been written as a math teacher (with knowledge of econometrics). I am a scientist and author and not a sales person. The books are available for free in PDF, though I advise that you better buy the hardcopies. For me, the focus is on the analysis, the books are only a vehicle for communication. I would benefit financially when these books would sell in numbers, or the software. I suppose other scientists also have such benefits, sometimes required for mere existence. 

The UK has roughly 25,000 math teachers and 35,000 science teachers (RS estimates 2007 page 25 table 3.5), say a total of 60,000. EWS and COTP are now priced at EUR 14.95 and EUR 24.95, say together EUR 40. A volume print production of EWS and COTP would cost say half, i.e. EUR 20 in total. This would include a handsome profit for me of EUR 1 per set, or EUR 60,000 in total. The cost for the UK Department for Education would be EUR 1.2 million, exclusive of mail. The advantage for the UK economy would be larger though. (Possibly EUR 1.2 billion as a wild guess.) 

For example, a fraction "two and a half" is now written as 2½ (which reads as "two times a half") while my proposal is to use 2 + 1/2 (which reads as it says). A timely adoption of my analysis would save a lot of silly time on torturing children and costs in reprogramming in software. The didactics are awkward in more respects. Children first have to learn that 2½ means addition but later they have to unlearn part of this. Since 2A means multiplication they have to learn that something next to something else not always means addition but only in the special case of mixed numbers. This is only a small example from a long list of examples.

Given the mission statement of ACME, it makes sense that I contact them, and ask them to take it over from there. This is my letter to ACME and this is their reply.

This exchange requires the following comments:

  • ACME didn't reply correctly and showed misunderstandings, so that some more emails were required.
  • ACME sent me to other committees, I tried one (RS Computing in Schools), and they sent me back to ACME.
  • ACME seems not to have studied my books, at least they do not mention it, and Dame Julia explicitly rejects my suggestion of setting up a working committee to start reading before reacting. Apparently they simply do not know what they are talking about.
  • ACME construes a difference between a "book" and an "analysis", and apparently does not know what books are for. It is simply not true and rather disingenious what Dame Julia states: "Setting up a working group to discuss a book on mathematics education or recommending a particular book to government is not part of our remit." We are speaking about an analysis (that I put in books). We are speaking here about "raising standards" and "complementing and enhancing (...) consultative procedures" by making a new analysis available to teachers so that they can consider its value: and this is exactly the mission statement. 
  • I am not a salesperson and I do not wish to be forced into a role of "missionary to the natives" and be sent off into the wilderness of the mathematics education community. ACME has been set up to be that single voice for policy making. This is their piece of cake. It would be a matter of policy making for the Department for Education to make funds available so that teachers can consider the new analysis. The DfE would do that if that new analysis merits attention. So set up a process for checking that.
  • It is a bit insulting to me as if I could not judge on the propriety of contacting ACME. I fully accept ACME's right to reject my suggestion but would expect proper argumentation and not the untruth that it would not be their remit.
The English language has a nice saying on this: Penny wise, pound foolish. Probably, though, it is plain old bureaucracy and the "not invented here" syndrome and what have you. With a proper dose of cognitive dissonance and refusion to acknowledge error, ACME will henceforth oppose EWS and COTP with every means possible.