The Institute of Public Affairs’ Colleen Harkin was on The Rita Panahi Show to discuss the IPA’s research into the national curriculum.

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Below is a transcript of the interview.


Rita Panahi:
Welcome back. Mathematics skills across the country have been falling for two decades. At the end of last year, almost half of Australia’s 15-year-olds were failing to achieve national standards in key areas of maths, science, and reading, and its maths that’s declining most rapidly of the three over the past 20 years. But what if that’s because we’re learning the wrong type of maths? A maths that is too western? That’s what the Australian National University is asking. They’re bringing in professors to teach indigenous mathematics, since the original curriculum was apparently two racist and Western-centric. Professor Rowena Ball insists “One effect of colonisation of the curriculum is defensive protection of what is thought to be an exclusively European and British provenance of mathematics.

What the general public think of as mathematics tends to be whatever they learned or more likely did not learn at school. But in many indigenous societies, mathematics is lived from when you are born to when you rejoin your ancestors.” Numbers, arithmetic, and accounting are apparently, I don’t know, of secondary importance to indigenous mathematics, according to this professor. “It’s about patterns and relationships to people and the earth.” Joining me now is Colleen Harkin, national Manager of the Institute of Public Affairs Class Action Program. Colleen, how can the study of numbers be colonial? I thought the beauty of maths was there was only one right answer.

Colleen Harkin:
It’s a curious position to take, Rita, because maths operates on logic and reason, and it’s devoid of any kind of human perceptional bias. Pythagoras theory, regardless of where you are, holds true, doesn’t matter what your background is, where you are in the world, what suburb you live in. A triangle will always be 180 degrees, and a circle will always be 360 degrees. So it’s a curious accusation to make, but it’s quite… It’s very worrying because this is a trend in a training across the world. It’s not just here, it’s in the UK, it’s in America, it’s in England, and it’s perpetrating through our curriculum, through the schools as well, through the junior schools.

Rita Panahi:
Well, this is what I’m worried about because it’s one thing to have this sort of education in universities and college, but how prevalent is it in the curriculum in primary and secondary schools?

Colleen Harkin:
So it starts at the universities. IPA has done an audit and a research program on what’s being taught in the university. So those people who are going through initial teacher training. Of the give or take, 3,700 units that are on offer, about a third of those are what I’ll call woke. And only about 10% are dedicated to learning to teach the core skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Rita Panahi:
Wow.

Colleen Harkin:
So out of a four-year initial teacher training course, about more than a year is spent on woke content and very little, only 10%, is dedicated to those core skills. And so when you come down to the national curriculum, what children are being taught in, for example, grade prep and grade one is Counting through Aboriginal dance. And so the course-

Rita Panahi:
Counting through Aboriginal dance?

Colleen Harkin:
Correct. It’s a recommendation in the cross-curriculum priorities.

Rita Panahi:
Okay.

Colleen Harkin:
And as they get older, one of the things that they do is do statistics through the Reconciliation Barometer. So this sort of cross-curriculum priority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ histories and culture permeates through every subject. And you would have thought that it was difficult to do it through maths, but it still happens.

Rita Panahi:
This is astonishing. And it’s astonishing because it’s happening at a time when our results are going downhill, and at a rapid rate in some areas. How can we be worried about European and British mathematics when so much of maths, from what I understand, came from Middle East, Islamic, Indian origins. This obsession with decolonizing the curriculum, including maths, I know where it comes from, but how do we combat it? How do we fight this ideology?

Colleen Harkin:
Yeah. And it’s an interesting deliberate ignorance of the rich culture, of the background of math. I’m no historian, but the earliest mathematicians were in Mesopotamia, which is current day Iraq, Ancient Greece were great contributors. The Romans, the Chinese, Persian, father of Algebra, the Mexican… The Central Americans with contribution in the number of zero. It is literally a multi-ethnic collaboration. So the idea that it’s white supremacist racist is really curious.

Rita Panahi:
Oh, it is. And I’ve seen this ideology at play in blue states in America, the Democrat-run places, where they’ve tried to decolonize the curriculum, and maths has been a target. Even the suggestion of two plus two equals four is racist. You’ve got to look at things in a different light. But you look at Australia and the age reported that in Victoria, in particular, the proportion of low performers in maths, who lack the skills and knowledge needed to adequately participate in the workforce, has hit 26%. That’s the worst in the country. Why is Victoria, in particular, struggling so much in this area?

Colleen Harkin:
Well, and it is not just Victoria. Our results across the board are astoundingly poor. We have a third of the nation’s children who are not meeting the minimum benchmark in the core skills of literacy and numeracy.

Rita Panahi:
They’re not meeting the minimum benchmark.

Colleen Harkin:
The minimum benchmark.

Rita Panahi:
Which is really not what you want to be aiming for-

Colleen Harkin:
Correct.

Rita Panahi:
… and we’ve still got 30% failing that.

Colleen Harkin:
We only have 15% of our students who are considered to be exceeding expectations. And if you compare, for example, the budget expenditure from 2022, IPA research shows that from 2012 to 22, we’ve now spent about 720 billion dollars on education. So a 43% increase in funding, but our results are flatlining. In fact, they’ve actually gone backwards by 3% in that same period. And if you compare a little earlier with the OECD results of the program for international student assessment, our students, particularly in maths, are 16 months behind where they were 20 years ago. So the correlation between the money spent and the results is not there. It is the ideology. It has to be the ideology and the curriculum, and the lack of priority that’s given to the core skills development.

Rita Panahi:
Absolutely. Our kids aren’t getting dumber, but what we’re teaching them obviously is making them fail with these benchmarks. And you keep hearing that the solution to these issues is more money, but as you’ve just explained, we are spending a lot more money for worse results. So that seems to be very little, even accountability for the funds spent.

Colleen Harkin:
Yeah, correct. That stat that shows that increase in funding, 43% increase in funding, and about 75% of that has come from the federal government. You would expect to see some return on investment for that. But the fact that results have completely flatlined, and as I said, gone backwards, shows that money is not the issue. When you have students who are being taught that maths is racist, we have a fundamental problem with the ideological activism that’s in the curriculum. Because those students who are considered bleak, as some might call it, they’re the very students who need that explicit teaching and the purity of maths to actually enable them to get on with their own lives and have the skill set that… Because maths, it’s a benchmark. It’s a cornerstone in any education, and it opens a lot of doors for positions that they might want to have down the track. And if you spend all of this time learning how to dance, and learning that we are racists and white supremacists, then you’re not getting the skills that you need to do to have your own independent life.

Rita Panahi:
Colleen Harkin, thank you so much for your time this evening.

Colleen Harkin: No problem.

This transcript from The Rita Panahi Show on 16 April 2024 has been edited for clarity.

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Colleen Harkin

National Manager, Class Action Program and Research Fellow