Getting Started: things to read and things to know about critical education

Oct 14, 2009

Maccas do Maths Education

One thing that has caught my interest in recent weeks that simply cant go without mention is the development of the McDonald’s sponsored ‘Maths Online’ web tutorial program. Designed as ‘... a high quality, independent online maths tutoring program based on Australian state curricula for Years 7 – 12’, it caught my eye as being something more than the many (some corporately sponsored) web based education programs available. My normal sensibilities immediately suggest something sinister is at play when something that should be corporately untouchable like education (albeit Maths education), is entangled in a sponsorship deal with the likes of McDonalds (Simpsons aficionados will recall the episode where Springfield Elementary was sponsored by Pepsi, with Troy McClure who ‘you may know from such educational films as...’ taking over ultra-crowded classrooms via a video screen as teacher/marketing compère and running dubious lessons with quiz questions such as ‘how many pepsis does it take to quench a thirst?’).

What is at stake with programs such as this? The McDonald’s television ads for Maths Online are quick to point out that their involvement has been to sponsor and to make the program possible, and that qualified teachers of maths are behind its development (and therefore, presumably, the pedagogy is sound and its intentions genuinely for performance improvement in mathematics legitimate). In a seeming corporate-education win-win, the ad also notes that McDonalds staff will be able to apply this online training to improve their point of sale arithmetic and (I guess) the calibration of french fry cookers. But is this it, and are lefties with naturally suspicious minds when it comes to these sorts of collaborations losing touch with a global-capitalist world that no-longer sees any real issues with these sorts of things (providing that legitimacy without undue corporate influence can be maintained)? I cant help but think of the Ronald McDonald House developments that support sick kids and their families in hospitals around Australia and the good that these have done for countless folks (my own partner who is a survivor of childhood leukemia included, and who has only positive things to say about the support these provided to her and her family). Is this the way it is in this corporate, late-capitalist world of ours?

Are we destined to rely on the charity (and tax-benefit induced incentives for corporations) that corporate sponsorship of things as precious as education and health brings and should we be hoping like hell that there will be similar corporate support when we need it in the future?

I’m cynical when it comes to these sorts of things and firmly believe in centralised, democratically sanctioned support of public institutions like education (and health), but accept that my thinking has its opposition in those who see benefits in corporate support. So, what do you reckon folks? Is this perhaps incidental, but symbolically significant, move by an archetypal corporate like McDonalds a benign threat to public, centrally authorised education systems, or should we be a bit more concerned about the foothold that this website perhaps suggests (it isnt the only example of this of course, and the US has been particularly canny in having its corporate citizens involved in the construction of schools, universities and other education providers for some time, just as the private education industry in this country has also in recent years).

On another level, is there something wrong with a fast-food giant getting tied up with schools- those same places that have become sites of significant community action on childhood obesity and poor diet? Can we trust that McDonalds is just trying to give back, or is my cynicism that this is simply a mechanism to have this corporate citizen look all nice and fuzzy via feigned interest in the future of our kids justified (just like when they introduced the the ‘healthy choices’ menu because they were worried about our health. It had nothing to do with cigarette company type litigation coming from folks about to die from heart attacks caused by Big Macs, I’m sure). Please allay my cynicism and tell me I’m wrong...

Until next fortnight...


  1. You know, someone once told me (I have no idea of the accuracy of the statement) that the Golden Arches are the most recognised symbol by 2 year olds around the world. Having a 2 year old at the time, my immediate response was “Not by mine!”. Call me cynical but I can’t see this as anything other than a ploy for this corporate giant to move into our schools. They may be a long way off setting up shop in the canteen (hopefully). But after talking to a fellow education student based in Riyadh, who has a Starbucks on the grounds of her international school, I really don’t think we should be encouraging corporates into our school in any form. Having said that, in the small experience I have with having kids in lower primary school, many schools seem to work off a rewards system for behaviour management. The rewards are often ‘Happy Meal’ toys, so maybe they are there in some form already.

    The nature of public pedagogies is insidious enough already, why encourage such a direct attempt to indoctrinate kids into a culture of McConsumerism. Can’t help but note that they have chosen to work in a subject area that is seen to have a high cultural capital. But, maybe if we are allowing our kids to be educated via public pedagogy this is a step in the right direction (?). It at least seems to have some educative benefits. Maybe as a teacher you can reach a few more students through ‘speaking their language’, involving teaching tools that may engage interest and hopefully increase motivation. But at what cost?

    I don’t think anyone would deny that a charity like Ronald McDonald House is an incredible resource and support system for families suffering the tragedy of childhood illnesses. However, I agree with you Andrew in that the fact that this organisation exists is probably a poor reflection on the level of support given to families in the health system. Having seen extended family endure a similar situation, I was amazed by the huge amount of community support offered to them. Coming from within a small country town, the generous financial and other aid offered was just incredible. Maybe it is through the demise of such close communities that the corporate has been able to step in and play this role.
    Anyway, that’s my 2 cents worth…….

  2. When this McMaths program first kicked off I was just starting prac and was in the Maths staffroom of a regional QLD public high school. I asked the teachers there what they thought about it, expecting a negative reaction, but the overall comments were along the lines of "we'll take what we can get regardless of the source". Faced with year after year of few if any resources (we're talking some classrooms without even a white board) and class after class of underachieving kids with no interest in maths whatsoever, I think they were hoping that the combination of electronic delivery and McBribery might create some interest / motivation. And if someone else was to offer a better non-corporate solution then bring it on, but in the meantime, McThanks. Let's just say that starving beggars are unlikely to quibble about who gives them the sandwich.
    Now I am not saying this is a good thing - and the worst example I have seen was the basketball stadium at Wake Forest University in the US where the ads around the top tier were ENTIRELY cigarette ads - and yes, I believe that schools and educational materials should be funded in other (preferably public) ways. The sad reality is that they just aren't. And perhaps this offers an opportunity to start a critical discussion with the class on what they think of the corporate invasion of schools - at least they can be aware of it and then perhaps become a shameless user of the corporations rather than the other way around...

  3. Personally I would have to say that I see it as very much a case of a McWolf in McSheep's clothing and these companies should be kept as far away from our schools as possible. Yes McDonalds do sponsor a lot of worthwhile causes such as Ronald Mcdonald House and projects like the McMaths program that sadly are not receiving the support they deserve from elsewhere (hello government)...So McThanks. But do McDonalds really do it out of the goodness of their hearts expecting to receive nothing more than a warm fuzzy feeling in return? I think not. They also sponsor little athletics, which is rather amusing considering that their shameless target marketing of fast food to our children is probably a major contributor to the growing problem of childhood obesity in the first place. The good news is that every promo bag handed out at athletics sign up not only has the McDonalds advertising sponsorship patch (that must be attached to the children's shirts) but also several vouchers for various free chip & icecream incentives that they will receive with their next purchase at you guessed it....Mcdonalds. As for the McHealthy meals... well, I may be a little cynical but I honestly cannot remember them being on the McMenu prior to all of the bad press that McDonalds received following the 2004 Mc 'Super Size me' documentary....So is it really a sign of concern for the health and educational wellbeing of consumers or a giant public relations campaign? You can be sure that any McMoney outlaid will be written off against their tax and the benefit received from their well publicized generosity is probably worth far more to them than the cost of their sponsorship. So yes - let's start a discussion on the corporate invasion of schools AND while we are at it why not add the insidious invasion of government politics into our schools as well....Exactly why is it that, at a time when we are seeing an increase in childhood obesity and assosciated health problems and a rapidly disintegrating health system, the government are trying to remove HPE from the curriculum and instead focus on maths, science, english etc and standardized testing and why are McDonalds having to sponsor the McMaths Program in the first place (if maths is something that we are supposed to be focusing on)?