NCTM Journals: Be Interesting, Not Useful

My department subscribes to Math Horizons, a journal “intended primarily for undergraduates interested in mathematics.” I really like it. I recently found an old issue around school, and was reminded how much fun it can be. Here are opening lines, pulled from articles in the issue:

  • “The year 2014 is an especially good time to tell this tale of disguise, distance, disagreements, and diagonals.”
  • “What made you decide to be a math major?”
  • “Being in charge of a math club can be exhausting.”
  • “Time to end it all, Ellen thought.”
  • “More than 65 years ago, William Fitch Cheney Jr. conceived one of the greatest mathematical card tricks.”
  • “What’s your favorite number?”
  • “I grew up around decks of cards.”

Following these openers, one can read interviews with mathematicians, longer pieces about the history of math, book reviews, mathematical exposition, and even fiction.

After rereading Math Horizons, I went searching around my apartment for an issue of an NCTM journal. I’ve subscribed to each of the three journals since first becoming a member, always hoping that the other journal would interest me more. I finally found the latest issue of Teaching Children Mathematics smooshed in with a pile of other magazines.

Here are first sentences pulled from the September issue of TCM:

  • “When you think of ‘modeling’ in the mathematics classroom, what comes to mind? With the inclusion of Model with mathematics as one of the Standards for Mathematical Practice (SMP), the Common Core (CCSSI 2010) puts forth a vision of modeling in the mathematics classroom that moves beyond using concrete materials or other visual representations to give meaning to mathematics.”
  • “We recently conducted a randomized controlled trial that showed a significant impact of teachers’ lesson study, supported by mathematical resources, on both teachers’ and students’ understanding of fractions (Gersten et al. 2014; Lewis and Perry 2017).”

These are long. At risk of losing my own readers, I’ll include one last, even longer opening line:

  • “I am always in pursuit of resources that will add to my knowledge as described in Principles to Actions: Ensuring Mathematical Success for All (NCTM 2014), which posits how crucial it is for math educators to continue to “recognize that their own learning is never finished and continually seek to improve and enhance their mathematical knowledge for teaching, their knowledge of mathematical pedagogy, and their knowledge of students and learners of mathematics. (p. 99)”

In response to my frequent kvetching about the journals, an NCTM board member emailed me. He asked, “What would you like to see in the journal?”

Fair enough! I would like NCTM to publish interesting articles.

Nobody sets out to publish boring articles, of course. But I have reason to think that “is this interesting?” is not being asked nearly enough at the NCTM journals right now.

For instance: I recently completed a twenty-two question survey about the NCTM journals. Four of the questions asked me about what I found useful. What sort of articles do I find the most useful? The least? Which departments are useful or not to me?

To be fair, one question asked, “Would you be interested in reading articles about…? (check all that apply).” That makes a four-parts usefulness to one-part interestingness ratio, which sounds about right for what NCTM is currently putting out. Invert the ratio, and I don’t think the above quotes make the cut any longer.

The other thing about interest vs. usefulness is something Henri Picciotto calls “the seemingly obligatory genuflection at NCTM’s sacred texts, most recently Principles to Action.” He means the way so many of the pieces published include the line “…as demanded by the Standards for Mathematical Practice,” or “…as detailed in Principles to Actions.” And, in fact, all three editorial teams officially require articles to show consistency with Principles to Actions:

Screenshot 2017-10-08 at 7.10.05 PM.png

It’s simply hard to tell a good, interesting story about teaching while also projecting your adherence to a set of teaching standards. As a writer, you start losing options. One of the sturdiest formats I’ve found for writing about teaching is narrating learning. You develop some question, and then you take the reader along in your attempt to answer it. It is immeasurably harder to do this if in the very first sentence you announce that we already know how best to teach.

Each of those juicy opening lines from Math Horizons helps generate space to tell a story — about a trick, about a career, about a number. In turn, each of the NCTM openers eliminates space that might otherwise be occupied by a story.

An NCTM journal that aimed to be mostly interesting — four-parts to one, let’s say — could therefore change in these three ways:

  1. Publish crisp, engaging writing that tries to capture attention.
  2. Discourage writers from trying to adhere to standards; publish writing that disagrees with NCTM policy and teaching documents.
  3. Seek articles from the range of reader interests: math, math history, classroom dilemmas, policy debates, interviews, and so on, and so on. Even research, but for heaven’s sake keep it interesting!

This won’t be an easy change to make. I know it will be difficult to find writers willing to veer from what NCTM has published in the past. A word of advice on the editorial process, then: don’t seek submissions, seek writers. Find people that you’d like to write, and then ask them to pitch ideas. When one strikes an editor’s eye as especially interesting, help the writer develop it. Ask for snippets, early thoughts, rough drafts, and help craft the pieces into something that you expect to capture reader interest.

And all of this is worth it, because courting interest is a matter of respect. A piece that doesn’t attempt to capture attention (like a textbook) projects the opposite message: you really ought to read this. And, after all, isn’t that the main message of NCTM to teachers? That you really ought to teach like this, because we have the standards, the experts, the research and the know-how to train and educate you. Sure, this may be a slog to read, but aren’t you a professional? And you’ll read what you need to for your professional development.

Of course, like the speaker who comes in with gimmicks and cheap jokes, writing can miss the mark the other way. Bad writing can suggest a lack of seriousness.

But when done well, engaging writing can project trust and respect to the reader. We know you’re busy and discerning, it says, and that you have the intelligence to decide how to think and what to think about. You and us both. But, how about this?

So, stop trying to be so useful, NCTM! Relax, and try to be interesting instead.

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14 thoughts on “NCTM Journals: Be Interesting, Not Useful

  1. Related–one of Tracy Zager’s first jobs as editor of me was to beat the habits out of me that you outline above. On the blogs, I start with stories. In formal published writing, I had become accustomed to citing CCSS this and PSSM that. She encouraged me to cite the things that are useful, and nothing more.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m honored, Christopher, but I don’t remember having to work hard to break you of this habit. I just remember giving you license to write the way you wanted to. To write the way you talk. To cut you loose. It’s been a joy.

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  2. This discussion interests me as I haven’t found much value in NCTM journals. So little in fact that I don’t have much of an idea of what’s in them or who is publishing in them.

    I’m curious what, if any, of this discussion is driven by NCTM journals being vehicles for academics to meet their mandate to publish research. Are they even used for that? If so, it seems an academic style of writing/publishing is fundamentally different from the kind of writing that you describe as interesting in this post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s not so much that I’m not a fan of Principles to Actions. It’s more that I don’t care for the Principles to Actions project. What I mean is the project of extending standards-based reform efforts to teaching. You know: decide what great teaching looks like, start aligning materials to the standards, evaluate teachers accordingly, change teaching from the very tippy-top on down to the classroom.

      The first reason I don’t like this is because, especially in the case of teaching, I’m skeptical that this description of teaching is particularly useful. (Even if it’s accurate, I don’t think it’s useful. I don’t have a take as to P2A’s overall descriptive accuracy, except for “productive struggle” which is a concept I could do without.)

      But the second reason I’m not a fan of the project is that I’ve read a bit about previous rounds of standards-based reforms in the ’90s, and it seems very difficult to me to tell whether those efforts were successful or not. I have written a bit about this on the blog, especially when we talked about Mrs. Oublier.

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    1. And can I just say, that first sentence exercise? BRILLIANT. I love to do things like that. Sometimes when we get a proposal I’m unsure of, I’ll go through and pull out all the verbs to see what they are. Often it’s as telling and effective as this first line move.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That first sentence comparison is a dagger. Yikes.

    This post helped me understand the no man’s land where I find the teacher journals. Their ideas aren’t as significant as I find research journals and their prose isn’t accessible as I find blog posts. The teacher journals have voluntarily taken on all the citation-checking, name-dropping, and straitjacketed style of the research journals, but it’s all in the service of, like, “How I Used Remote Control Cars to Teach Systems of Equations.” I’d probably enjoy that article if it weren’t written like it had to have a lit review and a theoretical framework.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! Very well put.

      I don’t want to veer into conspiracy theory territory, but I do want to try to connect the dots a bit here. Who benefits from a culture that encourages teachers to write like researchers? It seems to me the expectation that teachers should write like researchers supports the teacher-last hierarchy that NCTM represents to so many of its members. It’s a culture that enshrines the idea that truth in teaching comes from NCTM-style research and guidance.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. You absolutely nailed it, Michael.

    The few times I’ve written for NCTM I’ve felt my writing comes out the other side of the editing process nearly unrecognizable as something that started with me. When I read, I try to keep that in mind. I don’t hear excitement and passion from the writers, but I recall my own experiences writing for NCTM and think that it must be there, just that it must be somehow inappropriate for that excitement to be in the journal (in hindsight I see this is kind of a silly thing to have rolled over on). I get that all the edits are in the name of making things clearer, connecting to standards, and making the tone of the journals somewhat consistent, but it feels like every article I’ve read in NCTM journals has been painted in beige. I can’t get a sense of the authors personality nor whether this lesson or technique gets them excited about teaching. Reading them feels like an assignment, not a delight. It should be a delight.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Michael, thank you for sharing your thoughts on the NCTM journals. As an editor of two of the three practitioner journals I thought I could offer clarification on a couple of points.

    1. Staff and Editorial Panel also want interesting articles that have titles that are hooks and interesting opening paragraphs that engage the reader. I’ve been giving a mini-presentation at NCTM conferences since 2009 and have posted a version of the session online https://nctm.wistia.com/medias/axtt0dorpc We have to work with what authors submit. What are your suggestions for getting the word out to potential authors that intriguing manuscripts are preferred?

    2. It is a myth that an article must quote Principles to Actions to be accepted for publication. Yes, when it makes sense a reference is appropriate and may be suggested by the editorial panel. However, citing P2A is not a requirement for publication. (This point is also addressed in the mini-session.)

    3. We completely agree that research articles do not belong in the practitioner journals. Pure research articles are re-directed to the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education (JRME). However, we do want articles that interpret research findings for the classroom practitioner. One of the best ways to accomplish this goal is for a researcher to team up with one or more practitioners, implement the research in the classroom then write about the experience.

    4. Another point about research. The editorial panels do like to see articles that are grounded in research. More and more administrators are asking teachers for the research that backs instructional practice–especially when the teacher is doing something different than what may be happening in other classrooms. When research can be cited in an article it not only supports that ideas presented, it also saves time for those teachers that need to identify research that makes the case for classroom practice.

    5. The goal is for the new journal to address a wider variety of topics that are of greater interest to readers. To accomplish that goal we need people such as you to submit interesting manuscripts and regularly let the editorial panel know of topics that are interesting and exciting. Help us identify potential authors that have interesting stories to tell. When you hear an interesting story about something happening in a classroom encourage that teacher to write and submit a manuscript.

    Thank you again for sharing your insight. I respect and appreciate your views. This is an important conversation that I hope continues.

    Beth Skipper

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Beth —

      Thanks for all this, Beth! I’m hoping that more people who are insiders to or lovers of the direction of the NCTM journals will continue to push back a bit in this comment thread. I’d love if you’d invite some of your colleagues to join us here.

      Some responses to the points you’ve raised:

      * I didn’t really see myself as saying that writing about research doesn’t belong in the NCTM journals. In fact, I’d be happy to see research published in an NCTM journal, as long as it’s interesting and written in an interesting way.

      * I’ve never heard the myth that you have to mention Principles to Actions in a piece in order to get published. But (and I’m just reading this off the NCTM website here) it is definitely not a myth that the journals only publish material that is consistent with Principles to Actions. It’s also not a myth that many articles do in fact cite PtA in the “…as called for by PtA”-style that I describe in the piece.

      * You mention that the editorial panels like to see articles grounded in research, because it’s useful to teachers. But is it interesting? I frequently write about research, and I think there are two formats that would be better for sharing research: (1) intellectual history (which I tried here) and (2) critical essay (a blog example of which I tried here). If we’re going to write about research, let’s write about research, not jam it into a classroom piece.

      * “We have to work with what authors submit. What are your suggestions for getting the word out to potential authors that intriguing manuscripts are preferred?”

      Kill the submission process. Spread the word that you don’t want manuscripts, but you want pitches. Then, help the writers develop the articles. Look at drafts, offer comments, try to get the piece into shape. Publish it when it’s ready, and not before.

      This is not revolutionary — this is how most stuff gets published by most publishers. The submission/peer-review process is the norm in the research world, but there’s no reason why these practitioner journals should follow that model.

      Thanks, Beth!

      P.S. One last thought. If NCTM wants to host an experimental, online-only mag for us critics to play around with, that could be fun and valuable.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. YES! YES! YES! In a Tweet you said, “I think it would be helpful to point NCTM to another magazine and say “this is how you can do it,” but I don’t think that mag exists yet.” The vision for the new publication is to create something that currently does not exist. For me, that is the most exciting aspect of this new venture. In our earliest discussions someone posed–imagine NCTM was newly founded and we were creating the very first publication, What would it look like? What content would be included? This is an awesome opportunity for friends and critics alike to help create something none of us have seen before, but is a publication we wish existed.

        “Kill the submission process and start with pitches instead of manuscripts” is an intriguing idea. I’ve been so focused on characteristics of the new journal that I had not given any thought to the submission process. I like the way you are thinking.

        Thinking that an article must reference P2A is indeed a myth. Just as citing Principles and Standards was the myth before P2A. To be accepted for publication an article does not have to align with NCTM policy. As long as the piece is well-written and the author makes a good case it is a candidate for acceptance. Folks rarely read the information on the masthead of each issue. I’ll quote part of it here: “NCTM publications present a variety of viewpoints. The views expressed or implied in TCM (or MTMS or MT), unless otherwise noted, should not be interpreted as official positions of NCTM.” I will concede that we rarely publish diverse viewpoints, primarily because no one submits articles written from various viewpoints.

        I will ask my colleagues to read and comment on your blog post. Thank you for initiating the discussion.

        Finally, I apologize for attributing the research comment to you–recently I’ve read several blog posts and Twitter comments about the NCTM Journals and I suppose all of the ideas are getting jumbled in my head. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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