Reposting: Thoughts about Future of NCTM Conferences I had at NCTM Nashville (in 2015)

[I originally wrote and circulated this as a Google document, which had the benefit of making it easy to update. Over the past few years, lots of people offered interesting comments on that doc, so definitely check those out. Now that the document has been stable for a few years, I thought I’d repost it on this site to make it slightly easier to find.]

  • Fundamentally, I want NCTM conferences to be places where long-lasting professional relationships are formed. I do not want it to be a place whose primary purpose is for people go to sessions.
  • Overall, the quality of NCTM sessions is mixed. Once at Nashville a group of us found an empty room to sit around and chat in because we didn’t see any sessions that we wanted to go to.
  • I’m not sure that I even want more higher quality sessions to attend, though. The mix-and-match nature of session attendance doesn’t really excite me as an opportunity to learn about teaching.
  • I loved the MTBoS booth. There were moments of community around that booth. People go there so that they can talk to people they’ve never talked to before, we played with toys and I met some new people.
  • The MTBoS booth was like a small island of community in a den of icky educational consumerism. I really dislike the sales-pitching of the exhibition floor.
  • On Thursday afternoon I left a session and felt exhausted. I had a weird hankering for some math (I had been working on a problem on the plane) and I realized how little math-doing there was at these conferences. Isn’t that a shame?
  • I went from there to the MTBoS booth and played with Christopher Danielson’s math toys. I saw a crowd gathered around the booth, I saw people waiting for a turn to play with his tesselating turtles or his pattern-making machine.
  • Once NCTM reorients itself towards fostering community, I think it’s going to start seeming very important to figure out how to create spaces for doing math together with other people.
  • I love books. Usually when I walk into a bookstore, I have a hard time leaving without buying something. I walked out of NCTM without buying any books.
  • I went to a bookstore in Chicago a few months ago. I pulled off four books from the shelf, settled in a corner and flipped through them. Others were doing the same. Some people were talking to each other about their selections. It was a space for loving books.
  • The NCTM bookstore is another missed opportunity to make a communal space, I think.
  • I noticed that people congregate around the outlets outside of sessions. People end up sitting there. Any space like this is a chance to help people form connections.
  • I think NCTM is going to start including more formal social events, and this is good. I think NCTM is going to start providing more online spaces for presenters, and this is good too. But the real goal needs to be making sure there are nooks and crannies throughout the conference where people can come together around some shared experience.
  • I’m sure there are things like “fire code” that I’m not considering, but is there any good reason not to have a few rooms where you let we inmates run things? A place to chat, a place to take a group of people and sketch some things out. I’m talking about making sure there are open rooms with tables where people can continue a conversation.
  • As a speaker, now: there are always people who want to talk at the end of a session. It’s sometimes tricky to know where to go. I wish I could just say, “Here’s where I’m going to be if you want to continue the conversation.” In that way I could sort of pitch a more extended experience.
  • In short: yes, formal social events; yes, improved web experiences; but also, NCTM sub guides in advance of conferences; a hangout area with “hosts” to help make connections; a “Do Some Math” area with volunteer facilitators; spaces to go after a session; spaces to go instead of a session; spaces to read and fall in love with books together; fewer speakers; more sessions that are carefully vetted for quality; more places to play with toys; “Post your favorite math problem on an index card and glue it to the wall!”; invite Zome to take over a conference room; more spontaneity, more community and more math.

Added on 2/28/16

  • On twitter [https://twitter.com/dandersod/status/703939312526757888] there was an interesting conversation about whether teachers ought to be given the keynote presentation slots.
  • Keynote speakers play a role in attracting people to NCTM conferences, and so it makes sense to choose keynote speakers whose names are recognizable. I think it’s lamentable that classroom teachers aren’t recognizable names in math education. There’s a status hierarchy with teachers at the base level and consultants, academics, CEOs and journalists all hovering above us classroom folk. On one hand, this is only natural: the work that it takes to build up a personal brand, recognition and influence has very little to do with teaching children. If you’re interested in being well-known enough to influence education widely, that is a journey that will probably lead you out of your classroom.
  • This is a shame, though, because academics, consultants, CEOs, journalists are not doing the work of teaching, and so they often get it wrong. They often gravitate to issues that aren’t at the heart of the practice, or their thinking doesn’t develop in the way it might if they were forced to test their ideas over the course of years of working with children. There is no replacement for developing ideas while being a classroom teacher. Math education is worse off for not having high-status teachers who are able to speak and write with authority about math education.
  • (To be clear, there is also no replacement for visiting and seeing many different classrooms when it comes to making generalizations about teaching. And doing research well is immensely challenging but it enriches the profession. I don’t think the world should exclusively be run by k12 classroom teachers. That would be its own sort of disaster.)
  • So, what are we going to do about it? Thrusting teachers into the big lights wouldn’t fix anything, I think. True, it might raise the status of some teachers such that they could draw in people the way Jo Boaler’s name does. But could that status really be sustained while remaining in full-time classroom work? How do you develop talks and build an attractive brand without missing enormous amounts of time for conferences?
  • (The exception to this rule seems to be Jose Vilson. It seems that the laws of gravity don’t apply to Vilson, I don’t know how he does it. Truly amazing!)
  • I don’t want to advocate for some sort of requirement for keynote or featured presentations to include k12 teachers. Instead, I want NCTM to create infrastructure for gradually raising the profiles of classroom teachers. I think this could be done with the artful combination of fellowships, researcher-teacher partnerships that result in joint publications, awards, mid-level speaking profiles, and a million other things that I’m not smart enough to think of.
  • If there is a systemic critique I would make of NCTM, it’s that it’s entire leadership structure reflects a PD orientation that goes from researchers to PD providers to coaches and then to teachers, as recipients. By this I mean that board service is nearly impossible to pull off while being a classroom teacher, and that the model of the conferences seems to be of maximizing traditional PD delivery (even when it’s delivered by teachers). One thing that we’re seeing from the internet and the MTBoS is that this is just one model of how teachers like to develop professionally. Creating more opportunities at conferences for teachers to interact in ways that classroom teachers might find more natural — like teaching mathematics and talking and writing about practice — would benefit the status of teachers.
  • (To this, David Wees would add modeling and rehearsing teaching techniques. Wouldn’t that be a cool thing to do at a conference!)
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