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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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.

My NCTM Benefits

I.

I’ve been getting those emails again — “30 Days Left of Your NCTM Benefits.”

If you talk to someone who works with NCTM, one of the first things they’ll tell you is the organization is committed to making big changes. Depending on the person, they’ll also tell you it’s because the organization is scared, staring straight into a crisis. Membership and income is dropping, and nothing they’ve tried has tempered this trend.

I’m committed to NCTM. But if the question is do you personally enjoy the benefits of membership?, my answer is “no.”

I mostly don’t enjoy the conferences, and it’s not easy for me to justify missing school for them. I mostly don’t enjoy the journals — I mean just that I don’t usually want to read them. And seeing as conference discounts and a journal are the major personal benefits that NCTM offers members, there’s just not much for me, personally speaking.

But what if the question isn’t about personal benefits, but of benefits to the field of math education? Volunteers often talk about the role of NCTM in making policy when explaining why they support NCTM: Sure, you can take or leave the personal benefits. But there is no other organization that has a voice for math education on the state or national level. When NCTM talks, people listen. Don’t you want to support that?

A lot of people are passionate on this point. In fact, I was once talking to a former employee of NCTM, and I suggested that I’d rather NCTM didn’t pay lobbyists to try to influence policy. We had been having a fairly radical talk: what if the organization eliminated conferences, changed the journals, restructured the volunteer board, etc. When I mentioned cutting lobbying, though, this person showed real emotion. This was unthinkable, she said. Every professional organization lobbies in Washington, and NCTM is a professional organization.  

Maybe that’s right. All I can say is that I’ve never been asked by NCTM what my policy views are, so I don’t know how they can claim to represent them. A survey would be a nice start, but hardly enough. Maybe there should be debates at the national conference or something, or a right to vote on policy positions if you pay your dues. People sometimes worry that the policy work of NCTM is invisible to membership. I bet a lot more teachers would know about the policy arm if they could influence it.

It’s not hard to come up with a suggestions like these, and it’s not hard to come up with many others like it, that would increase the role of teachers in the organizations. Why haven’t these ideas been taken up yet? Why is NCTM structured the way it is?

II.

NCTM is an organization that wants math teachers to pay for the right to defer to experts. The experts are math education professors, consultants, coaches, administrators, and a few teachers on their way to becoming one of the above.  

Here’s an excellent point that Henri Picciotto made to me: teachers are hardly the only members of NCTM. “The organization is not uniquely or even primarily a teachers’ organization,” he said. This sounds exactly right, and you can see it in everything that NCTM does.

Let’s get concrete. I love writing and reading, and I’ve thought about writing pieces for the NCTM teacher journals. I’ve been turned off, though, sinceI learned that my submission would be judged, in part, by its “consistency with the mathematics teaching practices as described in Principles to Actions.” (link)

In other words, you might not know what great teaching looks like, but NCTM does. If you have any great examples showing how to put NCTM’s vision into practice, by all means, submit an article. But if you’re not ready to sign on to the NCTM vision of teaching, well, best to take your writing elsewhere. And, hey, why shouldn’t you adhere to the NCTM vision? It simply describes elements of good teaching we all agree on. After all, it was written and packaged by the experts.

The “Principles to Actions” clause (and similar requirements across the journals and at conferences) is a shame. First, it narrows the bandwidth of ideas that we’re allowed to talk about in math education. Second, it makes for a duller reading experience; to me the journals have a sort of corporate feel to them. But the most significant thing of all, I think, is that it greatly reduces the creative work that teachers are encouraged to do, and teachers want to do creative work.

“Putting research into practice” can mean a lot of things, but most often it signifies that we all already agree on the best ways to teach. What’s left is to convince colleagues, boards, parents, kids, etc. And when you start with the sorts of vision-documents that NCTM has produced, you end up with very little left for teachers to do.

So across the board — for policy, journals, conferences, PD, publications, resources — NCTM’s pitch to teachers is: don’t you want us be your experts? And the question is, does that pitch still resonate with teachers if membership is dropping?

III.

NCTM seems to get that the internet changed things, but I think they’re wrong about why. It’s not just that there are free alternatives to NCTM publications, or that people now expect digital copies of stuff. The bigger problem for them is the web has allowed teachers to find alternatives to the institutional trust that NCTM currently seeks to trade on. Now, you can choose your experts.

So the current relationship — where teachers are asked to pay NCTM because they trust the experts — is no longer tenable for the organization. This leaves NCTM with really one alternative, which is to focus on what math teachers want, whatever that happens to be.

Is NCTM heading towards this? I don’t know. I do know that, for the first time in its history, NCTM now lists “Building Member Value” as a organizational goal. They are now institutionally committed to the following:

“NCTM fosters communities that engage members to improve the teaching and learning of mathematics.”

Which is great! I think that NCTM will do a better job earning members when it aims to serve the needs of those members, rather than asking us to pay for the right to be influenced. The direction of the organization needs to be reversed; math education professionals will need to trust teachers.

For the journals, this could mean publishing stuff that isn’t already 100%-certified nutritious. And it would mean, I think, that writers would have to start making the case for their vision of teaching without merely citing NCTM consensus documents for authority. But really, NCTM would have a mandate to publish whatever there are readers for in math education.

As far as the conferences go, I’m confused by the role that math plays in these math education conferences. The last NCTM conference I attended was Nashville, two years ago. I remember (and wrote about) being surprised why there wasn’t more learning and doing math for teachers at these conferences. What if it turned out that NCTM members wanted more chances to learn math with other teachers? What if we’ve heard enough about formative assessment?

But all of this is just fleshing out the details. NCTM won’t regain its membership by focusing on PD, making statements, or publishing new guidelines. It needs to stop trying to fix math education, and start serving its teachers.