NCTM's Grand Challenges and Opportunities in Mathematics Education Research

Last summer, the NCTM Research Committee asked members to identify grand challenges in mathematics education (written about here and here), and today they've published their findings in the Journal of Research in Mathematics Education. First thing's first: If you're not a JRME subscriber your access to the article is blocked by a paywall. Sadly, this feels like another case of NCTM's reluctance to move past old models of publishing and communication, leaving teachers interested in the grand challenges to feel like second-class NCTM members, begging for a handout from the privileged NCTM research community. I've written about my concerns and suggestions for NCTM's relationship with its members, so here I'll just focus on the key points found in today's report. Ready to be inspired? Slow your roll, turbo. You might want to prepare yourself to be a bit puzzled, if not disappointed.

The report begins by placing the concept of a "grand challenge" in the hands of researchers:

Mathematics education researchers seek answers to important questions that will ultimately result in the enhancement of mathematics teaching, learning, curriculum, and assessment, working toward “ensuring that all students attain mathematics proficiency and increasing the numbers of students from all racial, ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic groups who attain the highest levels of mathematics achievement” (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics [NCTM], 2014, p. 61). Although mathematics education is a relatively young field, researchers have made significant progress in advancing the discipline. As Ellerton (2014) explained in her JRME editorial, our field is like a growing tree, stable and strong in its roots yet becoming more vast and diverse because of a number of factors.

Next the report talks about the purpose of grand challenges and their development and use in other fields. In some ways, it reminded me of the spread of the standards movement: "Math has standards, we should too!", except now it's "The National Academy of Engineering has grand challenges, math ed should too!" Then the report spends four paragraphs talking about Hilbert's problems and how they influenced the last 100-plus years of research in mathematics. The report shifts back to the present, summarizing grand challenges in other disciplines. Readers at this point are likely getting anxious, sensing that their grand challenge lies just ahead.

But wait! What's the criteria for a grand challenge again? The report slows to grind away at feedback about how a "grand challenge" was defined in the initial survey. Saying a grand challenge is "doable," for example, wasn't specific enough for some concerned respondents. Okay, point taken. Nobody wants a grand challenge that can't be met. (Ahem...NCLB...100% proficiency targets. Been there, done that.) So now, we prepare ourselves for the challenge...

But first, let's talk about three themes of responses the committee got from the math ed community. Let me be clear: These aren't the challenges, just the themes describing a body of suggested challenges:

  1. Changing perceptions about what it means to do mathematics.
  2. Changing the public’s perception about the role of mathematics in society.
  3. Achieving equity in mathematics education.

I was hoping to have a strong, positive reaction to these, but I fear my inner cynic took over: "In a nutshell, survey respondents argued our grand challenge for the future is to finally win the math wars that we've been fighting for the past 25 years." The details that followed this list, while short, were thoughtful. My inner cynic quieted down. We do need public support for improved ways of teaching mathematics. We do need to conceive of equity and teaching that goes beyond simply narrowing the achievement gap. All good things. But like I said, those were just themes. So now, I stand ready for the distillation of those themes to form itself in the shape of a grand challenge. So the winner is...

Will you settle for a "hypothetical" grand challenge instead? NCTM suggests this as a mere example: All students will be mathematically literate by the completion of eighth grade, accompanied with this disclaimer:

Our example is only meant to illustrate how a Grand Challenge could satisfy the criteria listed in the previous section; we are not suggesting that it is necessarily a Grand Challenge we should pursue.

There are then six paragraphs describing the attention and importance given to literacy (the read-and-write text kind) and how we should give the same attention and importance to mathematical literacy. But this isn't the grand challenge. It could be, but it's not. Unless we decide it is. Which we haven't.

What we need next, says the report, is to think about the process we need to draft grand challenges. The design researcher in me says, "Yes, this is how to do this. We asked for grand challenges, got input, and now we're going to make revisions to our thinking and ask for more input, and it's going to be better input the next time around." I get it. But readers expecting a call to action might think NCTM is just calling a big, frustrating "Do over!" on the process. Here's NCTM's proposed plan, which they encourage people to critique: Engage many voices. Give people opportunities to draft the grand challenges and comment on drafts written by others. Engage in conversations online (!) and at conferences. Avoid just handing this work to a committee. So expect to see the NCTM Grand Challenge Grand Tour coming to a town near you — they'll have sessions in Boston at the Research Conference and Annual Meeting, as well as at AREA, AMATYC, AMTE, the Benjamin Banneker Association, EONAS, MAA, NCSM, PME-NA, TODOS, WME, regional NCTM meetings, and online venues. (Forgive me for not spelling out all the organizations. I figure if you don't know what it is, you're probably not attending.) I found this bit interesting:

The NCTM Research Committee will also convene a diverse group with a wide variety of expertise to review all submitted challenges, write additional challenges, vet them according to the criteria set forth in the invitation, and provide opportunities for the field to comment on them.

That sounds a bit like a hand-picked committee working in conjunction yet parallel to all the work described above. There's little detail, but I think NCTM better be clear about how the work of this committee will be weighed against the suggestions of the broader community. So, are we ready? Psyched? Ready to push that boulder back up the hill? I hope not, because the last section, while probably necessary, is a bit of a downer.

The Research Committee knows that a grand challenge — if and when we have one — will have consequences for researchers:

Any time a representative group of people is given an opportunity to identify Grand Challenges for an entire field, there is a moral obligation to consider the associated risks and weigh them against the potential benefits. The risks associated with creating a document that identifies our field’s Grand Challenges could be significant, yet we hope to minimize the risks by acknowledging and addressing them throughout the process.

What are the risks? Some people's research and work will get privileged over others. Funding will get reallocated. Journals will rethink what should and should not be published. The groups we consider to be "stakeholders" in math education could change. In some cases, people's feelings might get hurt; in other cases, careers could be threatened. I know this sounds overly dramatic, but the tenure and promotion game for academic researchers can be a rough one, and the research committee knows that. It still struck me as odd to see this "inside baseball"-type discussion near the end of the report, but it might comfort some and give fair warning to others.

So that's it. NCTM's grand challenge was not, and will not be, the "we asked, you answered" kind of process that some of us might have expected. I guess you could call that the bad news. If you were ready to jump to collective action, you're going to have to wait. But there is good news: If you are looking to give your input, it looks like you'll have multiple opportunities. And now that the task ahead is defined more clearly, we can think not just of possible challenges, but the ways we'll organize ourselves to tackle those challenges. To me, the key to the former will be the latter.


Stephan, M. L., Chval, K. B., Wanko, J. J., Civil, M., Fish, M. C., Herbel-Eisenmann, B., … Wilkerson, T. L. (2015). Grand challenges and opportunities in mathematics education research. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 46(2). Retrieved from