Innov8 and Positive Directions for NCTM

I recently attended NCTM's inaugural Innov8 Conference in St. Louis. NCTM promised a different kind of conference, and I would say they delivered — assuming attendees took advantage of the options beyond the usual keynotes, sessions, and exhibit hall.

Conference Content

For those of you interested in the content of the conference, I apologize for keeping this part brief. The theme of the conference was "Engaging the Struggling Learner" and speakers did better to stick to the theme than I expected. The opening keynote with Juli Dixon and her daughters Alex and Jessica was wonderful. The focus of the talk was Alex's struggle to overcome the effects of a stroke she suffered in 6th grade. I'm horribly underselling the talk, and underselling Alex and Jessica, but I will make this point: As much as I want to call both of them extraordinary, I won't. For as impressed as I was with them, I didn't want to leave thinking they were "exceptional," as in "not like all the others." I wanted to leave, hopefully along with everyone else, thinking that all struggling learners were just as amazing as Alex and Jessica, and Alex and Jessica were just as amazing as other struggling learners. In that way, I think the keynote really did hit the key note.

Juli, Jessica, and Alex Dixon

Thursday morning we experienced a rotation of keynote speakers. For me, Amanda Jansen was up first to discuss "rough draft talk," an approach that emphasizes to students that thinking out loud, making mistakes, exploring multiple solutions, and revising our thinking is all a normal part of doing mathematics. Next up was Karen Karp, who had us face the reality that too many struggling learners get worksheets and tricks rather than sound, research-based strategies. Karen recommended checking out the math Practice Guides published by IES, and I will. In fact, let me put them right here so you will, too:
Fawn Nguyen
Last to go was Fawn Nguyen, who stressed productive struggle and choosing high-quality tasks. She had some comments about resisting tracking in her school, and dealing with upset parents, that I think really resonated with other teachers in the room. Before the conference was over, I saw Peg Smith (for the first time, somehow), dipped in and out of Jo Boaler's talks, and got some good stuff out of Melissa Boston's session involving resources from NCTM's Principles to Action Professional Learning Toolkit. I find PtoA's effective teaching practices to be right-sized descriptions of practice, and I like seeing different ways they can be used to improve the planning and analysis of teaching.

Conference Format

More than the conference content, I was specifically drawn to Innov8 by NCTM's attempt to shake up their typical conference format. To be sure, Innov8 had typical keynotes and sessions and attendees could make the conference feel like a regular NCTM regional conference if they wished. But what set Innov8 apart (and makes me more likely to return) were its more novel features, Team Time and the Innovation Lounge.

I attended primarily as a member of the board of the Colorado Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and I was joined by three other board members who all had an interest in learning about the conference. In this way we were a team, but not exactly the kind of school-based team NCTM had designed the conference for. The Innov8 schedule had multiple times set aside for teams to tackle what they identified as a "problem of practice," and the researcher in me really wish I could have sat in with some of the groups to see what they identified as their problem and how they thought they might go about tackling it.

NCTM Board Member Cathy Martin in the Innovation Lounge

I thought the Innovation Lounge was the highlight of the conference, and I wonder if others felt the same. In the Innovation Lounge, conference attendees had ample opportunities to come face-to-face with experts in math education in a variety of formats. There was the Book Nook, where attendees could sit with authors to discuss their books, and the Innov8 Bar, where experts in various topics (assessment, motivation, productive struggle, and MTSS) offered advice to groups of 1-8 people seated around a high table. There was also a place for telling teaching stories, getting Twitter and blog advice, and talking to people from The Math Forum.

Matt Larson at the Innov8 Bar

I admit, when I saw NCTM President Matt Larson at the Innov8 Bar talking to a single person, or Jo Boaler overflowing the Book Nook with about 150 people, I wondered if the format was really working. In hindsight, though, I think the format was working just fine. There are some details NCTM needs to work out, but overall I think these issues are reflective of the very hard work NCTM faces in making a personal connection to its members. I feel good that the person who got solo time with an NCTM President will renew their membership and be a more active NCTM member, and in general, NCTM made a positive impression on those who spent some time in the Innovation Lounge. In the future, I think NCTM can do more to let attendees know who some of these experts are and why they're worth talking to. A little bit of celebrity can go a long way.

A large crowd gathered for Jo Boaler's book talk

Positive Directions for NCTM

Two years ago I published a post describing what I saw as NCTM's grand challenge: to shift their focus away from providing content to members and towards providing services, even as their membership shifts from older and more loyal members to younger teachers who are less likely to join organizations. I made some suggestions: Be less faceless as an organization, find teachers where they are, spend more time listening, build a thank you economy with your members, play matchmaker, and guide teachers towards mastery. Here are a few ways I see NCTM moving in these directions:
  • Conferences: The Innov8 Conference had ample amounts of face-to-face time between NCTM board members and other representatives, and I hope it served to facilitate a lot of listening at an organizational level. Similarly, the Annual Meeting in San Francisco featured small-group gatherings between major speakers and attendees. Although conferences are geographically and temporally limited, NCTM needs to make the most of these opportunities for the members dedicated enough to attend.
  • Twitter Chats: In the last few months we've seen NCTM establish a regular schedule of Wednesday-night chats that bring authors of articles in NCTM teacher journals (Teaching Children Mathematics, Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, and Mathematics Teacher) together with teachers and other math educators for an hour on Twitter. By having authors engage directly in the chats, there are great opportunities for personal connections between experts and members. NCTM is making the articles free to download to help facilitate participation, and I think the upside for NCTM in terms of membership will exceed any potential downside from lost journal subscriptions. Despite the dedication and enthusiasm from math teachers on Twitter, it remains a relatively small audience, but just like conferences, NCTM is working to meet its members where they are.
  • Reaching Out to Critics: I've seen several examples in the past two years of NCTM recruiting teachers (Lisa Henry and Graham Fletcher come to mind) critical of the organization to provide feedback and take active roles within the organization. I don't have the inside knowledge of how these arrangements have been made or the extent of the involvement, but I see so many benefits from this. As members we still don't get much of a window into the workings and disagreements of the NCTM Board of Directors, but it looks good when members can disagree with the organization and then be given a platform to have those ideas heard.
The effects of these changes might not be large, at least not yet, but I think they're steps in the right direction. I do wonder how much my perception of the organization is shaped by my own involvement and the number of relationships I've built with people I see as part of NCTM. Some of the suggestions I made, like playing matchmaker and guiding teachers towards mastery, don't yet seem to be part of NCTM's plans. I know NCTM has entertained ideas related to certifying/credentialing members for their knowledge and skills, but that's a big step that comes with more risks than the efforts they're currently taking.

Lastly, one moment of Innov8 made a big deal to me: At the last minute, I stopped in the NCTM book store to pick up some books. At the register, the NCTM staff member said, "Oh, you're Raymond Johnson!" It was Tracy Cullen, NCTM's communications manager, and the person usually behind the NCTM Twitter account. I realize that the NCTM social media accounts need to represent the organization, not the individual tasked with running them, but I felt a great sense of satisfaction to meet the person doing the hard work of engaging members across multiple accounts and often non during 9-5 hours. So if you're reading this: Hi, Tracy, and thank you!