One Mathematics, Many Voices: NCTM Day 1, Los Angeles

Getting set for the big opening

Today was the first day of the Annual Meeting of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in Los Angeles. But before I made the long, long bus ride from Anaheim to L.A., I took in a couple extra sessions at NCSM.

Peter Liljedahl

I missed Peter Liljedahl's session yesterday when it filled up and they shut the doors, but he was kind enough to stick around through this morning and offer the same session again. Now that I've seen his talk, it's understandable why he's such a hit: he built up a solid research program, got some nice findings, he wrote some teacher-friendly books, and he's gotten lots of practice delivering his talk. It's an exceptionally strong bit of work. I was particularly persuaded by his bit on mimicry. I've been asked by math specialists how they can get teachers to stop relying on, "I do, we do, you do" as their instructional model. Sometimes we see this in elementary, where some reading programs promote that model as a form of effective instruction. I'm no authority on how well it works in other content areas, but it's not great for math, and Peter gave the most powerful articulation of why it's so inadequate. He says that when you use an "I do, we do, you do" model, what students are doing is mimicking, not learning. Mimicking can work for you in the short term, but not in the long term. In mathematics, students' luck with mimicking tends to run out by the time they're in Algebra 1, when they really need to be thinking and problem solving for themselves if they're going to be successful. I ordered Peter's books while sitting in the session and I'll be eager to dig into them when I get home.

Caity Larson

I stuck around for one more session, this time to hear a story about math reforms spurred on by Catalyzing Change. Caity Larson and Catherine Castillo were math specialists in Springfield, Missouri, who carried out a multi-year plan to reform curriculum and instruction in their schools. They were often met with resistance, but they steadily won over teachers and other stakeholders. But when it was time for all that work to pay off, district leadership put a halt to it. There were certainly positives in the session, but it also served as a cautionary tale. You'd never know it talking to people at the conference, but there really are people out there who don't want math teaching to change.

NCTM President Trena Wilkerson

After the bus ride from Anaheim to Los Angeles, I settled in at my third hotel of the week and then made my way to the convention center for the NCTM Annual Meeting. The first person I met was from Hawaii. And so was the second and third. Then there were more. Hawaiians are here in force! After some time cruising the exhibit floor, I headed to the opening session. There were lots of preliminaries to wait through, but I've found that those parts get better every year as you get to know more of the people and develop a greater appreciation for the work they do. Part of what lengthened it was that it was the first in-person annual meeting in more than three years, so they did things like take extra time to recognize previous lifetime achievement award recipients that we didn't get to celebrate during the pandemic. It was great seeing Elizabeth Fennema on the big screen!

Chip Heath

The keynote speaker was Chip Heath, a professor and author who wrote a book called Making Numbers Count. It wasn't a math education talk, really. It was more of a collection of interesting and educational anecdotes that illustrated the way we see numbers and how numbers help us make sense of our worlds. In particular, there were good examples of things where we don't have great sense when it comes to numbers, whether it's because the numbers are very large or because the numbers haven't been rounded to something memorable. Malcolm Gladwell was the opening keynote speaker when I attended my first NCTM Annual Meeting in 2008, and this felt a lot like that. I'm not sure it was the best possible representation of the conference theme, One Mathematics, Many Voices: Sharing Our Collective Stories of Rehumanizing Mathematics Teaching and Learning, but as a stand-alone keynote it had its own reasons to be engaging.