Making Math Education Matter: NCTM Research Conference Day 1, Washington D.C.

It's so good to be back at the NCTM Research Conference! This is one of my favorite conferences: it's a mostly no-frills, just the facts, math ed nerdfest with an amount of academic awkwardness that I find really welcoming.

Abi Leaf, Chair of the NCTM Research Committee

Day 1 of the Research Conference got off to a great start. Our opening session featured Joan Ferrini-Mundy. She's the current President of the University of Maine, a former chief operating officer of the National Science Foundation, a former director at the National Academy of Sciences, and long-time mathematics education researcher. Very few people have held the variety of high-level positions that Joan has, and that helped her craft some perspectives for her opening session.

This talk started in familiar territory, with reminders that it's foolish to think that we'll ever get the "perfect study" that answers our questions about math education once and for all. Joan also noted the flawed logic that researchers need only push out their work in traditional outlets and depend on educators to soak up those ideas and know how to use them. Instead, Joan said, math educators need to use new and varied approaches to research (shout-out to some I've done, like research-practice partnerships and design-based implementation research) and insert themselves in spaces where decisions are made about math education. The rest of the talk went into details about what those spaces look like and the kind of contributions we could make, including spaces for university administrators, state and federal policymakers, assessment and standards developers, funders, higher education STEM faculty, the business sector, and teacher educators.

Joan Ferrini-Mundy

My next session was a panel called "Supporting Elementary Teachers' Mathematics Classroom Discussion Practices." It was good to see the newest work from some researchers I admire and enjoy watching present, and some of what they said had a lot of relevance for me. 

Lynsey Gibbons

First up was Lynsey Gibbons from the University of Delaware. In working with teachers at a couple elementary schools during the pandemic, she noted the need for schools to be true learning spaces -- not just spaces to organize typical learning for students, but spaces for adults to learn, too, as challenges of the pandemic brought about the need to try new and different things, and to do so while considering all the local and not-so-local contexts in which schooling happens. While her study didn't appear to set out to be about Zearn, we heard a lot about Zearn. The schools in her study adopted Zearn as part of a statewide program that gave schools easy and free access, and the schools expected Zearn to be used as part of regular instruction. Some teachers found it frustrating; instead of teaching themselves, they monitored students sitting at computers wearing headphones who were getting taught by videos of teaching. When students got stuck they raised their hand, and then it became the job of the teacher in the room to figure out what had been shown to the student in the videos they'd been shown and then re-teach that content or otherwise get the student back on track. Some teachers quietly (or maybe not-so-quietly) rebelled and switched to using a "regular" classroom curriculum by the year's end.

Annie Garrison-Wilhelm
Next up was Annie Garrison-Wilhelm, now faculty at Washington State University. She looked at what could be learned about improving math teaching by examining teaching practices across multiple content areas, and how that shaped what she called "a vision for dialogic disciplinary discussion." One of her results was that teachers tended to make a stronger case for preparing students to engage in the disciplinary community in math and science than they do when teaching literacy, which seems like a good thing for math.

Sam Prough and Rebecca Memmolo
Sam Prough and Rebecca Memmolo from the University of Delaware continued this theme of looking across content areas. Their research identified some struggles, like when teachers or school administrators see math as not something that requires debate and discussion since there's only "one right answer" to elementary math problems.

Temple Walkowiak
Temple Walkowiak from NC State served as the discussant and brought some of the ideas together across the sessions. There was a lot to think about here, and Lynsey's thinking at the beginning about local and beyond-local context reminded me about the role I play to normalize some positive practices and perceptions about math education and the need to work across disciplines to help elementary teachers make sense of the practices that work best in different content areas.

Robert Krakehl
I checked into a "research in progress" session where we sat at roundables with researchers in the midst of figuring out their latest work. I enjoyed hearing from two researchers from Amplify, Heather West and Sandra Pappas, who are developing screeners and diagnostic assessment tools for K-8 mathematics. We're doing some similar work in Colorado and it's good to know we're not alone. I then moved rooms and caught the end of Robert Krakehl's session about AP Mathematics Enrollment and Performance. In short, AP tests consistently favor White and Asian students. This wasn't new news, and it's wasn't Robert's talk to try to explain all the reasons why. Instead, he focused on making sense of the data, and one thing we did observe was that the Calculus BC exam has significantly higher pass rates across the board when compared to Calculus AB and AP Statistics. Perhaps it's a self-selection issue, where only the best-prepared students are encouraged to take it.

Pat Herbst
Next was a panel comparing innovative models for mathematics teacher learning. Pat Herbst from Michigan started off with what he's learning from their StoryCircles project, which uses cartoon-like classroom simulations to develop teacher thinking and decision-making skills.

Hilda Borko
Next up was Hilda Borko of Stanford, who reflected on two different teacher learning models that she's helped establish, the problem-solving cycle and the teacher leadership preparation model. These have been developed in research-practice partnerships and make use of classroom video to generate discussion and reflection on teaching practice.

Hollylynn Lee
Hollylynn Lee from NC State is working on online professional development models for statistics and data science as part of their initiative.

Gil Schwarts

The discussant for this session was Gil Schwarts from the University of Michigan. She helped us think about these teacher learning programs as either content-oriented or process-oriented, as well as adaptive or specified, and how goals and tensions of each project are served by their different designs.

Whew! If that wasn't enough, the day ended with a poster session. If you remember social distancing from the pandemic, this was certainly not that. We were all crammed into a too-small and too-noisy space but I got a few things from the posters I visited. My highlight was probably meeting Jinfa Cai. He was the editor of JRME and NCTM's research compendium, and I have a lot of admiration for people who can take on those kinds of big editing projects.