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I attended the California Math Council’s annual conference in Palm Springs last week along with nearly 3,600 other attendees. I presented a session there along with nearly 240 other presenters. At the end of our sessions, attendees could use PollEverywhere to send in their responses to three statements:

  1. The speaker was well-prepared and knowledgeable.
  2. The speaker was an engaging and effective presenter.
  3. The session matched the title and description in the program book.

Attendees scored each statement on a scale from 0 (disagree!) to 3 (agree!). Attendees could also leave written feedback.

At the end of the conference, presenters were sent to a public site where they could access not just their own session feedback, but the feedback for other presenters also. This link started circulating on Twitter. I scraped the feedback from every single session and analyzed all the data.

This is my intention:

  • To learn what makes sessions unpopular with attendees. It’s really hard to determine what makes a session good. “Great session!” shows up an awful lot without elaboration. People were much more specific about what they disliked.

This isn’t my intention:

  • To shame anybody. Don’t ask me for the data. Personally, I don’t think it should have been released publicly. I hope the conference committee takes the survey results seriously in planning future conferences but I’m not here to judge anybody.

Overall

There were 2,972 total feedback messages. 2,615 were correctly formatted. With 3,600 attendees attending a maximum of eight sessions, that’s 28,800 feedback messages that could have been sent, for a response rate of about 10%.

How Much Feedback Did You Get?

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Most presenters received between 10 and 20 feedback messages. One presenter received 64 messages, though that was across several sessions.

How Did You Do On Each Of The Survey Questions?

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Overall the feedback is incredibly positive. I’m very curious how this distribution compares to other math education conferences. I attend a lot of them and Palm Springs is on the top shelf. California has a deep bench of talented math educators and Palm Springs is a great location which draws in great presenters from around the country. I’d put it on par with the NCTM regionals. Still, this feedback is surprisingly sunny.

The data also seem to indicate that attendees were more likely to critique the presenters’ speaking skills (statement #2) than their qualifications (statement #1).

How Did You Do On A Lousy Measure Of Overall Quality?

For each presenter, I averaged the responses they received for each of the survey questions and then summed those averages. This measure is problematic for loads of reasons, but more useful than useless I think. It runs from 0 to 9.

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62 presenters received perfect scores from all their attendees on all measures. 132 more scored above an 8.0. Even granting the lousiness of the measure, it points to a very well-liked set of presenters.

So why didn’t people like your session? The following quotes are all verbatim.

What People Said When You Weren’t “Well-Prepared Or Knowledgeable.”

If someone rated you a 0 or a 1 for this statement, it was because:

  • he was late and unprepared.
  • frustrating that we spent an hr on ppl sharing rationale or venting. I wanted to hear about strategies and high leaveage activities at the school.
  • went very fast
  • information was scattered.
  • A lot of sitting around and not do much.
  • This presentation was scattered and seemed thrown together at the last minute.
  • Unfortunately, the presenter was not focused. There was no clear objectives. Please reconsider inviting this presenter.

What People Said When You Weren’t “An Engaging Or Effective Presenter.”

If someone rated you a 0 or a 1 for this statement, it was because:

You didn’t offer enough practical classroom applications.

  • I wanted things students could use.
  • philosophy more than application. I prefer things I can go back with. I already get the philosophy.
  • very boring. Too much talking. I wanted more in class material.

Your style needs work.

  • very dry and ppt was ineffective
  • very disappointing and boring
  • Arrogant,mean & full of himself
  • BORING. BORING. He’s knowledgable, but dry. Not very interactive.
  • knowledgeable but hard to hear
  • he spoke very quickly and did not model activities. difficult to follow and not described logistically.
  • more confused after leaving

Not enough doing.

  • not as hands-on as I would have hoped
  • too much talking from participants and no information or leadership from the presenter. Everyone had to share their story; very annoying.
  • I could do without the justification at the beginning and the talking to each other part. I already know why I’m here.
  • I would have liked more time to individually solve problems.

Too much doing.

  • while they had a good energy, this session was more of a work time than learning. It did not teach me how to facilitate activities
  • I didn’t think I was going to a math class. I thought we would be teachers and actuall create some tasks or see student work not our work.
  • it would be nice to have teachers do less math and show them how you created the tasks you had us do.

What People Said When Your Session “Didn’t Match The Title And Description In The Program Book.”

You were selling a product. (I looked up all of these session descriptions. None of them disclosed the commercial nature of their sessions.)

  • The fact that it was a sales pitch should have been more evident.
  • only selling ti’s topics not covered
  • a sales pitch not something useful to take back to my classroom
  • Good product but I was looking more for ideas that I can use without purchasing a product.
  • I was hoping for some ideas to help my kids with fact fluency, not a sales pitch.
  • didn’t realize it was selling a product
  • this is was nothing more than a sales pitch. Disappointed that I wasted a session!
  • More like a sales pitch for Inspire
  • I would not have gone to this session if I had known it required graphing calculators.

You claimed the wrong grade band.

  • good for college methods course not for math conference
  • not very appropriate for 6,7 grade.
  • disappointed as it was too specific and unique to the HS presented.
  • Didn’t really match the title and it should have been directed to middle school only.
  • This was not as good for elementary even though descript. said PreK-C / a little was relevant but my time would have been better used in another
  • the session was set 2-6 and was presented at grades k-5.
  • this was not a great session for upper elementary grade and felt more appropriate for 7-12.

You didn’t connect your talk closely enough to the CCSS.

  • not related to common core at all. Disappointing
  • unrelated to ccss

You decided to run a technology session, which is impossible at math ed conferences because half the crowd already knows what you’re talking about and is bored and half the crowd doesn’t know what you’re talking about and is overwhelmed.

  • gave a few apps but talked mostly about how to teach instead of how to use apps or what apps would be beneficial
  • good tutorial for a newbie or first time Geogebra user but I already knew how to use Geogebra so I found most of this pointless. Offer an advanced
  • Good information, but we did not actually learn how to create a Google form. I thought we would be guided through this more. It doesn’t help to
  • apps were geared to higher lever math not middle school

People Whose Sessions Were Said to Be the “Best of the Conference!”

23-way tie! Perhaps useful for your future conference planning, however.

  • Armando Martinez-Cruz
  • Bob Sornson
  • Brad Fulton
  • Cathy Seeley
  • Cherlyn Converse
  • Chris Shore
  • David Chamberlain
  • Douglas Tyson
  • Eli Luberoff
  • Gregory Hammond
  • Howard Alcosser
  • Kasey Grant
  • Kim Sutton
  • Larry Bell
  • Mark Goldstein
  • Michael Fenton
  • Monica Acosta
  • Nate Goza
  • Patrick Kimani
  • Rachel Lasek
  • Scott Bricker
  • Vik Hovsepian
  • Yours Truly

Conclusion

The revelations about technology and hands-on math work interest me most.

In my sessions, I like to do math with participants and then talk about the math we did. Too much doing, however, and participants seem to wonder why the person at the front of the room is even there. That’s a tricky line to locate.

I would also like to present on the technology I use that makes teaching and learning more fun for me and students. But it seems rather difficult to create a presentation that differentiates for the range of abilities we find at these conferences.

The session feedback here has been extremely valuable for my development as a presenter and I only hope the conference committee finds it equally useful for their purposes. Conference committee chair Brian Shay told me via email, “Historically, we use the data and comments to guide our decision-making process. If we see speakers with low reviews, we don’t always accept their proposal for next year.”

Great, if true. Given the skew of the feedback towards “SUPER LIKE!” it seems the feedback would be most useful for scrutinizing poor presenters, not locating great ones. The strongest negative feedback I found was in reaction to unprepared presenters and presentations that were covertly commercial.

CMC has the chance to initiate a positive feedback loop here by taking these data seriously in their choices for the 2015 conference and making sure attendees know their feedback counted. More and more thoughtful feedback from attendees will result.

Full Disclosure

I forgot to tell the attendees at my session my PollEverywhere code. Some people still sent in reviews. My practice is to post my most recent twelve months of speaking feedback publicly.

2014 Nov 4. It seems I’ve analyzed an incomplete data set. The JSON file I downloaded for one presenter (and likely others) contains fewer responses than he actually received. I don’t have any reason to believe there is systematic bias to which responses were included and excluded but it’s worth mentioning this caveat.

This is a talk I gave awhile ago looking at why students hate word problems, posing five ways to improve them, and introducing this thing called “three-act math.”

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Two quick meta-items about blogging from the last week:

  • I attended Twitter Math Camp 2014 in Jenks, OK, in which 150 math teachers who generally only interact online get together in person. I gave a keynote that could probably best be described as “data-rich,” in which I downloaded and analyzed details on 12,000 blogging and tweeting math teachers. Here are links to my slides and speech as well as the CSVs if you want to analyze some data yourself. (Who doesn’t!)
  • A doctoral student in Canada is interested in blogging as “unmediated professional growth” and sent me a survey about my blogging. Here is a link to my responses. How would you have answered?

I was invited to give a few remarks to some newly minted math teachers at San Francisco State University last night. I had two things to say.

Hi there. It’s nice to be here with you as you get kicked out of the nest. It’s an honor, in fact. I’ve met a few of you. Smart, thoughtful people each one. And it makes my decision to become a math educator seem smarter that you would make the same call. That’s real.

I’d like to say two things briefly about what happens next and then I’ll be done.

I’ll quote the first from someone I met a few weeks ago in New Orleans. He said to me, “Your first year teaching is about growing as a teacher, sure, but it’s mainly about getting to know yourself.” That’s wise. You go through life looking for mirrors. Literal mirrors at first and then figurative mirrors. Surfaces that reflect at different angles revealing more and more about your appearance and your character. At a certain point, a lot of us try to position those mirrors so that they reflect back only our best angles. The most valuable people in my life refuse to let me position them. My best friends notify me of my worst angles and refuse to accept them.

That’s what your students will do for you. They’ll reflect back at you the spot on your chin you missed with the razor. They’ll reflect back the parts of you that are insecure and afraid and small. Eventually all that reflection takes a kind of marvelous toll and you either decide that teaching kids isn’t any fun or you realize that you aren’t the spot on your chin. That isn’t who you are. And then your students start to reflect back generosity and humor you didn’t know you had. I hope you enjoy that. My first three years teaching were basically a bonus adolescence. I could tell you stories. But that’s number one. Enjoy learning about yourself. Enjoy self-study. Apart from whatever my teaching was doing for the kids I taught, teaching showed me the angles where I needed lots of work. It made a better person out of me

Here’s the second. It’s tempting to compare the job of teaching to other jobs you could have taken, jobs your college classmates took, jobs taken by the people you grew up with. I struggled with this for a long time. Friends of mine made more money working fewer hours and their profession wasn’t ever ripped a new one on national television. (Except for the ones who went into financial services. I dodged a bullet there.) Overall, that wore on me. I asked around about med school prereqs. I filled out an application for film school here at SFSU.

In case you ever feel the same way, here are two helpful ways to look at the job of teaching. The first is that you don’t have to worry, as many of my friends still do, that their jobs don’t really matter to anybody except the family they feed. You don’t have to worry that you’re insignificant to other people. You’re in the profession of developing humanity, one class at a time. That’s no small credit you get to claim. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to doubt your job’s value to humanity for thirty or forty years.

The other reason to love teaching when people try to convince you not to is that teaching has the best questions.

Me, I came to realize that past a certain baseline income, what I need most in my life are good questions. Questions that aren’t so small they crack easily. Questions that aren’t so big – like rising inequality or climate change – they put me in a fetal crouch. I need questions between those two. Questions at just the right size. Questions that crack after weeks and months not hours. Questions I can roll around in my head on long road trips or standing in line at the DMV or in some boring lecture. Lately I’m in the market for a ten-year question. Something that’ll take me through my thirties. I know I’ll find it in teaching.

See, there’s profit in answering a good question. The profit isn’t cash. The profit isn’t even answers. The profit is more questions. The best questions yield more questions once they’re answered. And teaching has all of them. For me, teaching has all the best questions. And most of them are timeless. Questions about human learning will endure even after questions about typesetting and carriage manufacture and driverless cars have expired.

You’ve signed onto a job that’ll yield the best version of yourself, one that offers you endlessly fascinating questions and the growing awareness that a lot of little people’s lives would be less without you.

I couldn’t be happier for you and I couldn’t be happier for myself that I get to count you all as colleagues.

I opened up the Computer-Using Educators annual conference in Palm Springs last month. That talk made its way online this week.

I started by describing why edtech presentations often make me aggravated. Then I described my “edtech mission statement,” which helps me through those presentations and helps me make tough choices for my limited resources.

BTW. I was also interviewed at CUE for the Infinite Thinking Machine with Mark Hammons.

Featured Comment

Michael Pershan:

LOL. Funny stuff!

High praise.

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