The Most Interesting Session I Attended at NCTM

The most interesting session I attended at NCTM wasn’t listed in the program book. It stretched the duration of the conference and featured lots of different speakers. Its unofficial title was “What Will NCTM Look Like in Ten Years?”

I don’t have answers, but over the course of many spontaneous conversations between concerned members, my questions became sharper.

Questions like:

  • What happens to this organization as its current membership retires?
  • What purpose do conferences serve in 2017, in an age of prevalent online community?
  • How can we make NCTM’s membership more representative of the entire national corps of math teachers and the students they teach?

And then the thought:

  • If NCTM didn’t exist and we built an organization dedicated to the advancement of mathematics instruction from scratch, what would that look like?

There isn’t any chance it would look exactly like the organization we have now. That’s the advantage of a blank slate.

So how would we rebuild systems for:

  • … equity.
  • … publications.
  • … conferences.
  • … advocacy.
  • … community.
  • … purpose.

Like I said: my questions are sharper, but I don’t have answers. I am curious which conferences and organizations outside of math education are expanding their reach and meeting the needs of more and more members.

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2017 Apr 24. I’m told that at least one member of NCTM’s leadership was offended by this post. That’s disappointing.

I’m asking these questions about NCTM’s future and how it can best serve the needs of a changing membership in a changing professional development environment out of a sincere interest in helping with that transformation. I’m also surprised that any NCTM leader would be surprised by these questions. If these questions aren’t asked on a daily basis at NCTM HQ in Reston, VA, I worry about our ability to successfully make that transformation.

11 Comments

  1. Reply

    Many of my colleagues don’t participate yet in the online community so are not accessing the latest ideas for teaching math. I recently attended the midschoolmath conference in Sante Fe and found several session thought provoking. They were definitely encourage the 3 act math format.

    Unfortunately our state is starting to require STEM credits as part of our recert process but has not started deliveriing PD yet in these areas. Also I have been finding that while the conferences provide certificates for completion these do not provide us with clock hours or credits. I have learned more from the online communities then many conferences I have attended.

    An organization that can reach out and provided timely PD on best teaching methods and curriculum still needs to be both in real life and online. Finding a way that this PD will be recognized nationally by each states department of education is also important. Time and money are limited for teachers and in order to meet the needs of our students we do need help.

    Thank you for all you are doing to inspire teachers.

    Sincerely
    Brian Arnot
    Issaquah School District

  2. Reply

    Thank you for speaking out about these issues. As president of a local affiliate I have considered those same questions and others like: How do we increase our stagnant membership? How do we reach and identify math teacher leaders? What work can we do as a local organization to ignite a passion for teaching math?
    Even though I do not have any definitive answers I do know we must evolve, consider new ideas, and bring more diverse constituents to the table.

    • Thanks for sharing, Leah. Have you tried anything that has worked or not worked in an interesting way?

  3. Reply

    I like your question: how would we rebuild systems?

    I take that question to be a methodological one. Not, what would we build, but how.

    I also like this question because it imagines that we’re starting with a blank slate. It’s a different line of thought than the one we usually have surrounding NCTM, i.e. the “we’ve got this enormous organization and we just need to figure out how to use it” conversation.

    I also also like that you’re asking about other organizations. If we’re starting with a blank slate and we need a methodology, do we really need to create one from scratch? Or is there some other methodology that could guide this new organization?

    I don’t really know much about organizational structures and growth, but it seems to me that the tech start-up world provides a methodology. Quick prototypes, fail rapidly and iterate, get investment for quick scaling, sell all the data to the government, profit, etc.

    And there are other profit-driven organizational models. And there are non-profit models for funding and growth.

    One model that I’m fond of is the community organizing model for growth. It has limitations, but from what I’ve seen I think it could help the math edu world out a bit. Building organizations through community organizing involves a long, slow lead up to action. At the start, it involves a lot of one-on-one conversations that help build relationships and mutual trust. It’s a process that aims to build local capacity — any national organization would only be built on top of local organizations.

    Evergreen Pershan comment.

    Anyway, the question is better than any answer.
    • One model that I’m fond of is the community organizing model for growth. It has limitations, but from what I’ve seen I think it could help the math edu world out a bit. Building organizations through community organizing involves a long, slow lead up to action. At the start, it involves a lot of one-on-one conversations that help build relationships and mutual trust. It’s a process that aims to build local capacity — any national organization would only be built on top of local organizations.

      Any examples of grassroots community organizations that have turned into national organizations with NCTM’s reach and membership?

    • Any examples of grassroots community organizations that have turned into national organizations with NCTM’s reach and membership?

      I’m no expert here, but I know Saul Alinsky founded major national organizations that emerged out of his organizing (from wikipedia).

      I’d add that if we’re imagining a refresh for NCTM, I have no reason to think that its reach and membership should remain constant. Maybe, if we’re playing an imaginary new-NCTM game, we imagine a leaner operation.

      Of course the game isn’t entirely theoretical. It doesn’t seem obvious to me that a smaller NCTM would be a worse NCTM.

    • I’m really skeptical that resources are where NCTM shines brightest for prospective members. Without speaking to quality at all, there are a bunch of places where it’s much, much easier to track down a resource to help me teach concept x, y, or z.

      I’m really curious about mentorship, though. What structures do you envision there?

  4. Reply

    When I think about ten years into the future I picture one of those post apocalyptic scenes from the beginning of the Terminator movies. There may not be cybernetic soldiers crushing human skulls, but there will probably new enemies to math understanding that will need to be fought. Maybe these will be vapid math expectations in online schools, or maybe it’s a need to stop our need for calculus as a gate keeper to getting students accepted into middle school or maybe there could be some misguided future policy that poses disastrous consequences. Either way, the need for there to be an answer to the future’s problems will define the look of the future’s NCTM.

    In those Terminator movies, the people are always fighting, and they are led by people no one knows. Same will probably apply here. My guess is that by 10 years from now, the idea of #MTBoSers being in leadership positions will be either a given, maybe even a nuisance. I think there will need to be a huge leadership turnover, maybe a couple, just as I imagine there has been in years past. When those future people fight those future robots, they usually have some awesome unimaginable future weaponry. I imagine math teachers in the future who seek to develop professionally will have a bevy of new weaponry at their disposal as well. I imagine the NCTM will need to harness whatever technology is at hand in order to carry out their mission and it will probably involve things much different than the avenues you’ve listed. At the same time, things like publishing and conferences will exist in some form since people need to exchange ideas. The will probably need to be done in a new way, just like those future people had guns that shot lasers. I’m not saying there is going to be doing huge singular doomsday event in math ed, but the pace of change in the field implies that things will need to get a lot more futuristic, if they aren’t already.

  5. Reply

    Such interesting questions. I personally value NCTM’s resources, but you’re right that resources can be accessed in all sorts of other ways.

    If one were to imagine from the ground up, I’d say a primary purpose of a professional organization should be advocacy. If people want social and political change, they have to organize; if we envision education that is better and more equitable, we’re talking about organizing for social and political change. Which public policies promote the growth and learning of students and teachers, and which policies hinder them? How do we create the conditions in which teachers can do their best work? How do we persuade the elected officials and citizens who create education policy to take seriously the findings and recommendations of policy analysts and education professionals?

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