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.


  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.

    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?

  6. Rusty Anderson

    May 9, 2017 - 8:17 am -

    Like Dan, I have many more questions than answers! The message about what “good math instruction” is has not changed much in the past 20 years. Why, then, are we not further along in providing equal access to great mathematics classrooms for every student in the United States? Obviously, there are obstacles that are holding us back in reaching the mathematics classrooms that many twitter mathemagicians describe (@gfletchy, @MathMinds, @TracyZager, @deborah_ball, @steve_leinwand, @MrsNewell22 ‏, @kassiaowedekind, and @joboaler to name a few).

    I reflect on these obstacles regularly and offer some thoughts (or more questions) about how organizations might attack them in 10 years for every educator, not a small subset of educators who attend a conference.

    Some obstacles that might currently be present and what organizations could do to impact the future …

    Fly By – A conference or one time professional learning does not translate to implementation at the district, school, or classroom level (only about 5% of the time). I am not advocating to stop the conference! I recently attended NCSM and left with energy, knowledge, and connections which I feel I could only get face-to-face. Conferences offer something and that “something” feels different than what I get from the connections and learning on social media.

    Impact in 10 – We must begin to think about continual support. Organizations can not simply offer one time conferences and believe that they are making a true difference for ALL students (many offer much more). I love that #ShadowCon17 is followed up by support via an online experience to provide support as educators begin to implement new learning. With this in mind, how might organizations begin to make continual support a part of the conference and beyond? Conference planning committees should be asking themselves about how they plan to support the learning after the conference. This does not have to be placing the board of the organization in the classroom, but might be an advocacy stance at the local, regional, or state level to push for math coaches/specialists in school buildings.

    Resources pt. 1 – By resources I am speaking to time and money. I wonder if we are focusing our time and money to support teachers in acquiring the knowledge and then, more importantly, supporting them in implementation. Teaching mathematics in a discourse centered classroom (Dialogic Instruction) where students are able to be mathematicians (Student-Centered) is not easy. It is HARD work that takes a village! This hard work is worth the effort, but still hard. In order for this to happen, teachers need time to collaborate and this takes time and money.

    Impact in 10 – Advocacy. This is already happening and I wonder how to enhance the effectiveness of it. We live in a society where mathematics falls in behind reading/writing. Maybe rightfully so, but I will say that we have some work to be done to close the gap in schools on the amount of focus (time and money) that currently exists between ELA and mathematics. Again, I do not have the answer but do believe that the gap must narrow. A resource that was shared in an #NCSM17 Ignite speech by @CindyCliche1 really highlighted the fact that we, as a society, might not want to be so unbalanced in our focus (here).

    Resources pt. 2 – The curriculum resource is a challenge for many. Going to a conference/website and acquiring new techniques/strategies is fantastic but as we go back to the classroom, integrating these can be very challenging. When educators get back to their classroom, they are left to make this “new math classroom” take shape with their current resource. Many teachers have a resource that does not lend itself to creativity/flexibility and these challenges can be overwhelming. Along with this, district leaders have expectations for curriculum so that each and every student has the same equitable experience in mathematics. A coherent system is not one where each teacher find a new strategy/practice at a conference/internet and implements it into the classroom. How might we push equitable mathematics education for all?

    Impact in 10 – Organizations must continue to push educators to stay on the cutting edge of the work. The challenge we face is how to support educators in implementing the new content with their current curricular resource while keeping the coherence for students as they progress vertically through the grades. This is a huge challenge and I am not yet sure what an answer might be.

    Knowledge – I wonder what portion of preservice and active teachers are on the “cutting edge” of what a mathematics environment should look and sound like. (I know, if everyone is on the “cutting edge” it is no longer cutting edge.) It is my hunch that, for the whole, exposure has yet to happen and/or educators might not yet believe this type of mathematics classroom is the right thing to do. This is not at all a jab at our group, it is simply saying that we as a whole are not yet there with current research in pedagogy and content progressions.

    Impact in 10 – We must continue to reach those who are currently a part of the “cutting edge” (regular professional learning seekers) and intentionally invite them to share with those who are not a part of the conversation. This is an advocacy issue and we must advocate for what is right. Our message must get beyond social media and in the hands of those who are not “connected”! I loved Dan’s quote from #ShadowCon17 “What happens at NCTM should NOT stay at NCTM”. With this in mind, how might organizations force the content to a wider range of educators? What about those who are not on social media, not attending the conference, not getting the eblast? What about those who are not thirsty for continual growth? We know that the current amount of teachers receiving and acting on the message is not enough. It is up to the organizations to have a mission to extend beyond the membership.

    As I continue to reflect, my thoughts continue to evolve … :-)

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