Newsletter #101     Joint Mathematics Meetings 2003 [AWM]

Yet again I offer a preview -- here follows the education column for the upcoming AWM Newsletter. It's copied in from Word, but I have attempted to do it in such a way as to avoid the upside down Q's and random ~'s that have previously invaded these efforts.

The Joint Mathematics Meetings of 2003

One of the recurring risks in making observations is that of attributing increased frequency to some occurrence when the only actual change is one's own increased consciousness. (Suddenly everybody is scratching their left ear when they think about derivatives…) Fearing this phenomenon, I made several independent checks before I accepted an observation I just made in Baltimore: this year's Joint Meetings had vastly more on issues of mathematics education at the K-12 level than ever before - more in the sense both of quantity and of variety. Furthermore some of the variations go way beyond commentary and seem to me to hold out exciting prospects for future developments. There was enough going on, in fact, so that I can't possibly give any kind of comprehensive report. All I can do is touch on some of what I saw in action, with a gentle wave at some of the other things I heard about or saw referred to. Before I launch into specifics, I think a little background is in order so as to explain my excitement. I became conscious of the importance and needs of elementary school teachers when I was fresh out of graduate school. A quirk of fate landed me the directorship of Seattle's branch of Project SEED, a project which takes university level mathematicians into inner city elementary classrooms to teach Algebra by a modified group discovery technique. Years later I took on my own university's courses in mathematics for future elementary school teachers, established communication with our College of Education and began a long process of learning about the field of education, the needs of teachers, and the very lively and somewhat controversial developments in the K-12 mathematics scene.

Predictably enough, the more I have learned, the more I have been conscious of not knowing. Also steadily increasing has been my awareness of a current deadly cycle: at every level, teachers bemoan the state of knowledge of the students arriving in their classrooms, and at every level they point an accusatory finger at the teachers from whose classrooms the students have just emerged (kindergarten teachers have to resort to pointing at society at large.). This will not be solved by any one tactic, but I have arrived at a strong opinion that an absolutely essential element in any solution is for mathematicians at universities to get involved with and provide support for K-12 teaching. What is not so clear is how to achieve that involvement and have it produce effective support. Setting aside (with pleasure) the folks who prefer to leave teaching of "those people" to "somebody we hire to take care of the situation," we have a multitude of intelligent, mathematically able and expert people who are willing, or would be if suitably addressed, to be helpful. The problem is that many are overwhelmed by the size and subtlety of the array of issues attached to K-12 education, and others, worse, are not even aware of them. I, in my turn, have been feeling decidedly overwhelmed by the size and subtlety of the issue of involving my colleagues.

This, then, is the slightly bleak frame of mind in which I arrived at the Joint Meetings. My first stop, as always, was at the MER (Mathematicians and Education Reform) special session, and as always I found a nice collection of talks planned. What was new to me this time was that I had to miss many of them, even ones on K-12 education, because the times overlapped other K-12 sessions. One, for instance, was the AWM Panel Discussion on Mathematics Educators and Mathematicians Working Together. It brought out beautifully the symmetry in the learning process: a top-flight mathematician has a huge amount to offer (as mathematicians we are not prone to doubting that) and also a huge amount to learn, and can greatly enjoy the learning process. The amount we have to learn was nicely reinforced immediately thereafter by an MER panel on the Mathematical Needs of Teachers. Most of us agree that increasing the sheer bulk of the advanced requirements is not helpful. That leaves open the question the panel took up: what is in fact helpful? 

That collection of talks was on Wednesday alone. Thursday and Friday provided a high-intensity panel apiece and Saturday a final lecture by Paul Sally in which he firmly espoused the notion that teaching mathematics from kindergarten through graduate school should be a single, seamless profession, and provided some of his ideas for making it one. Meanwhile, in the smaller rooms, a whole batch of the contributed paper sessions echoed many of the same themes. I'll give two examples from among the many: Michael Ward of Western Oregon University, in a talk entitled A Mathematician is Surprised by a Mathematics Educator: Student (Mis)use of Definitions, talked about how his understanding of student learning benefited from following up ideas from Barbara Edwards' Mathematics Education doctoral dissertation. In a simultaneous session, Sybilla Beckman of the University of Georgia presented a paper entitled In Search of Common Ground for Mathematicians and Mathematics Educators: Separating the NCTM Standards from Constructivism.

These, then, were the program offerings which struck me as such a rich educational blend. The event that caused my own raised consciousness (and hence suspicion about my observations) was a little different: I have just joined a committee about whose very existence I was embarrassingly ignorant, and I am much impressed by what it has done and delighted by what it plans to do. This is COMET, the MAA's Committee on Mathematical Education of Teachers. For a start, COMET was responsible for producing a volume which I have read with pleasure and given to a number of people, entitled (unastonishingly) The Mathematical Education of Teachers. In addition, it has already begun to address the issue about which I made plaintive comments above: the education of mathematicians who teach teachers. It has set up a series of week-long workshops entitled, as a program, Preparing Mathematicians to Educate Teachers. If all (chiefly the funding) goes well, the workshops will be starting up this summer.

Now COMET is turning to the issue of making mathematicians aware of the need for such preparation and its desirability. Plans are afoot for not only a session at next year's Joint Meetings but also a volume in the Foundations series. Of both you will, I fondly hope, be hearing more from me - in due course! It has been many years since anyone could reasonably give a comprehensive report on the Joint Meetings. Several years ago I was already struck by the impossibility of reporting comprehensively on issues of mathematics education at the Joint Meetings. With this year's meetings we have reached another level, which is definite cause for celebration: issues relating mathematicians and K-12 education at the Joint Meetings are now sufficiently abundant to elude comprehensive reporting.


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