Newsletter #103     Tucson Conference:Mathematics Education and Mathematics in the 21st Century

Those of you that are on my Brown Bag invitation list will be expecting to hear about Andy diSessa's Brown Bag last week. Well, I can report, but at second hand, that with Jim King and Judith Arms as co-hosts the discussion with Andy was lively and well attended and could have gone on for considerably longer than it did.

Those of you that know I had registered for the Washington Center conference on educational equity at North Seattle Community College last week will be expecting to hear about the keynote speech by Bob Moses. Well, I can report, but at second hand, that his speech was indeed inspiring, and that there were some very interesting discussion groups as further parts of the conference.

So how would you like to hear about a conference in Tucson? If you want a first hand report, that's your only option. The conference was entitled (take a deep breath) Mathematics Education and Mathematics in the 21st Century: The Roles of Outreach, Teacher Preparation, and Research in Teaching and Learning in a University Mathematics Department. This is right up my alley, of course, but at first glance I didn't think I'd go. Not because I know all there is to know (ridiculous thought) but because I know all that I am able single-handedly to do anything about. Then I found out that the idea was for the conference to be attended in teams, and that Selim Tuncel (our chair) and Loyce Adams (Applied Math professor and PI of a highly impressive outreach project) would be going, too. My intentions did an instant 180 degree turn. It was a good decision: not only were the talks and panel discussions not the ones I would have heard if the conference had not been directed to teams with highly varied members, but I heard them with different ears knowing we might well be discussing them.

The basic outline of the conference was a sequence of plenary sessions in which someone would present an exemplary case of each of the roles in question, followed by a panel, sometimes with more examples, sometimes with comments, and then by questions. Thursday evening's got us off to a high-powered start with a talk by John Dossey of Illinois State University in which he described a mind-bogglingly impressive course of teacher preparation which he as developed and nurtured over the years. Many credits' worth of mathematics, carefully geared to meet the needs of each of the teaching levels. The one thing I didn't get was whether they actually managed to get state requirements that these courses be taught, or whether they managed to hang onto them without that requirement. It's precisely the issue that WaToToM launched itself into two weeks before, so I clearly need to chase down some details. Didn't do it that night -- I was too busy saying "gosh!"

Friday morning began with a talk that I knew would charm my teammates, and indeed it did (also me!) The speakers were Deborah Ball and Hyman Bass, who occupy a well-earned position as the poster children for collaboration between mathematicians and mathematics education researchers. In effect, they addressed the two responses by mathematicians that most commonly provide an obstacle to collaboration: "What do I have to offer? All my training is in abstract, advanced stuff," and "I really don't want to risk boredom by taking on something without enough intellectual challenge." They honed both questions down (and phrased them far more politicly!), then gave a bunch of examples. The two that stick in my mind were some quotations from a discussion centered around constructing a test to be required of teachers for elementary certification -- some nice test items resulted -- and a wonderful film clip from Deborah's third grade class a few years ago in which students were maintaining a highly animated discussion about the sum of 6 and -6 (it was the bright-eyed little girl that held out for an answer of 9 that had us all enthralled!) The point at issue there was that this highly articulate bunch of kids had a blend of correct and incorrect ideas, and sorting through the ideas and balancing them out is a highly non-trivial intellectual pursuit.

I will add here another example of collaboration, even though it actually came up in a later session: a young woman who has just completed her doctorate in mathematics education at the University of Arizona is now at the University of Texas. Shortly after she got there, she got a phone call from Michael Starbird in the mathematics department asking if she could help them with some research. It seems they were setting things up to run a course with a couple of sections taught by the Moore method and a couple not and they wanted to compare the impact on students' level of mathematical autonomy. She hadn't heard of the Moore method and was struck by some clearly massive gaps in the mathematician's knowledge about educational research. She went to the meeting feeling highly dubious -- and emerged with a research topic which fitted directly onto her previous work, and with the huge gratitude of the mathematicians, who needed precisely the knowledge of how to set up and run a valid experiment that her background gave her.

Friday afternoon's talk was on exemplars of outreach, a subject on which I am harder to impress owing to the large amount going on around here. Friday evening we had a brief after-dinner talk sketching the career and accomplishments of Stephen Willoughby, in honor of whose retirement the conference was being held. Enormously impressive, of course (he did, after all, inspire the conference!) One particularly major accomplishment was at the heart of the next day's final plenary talk, so I will blend them. The plenary talk in question was given by Bill McCallum, whose topic was Promoting Work in Education in Mathematics Department. His thesis was that there is a lot of really crucial work being done which falls nowhere in the normal categories of teaching, research and service. This work, he feels, should be regarded as part of the professional practice of the field of mathematics, and mathematicians need to have a way to evaluate it. And that is precisely what Willoughby supplied Arizona with. When he arrived in the late 80's and found two excellent mathematics education colleagues accepting that their natural rank was Associate Professor, he went into high gear and produced a document entitled Procedures for Evaluation of Faculty Members Who Play a Substantial Role in Pre-College Mathematics and Science Education, which was adopted by the Faculty of Science in summer of '92. It doesn't replace any of the standard promotion and tenure procedures, but instead sets up a committee which goes into action exclusively in the cases where a faculty member and the head of department have agreed that a non-zero portion of the faculty member's time and responsibility will be devoted to pre-college mathematics or science education. The committee has specific and clear directions for soliciting evaluations from inside and outside referees and making use of them. It has proved to be a highly effective system. The only thing not well thought out is the title of the committee: Science Education Promotion and Tenure Committee. Check the acronym.

The tale was rounded out by one final anecdote from Steve Willoughby himself: after hurling himself into this effort and getting it all put together and passed, he watched with pleasure while the case of one of the colleagues aforementioned came up, was handled by the new procedures and sailed through to promotion status. No problem at all. Then came a letter from the dean to the professor in question, expressing his regrets that no promotion had been granted. With his blood pressure somewhere off the charts, Steve strode off to a phone and reached the dean. "What's with this letter?" "What's wrong with it, I told him he was promoted." "No, you didn't -- here, let me read it to you." A brief pause, and the dean asked him to hold the line. There came the sound of distant conversation, and then a highly subdued dean returned to the phone. It seems his brand new secretary had completely reversed the lists for letters of promotion and non-promotion. And you thought you had had embarrassing phone calls to make! --


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