Newsletter 111     Lani Horn's Brown Bag and a talk on PIMS

This has been one of those days of carrying my head around very gently lest information slosh out. I will now tip it gently towards the keyboard and hope an appropriate portion of what got poured in in the course of the day will emerge.

The first set of things I want to say comes from today's Brown Bag, which got the year's gatherings off to a lovely start. Our guest was Lani Horn, who is the new kid on the block in the College of Education. She specializes in secondary mathematics education. Since that has been a complete blank in Miller Hall for a couple of years, thanks to some departures and some hiring complications, her arrival would have been welcome almost whoever she was. On top of that, the more she talked, the more it became clear that she will be a wonderful plank in the bridge we have been building for a number of years between mathematics and mathematics education. Her credentials (in the sense of pieces of background whose strength and pertinence are recognizable from our side of the field) include a math major at Swarthmore, heavy involvement early on in the Math Forum there and in an early version of PCMI, and a doctorate under Alan Schoenfeld. But it wasn't her background that made her convincing, it was what she said. Her dissertation research, for instance: after several years as a high school math teacher she became painfully aware that a teacher attempting to put into action some of the research-based reform ideas on teaching can find herself swimming upstream in a highly non-supportive system. So she wound up studying two schools, one of them undertaking sweeping reforms from the top down and hoping they would trickle into the math classrooms, and one working equally vigorously from the classroom out. I have it on outside authority that the resulting thesis is a very good and valuable read, and she's promised it to me on a CD, so you might even get a book report later on. I can't give that now, though. I can't even say much about the conversation that followed her description of her background, except that it touched many aspects of what is going on in K-12 schools, of what could go on, of what the hazards are in school reform, and of what some of the good news is (a major thing to keep in mind being that there is some.) I can also give one very specific reference. She had mentioned several times the existence of research-based literature supporting the ideas at the base of current reform, and I finally asked if there were one accessible, trustable, readable example of such literature. She promptly whipped out a book she is having her secondary teaching students read, and recommended it strongly. It describes a careful longitudinal study made in England comparing two schools, one fiercely traditional, the other making heavy use of a relatively extreme set of reform notions, most notably teaching with large scale open-ended projects. The standardized test results of the latter were quite strong (always pleasant), but much more to the point, the author looked into questions like ability to transfer knowledge to situations outside of the classroom, and attitude towards mathematics, and self-confidence in mathematics. All in one slim paperback. So here is that reference: Jo Boaler, Experiencing School Mathematics, Traditional and Reform Approaches to Teaching and their Impact on Student Learning. It is published by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, and the version Lani showed us was the one revised in 2002.

As a follow-up suggestion she mentioned Stigler and Hiebert's The Teaching Gap, Best Ideas from the World's Teachers for Improving Education in the Classroom, put out by the Free Press, which is a division of Simon and Schuster. I can testify that that one is highly readable.

An hour after that conversation ended I joined a flock of my colleagues converging on Guggenheim Hall to hear Ivar Ekeland talk about PIMS, of which he is the very new director. PIMS is the Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences. It is based in Canada, but UW is (I think I've got the terminology right) now an associate and working on becoming a member. Its major thrust is supporting mathematics research, which would make it an odd item for this newsletter except for two things. One is their expressly articulated and strongly acted on philosophy that one major element of supporting the mathematical sciences is supporting mathematics education from the ground up. They have a number of neat projects, one of which I am busily engaged in attempting to imitate, and on others of which I have fixed my beady eye. The other thing is also philosophical: one of Ekeland's repeated themes was that of community. PIMS exists as a community of like-minded universities, and holds strongly to that identity, Furthermore one of the major formats of its support for research is to encourage the development of communities of researchers and enable them to communicate and collaborate. They have some very attractive strategies for that.

Education and Community -- that's one organization that has just lined up my undying support!

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