Newsletter #38     Baltimore to New Jersey by way of Honduras

For a newsletter about goings on around the UW math department this one is a little astray, since I plan to proceed from Baltimore to New Jersey by way of Honduras. Sometimes that's just the way it is!

Baltimore, of course, was the Joint Meetings. I found them downright inspiring, though more as a cumulative effect than from any one piece, so my descriptions may be a bit disjointed. To me, the most striking thing was just how much there was that was of interest to someone with a foot each in the math and math ed camps. My impression is that this has a lot to do with MER. Eight or nine years ago, when they first began running their workshops on Mathematicians and Educational Reform, they were in a state of some trepidation over whether they would manage to find forty mathematicians to attend each of them. After the entire first round of workshops filled up and had waiting lists, the message seemed clear: a lot of mathematicians really ARE interested in educational reform. So the AMS and the MAA decided to sponsor an MER special session at the Joint Meetings five (?) years ago. The session was packed. That has now expanded to four special sessions (two full days' worth). Furthermore, with evidence of the math community's expanded interests, other sessions also turned up, notably two on mathematics for Preservice Elementary School Teachers. In that vicinity, I had the great pleasure of seeing a couple of my hobby horses being elegantly ridden by other people. There was a meeting and a forum on the future of the NCTM Standards, both sponsored by the Association Review Groups who are working to clarify them (everyone seems a bit bemused by the acronym.) And there were invited addresses by Richard Riley (Secretary of Education), Gail Burrill (President of the NCTM) and Alan Schoenfeld (member of both mathematics and mathematics education departments at Berkeley, and enormously influential math ed researcher.) In all, a remarkably rich array.

So what did I get out of all that--aside from the difficulties of being more than two places at once? I'm still digesting, but a certain number of elements are coming into focus. One is how many issues the K-12 and university communities share. Technology, for instance: Deb Hughes-Hallet sounded a clear alarm about what will happen if we do not IMMEDIATELY start redesigning some of the mid-level courses around the knowledge that students do have, and can use, calculators with a huge amount of symbol manipulating capacity; Gail Burrill spoke feelingly of the disconcerting realization that after long years of high school teaching, she is suddenly on totally unfamiliar ground in dealing with the strengths and weaknesses of students who are highly able users of graphing calculators. Assessment also, though it's a little more of a stretch to connect the assessment of non-research faculty activities (subject of a joint session of MER and the American Women of Maathematics) and assessment of the state of knowledge of some third graders discussing even numbers in a videotape being jointly analysed by Deborah Ball (math education) and Hyman Bass (math). Another recurrent theme was more localized in the K-12 arena: curriculum reform is great, and having a large slice of the mathematical community take an interest in the revision of the Standards is excellent-- but unless we also take on the issue of seeing to it that the teachers in the classroom know enough mathematics, know it enough so that in the current buzz phrase they really own it, no amount of high-fallutin' theorization is going to have any real impact. The state of Virginia, for instance, has just passed legislation requiring that anyone applying for a teaching certificate have taken twelve credit hours of mathematics at the college level (likewise twelve each of science, social studies and English.) Golly!

And finally, a very much repeated note was that despite a certain level of acrimony achieved in a few recent printed exchanges, we are all in this together and a huge percentage of our goals are shared ones, and will be much the most likely to be achieved if we work together on them. I think the neatest version of that statement was a non-verbal one from Gail Burrill: a three stage cartoon starts with three mice, each facing a small door in the wall of a box which we, viewing the whole scene from above, can see to contain a large and complicated maze. Stage two shows the mice in a huddle. And in the third stage, one mouse supports on his shoulders a second mouse, who in turn supports the third mouse--who is looking down into the labyrinth and busily scribbling notes on a notepad. Yeah!

And now a brief excursion southward, not so much by way of a report as an invitation to help with a project. In a Christmas visit to my son, who is teaching in Honduras, I managed to get myself involved with El Maestro in Casa, which is a radio-based distance learning program designed to help the "campesinos"--Indians living in remote parts of the country-- get more than the fourth grade level of education the public school system accords them. The major thrust (to date the only thrust) has been adult education-- working largely with people who have emerged a number of years before from the school system, such as it is, and are now realizing their need for more education. But Sister Marta, the wonderful force behind the entire program, wants to reach further, with the feeling that there will be no real progress unless the children can be reached. She has lined up a fifteen or twenty minute radio spot every Friday afternoon and was pondering a little anxiously the issue of how it might be used. Whereupon the Warfield family, with the Lawrence Hall of Science's "Family Math" book firmly in hand, exclaimed firmly "Games!!" With the net result that we have undertaken to produce forty weeks' worth of family games--an enterprise in which we can definitely use some assistance. The constraints are that the games must be ones whose goals and rules can be communicated entirely verbally, whose play requires nothing more elaborate (or expensive) than paper, pencil and dried beans, and which do not require the presence of any player with an appreciable level of mathematical sophistication. They should have a fairly obvious (or else easily explainable) educational content. And they should be fun to play! Any games or references or sources will be quite extraordinarily welcome!

My last note is a sad one, because one of my heroes has died. Bob Davis seemed to me to have had a hand in every important educational movement within mathematics from the fifties on, and to have taken a lively interest in every one of them. The ones I know for sure are the Madison Project in Wisconsin, then Project SEED at its origins in Berkeley, then all the wonderful doings of the Rutgers group, starting a number of years ago and still very much in full swing--but I guarantee they are just the tip of the iceberg. He had warmth and wisdom and intelligence and a huge concern for mathematics and those who want and need to learn it. He died in his sleep of heart failure a few days before Christmas, leaving a completely unfillable gap.

[Back to index]