Newsletter #5     MER Conference

I just got back from a conference at which I wound up having a lot of my positive feelings about the state of our world out here confirmed, so in a general Thanksgiving spirit, I thought I'd spread the smugness around some (not that I intend to stop pushing for yet more progress!)

The conference in question was an MER (Mathematicians and Educational Reform) Workshop on Teacher Preparation. It had a number of recurrent themes:

1) Mathematicians and mathematics educators need to begin to start trying to communicate with each other. Given that I was there as a team with Swapna Mukhopadhyay with whom, thanks to my being loaned out by the department, I am team-teaching the math sequence in the College of Education's re-designed teacher preparation program, that theme provided me with a fistful of brownie points right off the bat. Then I added a few more by casually referring to our well-attended joint colloquia.

2) Courses for future teachers need to model the kind of teaching we want them to be doing. Check out 170, 171, 444 or 445. They're all different--in fact, different from quarter to quarter--but all very much modelled for teachers.

3) Mathematics departments need to give some mathematical support to in-service teachers, whose locked-in teaching schedule precludes their ever having a chance to revive their math-learning skills by taking more courses. That's why the department voted in Math 497, being taught each quarter this year from (gulp!) 4:30 to 6:50 on Thursday evenings. Jim King's doing geometry this quarter, I'm doing probability in winter and Ramesh is doing modelling theory in spring.

4) Mathematics departments need to take a visible interest in their own teaching mission. Like for instance undertaking a serious calculus reform, or sitting around on an occasional Thursday noon batting around somebody's nutty ideas about teaching and learning, or...

All this and I hadn't even gotten to the PFF. I got so smug, in fact, that on the last day I took on a challenge. All through the conference there had been sporadic mention of "Remedial Courses", spoken in tones of loathing, and with an explicit invitation to drop that horrendous term, because we all know that what it stands for is courses where math departments take the same material students have already failed at, try to ram it down their throats in the exact same way it was rammed before, and produce a repetition of the same failure. Finally I stood up and announced that I felt the need to take on a semantic rescue job. At UW we have a pair of courses(100/102) designed for students who have been admitted with an officially designated math deficiency. The courses are taught by group discovery, not by the methods that caused the deficiency, and they are in the main pretty successful--an appreciable percentage of our students eventually take degrees requiring one form or the other of calculus. That means their deficiency has been remedied-- i.e., we have a successful remedial course. The silence when I sat down was rather bristly. I think I have just been demoted to PC-minus.

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