Newsletter #63     AWM/MER talks at Joint Meetings

An attack of sanity has just struck, in the form of a realization that if I hold out for doing justice to the Joint Meetings I've just been to I shall run slap into the meeting of NSF co-PIs that I am hanging about the East Coast waiting for and either become muddled or else drastically overload a newsletter (or mayhaps both). So I shall skip over all sorts of enticing tidbits, like diversity issues and PFF news, and cut straight to the part that commanded my maximum focus. This is an especially attractive option since I have already written a report on it, and can cheat ever so slightly by re-cycling it. So herewith a preview of the AWM Newsletter's next Education Column: Repeating a successful event is always a risky venture. This year, once again, we took the risk and it paid off. For the third year, the AWM and the MER (Mathematicians and Educational Reform) co-sponsored a session at the January Joint Mathematics Meetings, and for the third year it was exciting and very well received. This year's session included four talks and a discussion period. Three of the talks were by invited speakers, and a powerhouse trio of guests they were. Their shared objective was to focus not on the difficulties besetting the teaching and learning of mathematics, but on what needs to be done about them, and what can be done, and some of the virtues and hazards of what is being done. Gail Burrill led off. She identifies herself as a high school teacher, an identity I enjoy promoting, since it puts her in admirable position to blow the mind of anyone inclined to discount high school teachers. It is a little unfair, though, since she is also past president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and currently head of the Mathematics and Science Education Board of the National Research Council. Her talk, entitled "Learning to Make a Difference", centered around the fact that in the midst of the overwhelming mass of changes going on around us, one to which we really must pay attention is that a lot has been learned about how people learn. This does not just apply at any one level. It applies at all of them, but at the university level we are being very slow to register it. A central issue is that you have to teach the students you actually have, recognizing that there is a significant difference in the way experts and novices approach learning -- and students are the novices. Sounds simple, until you think how basic a reflex it is to assume, with the very best of motives, that the most generous thing to offer students is whatever it is that one would most have profited from oneself. It's not all that many years since that was an acceptable model, because until recently it was generally agreed that academia's mission was to find the Good Students (i.e., those who were able to learn from us in the same way we had learned) and weed out the others. Society and social philosophy have now changed enough to make that model not merely outmoded, but immoral.

Our next guest was Bernice Sandler, best known to most of us for her book "The Chilly Classroom Climate for Girls and Women." She is now Scholar in Residence for the National Association for Women in Education. Like Gail, she took up a topic that applies at all levels and in many contexts. Like Gail, she drew her examples and specific issues from higher education, in Bernice's case especially from situations involving women in universities. "Mentoring: Myths and Realities, Dangers and Responsibilities," made many points. One was that what tends to be looked on as the ideal helpful set-up, in which a senior "expert" takes a novice under his (or occasionally her) wing to be helped, protected and strongly guided, has rather a lot of hazards both for the mentor and the mentee (for want of a suitable synonym). She certainly favors support -- lots of it -- but suggested a number of ways of broadening it, and pointed out some virtues to networking as well. She finished with a list of ten commandments for mentoring, many of which involved decreasing the asymmetry found in the canonical mentoring structure and increasing the consciousness that we are all in this together, and that we all have a lot to learn from one another. The concluding talk was by Shirley Malcom who, after some years as a program director for NSF, moved on to the AAAS some twenty years ago. She has since been on the National Science Board as chair of Education and Human Resources, and is now a co-PI of a Systemic Reform Initiative for Science and Math in the DC public schools. Given those credentials, it is not too surprising that Shirley's talk, "Rethinking K-12 Mathematics Education", took a systemic point of view. We in mathematics can, she said, take legitimate pride in the lead we took by producing our Curriculum Standards, and by putting a lot of thought into what students need to be learning and how they need to learn it, but we cannot for one moment afford to rest on our laurels. We have described a style and level of mathematics teaching from which children will benefit tremendously if it is done right -- but that is hardly a virtue unless we do something about enabling it to be done right. And the kind of teaching required makes enormously more demands of teachers than any that were previously made. That means that for the Curriculum Standards to have real meaning they need to be accompanied by Professional Standards, and those professional standards need to be backed up by massive changes in how we educate, or if necessary re-educate, and support teachers at all levels. That is a responsibility which lands squarely in the lap of university and college level mathematicians, though we are not going to make appreciable progress on it unless we have the support of society in general. A tall order, but one which must not be ignored. A session with four talks, I said, and then I described only three. That's because I gave the other one. My goals were precisely those of the other three, but my slant was sufficiently different so that I intend to take editorial privilege and reserve the content for some future column. Without apology, at that, because I'd say the words of our three guests provide us all with plenty to think about!

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