Last Thursday my colleague Andres Marti and I were invited to present at the Middle Grades Math: Why Algebra Matters & How Technology Can Help conference at Stanford University. It was a meeting of policy wonks, Silicon Valley movers and shakers, educational researchers, administrators, and even some real live classroom teachers. We did five-minute demonstrations of TinkerPlots and Sketchpad as part of the Digital Tools portion of the day. Even though we’ve both done many presentations of Key software, presenting in front of 400 people and professional video cameras was a bit nerve-wracking!
The theme that emerged during the day was that the current nexus of rapid technological change, constraints on education funding, and the adoption of common standards is creating the opportunity for a disruptive change in education. There seemed to be agreement on this dynamic, but plenty of disagreement on where it should lead us.
The first keynote speaker at the conference was Ted Mitchell, from the NewSchools Venture Fund, a non-profit that funds educational initiatives. He spoke of funding innovations that improve effectiveness within our current educational system, as well as innovations that challenge our current system. He also espoused the view, shared by California policy makers, that most 9th graders should take geometry or algebra 2 rather than algebra 1.
Phil Daro offered a different perspective, arguing that topics from middle school mathematics, such as rates, proportional reasoning, interpreting graphs, and measurement, are the most important mathematical concepts for people who aren’t going into STEM careers. He asked, “Why are we spending less time on the most important mathematics?”
Daro also noted that in high-achieving countries like Finland and Singapore, standards and student performance are closely aligned. If many students are failing to meet a standard, then perhaps that standard should be taught at a higher grade level. Check out the Silicon Valley Education Foundation’s blog for a continuation of the ongoing debate over mandating algebra 1 for eighth graders.
My favorite talk of the day was the Keynote by Jeremy Roschelle. He emphasized the importance of using technology in collaborative ways, not just for the hyper-individualized learning that seems in vogue these days. He noted that educational research doesn’t support the notion that a particular representation (verbal, visual, etc.) can be matched to a student’s “learning style”; rather, it’s important that students make connections among representations. Finally, he emphasized that technology, curriculum, and professional development must be integrated to be effective.
One thing I’m puzzling over: Women are well-represented in leadership roles in the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics, and the California Math Council. And Stanford University, the host of the conference, has leaders such as Jo Boaler in mathematics education research and Linda Darling-Hammond in the policy realm. So I don’t know what to make of the fact that all of the keynote speakers, all of the moderators, and nearly all of the panelists were men. To bring it full circle, here’s my exploration of the conference speaker data using TinkerPlots.