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It’s All About Context: What We Learned at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Conference

It’s All About Context: What We Learned at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Conference

Being an #EducatorFirst company requires that we surround ourselves with educators. When it comes to math teachers, specifically, there is no better opportunity to do this than at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Annual Meeting and Exposition. It is there that you will find yourself among many math teachers from around the world. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend this conference along with Edmentum’s two lead math curriculum developers. Last month, we set off to historic Washington, D.C., for an opportunity to immerse ourselves in all things math, in order to put our fingers on the pulse of current math ideas and trends.

Through each of our individual experiences, we were able to find common themes, namely the idea that context in math is critical. It isn’t enough to be able to learn isolated content—students must be able to apply this content in areas and through ideas that extend beyond the four walls of their classrooms. In other words, math should be relevant. Relevance can take on many forms, but essentially, we should be finding ways to move from words and numbers on a worksheet or computer screen to getting students thinking about how these ideas and concepts apply to the world around them.

Numerous presenters focused on relevance in the younger grades, specifically on modeling as a means of supporting fluency. Jacelyn Spicer, who is our K–5 lead on the math curriculum team, attended many of these sessions and noticed the inclusion of models in the fluency discussions. Models help students engage with content from the concrete to the abstract in all grades, not just in early elementary. Revisiting the same model over time and across different topics allows students to become familiar with how to build the model and apply it in a new context. It was interesting to consider the different kinds of models that are used in classrooms, including counting on fingers, using Play-Doh®, and looking at the number of swings on the playground.

We must find the most relevant model(s) that will be usable across time and topics. What really stood out was the push to use these relevant models to improve fluency. Fluency was repeatedly described as internalization rather than memorization, which allows students to extend math concepts to ideas that are more relatable to them. The focus was never on memorization of facts and figures but rather on the ability to internalize the concepts and incorporate mathematical concepts into daily routines. For instance, the practice of “the person who is sixth in line gets to be the door holder” not only gets students learning about ordinal numbers but also makes them feel OK if they’re not the first in line every time. What a great way of embedding both social-emotional development and modeling math concepts into daily routines!

Cultural relevance has long been a hot topic of discussion in academics, and this continued to be the case at the NCTM conference. Michael Brittain, our 6–12 math team lead, noted that many sessions were targeted at finding more tasks and problem-solving environments that were accessible to all learners, regardless of race, ability, or socioeconomic status. As a digital curriculum company, our products must be a coverall solution, as we are used in schools across the nation. Like many schools and districts, in an effort to be all-inclusive, we try not to differentiate among demographics.

At the conference, Michael noticed many speakers advocating for ways to incorporate multiculturalism into curriculum. The trick is to avoid over-stereotyping and to make sure that the content serves as informational yet doesn’t distract from the concept being taught. This allows us to reach the largest audience possible. We, as educators, have to be careful to not water down our content so much that it becomes less relevant and, therefore, less engaging. Cultural relevance when handled properly can be an effective tool that helps build connections and make our content more relevant and applicable to the surrounding world.  Michael sums this up nicely by saying that, over time, the primary source of “culture” in academics comes from character naming, but we can do more. We need to think about what experiences are relatable to different audiences. Students have the ability and curiosity to find context not just in their own lives but also in the lives of other students from all walks of life. We need to write curriculum that provides context for our students in this same manner.

This leads me to my concluding takeaway—we need to find math relevance in nontraditional environments. Michael noted that there is a push for media literacy in order to understand information that is presented and claims that are made. In classrooms, teachers are being encouraged to bring in real data and real claims that pertain to real issues. Teachers don’t mock up the information; instead, they present it in real time, allowing students to analyze the fallacy in claims made by popular organizations or to interpret data provided in news reports. What we accomplish by extending these ideas to actual real-world context is twofold. We not only accomplish the task at hand in that we are practicing with mathematical content, but we also are relating it to real-world situations, which provides added engagement and relevance. Current trends in careers, such as healthcare costs, environmental impacts, or sports statistics, could inform some of the context we choose in our problems. We should be looking for more authentic career contexts to get students thinking about how math would be useful outside of the classroom.

It is always great to step outside of our normal day-to-day activities and see what is happening in the world of education. It’s comforting to be reminded that educators’ focus continues to be the children. We may have different ideas and different approaches, but at the heart of it all, student success is the ultimate goal. It was refreshing and invigorating to be around those educators who are on the front line of this effort. The concept of making math meaningful and adding context to content is not new, but seeing the renewed push at the NCTM conference this year shows that it continues to be a priority.

Interested in learning more about the curriculum design process? Check out this recent blog post about how we design programs that put the educator first!