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NCTM 2016: Insights from the year’s premier math event

By Anu Jokinen, Math Enthusiast

Earlier this month, I attended the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) conference in San Francisco with nearly 9,000 math educators. At a math conference, you would expect the emphasis to be on numbers, but in many ways, NCTM 2016 was all about words.

It is more about the process—not the correct answer. This new shift is happening in large part because of NCTM’s 2014 pioneering publication Principles to Actions: Ensuring Mathematical Success for All. The book lists specific teaching practices that are necessary for providing high-quality math education for all students. These guidelines were spotlighted at many of the conference sessions, especially those surrounding the mathematical teaching practices of facilitating meaningful mathematical discourse, supporting productive struggle, and posing purposeful questions.

Here are some of my key takeaways from the conference:

Talking about math

It is a way of inviting people to the “math party,” especially those who feel as if math is not for them. Discussions help students understand the problem and the math principles as relationships within the problem. Also, it is helpful for students to hear the various ways their peers are approaching a solution to a problem.

Two methods

So, how do we start a math conversation? A great way is to ask students what they notice and wonder about a math problem.

  • Discussion can reduce students’ anxiety and slow them down so they can connect others’ ideas to their own thinking. Everyone has something they notice or wonder about!

  • Give high and low boundaries to solve the problem to prevent students from giving up.

  • Most importantly, allow the students to voice their own discoveries about the methods of solving the problem. Try to keep yourself from giving away answers students should bring up on their own.

Another fun activity is to present a group of four shapes, graphs, or numbers and ask students which one doesn’t belong and why.

  • You and your students will discover that there are many different ways of selecting the one that doesn’t belong.

  • Students discuss process of elimination, and how there can be more than one way to solve a problem.

  • This creates a safe space for students to make mistakes and share thoughts without the pressure to solve a problem quickly.

Session is full!

The desire to learn how to get students talking about their mathematical thinking was evident throughout the conference, including at Peg Smith’s session about purposeful questions and meaningful discourse. As I arrived, there was a line out the door—I couldn’t believe it! I was in awe—over 200 people eager to make math social. The conference volunteers were kind enough to keep the doors open so a group of us could listen and snap photos of the slides through the doorway.

Struggle can be a good thing

For many teachers and their students, it is liberating to realize teaching math and doing math are not solely about getting the right answers—they’re about the process as well. It’s time to move away from spoon-feeding our students. It’s not necessary to tell them everything before they solve a problem. When students are given enough time to struggle with difficult problems, it helps generate a growth mindset where they see effort as a path to mastery.

The benefits of arguing

The rock star of the conference, Dan Meyer (the line into his session twisted and turned into the hallway 30 minutes prior to his presentation), left us inspired to change math classrooms for the better. He said that simply putting math in a real world context doesn’t make it engaging—it must be relatable. If you can ask questions and argue about it, then it’s in your real world. So, let’s start a math fight! It’s healthy to have students argue about math by modeling respectful debate—to take a look at Meyer’s complete NCTM 2016 talk, click here.

What is it that you notice about math? What is it that you wonder about? Let’s continue the conversation—we can even have an argument or two! Chat with us on Twitter at @AcceleratedMath and be sure to use the #DemystifyMath hashtag. Also, check out our short Demystify Math video:

Anu Jokinen, Math Enthusiast
Anu Jokinen, Math Enthusiast
Anu has always been passionate about helping students reach their potential in math—first as an Algebra I tutor for peers during high school and then later as the Director of Education at Sylvan Learning Center. In addition to her work at Renaissance, she has worked with nonprofit organizations to improve the learning environments of students in need.


  1. Judy Chase-Marshall says:

    Thanks for the post. Your article has given me some wonderful ideas as to create a spark that will lead to more purposeful questioning and discussions in my math class. I am in the beginning stages of facilitating Math talks with my students so thanks again for sharing your NCTM experience with us.

    • Anu Jokinen, Math Enthusiast Anu Jokinen says:

      Judy, thank you for reading. I’m glad you found the blog helpful, and be sure to keep in touch with what’s working for you when it comes to facilitating math discussions and questions!

  2. Sally Mundell ----LIBRARIAN says:

    Was just in ORfor a week visit with grandsons & family…..counted 3 bears at the Zoo and a multitude of other animals as well! Thought of you and the encouragingh assistance you are sharing with folks….esp as we drove the Columbia Gorge – The Dalles area from & back to Hermiston. We visited the OMSI in Portland!
    Thrilled to see your Blog this morning….read it with interest and will forward it to our Math Coordinator at Kurn Hattin Homes.
    Keep on having interesting weeks! Sally

  3. Anu Jokinen, Math Enthusiast Anu Jokinen says:

    Sally, it’s great to hear from you — and glad you’re “seeing math” at the Zoo and in other places throughout the Northwest! Thank you for all of the great work you’ve done and for forwarding this piece to your colleague. I hope our paths cross soon! ~ Anu