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Math = Power! Takeaways from NCTM 2017

By Anu Jokinen, Math Enthusiast

A visit to San Antonio, TX

San Antonio in April with 70-degree weather. This past month, over 7,000 educators from across the country converged in one place to learn new ways to get students excited about mathematics. Life could not have been better!

From April 5–8, I had the pleasure of attending my seventh National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) conference in San Antonio, TX. NCTM is my absolute favorite conference because, every year, I come back even more inspired and motivated to help students discover the joys that stem from mathematics. As usual, the conference organizers put together a substantial lineup of amazing speakers. As I reviewed the program schedule, I agonized over which sessions to attend. How can I be at all of them? There were so many math rock stars, such as Jo Boaler, Dan Meyer, Peg Smith, John Urschel, and Dylan Wiliam. I ended up taking Dan Meyer’s advice to “sleep when you’re dead” and attended his session, which started promptly at 8 a.m. on Saturday morning. I was reminded of his statement, “Math is power!” all day long.

From the NFL to a PhD

One of the most anticipated sessions was by John Urschel, an offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens AND a PhD candidate in mathematics at MIT. As a child, his mom “tricked” him into doing worksheets and puzzles. Math became something he not only loved but also needed to do. It taught him to be resilient and flexible and to make better decisions. (To learn more about another well-known athlete/mathematician, check out my interview with Olympic gold medalist Maya DiRado from this past fall.)

I found the Q&A after John’s presentation particularly interesting. One educator brought up the fact that there are very few African Americans with PhDs. John mentioned, “You don’t see mathematicians that look like me.” He wanted to focus on inspiring all children to become mathematicians, and he encouraged educators in the room to find specific examples of people who have done amazing things in math. (To get started, check out our free eBook.) Another educator asked him, “What do you say to those who hate puzzles?” He replied that life is nothing but puzzles and challenges. If you don’t like them, you should at least be trained in solving them.

Problem or puzzle?

Speaking of puzzles, I attended the ever-comical Edward Burger’s session on thinking and creative puzzle-solving. He challenged us to stop referring to “math problems” as such because they are truly puzzles. Besides, what child loves problems? There aren’t English problems or social studies problems. Here are some more of his great insights:

  • If you ask someone, “Do you understand ___?”, what goes in the blank doesn’t really matter because it is never a simple yes or no. Instead, Burger talks about understanding as a spectrum. We’re all at different levels of understanding of different things, but you can always acquire a deeper understanding of something. It is important to understand the simple things deeply because it will open worlds.

  • The power of effective failure is when you fail and do not leave it until new insights have been revealed.

  • There is no greater teacher than one’s own mistakes.

A case for making mistakes

Dylan Wiliam, one of the foremost experts in formative assessments, explained why formative assessments should be a priority for every school. “You remember things better when you get things wrong.” Mistakes should be celebrated! But we shouldn’t just leave them alone. It is our role as educators to guide students to correct their mistakes so they can move deeper into the spectrum of understanding. He also recommended that when we conduct formative assessments, we do not need to record every item. This makes a more favorable environment for students to make mistakes and learn from them.

It’s the task that matters

When I saw Peg Smith, the guru of mathematical discourse, at the author’s presentation area in the Exhibit Hall, I gave her a big hug. Last year, I wrote about my experience trying to get into a Peg Smith session. Her session was so full that my only option was to hear her nuggets of wisdom through the doorway. She advised educators to be very clear about what they want their students to learn about mathematics (slope is not a goal!) and that mathematical discussions need to be based on high-level, cognitively demanding tasks. If you want to learn more from Peg, I had the pleasure of partnering with her on a webinar project about mathematical discourse. You can access a free recording of the webinar here.

Share your NCTM experience with us!

Did you attend NCTM? What other great sessions did I miss? What were your key takeaways? Let us know in the comments below!

P.S. If you’re looking to attend your first NCTM conference, check out the grants NCTM is offering to participate in next year’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

Looking to harness the power of math? See how Renaissance Accelerated Math® can help.

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. P R says:

    I was not able to attend. However, I would have liked to have attended two of the sessions discussed in the article. The first would be Peg Smith’s session on Mathematical Discourse. I think students need to think about and articulate what they are doing to solve any mathematical problem or activity. The second would be John Urshel’s session. This would be a great way to show students a true real world connection to math and a spectator sport.

    • Anu Jokinen, Math Enthusiast Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & Renaissance MathFacts in a Flash says:

      You can actually get a “front row” seat to one of Peg Smith’s talks on mathematical discourse! Click here to access a free webinar where Peg talks about four key strategies that can help you facilitate more mathematical discourse in your classroom –

      During the Q&A session with John Urschel, an educator asked how she could get John to come visit her school. John said that he loves visiting schools and that he feels “at home” when he gets to be in a math classroom with students. Whenever he travels, he does try to include a visit to a local school to his schedule. I would recommend contacting him via Twitter (@JohnCUrschel) to see if he would come out and talk with your students in person!

  2. Dvawn Maza says:

    Very interesting perspectives!!!

  3. Jody says:

    Math is so empowering for kids when they can make connections to the everyday world around them.

  4. carly says:

    I would have LOVED “Problems or Puzzles.” It explains the approach I take with my 3rd grade students. One of my favorite resources is a game called, “Dragon Box.” I highly recommend it for getting students to buy into algebra. Instead of dully trying to solve for X, students try to get the box alone. Eventually pictures are replaced with numbers and letters. I would project the game on my iPad. Many students begged to have time for during their recess. They didn’t see it as math because it was so much fun. The more I can show students that math is a puzzle in the form of solving a pattern or solving some other equation, the more student buy in I receive.

  5. Kelly Barr says:

    I lived every single minute of NCTM this year. I presented for the first time at the annual meeting as well. I enjoyed sessions on technology in the math classroom and coaching novice math teachers. I can not wait to attend again next year and will hopefully have the opportunity to present again next year.

    • Anu Jokinen, Math Enthusiast Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & Renaissance MathFacts in a Flash says:

      I did, too! That’s wonderful that you were able to present at this year’s event! I am so bummed I missed your session, Kelly. Please keep us posted about your plans for next year. I will be sure to attend your presentation in D.C.!

  6. Ami K. Edwards says:

    Very interesting!

  7. Renee Graham says:

    There is no greater teacher than one’s own mistakes. Profound!

  8. David Keech says:

    I was unable to attend NCTM, but want to attend next year to both attend sessions and present a session. The session that Anu shares that I most would have wanted to attend would have been John Urschel’s. My question for Mr. Urschel would have been how he thinks athletics and mathematics could best be grown together. Exploring how sports involvement can best enhance mathematical achievement is something I enjoy analyzing and would like to hear Mr. Urschel’s thoughts.

    • Anu Jokinen, Math Enthusiast Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & Renaissance MathFacts in a Flash says:

      Hi, David! I do hope you will be able to attend and present at next year’s event! We love hearing about all the amazing things you are doing at Wisconsin Rapids Area Middle School. Ooh! That’s a great question! What if you asked John directly via his Twitter handle, @JohnCUrschel? Please let us know what he says!

      For those of you wanting to hear more about the success David is experiencing at his school, check out his story here —

  9. Rita Platt says:

    I would have loved to see the session by the PhD candidate (I want to know how his mama tricked him into doing math so I can trick my kids!) I also would have been interested in the one that focused on harnessing the learning power of mistakes. It reminds me of a strategy called, “My Favorite No.”

  10. Meredith Sanders says:

    I was not able to attend.

  11. Nicole Erwin says:

    Very interesting! I didn’t get to attend the conferene

  12. Alecia Walkuski says:

    I was not able to attend, but I think I would have liked the “ever-comical Edward Burger’s session on thinking and creative puzzle-solving.” I struggle with math, especially pre-calculus, and I think I would have liked that perspective.

  13. Veronica McQueary says:

    Wow! An NFL star with a PHd.!

  14. Lloyd Goldberg says:

    Yes mistakes create learning! And not all formatives need to be graded. Feedback is key.

  15. Jenn says:

    I would love to attend this conference one day! The Problems and Puzzles session sounds like a real winner!

  16. Carol says:

    Math seems to be difficult for some students. Having them connect to real world, daily, interesting topics should make it easier for them to understand.

  17. Heidi says:

    I did not attend, but I think I would have liked Problem or Puzzle.

  18. Lisa Capon says:

    Interesting view

  19. Heather De Ronde says:

    I did not attend, although Dr. Urschel’s presentations sounds very engaging and inspiring!

  20. Liz Quezada says:

    Reading has always been my favorite subject to teach, but I started math centers this year and now I LOVE teaching math! I found these perspectives enlightening!

  21. Sheila Shaffer says:

    I like the idea of “math puzzles” vs. problems. Why is it that so much in math is taught so differently than the other subjects? Let’s look to collaboration and discussion as a way to get more students hooked! I’ve always told students I see “maths” (as they say in other parts of the world) as one big puzzle and each year, more pieces are revealed!

  22. Kelsie says:

    I could not attend but it sounds like it was a great event!

  23. Denisse Ochoa says:

    I was not able to attend, but sounds interesting!

  24. Allison says:

    I find the idea of puzzles instead of problems intriguing. I agree that life is essentially a series of things you need to figure out. If we address these challenges as a puzzle, rather than a problem, there is a more positive mind set in place as well as an imperative to keep trying until you find the solution.