Colleagues 2.0: The MathTwitterBlogoSphere and Mathematics Teachers’ Professional Learning

Submitted by Lani Horn (@tchmathculture) for the 2014 NCTM Research Session

This is a complex moment to be a mathematics teacher. Not only are teachers pressed to bring more challenging content to a broader range of learners, their success is under ever more scrutiny since mathematics is a frequently tested subject. At the same time, new and more ubiquitous technologies question the very notion of mathematical competence, raising fundamental questions about teaching and learning. What, for example, is the role of teaching procedural fluency when many children have sophisticated calculators in their pockets? Compounding all of this are cultural shifts to de-professionalize teaching, making the support of professional community all the more urgent.

To be effective in this environment, the most ambitious teachers need to do more than simply collect and cull curricular resources. They also strive to innovate to meet students’ needs, keep tabs on new technology, track educational research, monitor policy discussions that affect them –– all while teaching their full load of classes under these increased demands. The Internet can be a useful but often overwhelming resource for this task, and, increasingly, many teachers use social media tools like blogs and Twitter to sort through these issues, all the while curating materials and sharing their thinking

Mathematics teachers explore numerous issues as they take to the blogosphere to engage. In this Discussion Session, we want to highlight the meaning of this activity for some persistent questions in mathematics teacher education. First, we want to explore questions of professional learning. Both pre-service and in-service teacher education have faced longstanding criticisms about their relevance to the details of teachers’ day-to-day work (e.g., Feiman-Nemser & Buchman, 1985; Wilson & Berne, 1990). By seeking out their own learning, teachers who go online formulate their own questions and connect to the resources they find the most meaningful to them. While this certainly solves the relevancy problems, it stands to introduce questions of quality: how do teachers filter through the vast resources of the Internet to identify the best tools and information?

As our participants will share, they often do this through online professional networks, trusted sources that help them navigate effectively. This may be particularly important for teachers who are isolated, either because of geography (rural teachers), ideology (“lone wolf” innovators in traditional departments), or topic (the only AP Statistics teacher in a school). Despite the ability to be more discriminating about the colleagues one finds online than is often feasible in real life, inevitably, teachers must still contend with some of the social challenges of collaboration. For instance, in face-to-face conversation, it is not always clear that teachers mean the same thing by the same term: one teacher’s “scaffolding” is another’s “lowering cognitive demand” (Henningsen & Stein, 1997). Online, this challenge of developing a shared language (Grossman, Wineburg & Woolworth, 2001) can be facilitated through blog posts or podcasts, which allow for more extended and sustained examples than face-to-face interactions might. Other longstanding issues like managing conflict in community can be exacerbated in the virtual world, which is replete with anonymous trolls and flamers. At the same time, some conflict contributes to teachers’ learning, such as uncomfortable conversations addressing critical issues like race and equity (Achinstein, 2002). How do teachers manage challenging conversations without face-to-face contact and the risky “permanence” of the written word on the Internet? As communities grow, how do they maintain trust across participants? The session participants will share some of their experiences cultivating and navigating online community.

Finally, we can investigate how to leverage what extant mathematics teacher communities have learned to inform professional education, both pre-service and inservice. The Internet’s asynchronous platforms allow for just-in-time learning (Bransford & Schwartz, 2001), as teachers can connect to resources as they become relevant in their teaching. At the same time, this demands that online curators organize resources in ways that are trustworthy and searchable, creating ever-greater demands on developing shared professional language for teaching.

Educational Significance

We have two goals for this session. First, we hope to inform the larger mathematics education research community about the innovative ways teachers use social media to support their own professional learning. This can inform our colleagues about networks to both recruit highly committed teachers and disseminate important research. Second, we hope to lay the groundwork for clearer conceptual frameworks for investigating mathematics teachers’ use of social media to inform future research and practice. By illustrating some early work to include social media in pre-service education, we seek to further collective thinking about the potential for online tools to contribute to the professionalization of mathematics teaching.

Session Participants

In a discussion like this, the participants’ contribution becomes essential for meeting the goals of the session. To this end, we have sought a cross-section of teachers active on social media who represent different kinds of users.

Our session is comprised of 4 teacher participants who work in different types of school settings and engage in social media in varied ways. They have in common that they interact regularly with other mathematics teachers around the globe. In addition, we feature teacher educators who have focused on pre-service and in-service mathematics teachers’ use of online platforms for augmenting professional education. Brief biographies of the speakers (anonymized for review) are provided:

  • Speaker 1 was a young teacher in search of greater professional engagement, which she found through reading other math teachers’ blogs. There, she has found research articles and lesson ideas that have helped her refine her own ideas about teaching.
  • Speaker 2 was one of about 8 teachers who taught AP Statistics in her entire state. Although she tried building collaborations with them, she found little traction. Finally a friend told her that Twitter was the best “math department” she’d ever been a part of. Ever since, she has blogged and collaborated with many teachers online.
  • Speaker 3 is a teacher who blogs to reflect on his practice and whose social media presence helps to build the mathematical literacy of teachers and students by sharing the diverse mathematical resources that can be found on the internet.
  • Speaker 4 teaches in a large urban district and is a prolific and widely-read blogger who focuses on mathematics pedagogy, race, and educational leadership. His work is featured on a number of online outlets.
  • Speaker 5 is a teacher educator at a large university who has begun to experiment with using social media to solve the “two-worlds” problem, the divide between student teaching placements and university coursework.
  • Speaker 6 works for a well-known online site dedicated to providing professional resources for mathematics teachers. This site was one of the first to attempt to cultivate online teacher community.
  • Speaker 7 will facilitate the session. Her research focuses on mathematics teacher communities and professional learning, and she will focus the discussion on longstanding issues at this cross section in the novel context of social media.
    • Organization of Session

      Speaker 7 will introduce the session, raising some of the framing questions about mathematics teachers’ professional learning, focusing on the promises and new dilemmas brought about by social media. She will also give a brief primer on social media to include members of the audience who are not as familiar with the online tools. (6 minutes)

      Speakers 1-6 will each give a 4 minute presentation sharing (1) how they became active on social media; (2) an illustration of some important learning they have had or witnessed on social media; and (3) some lingering questions they have about using it as a tool for their own growth and development. (24 minutes)

      For the remaining time (45 minutes), the participants will serve as panelists on the topic of social media and mathematics teacher community. The panel will engage with the audience, sharing further their experiences and venturing some opinions about the future of social media and mathematics teacher communities. Speaker 7 will facilitate, linking some of the questions to persistent issues in teacher community.