The Zeroth Law: Thoughts after NCTM 2017

“Joy is a zeroth law in mathematics.  When true mathematics is happening, joy is involved.”

Someone’s joyful Cuisenaire rod creation during choice time in my classroom.

Anita Wager and Amy Noelle Parks started off my time at the NCTM Research Conference and Annual Meeting with this proclamation, and as I’m sitting on this airplane, trying to synthesize all of the ideas buzzing around my brain, it strikes me that this is a uniting principle.

It’s certainly not a given, the idea that a national math teachers’ conference would be centered around joy. In fact I think if you asked most people, “What do you think they will be talking about at the national math teachers’ conference?” joy would not be one of the top 5 answers on the Family Feud board. And yet. There it was. Everyone talking about joy.

So many of us want to make mathematics a joyful experience in our classrooms. We want it for our kids, and honestly, we want it for ourselves. You know that feeling when you’re laying in bed, or standing in the shower, or walking up the stairs to your classroom, and you’re playing the day forward in your head, and there’s a lesson that you “have to teach” and you’re dreading it? You’re already thinking about how not fun it’s going to be for you, and for the kids? Well, Anita and Amy’s talk said to me that the feeling I’m describing should be a red flag. A call to action. A moment to absolutely stop in your tracks and NOT. TEACH. THAT. LESSON.

@TracyZager talked about gut instincts and how we can get our students to listen to the “little voice” in their heads rather than telling them to listen to us. I’m thinking that applies to us teachers, too. When the little voice is telling me that what I have planned for my kids that day is not going to be joyful for them, and in turn for me, I need to change something.

But, a few questions, right? What about “covering the material?” What about all that stuff that needs to get taught? Some of it might be a little boring. You know, like … (racking my brain for something that is categorically, inherently boring to teach) (still racking) um, I couldn’t really think of anything. Maybe like “how to fill in the bubbles on this standardized test grid.” So if there is no mathematics topic that is inherently boring to teach (and MTBoS, please, speak back to me if you think there are some), I’m thinking that means that making mathematics a joyful experience for my students is up to me. For the most part, I have the agency to decide what I teach and how I teach it. So in regard to covering the material (a term that I deeply hate because it feels like the complete opposite of teaching for understanding), I think we need to know the math we’re teaching deeply and we need to know ways that we can teach it that promote joy. I’m thinking about when Tracy quoted somebody’s grandmother, in answer to the question, “Doesn’t this type of teaching take too much time? What about the pacing?” Somebody’s grandmother said, “If you don’t have time to do it right, you must have time to do it twice.” I’m arguing that doing it right doesn’t just mean teaching for understanding; it also means teaching for joy.

As Amy said, joy in mathematics teaching and learning does not mean “ ‘wrapping peanut butter around something that tastes bad’ to make it more palatable.” It means revealing to kids the beauty and creativity in math. It means giving them a chance to have the deeply pleasurable feeling of figuring something out, of seeing connections, of seeing something in a new way, of having something someone says to you or shows you mathematically suddenly “click.” It’s hard, sometimes, when we are thinking about the content that we want our kids to understand before they leave our class, to keep a goal around joy in mind. But just like we don’t want to teach kids “rules that expire” or procedures for solving problems that don’t make sense to them, because that wouldn’t serve them well in the long term, teaching kids that math is not inherently joyful or pleasurable doesn’t serve them well in the long term. We owe it to our kids and to mathematics to always be cultivating an image of the discipline that reflects its intrinsic joyousness.

How are we going to do that? At first I thought step one was what I described above: stop doing lessons that lack joy and regularly, committed-ly seek ways to teach that same content joyfully. But then I took one more step back. Because I don’t actually just want joy in my classroom. I want it in every classroom.  Then I came to the crux of the problem, or one of them at least: if teachers don’t view mathematics as joyful, they can’t cultivate classrooms that do. We all know the “math autobiographies” of our colleagues who don’t like math, because of their experiences with math as kids. We know there are many teachers who still think “I’m just not a math person,” some of whom are trying valiantly to steer their children toward a growth mindset, showing Week of Inspirational Math videos and making their kids attach “yet” to any self-disparaging comments, while still holding inside of them their own insecurities about their relationship to math.

So my idea is this: we have to give teachers lots and lots of opportunities to experience joyful feelings when they do math. Beautiful, visual math like Which One Doesn’t Belong? and Estimation 180 and Lusto’s Dots. Things that make teachers gasp and exclaim out loud. That is the feeling that we want people to have. That is the feeling we want people to associate with doing mathematics. There are lots of ways to get that feeling, but those that I just mentioned are great, easy entry points.

Let me also add an important note about the definition of joy: Amy and Anita say that joy and sadness are not opposites.  Joy and disengagement are. Putting that together with the statistic @JoBoaler shared, that 70% of K-12 teachers do not feel engaged in their work, makes me feel somewhat disconsolate about the state of things. But a possible silver lining is this: if you’re leading a PD and teachers cry over a problem they can’t solve, or get mad and argue with you or their colleagues, you don’t have to see those moments as non-joyful. In fact, those strong feelings come with engagement. And if disengagement means no joy, then doesn’t engagement mean … joy?

Leaving NCTM 2017 I feel so terribly engaged. I’m so grateful for the MTBoS and all of the teachers, coaches, teacher educators, and researchers who made my synapses fire like crazy and gave me chances to play with math this week. I’m leaving with a lot to think about, write about, and do. In the spirit of many of the presentations I loved this week, I’m going to leave you, and myself, with a call to action, and I’d love to hear from you if you take it up:

Call to Action

  1. Change one of the lessons that you hate to teach to add more joy. Do a WODB or a unit chat or any one of the things @Trianglemancsd shared on Friday.
  2. Find one of your colleagues whom you know thinks of math as something they have to teach rather than something they love to teach. Do the same thing with them. See if you can get them to gasp.




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