Fifteen years ago, June Mark came to EDC to join a development team working on an innovative mathematics software tool called the Function Analyzer. The Analyzer was an offshoot of the Geometric Supposer and the Semantic Calculator—two award-winning mathematical software programs designed at EDC in the mid-1980s. Mark was a mathematics major in college and then studied educational technology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Over time, she shifted her focus from technology to mathematics. Mark has worked as a developer on several curriculum projects and also serves, with Deborah Spencer, as co-director of the K–12 Mathematics Curriculum Center, which advises school districts around the country on selecting and implementing of standards-based mathematics curricula—particularly the dozen comprehensive curricula funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).
What drew you to EDC?
At the time, people at EDC were doing some groundbreaking work on how technology could be used to improve learning—specifically in mathematics. They were exploring ways of using technology to allow students to create and manipulate their own mathematics models. What was neat about that work was that it brought mathematicians together with teachers and with researchers focused on student thinking. EDC was a place where I felt free to experiment and where I thought I could put my own stamp on the work.
How did your focus shift from technology to mathematics?
I arrived at EDC at a time when there was a lot of excitement about educational technology. I remember thinking that technology would revolutionize teaching and learning. (Now that seems very naive.) I began to focus on developing materials for teachers because we had these wonderful technology tools, but teachers wanted help in figuring out how to integrate them with the curricula they were using.
I also turned to curriculum work because technology always felt to me like it was on the outskirts. I started thinking about curriculum as an important tool for change—as a vehicle for bringing new ideas into the classroom. Teachers use curriculum every day. And there’s a lot of research indicating that curriculum matters a lot. For example, researchers working on TIMSS (Third International Mathematics and Science Study) found a very high correlation between what is in the textbooks and what teachers teach and students learn.
The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) published its landmark Standards shortly after you arrived at EDC. What impact have the Standards had?
It was a very exciting time. NCTM had put forward a strong vision of what mathematics teaching could be. The Standards emphasized mathematics in terms of reasoning and problem-solving rather than just a collection of facts and formulas. In the past, students would be presented with a formula and shown an example and then they’d get several similar problems to solve. In the curricula designed to align with the Standards, students start with a problem—often a big problem—and they build the mathematics out of the experience of solving the problem. What made the Standards so powerful was that they drew from research on how kids actually learn mathematics. (Some of that research was done at EDC. For example, Paul Goldenberg began his work on the Function Analyzer by looking very closely at how kids make sense of graphs and their uses.) The Standards also emphasize the integration of mathematical strands, such as the connections between geometry and algebra.
The publication of the Standards set off the so-called math wars between the traditionalists and the reformers. Has that abated somewhat?
I think many people would agree now that you need a balance between basic skills and conceptual understanding. But what that balance looks like—or how to achieve it—is still debated. Everyone has a different judgment about that. In the K–12 Mathematics Curriculum Center we suggest that teachers and district leaders look carefully at the mathematical content and instructional approach of all the NSF-funded curricula, each of which strikes the balance in a different way. Then we help them find a program that is a good match for their goals, their teachers, their students, and their community. We encourage them to plan thoughtfully for program implementation, and especially to provide support for teachers.
My hope is that we’ve played some role in helping districts implement the NSF-funded curricula successfully. These programs, more than many other NSF programs from the past, have proven to have genuine market appeal. They’ve affected the whole mathematics market. Publishers have started talking about an “NSF niche.” Even many traditional publishers want some sort of standards-based program.
What do you find most satisfying about your work?
EDC is a place where people think very hard about ideas and then work together to make them real. There are times when we all feel disconnected, like we rarely have a chance to see and talk with one another. But people in the field see the connections. That’s because all our work comes out of a core set of ideas—ideas about paying attention to mathematics as a discipline; promoting the ways of thinking that mathematicians use in their work; paying attention to student thinking and student learning; and viewing teachers as professionals. It’s also heartening for me to look back and realize that what we’re doing now built on what came before—including the work I was doing with the Function Analyzer 15 years ago. I can draw a path from then to now.