Con Report

(First published in The Ten Page News #29 [2001].)

They had this T^3 conference here in Columbus Ohio one weekend in March 2001. That’s “T cubed”, and it stands for “Teachers Teaching with Technology“. So I went.

I’ve been skeptical about — even hostile to — high-tech in the classroom for quite some time now (long-time readers will recall that the cover story for Ten Page News #1 was an anti-graphing-calculator piece). I haven’t changed my mind. Furthermore, I’ve recently taught a few dozen courses making extensive use of such “graphers”, so I can speak with some authority. Not that I plan to or anything.

T^3 evidently started right here in Columbus about fifteen years ago; its founders, Demana and Waits (“Frank and Bert” to the old hands), were professors of mathematics at the Ohio State University (both have retired since then). Their names have been familiar to me since I turned pro in ’92: their introductory algebra text of that year was among the first to make extensive use of graphers and became something of a standard (though it pleases me to report that it’s not used at the OSU itself . . .).

T^3 has grown huge and now offers week-long summer institutes attended by thousands of teachers every year; there were something pretty close to two thousand of us at the con if I remeber correctly. Anyway, a lot.I wouldn’t have been there at all if not for the chance to get in for free — registration was close to $100 — but one of the conference co-chairs runs the math department at Columbus State (and is therefore one of my bosses); volunteers were sought to stuff boxes and sit at the registration booth and whatnot; I figured what the heck.

I missed the keynote speaker more or less deliberately: John Glenn, former astronaut and U.S. Senator,  currently a figurehead for something called the Glenn Commission (more formally,  the “National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching in the 21st Century”). Of course Glenn drew a huge crowd. I showed up during his talk to get the lay of the place:  the Hyatt has a large auditorium, a good-size sports arena, and whole bunches of meeting rooms. Furthermore, it attaches to the Convention Center (a major Columbus eyesore), which housed some spill-over sessions.

I did get the Commission’s report, though — Before It’s Too Late — and, considering its provenance and format (it’s one of those awful think-tank things on super-heavy slick paper), it’s really not all that horrifying. Indeed, it includes bursts of refreshing frankness . . . like “preparation time is routinely sacrificed to in-service events that are no more substantive than a broad-brush overview of this semester’s teaching fad” (p. 25), and even its policy recommendations are generally pretty laudable (math and science teachers should be paid better and allowed time to work on their skills, e.g.). 

Unfortunately, there’s  also quite a bit of the much same kind of empty rhetoric that they rightly denounce in citing the 1989 Report of the National Education Goals Panel (“By the Year 2000, United States students will be first in the world in mathematics and science achievement” — in a well-regulated universe,  everyone who signed off on this obvious lie should have dropped dead from shame — or, at the very least, resigned in disgrace).

The high-tech party line is taken for granted in a few passages, but for the most part, again refreshingly, computers and calculators don’t get a lot of stress. The proposal to fund a 50 million dollar webpage seems maybe little bit misguided in light of the wealth of resources easily found on the web already, but hey: they’re not actively jamming expensive and short-lived software and equipment down teacher’s throats. That’s fairly unusual; I’m duly grateful.

What’s not so commendable is their  (equally tacit but more often invoked) assumption that “business partners” are “needed as models”. Whenever I hear the word “stakeholders”, I reach for a pretty good guess as to whose heart the stake is about to be driven through. But I digress. Back to the conference.

What looked like several hundred people were waiting outside the arena for late registration, so I went downstairs to meet the volunteer co-ordinators. These turned out to be Sybrina King & Doug Smeltz of the nearby Fort Hayes High. I ended up having some pretty enlightening discussions on high school math education with Doug over the next couple days.  There was coffee and danish, so I dug right in. Hanging out in the volunteer area turned out to be a pretty good strategy, in fact, because along with filling up on plenty of free food, I met lots of math teachers. I’ve already mentioned Doug; another one worth singling out is Marsha Nichol, an education prof at another of my home campuses (Capital U.; my assignments come through the math department so I haven’t had much contact with the ed people).

Once the registration area opened up, I walked around and looked at all the exhibits. Picked up bunches of literature (mostly ads of one form or another). The major exhibitor by far — though curiously not listed in the program — was of course Texas Instruments: the billion-dollar-a-year company that makes the graphers we were all here to talk about.

I picked up an interesting document at their end of the room (bigger than any three other displays put together): Hand-Held Technology in Mathematics and Science Education: A Collection of Papers, edited by Ed Laughbaum. Demana-&-Waits have six pieces in this book (plus one each separately). They claimed in 1994 that “Exactness is  over emphasized in school mathematics” — that the importance of finding “exact” answers (like “one over the square root of two pi”, as opposed to estimates like 0.592), is exaggerated in traditional curricula . . . but by 1999, when the new calculators could handle the higher-level computations, exact answers were suddenly interesting again. Isn’t that strange (pp. 14, 4; their italics).

What annoys me most about Demana/Waits, though — and pushers of high-tech generally — are remarks like “our community is not ready due to misunderstanding, fear, and inexperience” (p. 85; one of many). That ain’t fear, people, it’s loathing. And, anyway, polite discourse forbids impugning the motivations of one’s adversary. Why do they get to say “fear” if we can’t say “greed”?

After TI, the other most interesting display area was that of the Eisenhower National Clearinghouse.  ENC is funded by the US  Department of Education and exists to “disseminate useful information and products to improve K-12 mathematics and science teaching and learning” — and judging by these three issues of their quarterly ENC Focus, I guess they’re doing a pretty good job — each one features dozens of reviews, mostly pretty detailed and thoughtful.

They also do an excellent job of promoting various party lines. The latest issue, to my unbounded disgust, has “Partnerships with Business and the Community” as its theme.  Somehow Corporate Culture and the Attack on Higher Education and Public Schooling ($3 from Phi Delta Kappa, Box 789, Bloomington IN 47402) rates a review; the rest are pro-business or neutral. According to “Partnerships That Can Benefit You”, by editor Annette Thorson, it seems Pepsico and Disney “partner to improve education” — they want to help us. Right. Like a foxhunt helps the fox.

I dragged all my new stuff down to the volunteer area and had some more food and conversation. Then left. My actual volunteer duties were for the next day. But don’t worry — I’ll make the rest of this short.

I ended up attending none of the actual presentations. Luckily, I worked registration with a very well-informed public school teacher and so I was able to learn something about a TI calculator that I didn’t already know. Finally, I attended a meeting of OMATYC — Ohio Mathematics At Two-Year Colleges. The meeting itself wasn’t so exciting — old business, new business,  blah, blah, blah . . . but at the dinner afterwards and I got to talk with several more math people. I had a (library) copy of Clifford Stoll’s recent book High-Tech Heretic handy, and it turned out quite the conversation piece.

Without naming any names, I got  the distinct feeling that some people pretty high up in the organization of the T^3 con were uncomfortable with TI’s increasing aggressiveness about selling their products. The feeling seems to have been that these shows used to be much more about teaching and learning.  A feast is made for laughter, and wine maketh merry — but money answereth all things.


  1. I am registered to attend a T^3 conference in September at the University of Southern Maine. I was mostly doing it for the free TI-84, but I admit, I was a bit curious about the group’s agenda. Thanks for giving me a glimpse of what to expect.

  2. Out of curiosity, do you have the same view about PowerPoint presentations that you do on graphing calculators? I’m asking because the one example I know about of PowerPoint in the classroom, an Israeli SAT-equivalent prep company that switched to it about ten years back, was a success.

  3. i’ve never put together a presentation with powerpoint
    and so can only speak from ignorance. i’ve been
    pretty unimpressed with whatever such presentations
    i’ve actually witnessed, but of course that doesn’t mean
    it can’t be done right. _an_inconvienient_truth_ (e.g.) was
    mostly just lectures with well-prepared computer displays
    and i *was* pretty impressed with that. in any case,
    that style of lecturing appears to have very little to do
    with whatever i’ve been trying to do in my own practice …

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