Meeting Paul Cobb

What advice do you have for new researchers?

Young researchers that go to research universities fixate on tenure and the checklist they need to complete to earn tenure. The first few years can easily become an identity-shredding experience. The wrong game is: “How can I get ahead?” Also, don’t write a proposal just to get a large grant. Think about your pre-tenure years, instead, as six years to work on something that you actually care about. Ask yourself: What you want to understand? What aspect of your practice do you want to improve? Because, if you care about it, you will work hard because it’s something you want to do. Don’t entirely forget about tenure – but don’t fixate on hitting a number of papers. Write quality papers that result from interest rather than weak papers resulting from “gotta”. As you plan, think about: Why did you come into this program to start with? What do you care about? Be aware of the danger of focusing on yourself in an ego way. Instead of thinking about how you can be a star, do work that you are interested in, task-involved, focused on doing good work. Also, in your first years don’t try to get a large grant but instead start with a small enough project so you can be intimately involved in all aspects of it.

What do you know about writing now that you wished you had known?

I wish I had know to outline, in detail, my ideas and argument. You should do this detailed outlining, pretending you are giving a presentation. You can use PowerPoint, for example, to create the outline. You should share your outline with others – meet with someone and talk with them through the outline. As you talk through the outline, pay attention to the structure of the argument: Does the structure make sense? Struggle with sentences: What is the next step in the outline? How do I say it appropriately? Instead of focusing on the question: What am I going to do next? focus on What do I want to figure out? Why am I doing this? What do I want to get a handle on conceptually? As you think about these questions, write a purpose statement for yourself: By the end of this, this is what I want to learn. This is what I’m doing to support that. This is why what I’m doing will help me reach my goal. 

As a grad student, how do I know when I should publish something?

As you publish papers, you will develop a better sense of when something is ready for publication, but there are no guarantees that you will be accepted. The main thing is, as you develop a reputation, you don’t want to submit a paper that is truly awful and then the editors know who you are and will remember how bad the paper is. But as a graduate student and new researcher, you have no reputation and you have no sense of when a paper is ready. So just try to publish it. If it gets rejected, or if it’s terrible, no one knows you and they won’t remember. Then you can develop your sense of when the paper is “good enough” that it won’t embarrass you, and when it is a “good fit” for the journal.

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Asking for Help – Advisory board, Advisors, and Peers

You will not survive grad school if you don’t learn to ask for help.

My advisor told me in my first year that I had to learn to start asking for help or I wouldn’t survive the program. Asking for help was a challenge for me: I don’t always notice when I need help. I’m scared to admit vulnerability. I’m not sure whether it’s a good question or not. I’m not sure if the person I ask will use it against me or actually give me good advice.

Ask for advice early and often.

For big things (e.g., research projects) and small (e.g., this conference is overwhelming), asking for help early – as soon as you notice you are struggling or even before you are struggling – makes it easier for people to help. The Preparing to Teach Algebra project began in August, 2011. We had our first advisory board meeting four months later in December, 2011. In their written response, our advisory board thanked us for meeting with them early enough in the project that we could use them effectively. They were able to help us find our way before we got too far off track.

Later in that school year, I co-presented with members of the Strengthening Tomorrow’s Education in Measurement project at the annual conference of National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). I attended the research session and the regular conference, so I was there for a week. After the first day, I was overwhelmed with the sights, noises, and social interaction. I asked a colleague what I could do and she told me she had the same problem and her strategy was to sometimes put on large headphones – even if she didn’t turn on music. It indicated to the people around her that she was not to be disturbed, and she could take the time to reset. This experience of confessing my struggle, finding out it was shared, and that someone had a strategy to deal was simply amazing. It helped me learn that I can ask for help.

Team- and Community-building

Many people enjoy feeling useful and enjoy feeling smart. Asking for help isn’t only about you and showing weakness. It’s about giving other people a chance to help you, a chance to show their thinking, and a chance to see that they aren’t they one with that struggle. By asking for and receiving help, you can build bonds that create a strong team or community.

Getting smarter by sharing strategies

In K-8 mathematics methods courses, we share the value of sharing and discussing strategies in order to understand mathematics more deeply. Sharing strategies is helpful in more than mathematics, but also in life. We all have room to learn from each other and develop more sophisticated strategies of dealing with challenges.

Meeting Judit Moschkovich

Judit Moschkovich met our first-year “Introduction to the Math Ed World” course. She told us that the first step in teaching social justice has to be teaching for understanding.

What are goals of teacher education for teachers who will be teaching English Language Learners (ELL)?

More important than language proficiency is the mathematical reasoning. Even for native speakers, being articulate is hard! You may think they (and you) are saying things in a mathematical way, but they may not be. Move away from simple views of what mathematics language is: It’s not just a list of definitions or vocabulary. Vocabulary is important too, but the best way to learn vocabulary is to use the words with purpose not just “give me a sentence using the word divisor”. Learners also need to practice the complexity of language through exploratory talk (with peers) and expository talk (in presentations). We also need to teach children to read: Math textbooks and word problems are different kinds of reading that we need to teach the children to do. Remember that everyday context and objects can be used for reasoning, not obstacles.