Fostering Conversations about Mathematics among Different Nations

The 2009 International Seminar on Mathematics Education, a program of the Institute for Advanced Study/Park City Mathematics Institute (PCMI), brought together teams from Australia, Cambodia, Denmark, Israel, Namibia, Peru, Vietnam, and the United States to discuss the teaching of functions and engage in a broader dialogue on mathematics education.

Team members from each country presented a response to specific questions related to teaching functions based on their country’s view of secondary education. Participants from each of the other countries then raised questions and discussed the perspectives of their own cultures.

“The opportunity to work at close quarters with fellow professionals from many different countries is a very rare one, and I feel privileged to have been involved,” said Barry Kissane, Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at Murdoch University in Australia, who was among the seminar participants. “Even those of us fortunate enough to attend international conferences do not usually have the chance to work so closely for such a long period on matters of common interest.”

Subtitled “Bridging Policy and Practice,” the International Seminar is one of the most significant components of PCMI. Its intent is to foster conversations among different nations about the teaching of mathematics. Each year, participants from teams representing seven countries join those from the United States to focus on a designated concept, how it should be taught, and what teachers require in order to teach it. Participants also consider the implications of technology and the mathematical knowledge needed by teachers working with the subject matter.

The International Seminar was introduced in 2001 by Elaine Wolfensohn and Herb Clemens, then Director of PCMI and Professor of Mathematics at the University of Utah, now at the Ohio State University. Wolfensohn, the wife of James Wolfensohn, then Chairman of the Institute’s Board of Trustees and now Chairman Emeritus, became interested in initiating such a program while traveling with her husband during his tenure as President of the World Bank.

“I discovered that among the many needs in the developing world was the need to improve the teaching of mathematics,” said Wolfensohn, whose Wolfensohn Family Foundation and Botwinick-Wolfensohn Foundation provide funding for the International Seminar. “During the ten years of Jim’s presidency, I spent much of my time visiting schools. Since mathematics is an international language, I always observed the math classes. I visited donor countries such as Japan and Singapore, where math was taught extraordinarily well. I realized that our American high school teachers could benefit from learning more about what works in other countries, and that developed countries could help those in the developing world to improve the teaching of math.”

Johnny Lott, Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, Professor of Education and Mathematics at the University of Mississippi, and Professor Emeritus in the University of Montana’s Department of Mathematical Sciences, began his involvement at PCMI as a participant and became involved in helping to organize the International Seminar several years ago.

“Participants need a working knowledge of English, and we generally have two representatives from each country. One is typically a university mathematics educator and the other a secondary school teacher. This way, we get not the official country view of a subject, but the individual view,” Lott said.

The first night of the program, participants from each country present a twenty-minute talk on the overall seminar topic. Individual participants then discuss how the subject can be integrated into his or her country's curriculum.

Participants are divided into three groups and work together during the week-long program to develop briefs that are then made available online for use by mathematics educators around the world. “We try very hard to come up with an approach that will work in all the participant’s countries,” Lott said.

Issues emerging from the conversations at the 2009 seminar produced briefs including Teacher Professional Development in the Teaching and Learning of Functions; Assets, and the Pitfalls in Using Technology in Teaching and Learning Functions; and The Place of Functions in the School Mathematics Curriculum. These briefs will appear with previous policy briefs and the proceedings of earlier seminars at PCMI’s online Math Forum ( The 2010 International Seminar will focus on image processing.

“The seminar was long enough for us to get to know each other and understand the many different cultural contexts from which we came. This helped us to see our professional work in a new light,” Kissane said of the 2009 seminar. “The diversity of participants was a major reason for the success of the seminar, but so was the inspired leadership. In ‘normal’ circumstances, those in less powerful positions do not easily have a voice, nor do those for whom English is not their first language. Both of these impediments to communication were successfully addressed. My participation has been a highlight of my career.”