Math Forum Debate at NCTM 2017

This year, I was fortunate to have my first proposal to speak at the NCTM Annual Conference accepted. Even more exciting, I was invited by the Math Forum to do a presentation on debates, which then turned into an actual debate. Two friends of mine from #MTBoS, Anna Blinstein (@borschtwithanna) and Mishaal Surti (@MrSurti), agreed to have a semi-formal debate, which went over very well (despite the small audience). It’s been a week now, so it seems like a good time to reflect on this experience.

For the Math Forum debate, I have a vision of it growing into an annual math-ed celebrity debate event. Where did I get that idea? It probably goes back several years, and originated with Professor Colin Adams (whose website was last updated in 2008, but looks the same as it did during my senior year in college in 1995). I saw him more than 20 years ago at an MAA conference, in a performance as his alter-ego  Mel Slugbate, in a talk about how to cheat your way to the knot merit badge. Always creative, he wrote an excellent book on knot theory, and later debated his colleague, Thomas Garrity, on the topics of “Pi vs. e” and “Integral vs. Derivative”. (On a side note, he received his Ph.D. in math from University of Wisconsin at Madison, where mathematician, author, and NCTM 2017 opening keynote speaker Jordan Ellenberg currently teaches.)  I’m sure that hearing about and then seeing videos of those debates first put the idea of debates in math class in my mind. It’s definitely what I’d love to see annually if I can find a way to do it. There are numerous topics that can be debated in the areas of math and math education. Once I put the word out and reached out to a few people, both Anna and Mishaal graciously accepted the challenge. And now we had to decide on a topic, as well as the format.

The format was easy – I suggested some guidelines for a semi-formal debate (opening statements, closing statements, and how questions would be answered). Both Anna and Mishaal were agreeable, and that was that. The topic of debate was not too difficult of a decision; I suggested a few topics in math, and a few topics in math education, and both Mishaal and Anna were pretty excited to debate the topic of traditional sequencing of secondary math courses (Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2) vs. an integrated math curriculum (which is used, basically, everywhere else in the world). And here was the problem that ended up not being a problem: both Anna and Mishaal are fans of integrated math, and so one would have to debate a side that they opposed. In the world of debate, of course, this isn’t uncommon. (I often tell the story of how I was required to take the side of allowing teenage tobacco use for a high school debate. I won the debate, making the argument that teenage smoking should be required. Not my proudest moment…or was it?)


All three of us were quite busy with, you know, all the things that come up in the lives of teachers, so our plans for great preparation were not completely fulfilled. I did create a document of research sources, and a slide show (with very few graphics), and my own list of questions for each side. Anna and Mishaal downplayed how much they prepared, but their performances during the debate were outstanding – arguments and rebuttals were well thought out, they listened to each other and responded with eloquence and intention, and they both injected humor at appropriate times.

If you’d like to see the video, it’s on YouTube (complete with quickly added end credits, Creative Commons licensed music, and minimal editing).

One thing that I’ve noticed is that, as moderator and presentation operator, I personally find it difficult to pay as close attention and take notes during the debate as I would like. As a result, I general take video of all of the debates in my classes so I can watch them afterwards. It’s also really great to have some evidence of some of the very insightful and funny things that students say.

I’ll post again with a summary of my debate talk, but right now I want to put this dream out there. Would you like to see a debate at a future math conference? Maybe a celebrity that also happens to be a mathematician debate? (I was thinking maybe Danika McKellar vs. John Urschel would be a fun one to do). What about author mathematicians? (Simon Singh vs. Keith Devlin, perhaps?) Or maybe it would be more meaningful with celebrities of #MTBoS. Perhaps…even you? Tell Suzanne and Annie and Max at Math Forum that you know you missed a great show and would like to see a debate next year! Tell NCTM you want this to happen. And tell me if you want to take part. I could always use a debater, a researcher, another camera operator or two, a video editor, a stage manager, and someone to do something about my hair and wardrobe. Say…anyone want to write a grant to fund all this?


2 thoughts on “Math Forum Debate at NCTM 2017

  1. I really liked your choice of topic since its often on my mind. What’s interesting to me is that alg I and alg II are obviously sequential. So integrated math means splicing geometry up between them with all their topics maintained in relatively the same order. I also note continual pressure to reduce Geometry in favor of Algebra and wonder if this is exacerbated by integration. I could easily see the time spent on geometry units in an integrated course being reduced versus the traditional path as part of that general movement.


  2. Great comment and question! I don’t think that geometry has to be reduced in an integrated class by any means. In fact, the cycling of topics and review of critical geometry concepts should help emphasize the most important mathematical ideas that come out of geometry. Different integrated textbooks will certainly be different, and I have not had the opportunity to research integrated texts or curricula to any great extent. However, the CCSS integrated pathway (see demonstrates how each of the geometry standards can be met with a well planned integrated curriculum.


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