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Research & Insights / Strategies to Build a Learning Community: Insights from attending the NCTM Annual Conference

Strategies to Build a Learning Community: Insights from attending the NCTM Annual Conference

Attending professional learning experiences can be transformative, and the impact can be amplified when we engage with learning in community. Recently, a cohort of mathematics educators who are part of the Math is for Everyone (MifE) grant initiative at EdVestors embarked on a learning adventure at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) annual conference in Washington, D.C. The experience not only enriched educators’ individual professional growth but also provided valuable insights into strategies for building a learning community.  Three key strategies to build community emerged: align learning experiences to the work people are doing now, implement explicit strategies to foster community-building, and suggest participants imagine themselves as potential presenters at future conferences. 

Strategy 1: Aligning Learning Experiences with Professional Goals

We started by holding a pre-conference meeting during which we went over key logistics and talked about some of the keynote conference sessions. It was helpful to identify sessions that aligned with the ongoing work and priorities of the members of the group. By leveraging the online program ahead of time, the group was able to find sessions relevant to their current projects and interests. This proactive approach fostered a more focused and purposeful conference experience.

Here is an example:. We identified that the opening keynote had direct connections to the work being done at one of the MifE schools. Teachers at the Henderson school have been working on empathy interviews and developing strategies to fortify students’ math identities. Related to this work, Jamila Dugan delivered a keynote on Street Data. Dugan’s talk focused on how to gather and use data that helps educators identify root causes of inequity and obstacles to learning, and the teacher from the Henderson who attended the conference was able to walk away with some new insights and ideas about how to build on their ongoing math identity work. It was powerful to see how the team was using the session content as an opportunity to reflect upon their grant work and push their own thinking about what might come next!

Strategy 2: Community Building Before, During, and After

Building a sense of community is essential for collaborative learning and I found a few strategies to be simple yet powerful to foster critical connections. First, creating a WhatsApp group chat before the conference gave us a way to stay in touch throughout. I found that the chat feature of the app was more informal than email and allowed for more interaction such as “liking” another person’s message. We could quickly upload photos and videos (the best pictures were of course from the group dinners!). From checking in with one another on arrival at the conference center, to polling the group for dinner ideas, to helping each other navigate the inevitable conference snafus, the group chat was an invaluable tool to communicate. 

During the conference, it felt important to meet and share what we were learning and surface important questions. To kick off the conference event, I hosted a group dinner on the first night. It was a chance for some members to meet each other in person for the first time and to break bread together. We talked and laughed, and through that experience I think we built some important friendships and connections. From that dinner onwards, the group made an effort to meet up for dinner and other activities when possible. We found that this kind of an informal atmosphere (as opposed to, say, a more formal debrief meeting) was highly conducive to sharing reflections and generating ideas. 

Finally, I implemented a post-conference survey to get some feedback on how the conference experience went for everyone and also to distill some key learnings. One of my goals going into the conference was to support my team in developing the muscle needed to be a critical consumer of information. To that end, I asked the group to comment on what they learned, as well as what they may have disagreed with during the conference, as a way to reflect on key learnings. Some of the survey questions I used are listed below. 

  • What are 2 or 3 key learnings you are taking away from the sessions you attended?
  • Were there any ideas shared at the conference that you disagree with? Which ones?
  • Name 2 or more commitments you can make to improve your teaching practice that come from your experience at the NCTM conference.

From the survey, I learned that members of the group were pleasantly surprised to see so many people from across the country working on how to strengthen student math identity. One person recalled feeling “mindblown” in a session connecting the development of the common core standards with the broader political and social issues of our time. And a hot topic of discussion that arose from various sessions was scaffolding and how to meet the needs of a diverse group of students. In all, the survey results suggest that the experience was impactful. Furthermore, the survey serves the purpose of revisiting and building upon our new understandings after returning home from the conference. 

Strategy 3: Empowering Educators to Participate in the Field

The final strategy involves empowering educators to actively contribute to the broader educational community. The MifE initiative aims to encourage teachers to share their expertise locally and nationally. As such, I encouraged members of the group to consider their MifE work at their school as potential presentation material for a future annual conference. My hope is that members of the group could think about themselves as experts in the field with a tremendous amount of knowledge and skill worth sharing with a larger audience. And when we talked about the notion of presenting at conferences in a group setting, it felt to me that the possibility of presenting became a little clearer for some of our group members. We became a supportive and encouraging group. 

It is exciting to report that in the survey, three out of five attendees have expressed interest in receiving support to plan and prepare conference proposals. Part of engaging in an effective learning community is sharing what is generated within the community with those outside of the group. 

Attending the NCTM conference as a group engaged in learning as a community resulted in some powerful outcomes. One significant positive outcome for the group was a feeling of renewed energy and motivation. One group member commented, “This opportunity has given me the recharge and motivation to come back to my school to be a better teacher than before.” 

By aligning sessions with professional goals, fostering community before, during, and after the conference, and empowering educators to share their expertise, the MifE cohort exemplifies how collective learning can lead to a more enriched and impactful educational experience. This journey goes beyond the confines of a conference; it's about building a community that strives for excellence in math education.