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Doing a Number on Math Education

Bill Speer, director of UNLV’s Math Learning Center, earns a national lifetime achievement award with his forward-looking approach to teaching math.

People  |  Jul 11, 2018  |  By Juliet V. Casey
Portrait of Bill Speer

Bill Speer, director of UNLV’s Math Learning Center

When Bill Speer talks about life, he has an artful way of using mathematics to illustrate his point.

And when explaining how 6x2 and 2x6 are two completely different circumstances but yield the same numeric answer, he has an artful way of using life to show why.

“Math isn’t about memorizing a bunch of steps,” he said. “It’s about the meaningful steps that represent something real in life. I believe firmly that there’s a reason for everything in math. It’s not just magic from a guy in a toga.”

Prestigious Award

This constant conversation and exploration of the meaning of life and the meaning of math have earned the 72-year-old director of UNLV’s Math Learning Center the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) this year.

The council is the world's largest mathematics education organization, with 60,000 members and more than 230 affiliates throughout the United States and Canada.

Daniel Brahier, a former student of Speer in the 1980s who later went on to work with him at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University, said Speer was known for being innovative and inspirational. Brahier was among a number of Speer’s colleagues and mathematics leaders from across the country who nominated him for the award.

“I was not disappointed when I took his class,” said Brahier, who is now the director of Science and Math Education in ACTION at the Bowling Green School of Teaching and Learning. “It was many years before I fully appreciated how far ahead of his time he was in the teaching methods that he promoted – hands-on, inquiry-based, student-centered – all of the teaching strategies that research backs today.”

Brahier and Speer served on the 1991 team of mathematics leaders that implemented the first set of mathematics learning standards in Ohio.

Pioneering Approach

“(Bill’s) forward-thinking ideas came to fruition in that document and paved the way for reforming teaching practices across the country,” Brahier said. “Meanwhile, Today’s Mathematics, a textbook Bill coauthored with Dr. Jim Heddens from Kent State University in Ohio, was the top-selling elementary mathematics methods teaching textbook on the market.”

All told, Speer has authored or co-authored eight textbooks, 36 scholarly books or chapters, 38 editorships and 40 research projects. He also has given 57 keynote addresses and has written 100 invited papers.

Since joining UNLV in 1995, Speer has become a constant in advocating for and implementing improved mathematics standards in Nevada. He served on the statewide review team for the 2010 common core state standards that have become the foundation for the state’s current Nevada academic content standards for mathematics.

Speer has served in various leadership roles at the university, including interim dean for the College of Education. He also helped launch the UNLV NCTM student group. His leadership also brought to Las Vegas NCTM annual meetings and regional conferences.

Speer’s latest project is re-defining remedial math for UNLV students. At the Math Learning Center, Speer and his colleagues use digital learning programs and other strategies to help students review or see for the first time key concepts they need to place into a higher-level mathematics course than they might otherwise be ready for.

“We don’t want to just go over what the student has already been over,” Speer said. “If they come to us because they are not ready for college credit math, traditionally – sadly – that problem was dealt with by looking backward, rather than taking a fresh look and approaching things in a new way.”

Kim Metcalf, dean of the College of Education, said work at the Math Learning Center represents the culmination of Speer’s research and vision for the future of mathematics education.

“I can’t imagine anyone who has made more of an impact on their field,” Metcalf said. “He is well respected and well liked at the state level and across the country. And there are tens of thousands of people who now teach a certain way, and hundreds of thousands of students who have learned or are learning math in a way that is the direct result of the work and research of Bill Speer.”

The Why?

Speer takes a questioning approach to teaching, with why being the first and constant question he poses to his students and encourages them to ask him.

“This becomes a collaborative process,” Speer said. “That’s a huge difference from what traditional programs do.”

Moving away from the traditional and accepted way of doing things has defined Speer’s career and life trajectory.

As he put it, life has been a series of points in a line that took him from the classroom in DeKalb, Illinois, to UNLV. “But it wasn’t a straight line,” he said.

Growing up in the small town where barbed wire was invented, the young Speer was expected to go to college and be a success. He tried accounting and was bored. He was not cut out for business, and was not interested in entrepreneurial pursuits. This led to his academic probation for several semesters and nearly being kicked out of school.

But he loved his math classes.

He credits his late wife, Marjorie, for motivating him to pursue his talents in math. “My wife was the one who gave me reason to get serious and turn it around,” Speer said.

Really Learning Math

Soon after graduating college, he was recruited to teach basic high school math. Then, he had another epiphany. Although his students were doing the problems correctly, they were not learning math.

For instance, he was teaching them how to solve for square roots using pencil and paper, going through a long series of complicated steps. They all completed the steps, but one student persistently asked, “Why are you doing what you’re doing?”

Over three days, Speer worked with the student to figure why taking that particular series of steps results in the answer to the square root of a number. Speer realized that no one ever told him either.

“Turns out to be the simplest thing to understand,” Speer said. “It’s not a math problem. It’s geometry! The rules we encounter in school mathematics are not the real mathematics. It’s the process we use to establish those rules that reflect the true nature of math. And it’s that ‘aha!’ moment you have with a student that you can count as success.”