Louise Hay Award

2009 Winner: Deborah Loewenberg Ball


In recognition of her deep and wide contributions to mathematics education, the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) presents the Nineteenth Annual Louise Hay Award to Deborah Loewenberg Ball, dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan.

Deborah Ball presents a unique combination of highly integrated talents and accomplishments —- long experience and continued engagement as an accomplished elementary mathematics teacher; original, rigorous, and prolific contributions on the frontiers of research in mathematics education; a high standing and respect among research mathematicians for the insight and integrity with which she treats mathematical ideas; and visionary intellectual and administrative leadership to reform the institutions of mathematics teacher education in this country.

One of Deborah’s primary research interests is the mathematical knowledge needed for teaching (MKT). She recognized before many that the mathematical knowledge needed by elementary school teachers is significantly different from that needed for STEM careers. Her investigations of what MKT is, how it may be measured, and how teachers’ knowledge of it impacts the learning of children are providing a foundation for reforms of the mathematics education and development of teachers. As Michèle Artigue (Professor of Mathematics at the Université de Paris VII and president of the International Commission on Mathematical Instruction (ICMI)) wrote, “Deborah Ball’s research addresses crucial issues for mathematics education, those related to teacher knowledge and teacher education. There exists today a huge amount of research on such issues, but that developed by Deborah Ball for more than 20 years now is highly original and offers an outstanding contribution to the field.”

While still a graduate student, Deborah played a leading role in writing the NCTM Professional Standards for Teaching. As Glenda Lappan (University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Mathematics at Michigan State University, and former president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) wrote, “I served as the overall chair with Deborah directing the group charged with writing the leading section on Mathematics Teaching. To this day, people in the field of mathematics education consider this leading section as the clearest and most compelling articulation of a set of standards for teaching ever written or likely to be written.”

In their letter of nomination, Hyman Bass (a former president of the American Mathematical Society) and Edward Silver (William Brownell Collegiate Professor in Education at the University of Michigan) wrote, “Deborah’s leadership in the world of mathematics education research and policy has been widely recognized, and the clarity, eloquence, and effectiveness of her public (written and oral) communication are much appreciated.” Deborah was named head of the RAND Mathematics Study Panel.

She was a major contributor to several NRC projects, notably the one that produced the widely-cited report, “Adding It Up.” She was one of the few educators on the Glenn Commission, otherwise populated mainly by members of Congress and business leaders. She headed the subgroup on teaching of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, whose report was recently released. She chaired the ICMI Study 15 on the Professional Education and Development of Teachers of Mathematics. Deborah Hughes Hallett (Professor of Mathematics at the University of Arizona and the eighth recipient of the Louise Hay Award) wrote, “Over the last decade, Deborah has been extraordinarily effective in promoting real collaboration and communication. In countless presentations, videotapes, and live demonstrations, she has displayed the insight a mathematics educator brings to an elementary school classroom. She has been tireless in organizing conferences in which other mathematicians and mathematics educators have the opportunity to learn from each other.”

Some of Deborah’s most remarkable qualities and skills are reflected in the productive relationships that she has formed with the mathematics research community, including the establishment of disciplined discourse with mathematical figures who have otherwise been somewhat alienated from the education community. This led to her placement on the panel “Reaching for Common Ground in Mathematics Education,” a series of discussions of mathematicians with mathematics educators, that helped to subdue the “Math Wars.” She was enlisted to develop an elementary mathematics education program in the Park City Mathematics Institute. And this led to her appointment as the first education trustee of MSRI, “a position that she took in order to help me engage MSRI in the dialogue about mathematics education,” according to David Eisenbud, formerly director of MSRI, now a professor of mathematics at the University of California at Berkeley. “Although this dialogue is often heated and opinionated, Ball has scrupulously supported the high road of careful scholarship and research over the ever-present temptation to polemic and opinion. She has led MSRI in this area for five years, and has taken a leadership role in the four (about to be five) annual conferences on mathematics education held at MSRI.”

The AWM is pleased to honor Deborah Loewenberg Ball with the 2009 Louise Hay Award for her innovative and crucially important research into the mathematics needed by elementary school teachers, her ability to communicate mathematics to children and related understandings to diverse communities of adults, her healing effect on the divisions among communities, and her effective national and international leadership.

Response from Deborah Loewenberg Ball:

Receiving the Louise Hay Award is a tremendous honor for me, and a big surprise. As someone who entered mathematics largely from the world of teaching mathematics to young children, I am still often a visitor, a fascinated tourist, in the discipline’s territory. Elementary teachers bear a serious and challenging responsibility to engage young learners in a field in which they themselves are not professionals. This responsibility, and the challenges it brings, is one that has preoccupied me, as a classroom teacher, a teacher educator, and a researcher. The problem presents a paradox of sorts, for mathematicians are not, in the main, mathematically prepared to teach children either. The compression that comes with expertise, especially in mathematics, can impede the work of making the subject learnable by others. Those who are insiders, professionals in the field, often find it difficult to “unpack” what they know. But, I, and others like me, are in the position of trying to acquaint children with a territory that we ourselves do not inhabit.

From my perspective, it was crucial to enter the territory and to meet and work with its inhabitants. I have been fortunate to have met and worked with mathematicians who have helped me explore the territory, learning to travel back and forth between the world of teaching mathematics and the world of doing mathematics. These mathematicians included Peter Hilton, Herb Clemens, Phil Kutzko, Roger Howe, Bill McCallum, David Eisenbud, and Hy Bass. Through their patient engagement, I came to discern more and more significant mathematics in the thinking of young children, and to see the work of teaching as involving mathematical depth that I had not appreciated. As they became fascinated with the mathematics in the world of elementary teaching, I saw mathematics I had not realized. Through the bridges we built together, the two worlds came much closer together. What it means to be convinced of a mathematical claim, how to represent something elegantly and clearly, or how to pose a mathematical question––these are mathematical problems that arise in third grade and in an algebraic geometry seminar.

Learning to talk across the apparent divide made it recede, and has enabled progress on the thorny question of what mathematics is entailed by the work of teaching. I began to appreciate that my students and I are inhabitants of the disciplinary territory, and that our work there can be done with integrity, and with an eye on the mathematical horizon to which my students are headed. But it took openness and collaboration to get to this point. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunities to learn and to work in close detail, inside of practice, on this problem that fascinated me, this paradox of how to bring closer together the worlds of mathematics and young children. There is a lot more to do; I hope the years to come bring more collaboration and interchange among us, and less scrappy arguing. The children deserve our best efforts together.

I am grateful to the Hay Award Selection Committee and to the AWM for this tremendous honor.