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The 2017 Felix Klein Award


The Felix Klein Award, with which ICMI honors the most meritorious scholars within the mathematics education community, is given in 2017 to Deborah Loewenberg Ball, the William H. Payne Collegiate Professor in Education and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, US.  The Felix Klein Award 2017 is awarded to Professor Ball in recognition of her outstanding contributions and her leadership role in deepening our understanding of the complexities of teaching mathematics and in improving the practice of teaching and of teacher education. 

These achievements are grounded in Deborah Ball’s firm belief that research and practice of teaching are co-constitutive and must always be developed in tandem. Early in her life, Deborah Ball, at that time an exceptionally talented elementary school mathematics teacher, set out to investigate what was involved in the work of teaching children mathematics “for understanding.” Her intention was to uncover the work in order to support the learning of teaching practice. Ever since then, her ambition has been to contribute in a substantial way to the project of improving ways in which mathematics teachers support their students’ learning. This goal gave rise to two lines of work, both of them combining research with development in the domain of teacher education. The first strand, in which the research element came first, has been generating studies revolving around the question of what mathematical knowledge is required for teaching learners. In the second line of work, related to the practice of education in a more immediate way, the development of innovative teacher preparation programs has been combined with research, through which Deborah Ball has been trying to gain a better grasp of the moment-to-moment dilemmas with which teachers grapple in the classroom.  

The first of these pursuits gave rise to the theory of MKT, Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching, the kind of knowledge that requires competence in both everyday and academic mathematical discourses, but is identical to neither. In her multiple studies, Deborah Ball and her colleagues have been able to identify many unique  features of MKT, and then to corroborate the conjecture about a correlation between teachers’ competence in this special brand of mathematics and the achievements of their students. With the support of a group of mathematicians, the theory has been translated into an instrument for measuring teachers’ knowledge of mathematics for teaching. The MKT project proved highly influential, as evidenced by the widespread use of the term MKT and by the great popularity of Deborah Ball’s publications on the topic. Her 2008 paper “Content knowledge for teaching: What makes it special?” co-authored with Mark Hoover and Geoffrey Phelps Thames, which appeared in the Journal of Teacher Education, is one example of such a widely read article.  

The second, newer strand of Deborah Ball’s work is centered in TeachingWorks, a national organization she established at the University of Michigan to help in improving teachers’ preparation and to define “a professional threshold for entry to teaching.” The mission of the institute is to identify “high-leverage” teaching practices, that is, those recurring elements of teacher’s classroom activities that are central to what Deborah Ball terms “the work of teaching.” It is also part of the mission to work in partnerships with others to improve the preparation of teachers. To this end, Deborah Ball has been carrying in-depth analyzes of the ways in which mathematics teachers juggle their multiple classroom tasks, such as interpreting the learner’s often idiosyncratic ways of thinking, gradually transforming the children’s special understandings into more canonical ones, sustaining equitable learning dialogue and taking care of the emotional well-being of the students. This line of Deborah Ball’s research, while relatively new, seems to be an attempt to close the circle that opened with the early reflection on her intuitive efforts, as a teacher, to identify and to bridge the gap between her own mathematics and the mathematics of her students. Indeed, this current research project harks back to Deborah Ball’s early publications, such as her now classical 1993 article “With an eye on mathematical horizon: Dilemmas of teaching elementary school mathematics”, in which the memorable case of “Sean numbers” helped the author to highlight challenges of classroom teaching. 

Deborah Ball has played multiple leadership roles, and not only within community of mathematics education but also within that of education at large, and not only within United States, but internationally. In all these arenas, hers was a systematic effort to build bridges. Her years-long work on bringing together research and practice of mathematics education is just one example of these attempts. Another expresses itself in her striving for a fruitful collaboration between the communities of mathematicians and of mathematics educators. In this later undertaking, she has been acting on her strong belief that certain differences of opinions on mathematics and on teaching that arise occasionally between these two communities, far from being an obstacle, are likely to help in creating a synergetic partnership.   

Deborah Ball’s achievements as a researcher and a leader have been recognized nationally and internationally. This recognition is signaled, among others, by the unprecedented frequency with which her publications are cited by other authors, by her great popularity as a speaker, by her multiple roles within ICMI and by her membership of numerous policy-making or advisory committees, such as the National Science Board, appointed by President Barack Obama. Whereas her work is firmly grounded in mathematics education, the recognition of its outcomes goes well beyond the community of mathematics education. This is evidenced by Deborah Ball’s prestigious membership in the National Academy of Education and by her current roles as the President of the American Educational Research Association and as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 

Deborah Ball has been an elementary classroom teacher before and during her studies at Michigan State University, which she completed in 1988 with a PhD in mathematics education. Upon graduation, she joined Michigan State University, and in 1996 she was recruited to the University of Michigan to develop the mathematics  education group. She has been teaching at the University of Michigan ever since then and also spent over a decade serving as Dean of the School of Education there.

With more than thirty years of outstanding achievements in mathematics education research and development, Deborah Ball is a most distinguished member of mathematics education community and a highly deserving recipient of the 2017 Felix Klein Award. 

Click here for a note on procedures from the Awards Committee