Thursday, February 23, 2012

From the Mouths of Mathematicians

"The first things i learned about mathematics was that there is a hell of a difference between, on the one hand, listening to math being talked about by someone else and thinking that you are understanding, and, on the other, thinking about math and understanding it yourself and talking about it to someone else." Sarah Flannery

Reuben Hirsch from his book What Is Mathematics Really?  "Mathematics is learned by computing, by solving problems, and by conversing, more than by reading and listening."

It is fair to say that mathematicians enjoy doing mathematics.  We enjoy solving puzzles, working on ideas, making connections, and all that.  It is the so called "heart of the matter," and one of our goals as instructors is to make this happen for all our students, at whatever level they are at.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

IBL Instructor Perspectives: Professor Dana Ernst

A Q&A session with Professor Dana Ernst, Department of Mathematics, Plymouth State University.  Dana  is an award-winning, highly energetic math professor, who has recently learned to teach using IBL.  In this blog post, we ask him a handful of questions related to his IBL teaching.

1. How long have you been teaching and what was your teaching style before you started using IBL?

I have been teaching college-level mathematics, starting as a graduate student, since the spring of 1998.  My classes have always been interactive, but initially they were predominately lecture-based. Probably like most teachers, I modeled my teaching style after my favorite teachers.  I was aware of the Moore method and IBL, but I had never experienced this paradigm as a student.  By most metrics, my approach in the classroom seemed to be working.  My teaching evaluations have been consistently high and I have received several teaching awards. However, prior to implementing IBL, I was suspicious that I could get so much more out of my teaching.  More precisely, I was suspicious that I could provide my students with the opportunity to get so much more out of my classes.

2. How did you learn about IBL and when did you begin using it in your classes?

It was not until I sat through a Project NExT workshop at the 2008 MathFest led by Carol Schumacher that I began to consider using IBL.  Carol's workshop was about implementing a modified-Moore method approach in an undergraduate real analysis course.  I do not remember the details of the workshop, but by the end, I was inspired to give IBL a shot.  In the spring of 2009, despite having no prior experience or formal training, I decided to teach my very first IBL course.  The course I chose is called Logic, Proof, and Axiomatic Systems, which is meant to be the introduction to proof course at Plymouth State University.  Perhaps surprisingly (since it was my first go), the course was a huge success and I was immediately sold on the potential impact that IBL can have on a student's learning and character development.  I have loved teaching since the day I started, but nothing compared to the joy of watching students truly learn mathematics, and often completely independent of me.  I had taught the same course two semesters in a row using a mostly lecture-based approach, and I had thought that the previous two iterations went very well.  However, the IBL version was a vast improvement.  I have since had students from all three variations in upper-level proof-based courses and the students from the IBL version are much more independent and, in general, better proof-writers.

3. What was one of your best IBL experiences?

There are so many!  Here is one event that illustrates why I am hooked on IBL.  During the Fall 2011 semester, I was chosen for jury duty, which required me to miss six days of classes.  For all but two of these days, I was able to find a faculty member to cover my classes.  For the two days that I did not have faculty coverage, I convinced a graduate student in education to cover my IBL abstract algebra course.  This student had taken my IBL introduction to proof course, so he had some IBL experience, but he had never had an abstract algebra course.  On the days the graduate student covered for me, the class ran as usual and the students were highly productive.  They didn't need me!  The students were so proud of what they achieved while I was gone, they sent me pictures of the work that was presented on the board.  The graduate student that covered for me indicated that all he had to do was jot down who came to the board to present.

4. What advice do you have for new IBL instructors?

In order for IBL to be successful, the students have to buy into it.  To pull this off, instructor need to do some marketing at the beginning of semester.  The right amount of marketing varies from class to class and semester to semester.  For classes filled with students with prior IBL experience, I don't have to convince them of the benefits of IBL.  These students are generally ready to dive in and get started.   For classes consisting of students that are new to IBL, it is important to explicitly spell out the format, expectations, and goals of the course.  One approach I take on the first day is to ask the students what skills a college student, specifically a math major, should have upon graduating and how best to acquire these skills. Through some Socratic questioning, I am able to get them to tell me that we should be doing something like IBL. I'm not trying to trick them, but rather give them some ownership in the philosophy behind the structure of the course.

Even if the students are sold on IBL, you still have to be willing to adapt, overcome, and improvise.  Issues will come up that you couldn't have predicted.  Building a community of trust will make any challenges a lot easier to deal with.  I believe that the two most important qualities of an IBL instructor, heck any instructor, are patience and being "Mr./Mrs. Friggin' Positive." Lastly, I would like to echo something Ed Parker has said.  Sit back, shut up, and "see what they can do".

[Added by Stan Yoshinobu]  Summary: 

  1. Go to a workshop if you can.
  2. We can all improve our teaching!
  3. We are not just teaching facts, we are developing appropriate habits of mind, such as independence
  4. Marketing to students (i.e. getting them on board with an IBL class) at the beginning of term is one of the keys to success.
  5. Be flexible! Be patient! Be super positive!!
Thanks Dana!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Architecture and Education Part 2

In part 1 I described an ideal situation where the physical space of a building can encourage learning.  Now I turn to a pragmatic issue -- how to make your classroom physically and mentally a good learning space. Small groups are useful in a wide variety of situations.  Although some IBL instructors forbid collaboration of the group work kind, many instructors use group work highly successfully.  Both style have merit, and what I highlight here are ways to setup a classroom, should you choose to use group work (which I recommend as a good way to get started using IBL methods).

Physically most of our college classrooms are setup with the factory model.  Students are sitting in rows.

In a room like this, the desks can be moved.  In this case you can easily ask students to move their desks into small groups of size two to four.  One suggestion, if possible, is to arrange it so that it is easy for you to walk through the classroom. Creating a boulevard in the middle allows you to walk down the boulevard and get to all the groups (e.g. ask the first two rows, and last two rows to move together) . 

If your room has fixed desks, all is not lost.  You have to ask students to work with neighboring students and get them to turn their bodies at face on another.  It's not ideal, but it works.

Don't be shy about moving people. This is part of IBL instruction -- move students to where they will be successful!  It is better to be mildly intrusive than to allow other factors to inhibit learning.  

Non-physical caveat:  The buildings, setting up groups, desks, these are all physical and can assist with developing a healthy, productive learning environment.  By themselves they are not sufficient of course.  Instructor skill, leadership, facilitation, and coaching are major drivers and can overcome almost any physical boundaries.

Ideally we would have small tables in one part of the room for small group work, and chairs in another part of the room for whole-group discussions and presentations.  I hope that future buildings are designed for class discussions, collaboration in small groups, as well as some private space for those times when students need to think by themselves.  This is doable and low cost.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Teaching Tips: Chaos

Another title for this post is "Chaos" vs Chaos.  True chaos is not appropriate in a classroom for obvious reason.  As an instructor transitions from lecture to IBL methods one has to recalibrate what and orderly classroom looks and sounds like.

Talking -- there will be more talking, especially if one uses collaborative groups.  If the tasks are implemented appropriately, then there will be noise.  This is a good thing.  Listen to the discussions about math and get insights into how students think.  

Side note: If students are talking about other stuff, redirect.  Ask them them what they tried, if they can work on the next problem, give them another task,...

Non-textbook route -- students who are learning math should not be expected to produce clean proofs like a seasoned, professional mathematician.  It's hard for instructors to remember the challenges we faced when we were learning ideas for the first time.  To instructors the work looks chaotic, disorganized, messy.  But that is a fact of life.  Learning is messy and nonlinear.  That's a good sign.  Students are trying and working and building and exploring.   If there's nothing on the page, that's when you need to step in and provide guidance and mentoring.  When there's stuff happening, keep an eye on them, but don't mess it up by intervening.

For pure Modified Moore Method classes, such interactions in classrooms as described above may not happen.  That's fine.  You know it is happening outside of class, but it is important to know and be conscience of the fact that students are struggling.  If they come in for help, then it is our job as instructors to listen compassionately and understand that the students asking for help are stuck and are developing.  We can shape the path for them without giving away answers, and we can be supportive and point out all of the positive steps they have taken.

The purpose of class discussions, presentations, homework, portfolios, etc. is to put all this chaos into a final form that makes sense.  Our goal is to produce mathematics, and the way mathematics is produced is by proving or justifying why statements are true.  Class discussions, presentations, homework, portfolios are some ways to channel the chaos into a product.

Short story:  Embrace good chaos.  Channel good chaos into a final product of some sort.  Don't expect students to take your path to a proof or solution (i.e. what you think is chaos might just be another way).  Help and support those who need it without diminishing the intellectual value of the task.

Note:  If the homework collected is not high quality, use homework templates to encourage your students to improve their process.