Thursday, April 18, 2013

"How Intelligent Are My Students?"

Note: I've talked about this in presentations I have given in the past.  I thought I should share it on the blog.

In the context of growth mindset, this post is about teachers also having a growth mindset about their students.  I frequently hear something along the lines of, "How intelligent are my students?"  I propose to permute the words.

"How intelligent are my students?"
"How are my students intelligent?"

The second question is the one that can make a difference in our classrooms.  If we think about our students and what they are good at, we then have a place to start with our tasks and problems.  Knowing where your students are at is a fundamental component of good teaching.  

If you don't know specifically what your students are good at, then it's time to start giving them more opportunities to do math in a way that let's you see how they think.  Perhaps try a think-pair-share or get students to work in groups on a couple of problems, and go and visit.

How are your students intelligent?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

MathFest Reminder #2

A quick reminder to those attending MathFest.  Submit an abstract before April 30 via the link above.  If you have questions, please email Dana Ernst.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Call for Papers, Legacy of R. L. Moore Conference, June 13-15, Austin TX

IBL community -- please consider submitting an abstract to one of the contributed paper sessions at the upcoming Legacy of R. L. Moore/IBL Conference.  More info is available at

IBL Instructor Survey

For members of the IBL Math community (i.e. all instructors using IBL in a mathematics course), please consider completing the following "snapshot" survey.

We invite you to contribute to creating a community snapshot of Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) in mathematics. This short (5-minute) survey will help us understand where and how IBL is now being used and how it may be spreading.

It will also help us to assess the feasibility of possible future research studies about instructors' use of IBL and about student outcomes of IBL in diverse institutions.

Please complete the survey at


Monday, April 8, 2013

IBL Session at MathFest 2013

MathFest 2013 will feature a session called "Inquiry-Based Learning Best Practices" on Saturday afternoon (of MathFest)


In many mathematics classrooms, doing mathematics means following the rules dictated by the teacher and knowing mathematics means remembering and applying these rules.  However, an inquiry-based learning (IBL) approach challenges students to create/discover mathematics.  Boiled down to its essence, IBL is a method of teaching that engages students in sense-making activities.  Students are given tasks requiring them to conjecture, experiment, explore, and solve problems.  Rather than showing facts or a clear, smooth path to a solution, the instructor guides students via well-crafted problems through an adventure in mathematical discovery.  The talks in this session will focus on IBL best practices.  We seek both novel ideas and effective approaches to IBL. Claims made should be supported by data (student responses, test scores, survey results, etc.) or anecdotal evidence.  This session will be of interest to instructors new to IBL, as well as seasoned practitioners looking for new ideas.

Dana Ernst, Northern Arizona University
Angie Hodge, University of Nebraska at Omaha
Stan Yoshinobu, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo

Click the link below to submit an abstract.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Grey Zone Part 1: Unintended Negative Incentives

It's time to look at some issues in the grey zone.  It's good for us to push ourselves a bit.  Why?  Any strong system must have the strength and courage to look at itself as it is.  We can only grow out of our weaknesses, if we study them and learn from them. Just as we tell our students that we learn most from mistakes, we must also tell and believe in this ourselves.  Let's get on with the learning!

I also point out that the goal isn't to make anyone feel bad or guilty, but to open up a deeper discussion about what we're really in this for.  Further I emphasize strongly that no sane person intentionally wants students to fail or for our system to have the failings that it currently does.

Here's the starter topic for this series:  Atlanta schools are caught in a large, shameful cheating scheme to boost test scores.   

Atlanta is but one example, by the way.  Other districts have been caught tampering with test scores.  Why did Atlanta schools cheat?  I can't know exactly all the reasons why, but certainly it does not help when people's jobs were essentially tied to test scores.  When $$$$ and test scores are tied together tightly, then there exists incentives that encourage people to make unintended choices.  We see this on wall street and the banking/financial crisis.  We see this is sports, where the incentives to be juiced are apparently worth the risk to some athletes for the financial and social gain.  School life is a subset of our larger culture and not completely immune to some of our failings.

One notion that we don't talk about in the U.S. enough is balancing accountability (testing) with responsibility.  What I mean by this is that we are overly concerned with accountability, whether it is test scores, covering all the material, or getting good teaching evaluations.  If incentives are too "high stakes" or put another way if there's too much emphasis on accountability, then we are susceptible to opening a Pandora's Box of unintended consequences.

The Atlanta cheating scandal is a big, headline worthy example of unintended consequences of high-stakes testing, but there are other more insidious and frankly unwelcome versions of this at the college level.  One example is the coverage issue in freshman Calculus.  I'm not saying that cheating and coverage are the same issue, but they point to an underlying issue.   Instructors probably gripe about one thing the most:  coverage.  Calculus courses are jam packed with content.  Implementing active, empirically-validated teaching methods is hard work, and one of the main reasons why instructors do not implement modern teaching methods is time.  "I would like to do that, but there's no time..." The analogous issue in K-12 is "I would like to do that, but it's not on the test..."  In K-12 external accountability pressures that are too great push teachers away from modern pedagogies.

It's clear I believe in active, student-centered instruction.  Let's put that aside and think about the larger issue logically.  Whatever your take is on teaching, coverage should not be a core reason why we choose to use a teaching method or not.  We should use the methods that produce the best learning outcomes, based on the evidence available.  Moreover  focusing on covering a list of topics is only the start of a discussion about real education.  It is noted that missing from a list of topics are problem-solving ability, critical reasoning, communication, curiosity, attitudes about mathematics, and so on.

The part that is especially uncomfortable for us in the teaching profession boils down to this.  When we say, "I would like to do that, but I don't have time..." one could argue that this is like saying "I know this would help my students, but it's my job.  It's how the system is set up..."  I don't like the sound of that.  Being pinned down by coverage is parallel to the excessive accountability in K-12 schools in the sense there exists unintended incentives for not doing the right thing.

Let's turn this around to the positive direction...  we can start talking about coverage as a real issue and deal with it through having productive discussions and seeing what we can learn from one another, especially by learning from successful programs and instructors.  Ideas are out there for improving learning outcomes without sacrificing our standards that simultaneously improve areas such as problem solving and attitudes about mathematics.

The cheating scandal and being trapped by overly long syllabi are two examples of a by product of unintended negative incentives.  Cheating comes from excessive accountability, and slow uptake of empirically validated teaching methods is affected by excessive content demands.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

David Bressoud: "Good Teaching"

Check out David Bressoud's results about instructor actions highly correlated with positive attitudes with students and highly correlated with each other.  All of the results are in direct alignment with what we have been advocating in the IBL community.  Ask, listen, support, mentor.

Get the details here: