Friday, October 28, 2016

A Vision for the Future of Active Learning: Professional Development Centers

I've been participating in the Mathematical Association of America's Active Learning Day/Week (#activelearningday), I've shared some videos of students sharing their opinions and experiences in IBL classes. I've also truly enjoyed hearing from my colleagues about their experiences and what they do! What an inspiration!

I think it's appropriate at this point to share an idea I have been thinking about for several years. The idea is centered on the goal of really pushing active learning forward in Mathematics. The idea is fairly straightforward, and is to create several Professional Development Centers in Mathematics Teaching and Learning across the nation, loosely modeled after the Mathematical Science Research Institute. Because regional needs vary significantly, it is likely a better strategy to create more of these in smaller sizes, creating a more nimble and responsive network.

Some Issues and Gaps
Some gaps in our system exist for preparing college math faculty to teach using active-learning methods exists. I'll highlight some of the main ones I have noticed to shed some light on the gaps, and then we can see how a PD Center can offer significant help.

Education reform is hard, time-consuming work. It involves working with people in diverse settings and in the system is gigantic. Just in my state university system, the California State University, there are 440,000 students across more than 20 campuses living in learning in a vast range of environments. Impactful change in just one system is an immense challenge, much less the challenge presented by a nation with over 300 million people.

Teaching is a system and a cultural activity. Hence change is much, much more than merely changing textbooks or rearranging the schedule from MW to MWF. It involves shifting fundamental ways in which students interact with the subject, which involves a lot of inertia. Hence, this is yet another factor that implies that changes in teaching is a hard challenge for each individual instructor.

The Uptake Problem is a label I use to represent the fact that the percentage of faculty using active-learning remains low, despite knowledge of the existence of active learning. One study by Dancy and Henderson suggests that time and other complexities affecting the process of changing teaching methods are significant. It's not enough to know a solution exists. To find ones that work for individuals is a specialized problem confronting each instructor.

Grant work has been instrumental in accelerating the progress of active learning, and we have gained and learned a tremendous amount from this. We would not be where we are today, without grant-funded projects. The grant-funded projects, however, do not cover all the bases, so arguing that we have external grants isn't a full solution. For instance, when funding ends, projects can lose momentum or die off. We can say that we are at a point where we can see the finish line because of grant-funded work. We are much better off, but this line of work tends to be more focused and not the broad, long-term work we need to take things to the next level.

At present, there isn't a professional group that works solely on implementation of active learning on a full-time basis. This is in my opinion a weakness in the system, and slows progress. Grants allow some of us to do this part-time, but our time frames are short and our reach is limited compared to the size of the profession. At the moment, we are primarily a grass-roots effort (which is good and necessary, but not sufficient).

Centers for Teaching and Learning on college and university campuses are wonderful resources. I truly appreciate what they do and the services they offer. One area that CTLs can struggle with is in the area of the details of discipline specific active learning. Teaching Abstract Algebra or Real Analysis or first-year Calculus present different challenges to math instructors. Hence, mathematicians and mathematics educators are best positioned to be the ones to do the PD work. General frameworks for teaching are a good place to start, and can be learned from CTLs, but what happens when your students have trouble understanding nested quantifiers in the context of proving a function is not continuous? CTLs can be partners in this, but another force is needed to take things across the finish line.

Experienced faculty in active learning are generally diffuse and are (at least) somewhat isolated from one another. At the moment there are some efforts to coordinate, so it is understood by some that this issue needs to be addressed. Still much of the time the experience, skill, and knowledge of the profession is not being fully harnessed via collaboration, sharing, and consolidating knowledge, materials, and expertise. Consequently, a PD Center is needed to assist with coordinating efforts.

Hence, opportunities to learn about and get support using active learning are largely ephemeral, and all the while the challenges facing instructions remain significant.

What Professional Development Centers Could Do
I'll sketch the kinds of activities PD Centers could do. This isn't a comprehensive list, and is intended as a staring point to explore what might be possible.
  • Focused on professional development for all faculty interested in active learning and improving student learning of mathematics
  • Short workshops, during academic terms, where faculty could visit classes
  • Long workshops during academic breaks for intensive work
  • Traveling workshops to visit to departments
  • Create repositories for workshop materials, course materials, and relevant research studies
  • Postdoc and visiting scholar programs for developing young faculty and future leadership
  • Host small groups of visitors during the academic year to customize experiences around their specific needs
  • Create a video library of best practices for multiple types of classes, so visitors can sit in live classrooms and study video to ensure they have access to the range of skills and practices needed for successful implementation. The video library would also have value in formal workshop settings.
  • Outreach work to encourage an ever increasing number of instructors to lean in and try active learning
  • Develop workshop leaders so that workshops can be run across the nation.
  • Offer grants to support faculty and departments, who need time and materials to get up to speed
  • Full time faculty and staff, who focus on this line of work, perhaps including postdocs and visiting scholars
My sense is that a PD Center should be housed at a college or university, where teaching is valued and a variety of course offerings are available. In this case, it could offer many different options for professional development.

Our experiences running IBL Workshops inform us that changes in teaching requires significant time and effort. The typical new IBL instructor spends hundreds of hours to get going with IBL, even when starting with a week-long workshop.  The "activation energy" is high, and efforts are spent over many academic years. A PD Center could offer support that matches such longer-term time frames for faculty development and institutional changes, unlike grant-funded projects, which come and go and have more limited resources.

Let's look at the example of the state of California, which has about 1/8th of the nation's population. I'm choosing this example only because this is where I am. A PD center somewhere on one of the CSU or UC campuses, could be a place where math professors and instructors from colleges and universities across the state (and west coast) could visit within a half a day's drive or short flight. Annual workshops and conferences could be hosted, and specific regional issues could be addressed, such as the preparation of future secondary math teachers, how to teach Differential Equations to engineering majors, urban commuter issues in the SF and LA areas, and so on... Steady, long-term effort could be spent on a wide range of issues with the help and support of a PD Center that brings people together to work collaboratively on our big challenges.

Consequently, it can be argued that the existence of PD Centers would significantly impact the long-term successful implementation of active learning across the nation. These efforts could be expanded into other STEM fields, and in time (or in parallel) into K-12 Math and Science.  We have a robust group of mathematicians, mathematics education researchers, and math instructors across the nation, all doing great work. The ideas outlined above expose where our nation is lacking in infrastructure, and how some of these gaps could be addressed with PD Centers.

Great schools depend on great teachers. Focusing our efforts on teaching and learning is, in my opinion, the best bang for the buck. It would be wonderful if we could provide the support, leadership, and vision befitting the challenges, needs, and goals of our math teachers, our profession, and ultimately our students.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Does Class Size Matter?

The simple answer is yes.

Let's look at some data. An analysis released a couple of years ago by the National Education Policy Center uses an econometric take on the issue, where they try to disentangle data to find causal links. In their work, share evidence that class size increases harms students. This is from data that is "econometric" friendly, where the savings today in increasing class sizes (K-12) is offset in the future by far greater costs. (Penny wise, pound foolish?)

The point I want to get to is a very simple one. Another perspective of this issue is as a classroom teacher.  Let's look at the sequence of class sizes to see how teaching decisions are affected as class size increases. (The assumptions here include assuming we are talking about the college math setting.) Also I'm not going to list all possibilities. The goal here is to see a pattern as class size increases.

Class size of 10: Anything can be done at this class size. Projects, full IBL (where students present proofs or solutions), team/group work, seminar or whatever comes to mind.

Class size of 20: At 20, things are still manageable, and an instructor can get to know all of the students, customize materials and learning experiences, projects are still doable. IBL is doable in with small groups/pairs and students presenting individually.

Class size of 40: Things start to get to a point where there are too many students to let them present their work to the whole class.  Each student may only go to the board a couple of times a term. Somewhere between 30 and 40, instructors tend to switch away from some student-centered methods (such as students presenting their ideas at the board). Small groups can still be used, and the instructor may not be able to get to all groups on a particular task.

Class size of 80: Individual student presentation of mathematics is almost surely off the table. Small groups and peer instruction remain, so instructors can develop this area to support an active learning environment. Projects are highly difficult to implement at this class size, especially at institutions without teaching assistants. The instructor can still visit with some groups and make it around the room (depending on the space) say one trip per class period (approximately).

Class size of 160: At this point, you are well into large lecture territory.  Peer instruction (Think-Pair-Share) and similar methods (with or without clickers) remain in play, although the size or difficulty of the task may be on the less challenging side of the spectrum. Presentations by students, class discussions, projects, instructor visits to each group regularly are almost surely off the table.

As you go up in class size, you lose the implementability of teaching strategies that engage students and also anything that does get implemented needs to be done at a higher skill level and attendant time in preparing for class. Managing a discussion with 160 students takes skill, and most all instructors may be inclined to avoid it.

Consequently, what we are seeing is that there exists research evidence suggesting that a negative, material impact is a consequence of increasing class size AND from a practitioner standpoint instructors have fewer, high-impact strategies at their disposal as classes get larger. We have said nothing yet about how class dynamics can change as you get to larger class sizes. For example, it's easier to hide in a large class, and it's easier for students to checkout, be distracted, and show up late.

Another facet of class size issues is that class size is often a policy decision, not in direct control by an instructor. Instructors can have input on class size, but it's not up to instructors to set class size limits. This is done by policy makers or administrators, yet these decisions have significant impact on teaching decisions and hence learning outcomes. Faculty and administrators should take into account the big picture when it comes to class size. Focus on things like nominal efficiency, should be viewed while also heavily weighing learning outcomes, DFW rates and long-term impacts on student learning.