Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The instructor's role in an IBL class, Part 2

In my last post, I described three of five aspects of an IBL instructor’s role: managing expectations, managing emotions, and keeping the students engaged. In this post, I take up the remaining aspects.

Finding out what students know is an ongoing task. For those who follow such things, this is also called formative assessment, and it is a critical part of a successful teaching-and-learning experience. There are a couple of purposes for formative assessment. One is to formulate responses as the instructor that will help students move forward in understanding the mathematics. Another is to identify opportunities where specific students may benefit from working on particular problems, or to find opportunities for students to share what they know at a time when it will benefit the class. One of the great benefits of teaching via IBL is that there are so many opportunities to hear from students and to develop a picture of where they are in their mathematical development. By listening to discussions between and among students in pairs or groups, and during presentations and the ensuing discussions, the instructor should have a good idea of when students might have something especially productive to contribute, or when a discussion from one group should be shared with the whole class, for instance. Notice that while formal quizzes or exams remain a source of information, as an IBL instructor the opportunities to find out what students are thinking go far beyond this, and are embedded in the everyday tasks of the class. Also notice that grades are not really a purpose of formative assessment. The focus is on student learning, and how to enhance it.

Fitting the problems to the students is a task that begins before the semester, but continues to occur through the semester. Before the semester, the major task of an IBL instructor is to determine the main course content goals, which could be particular theorems, skill with specific kinds of problems, or facility with certain techniques. Sources for beginning this work on your first attempt with a class might be the department course syllabus, and/or standard textbooks. From these, the instructor’s job is to put a priority on the central ideas. Then, the instructor works on developing a sequence of problems, lemmas, etc., that will carry the students from their anticipated starting point through to the goal results. As the semester gets underway, the IBL instructor works (1) to find problems to engage particular students (often the highest students or the ones struggling the most), or (2) to use to the students' advantage what they know and are thinking about, and to respond with a set of problems that provide an alternate path to the results, and (3) to modify the difficulty of the problems as the students may be more or less advanced than anticipated and more or fewer lemmas are needed between the main results to keep the majority of the class moving in a positive direction. 

I hope this captures at least some of the key ingredients in the recipe for a successful IBL course. Let me know your thoughts.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The instructor's role in an IBL class, Part 1

In discussing inquiry-based learning (IBL) with college faculty and K-12 teachers, I find that one of the difficult things to do is to communicate what the instructor’s role is, as opposed to what it is not. Many people are familiar with such mantras as, Teaching is not telling, or, Don’t lecture. These are helpful, but then instructors are left wondering what to do. In this post, I want to briefly describe a few important duties of an instructor in an IBL classroom. The roles I am going to describe are not mutually exclusive categories, but interwoven threads. Nonetheless, I call these out because I think they capture some critical aspects of the flavor of teaching an IBL course. These duties are: managing expectations, managing emotions, keeping the students engaged, finding out what students know, and fitting the problems to the students. In this post, I will deal with the first three aspects, and deal with the last two in my next post.

Managing expectations is a primary duty in an IBL classroom. Students come to class, and especially, come to math class, with expectations, including unconscious ones, about what is going to happen. These expectations are often something like, "The teacher will show me a formula and examples, and I just have to memorize and repeat what the teacher does on similar examples." In contrast, in an IBL classroom, students are expected to bring their ideas to problems for which the path to solution may not be clear. Students are not used to being asked to think things through for themselves in math class, and this leads to frustration. The teacher’s first duty is to make it clear to students that they will need to bring their own ideas, and that they will often not know what to do, or they will do things that turn out not to work, but as a class, they will make progress in understanding the mathematics. In class, the IBL instructor can say things like, “This is going to be different, but you will learn a lot,” or, “You’re going to experience mathematics the way that mathematicians do,” or, “You will get stuck a lot in this class. That’s ok. You can even write ‘STUCK!’ on your work when that happens. The important thing is to learn from what you try, both what works and what doesn’t."

In tandem with managing expectations is managing emotions. As mathematicians, we experience frustration as we search for a solution, and we take wrong turns, or the path to the solution is longer than we hoped. Students feel this frustration. If you are managing expectations properly, then students should know that frustration is normal and expected. However, there is more to the instructor’s role than that. If the entire class is boiling over with frustration, the instructor has a duty to respond. If the students are left to flounder, a mutiny can begin to brew. The instructor may say things like, “It seems like this problem/theorem is really stumping us. Let’s brainstorm how we can find new ways to attack it,” or, “I am glad to see everyone is showing persistence on this problem. Sometimes the best way to get past a roadblock is to go around it. So why don’t we look at this {example, related theorem, special case} for now and then come back to the main problem,” or, “This problem is really giving us a rough ride. Let me tell you a quick story about this time when I was frustrated and how I got through it…”

Keeping the students engaged is a multifaceted task. I have written on this blog before about a specific engagement strategy, and about how to reach out to students who are reluctant to participate. I will add to what I’ve written before by mentioning the importance of managing classroom participation. When there is a student presenting work to the class, the instructor’s role is to ensure that the rest of the class is engaging with the presenter and/or the presenter’s work. This can be done in several ways. One of them is to give the students question/comment stems and to call on students to use the stem to offer a question or comment. Some of my stems include, “I like how you…” “What led you to think of…” “I’m not sure I follow how you got from … to …” Another way is to have the presenter pause and to do a check for understanding or a think-pair-share. When the presentation is done, the instructor then pushes the students to ensure that they agree with all aspects of the mathematics, and also see to it that they understand insofar as possible how the student came up with that solution. When students are working in pairs or small groups, the instructor should make sure that all group members are contributing to the conversation. When necessary, this can be actively managed when the instructor inserts him or herself into a group conversation to make statements such as, “I see that Ann and Bob are sharing their ideas. Carol, is what they’re saying making sense to you?” or, “I appreciate that you’re all giving Darryl your attention. Could someone else try to restate what Darryl has shared so far?” or, “It seems like this group has spent some time working independently, each person with his or her own ideas. I think now would be a good time to share some of your progress and see what you can learn from each other’s approaches to this problem."

In the next post, I will take up the other two aspects of the instructor's role.

Let me know your thoughts or other aspects of the instructor's role I have left out.