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.

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