Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Personality Matters?

By Dana Ernst

A few weeks ago, Angie and I were helping out with the IBL Workshop that took place at Cal Poly. Wow, what a great experience! I attended a similar workshop in Austin, TX, back in 2010 that took place prior to the Legacy of R. L. Moore Conference. The conference that I attended as a participant had a huge impact on my development as a practitioner of inquiry-based learning (IBL) and it was great to be involved in helping others have similar transformations. (If you want to know more about IBL, check out our What the Heck is IBL? post.)

The workshop lasted for four action-packed days. We basically went straight through from 8AM to 5PM each day and there wasn't a wasted moment. All of the sessions and activities were worthwhile, but what I cherished most were the conversations and interactions that I managed to squeeze in during our short breaks and at lunch. Being at a workshop like this always inspires new ideas and causes me to reflect on teaching and the purpose of education. During one of the lunch conversations, I had a revelation about my personality and how it impacts the choices I make about my teaching.

During lunch on the third day, I was sitting at small table with Kayla Dwelle from Ouachita Baptist University and a few others. Kayla and I were chatting about her successes and struggles in her IBL classes. She was lamenting the fact that her introduction to proof course hadn't been going as well as her liberal arts math class. As we talked, I was asking questions about what she felt were the differences between the two classes. One significant difference is that, in her proof course, one student at a time presents at the board, while the norm is small group work in the other course. Kayla got the feeling that her liberal arts math students had bought into IBL, she said, but that her intro to proof students hadn't seemed to embrace the approach. She wondered if the different outcomes had something to do with her own comfort with the two different approaches.

As soon as she said this, I got whacked in the head with an epiphany. I'll do my best to explain. I’ve been dabbling in group work for years, even before I started utilizing IBL. In fact, this past semester, I had my calculus students working in groups almost every day. My use of small groups never went poorly, but I also never left class thinking, "wow, that was the best class ever!" In contrast, I regularly have this thought after leaving my IBL classes where I take a modified-Moore method approach and typically have one student at the board at a time presenting their proposed proof/solution to an assigned problem. I’m definitely not opposed to group work, but I’ve always felt like group work and I just don't jive. In some sense, I have the reverse of Kayla's issue. This made me realize how much of an impact each instructor’s personality has on the effectiveness of the approach he or she takes to teaching.

As a student, I always sat in the back of the room. I do the same thing at conferences and such. I hate people being behind me. Hate it. It makes me feel uncomfortable. When I lecture, I may turn my back to the class for a few moments here and there, but generally, I'm facing the audience. In my IBL classes, if I'm not doing group work, I'm usually sitting or standing in the back of the room. I feel comfortable there. When I wander around the room while students are working in small groups, however, I'm in the middle of all the action. I don't necessarily dislike this, but it definitely disrupts my mojo.

Dana can do small group work (as long as there's no one behind him).

I also have the ability to hyper-focus for extended periods of time. It drives my wife nuts. I like to focus on one thing at a time and focus on it intensely. When a student is presenting, this is exactly what I am doing. I have a bird's eye view of what is going on in the whole room; I can process all the information, and then respond accordingly. I love it and for me it works really well. Yet, during small group work, there are a hundred different things going on and it's my job to bounce from one interaction to the next. My interaction may require no action at all, but I still have to be multi-processing. I can do it, but it's not as natural for me.

I conveyed my thoughts as I was having them during lunch and others at the table were pondering how their personalities influence their level of comfort and/or effectiveness with different approaches to teaching. As I recall, Kayla and Angie are more comfortable in the small group setting and feel that it has been very successful for them. I've since discussed this further with others and it is interesting to hear the wide range of responses.

Angie has found group work very successful in her classroom.

As I've been reflecting on this for the past few weeks, I've been reminded that students also have a wide variety of personalities and preferences when it comes to learning. I've had students get impatient at the pace with which we are covering material in my modified-Moore method classes. I don't think this is common, but it happens. Perhaps these students would prefer to work in a smaller group where they could have more influence over the pace. By the way, the types of students I just mentioned are probably as equally impatient in a lecture class where they likely have zero influence over the pace.

As a final thought, I don't want to dismiss the importance of refining the skills necessary for effectively implementing both group work and a modified-Moore method approach. Technique matters. I also don't mean to imply that group work and modified-Moore method are our only options or that a teacher must stick with one approach all the time.

Does your personality influence the choices you make as a teacher? Do you think it influences how effective you are at implementing different teaching methods? If so, how?

Photos, taken at the 2013 IBL Workshop, courtesy of Stan Yoshinobu.


Bret Benesh said...

Funny. I came to the realization this summer that part of why I haven't been thrilled with some of my IBL classes is that they have been too MMM/not enough group work.

Perhaps I am the Bizarro Dana.

Unknown said...

Bret, thanks for commenting. Do you think that your impressions about MMM versus group work are a result of your personality? Why do you desire more group work? What did you prefer as a student?

Unknown said...

I have only taught one MMM Real Analysis course and, since all my other courses require group work, my students automatically form groups. In the MMM class, they work to solve things together, but present their work individually. The other group members became cheer-leaders and the rest of the class was more comfortable being critical because the presenter had a support cushion.

Unknown said...

Hi Mariah, thanks for stopping by. In my MMM classes, I strongly encourage collaboration. This collaboration happens in and outside of class. I think this is really important. In fact, opportunities to collaborate is one of Sandra Laursen's "twin pillars" of IBL (see The in-class collaboration generally takes the form of class discussion and students interacting with presenters. However, occasionally I'll "kick out" to small group work when it seems like a good idea. Your comment about cheer-leaders is spot on. It's crucial that we help create a safe and comfortable community where students are willing to take risks. So that I don't get too off topic, let me finish by saying that my revelation is mostly about my position in the room and the number of things going on at one time.

Stan Yoshinobu said...

Nice post! Personality definitely plays a role. This makes me think if we are open about our choices and the rationale, then it might help students understand why we structure courses the way we do. Ultimately we are trying our best to find ways to help our students learn as much as possible. If you choose a format that works best for your skills and hardwiring, then I can't see sharing that as having a downside. Further, knowing our own strengths and weaknesses helps us make better choices and tells us what we need to work on. All good stuff!


Unknown said...

Thanks Stan. Also, thanks for the pictures.

Unknown said...

Thanks for your insights. When I saw the title, I thought I was going to read about how we harness our personalities to make IBL work. I was thinking of our panel on how you cheerlead, and I do not, but I do use humor, and I am super-laid back...I guess I've got a good idea for a future blog post.

Unknown said...

Matt, right! I forgot about that. I think your comment about harnessing our personalities to make IBL work is in the same vein as the theme of my post. I'm looking forward to your post!