Monday, October 12, 2015

Many Voices Are Greater Than One

Photo credit Stan Yoshinobu
It turns out that talking to yourself can be a sign of intelligence and lower stress. The down side is that you don't tend to hear a lot of new ideas.  Perhaps it is best to work out ideas by yourself and, once you get stuck, find new ideas by talking to others. Though this is a simple way to describe how discovery happens in a community setting, and describe expectations for students in our classes, it has not always been a common approach to teaching. It was certainly not how we were taught to do mathematics. However, what helped many mathematicians to learn and love mathematics might not work for our students. If you could learn by just being told things, then children would never have to be told twice to brush their teeth or wash their hands. If you have ever seen a tablet or phone screen after an eight year old has used it, you know that the lesson on washing hands doesn’t stick. How do we get mathematics to stick in our students' minds like grime on an eight year old’s hands? In order to make lasting knowledge, you need to get in there, explore, and experiment with everything you see, much like a child at play.

It is a shame that so many students never get their hands dirty working with math, but rather most view mathematics as an adversary. A simple measure of this is to ask them “When was the last time math really made sense?” Even good students may have progressed without making sense of any of the ideas that make math so interesting to us. They have had excellent training in finding answers, when faculty think they should have been sense-making instead.

Photo credit Stan Yoshinobu
How do we bridge the gap between where we want our students to be and where they are now, while accounting for their lack of preparation in mathematical thinking? The good news is that you can guide your students to build a solid foundation and connect to the most important ideas in education. Key to this approach are the multitude of voices that need to be included in the conversation. If the goal of a class is for students to develop a deep understanding and appreciation of mathematics, then the students' voices are even more necessary than their instructor's. And lasting changes in the lives and minds of our students are exactly what we are trying to achieve as educators. Outside voices are also necessary: the many other like- minded educators, including past, present, and future, and in all disciplines, have to collaborate to decide how to address the ever-changing needs of our students. Faculty at many institutions are already implementing active methods of engaging students and fostering lasting learning.

For the last 10 years, the Academy of Inquiry Based Learning has run a workshop to aid mathematics educators in implementing inquiry based learning (IBL). This summer, about 40 faculty, including all three authors, attended a four day workshop in beautiful San Luis Obispo. At the workshop, we worked with experienced faculty to develop materials, and individualized approaches to implementing IBL in our classrooms. This was an immersive experience into the practice and methods of “big tent IBL”, which is a broad and inclusive version of this active learning philosophy. IBL is being implemented in all manner of classes, not just upper level proof-based mathematics courses. In fact, the largest groups of people at the workshop were working on implementing IBL into the sequence of mathematics classes for elementary education majors and intermediate and college algebra.

The four day workshop also introduced us to the community of faculty across the country that want nothing more than to help others get the most out of the time spent with their students. It was just enough time to get energized and get to know a lot of great people, as well start thinking about the myriad of ways to implement IBL. Unfortunately, this was not nearly enough time to fully figure out how we would carry out these ideas in our upcoming classes. The workshop wisely includes a year of follow up mentoring with the organizers. As a way to expand on these mentoring conversations, several of us decided to write about our early experiences at A Novice IBL Blog. Already, blogging has been a wonderful reflective exercise in connecting what we are trying in the classroom to the changes we want for students. Writing posts provides an opportunity to struggle with new pedagogical tools, and learn how to effectively communicate in a new forum. This struggle has helped us each appreciate the difficulties that our students face when grappling with new material.

Blogging has also helped us appreciate how difficult it can be to do new things. Especially when the new thing is a fundamental change in how you approach your job. Just as when our students are learning, it’s important to have many voices for ideas and support. Our blog is about support, not just for its authors, but for anyone trying IBL or anything new in the classroom (and not just at the post-secondary level). So, come visit our blog, participate in the discussions and learn about inquiry based learning along with us.

-Liza Cope, David Failing, and Nick Long

Liza Cope is an Assistant Professor at Delta State University and can be contacted at

David Failing is an Assistant Professor at Quincy University and can be contacted at

Nick Long is an Associate Professor at Stephen F. Austin State University and can be contacted at

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