The leap of faith

This semester I am running all three of my classes as “modified Moore method” courses. (The amount of modification depends on the audience and aims of the course.)

During our first meetings, I worked hard to set the right tone and expectations. We even took time to practice what class would look like. But then I had to let them go with tasks to try.

Tomorrow morning I walk in to my classes with a lesson plan that starts and ends with, “Are there any volunteers?”

I have faith in myself that I can handle whatever happens. I will think quickly and I will adapt, probably.

But more importantly I have faith in my students. They will have worked hard, and, though nervous, they will have something to say.

So I step into the void. “Who has something to share?”

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9 thoughts on “The leap of faith

  1. I suspect that the lesson plan you describe is deceptively short. To an outsider, it can look like lack of planning, but I’m sure that by the time you ask for volunteers, you’ve put a lot of thought into what the students can do from day one, what kinds of problems they’ll tackle, and some of what they can achieve.

    So how much of your faith in yourself to handle this situation comes from your own expertise in the subject? That is, how much experience with the topic do you need to have for this to work? Does it have to be something you’ve taught before and know where the sticking points are, or can this work even if you’re partly learning along with the students?

  2. Yes. I have some techniques for getting through a meeting where students seem reticent to present.

    And YES, a lot of work has gone into the careful selection of tasks, so I can be reasonably sure that students have a chance to complete something on their own. A hundred times, yes.

    Of course, I have been blessed with an over-abundance of confidence in myself and my abilities. To borrow a baseball saying: It helps to have a “closer’s mentality.”

    To teach this way, you need a very deep and comprehensive understanding of the material. This is linear algebra, and I think I have that. 🙂 You need to know how to do mathematics, and you have to have a sense of empathy for someone struggling through it the first time. But you also need to know your students well. This part is trickier. I know what UNI students are like generally. But I just met my students for this term.

    I think one can get by in such a course without being the world’s expert on a subject. And if you do it honestly you will learn a ton of mathematics yourself. (even about stuff you thought you understood—like row reduction.)

  3. And it turns out I needed those techniques this morning in Euclidean Geometry. Five whole minutes of silence followed my asking for volunteers to share work.

    Fortunately, we had an issue from last time that was unresolved. The presenter who was at the board when class ended started again, and then we stumbled our way into what was eventually a very rich conversation. But this time it took some skill.

    This is the 13th time I have taught this class using this set-up. I am not sure how well I would have done if this was the first time I taught an IBL class.

  4. Nice. I am working on developing the faith that everything will happen during the semester that needs to happen (i.e. “letting go of having so much control”). It helps to read this, and it will help to read a post in December that says that the class understands eigenvectors and eigenvalues.

  5. Where do I find the “challenge accepted” meme? If _all_ goes according to plan, I wll tell you about how they understand the SVD. (Ahem.)

  6. I’m sure having an abundance of confidence helps. 🙂

    I’m thinking of last fall, when I taught probability for the first time. Class time was about half lecture and half problem-solving, with students presenting their solutions. I’m not sure I could have prepared to do that class completely IBL from the start, because I had to work with the students to know what kinds of problems would be helpful. They certainly asked questions I didn’t have the answers to at the time, and we all benefitted from the ensuing discussion. I can imagine that even if one is very familiar with the material, one learns new things by releasing control of the class to the students. What I can’t imagine is creating the setup for that to happen in the vacuum of summer preparation for a course on less-familiar material.

    My questions about this are due to wondering how similar teaching methods can be disseminated as options to newer teachers. Does someone just have to wait until they’ve taught a course a dozen times before they’re ready to run it in a radical IBL fashion like this? Or can these methods be scaled and adapted to be useful for fresh faculty?

  7. I taught my first IBL course as the second time through the class. I had been to an IBL workshop, and I had a place to steal some good tasks for the beginning of the term, and a month to mull it over. This kind of thing can be replicated at scale.

    I also had a few mentors. That is a little harder… But the AIBL is building that structure.

  8. This conversation reminds me of a statement from the conclusion of “Assessing Long-Term Effects of Inquiry-Based Learning: A Case Study from College Mathematics,” by Marina Kogan and Sandra L. Laursen (http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10755-013-9269-9): “College instructors using student-centered methods in the classroom are often called upon to provide evidence in support of the educational benefits of their approach — an irony, given that traditional lecture approaches have seldom undergone similar evidence-based scrutiny.” Teaching takes practice in any case. I cringe thinking about my first year or two — mostly lecture, of course. Slavishly following the syllabus generously shared by a colleague, I’m sure I missed a lot of cues about how much the students were and were not understanding. I could go on…

    Still, “leap of faith” is the perfect description for what I’m doing every time I walk into a class without a full script. For those who are not interested in or ready for the full plunge, here are some in-between suggestions: http://blogs.ams.org/matheducation/2014/06/20/teaching-practices-between-and-beyond-all-lecture-and-all-student-discovery/ .

  9. It certainly took me a while to figure out what professionalism meant to me as an educator. And I had a lot of support for making the plunge when I was ready. But I still did it in just one class each for the first year. You have to give yourself time to learn how to do a new thing, and evaluate how it will work for you.

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