Starbird’s IBL

During MathFest a month ago, I was fortunate to have dinner with Dana Ernst, Matthew Leingang, Stan Yoshinobu, and Mike Starbird.

Photo courtesy of Stan Yoshinobu. Pictured (right to left): Matthew, me, Dana, and Mike. Mike is playing the game Wuzzit Trouble for the first time on my iPad.

Mike is pretty famous in the mathematics community: he is a well-known topologist, and for a while now has been one of the more public faces of inquiry-based teaching in college mathematics. Mike is a wonderful storyteller, an entertaining speaker, a good listener, and so positive and friendly with everyone, it is easy to see how he would have a good impact on students. I was pleased that events conspired so that I got to spend some time talking with him.

We walked a couple of blocks from the conference site to the place Matthew had picked out for dinner, and so I got ten minutes of beautiful Portland evening to talk with Mike one-on-one. During our short conversation he mentioned something about how he and Ed Burger (now President of Southwestern University) went about writing their book The Heart of Mathematics. The key point was that in writing the book, he had to give up some of the IBL approach, but he could keep other parts which he found essential. He said something like, “IBL really has two parts, and though we had to give up on students doing all of the development of the mathematics for themselves, we could keep the other part.”

At this point, my ears picked up. Stan had asked me last summer to formulate my own definition of what it is to do IBL. Regular readers (‘sup Vince and Paul), might recall I wrote about that a while back. Dana took a step forward to catch up and listen, too. He had overheard, and the two of us were in the middle of planning for the workshop in Wales to happen a few weeks later. Here was a big chance: we would get an attempt at what it means to teach with an IBL bent from one of the masters. Since Mike’s definition is a little different from what I had, I filed it away to share with you someday. Today is that day.

Mike Starbird’s two part definition of what it means to run an IBL class

  1. The students are responsible for developing and presenting the mathematics.
  2. The mathematics is presented with what might be called a “plausible false history,” in that questions are presented in a natural order that gives them some meaning.

That first part I expected. The second one is close to addressing the issue of intellectual need that I read about in some of Guershon Harel’s work. Why should students care about what you are teaching them? Well, if you can connect the ideas to questions that they can imagine asking and build a sequence of tasks so that this motivation stays with them, they just might care.

Certainly Mike’s definition challenges me to reexamine the way I have structured my courses. I don’t have to follow the history of a particular question, but have I invented a reasonable alternate one?