David: An IBLer is Born

Every good blog needs an origin story. So, before I start sharing my struggles and successes in adopting an Inquiry Based Learning approach to my courses, I thought it best to back up a little.

I began to consider an IBL approach as a graduate student (in early 2013) when Ron Taylor presented a colloquium at Iowa State University on Active Learning strategies. I had always been under the impression that such approaches sacrificed the all-important “coverage.” Too many of my colleagues, however, had taken an interest in the approach for me to ignore it. Ron’s talk emphasized that IBL in particular is a commitment to teaching by letting students discover the power of their own minds, paced by student progress. Perhaps most importantly, we (as instructors) get real-time feedback from the students about how they are doing.

Fast forward to MathFest 2014 in Portland, OR. I was just starting my first full time teaching position at Quincy University, and was in Portland to kick off my Project NExT fellowship (I’m a Gold ’14 dot). I ran into Ron for the first time since we’d met in Iowa, and we started talking about IBL, as well as the TeXas Style Introduction to Proof notes that he had coauthored with Patrick Rault. Ron mentioned that there were small grants available through the Academy for Inquiry Based Learning to help novice instructors generate the “activation energy” necessary for a successful IBL classroom. Category 1 small grant applicants are required to select a target course (and IBL materials) for their first foray into IBL, as well as a mentor to guide them through the startup process. Since students are already told that Introduction to Proof is a course where things will be done “differently” than they are used to, this seemed a natural choice for a novice IBLer’s first attempt. Applications were due 4 weeks after I returned from MathFest, and 2 weeks in to my very young teaching career. At the closing talk for our Project NExT workshop, Joe Gallian urged us to “Just say yes.” And so that’s exactly what I did.

My grant application was successful, and as Stan Yoshinobu will tell you, this led to my planning a “Summer of IBL” (cue the Bryan Adams background music). After a year of teaching by the “traditional” lecture approach, I attended (in short succession) the Legacy of RL Moore conference in Austin, the IBL Workshop in San Luis Obispo, and MathFest 2015 in Washington, D.C.. Each conference provided me with opportunities to network with experienced IBLers, discuss startup issues with other novice instructors, and to see a different part of the country. The IBL Workshop, in particular, was an important week, intensely focused on getting one-on-one time with practitioners who had taught our target course. The NSF has just awarded a $2.8 million grant, called PRODUCT, for Cal Poly to expand and continue the IBL Workshop program, and I strongly encourage interested faculty (and high school teachers!) to attend future workshops. I’ll share more in a future post about my specific takeaways from the 2015 edition, but it was, above all else, instrumental in giving me the confidence and courage to take my courses in a new direction. For me, IBL is more than a pedagogical style. It is a supportive community of like-minded individuals focused on doing what we believe is best for our students, and sharing freely the resources that make this possible.

-David Failing

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