Liza: Treating our (young adult) college students like we treat adults

Liza Cope is an Assistant Professor at Delta State University

It has been quite awhile since my last post on the activity “Which One Does Not Belong.” Over the past several months I have been doing quite a bit of work with inservice math teachers through a Math Science Partnership (MSP) grant and through my experiences with Math Teachers’ Circles (MTC).

I’ll start with the latter. I was introduced to MTC by fellow IBL professor, Dr. Judith Covington at the LA/MS Section of MAA meeting in 2014. If you have never attended a circle meeting, see if there is a circle in your area, and go check it out! If there is not a circle in your area, start one (as I did). The MTC site has tons of helpful resources that you can use to start and maintain a circle. I joined the MTC network and started the Mississippi Delta MTC in 2014. This year before the NCTM Annual Meeting I was asked to run a circle at the conference. I was blessed to be paired up with a creative genius and all around wonderful human, Henri Picciotto. Henri said that he had an idea for an activity that would work with the diverse audience that attends the conference. We emailed and talked a bit before the event, but I was not 100% sure how things would go. I was worried about the space… would it be big enough? too noisy? too many distractions? furniture… would it be conducive to collaboration? logistics… how would folks find out about it? content… appropriately challenging? what probing questions to ask? what if there was a question that I could not answer, etc… . Well, I am happy to report that it could not have gone better. Reflecting on the experience on my way home from San Francisco, I thought, that is how I want my college classes to go… the participants were all engaged, most worked collaboratively, but those who worked alone did so by choice, participants asked and answered each others’ questions, openly shared “ah-has” and “wonderments”- it was beautiful! At this juncture I thought, well I can aim for such an experience in my college classes, but I will probably not reach such an ideal, because my students are not as mature or experienced as the NCTM participants. I will return to this.

The other major project that I have been working on is a MSP grant at my institution. Through this project I had the opportunity to teach two graduate classes to 40 math teachers this summer. Similar to my experience with the MTC at NCTM, my classes with these teachers seemed to organically possess many of the key IBL characteristics we learned about at AIBL. Once again, I chalked it up to the class consisting of more mature and experienced participants than the undergraduate students in my college classes.

While planning for my fall classes this past week, I reflected back on my experiences with the MTC  at NCTM and the MSP participants, but this time I dug a little deeper… What made them work? Was it really just the participants? True, they are more mature, have chosen to be math teachers (although many of my college students have chosen teach math too), and have more experiences… but what did I do differently with them? If I am honest with myself, I have to admit that I treated these students differently than I treat my college students. For example: I was more comfortable giving them completely uninterrupted work time, I was better at resisting the temptation to “help” (a.k.a. provide answers), and I was less controlling of the structure of the class. Additionally, I  used activities with them that were more conducive to IBL learning. These activities were more open ended and challenging than the activities I typically use with my college students. I am happy to have had the time to reflect on these experiences.

My goal for this year is going to be to get my college classes to run more like my MTC and MSP classes ran. Although it might not be possible to reach this ideal, it does not mean that I should settle for the status quo. Nick and I agree that one of the arguments that professors make against implementing IBL is, “I can’t make it work perfectly, so I don’t want to try it.” Contrary to this misconception, I remember Dr. Yoshinobu describing IBL as a continuum. I know that in order to move closer to the IBL end of this continuum, I must start treating my college students like adults. Please look for follow-up posts in the coming months on specific changes that I have made and their impact in my classes.

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