Talking ‘Art of Mathematics’ With Its Creators

Left to Right: Volker Ecke, Anna Haensch and Christine von Renesse.

Left to Right: Volker Ecke, Anna Haensch and Christine von Renesse.

This week I was at the Inquiry Based Learning (IBL) Workshop in San Luis Obispo and I had the rare and wonderful occasion to sit down for dinner with a great team of bloggers and get to know them a bit better. That team was Volker Ecke and Christine von Renesse, two of the masterminds behind Discovering the Art of Mathematics (DAoM), an enormous blog, video, and teacher resource network for inquiry based teaching.

Since not everyone just came form an IBL workshop, I’ll give a quick’n’ dirty rundown of what it entails. The general idea is that an IBL classroom is genuinely student-centered, that is to say, the students do almost all of the speaking during class time. Moreover, the students determine the pace and content of each lecture, by uncovering course material through inquiry. This means that eventually, students have the sensation (and ideally the reality!) that they have discovered the entire curriculum on their own. That’s my take-away, but for a better description, check out this from DAoM.

Often, educators reach a point in their evolution where they realize that the traditional lecture format is not getting them the results they desire. For Ecke this realization came early in his career, “When I realized that lecture wasn’t going to work, I thought, well, how else can I structure my class? And IBL was just that!” For von Renesse, who grew up in Germany, teaching in this style came naturally. “I was dying to teach the I was used to in Germany, so I knew I wanted to teach IBL from my background,” she says.

So Ecke and von Renesse, both professors at Westfield State University, teamed up with fellow faculty members Julian Fleron and Phil Hotchkiss to revamp their existing courses at WSU, and in the process created Discovering the Art of Mathematics.

One of the greatest challenges of IBL, say Ecke and von Renesse, is asking the right questions. “How do you make someone discover what they need to discover,” von Renesse says, “it has a lot to do with personality stuff.” The right questions need to be asked of the right student, Ecke says, “A good question is asking `How do I support a student in their struggle.'” The team offers a traveling workshop in which they coach instructors in good question asking. But if you’re curious to see what it might look like, you can watch Ecke guide students in doing the impossible — solving the Rubiks cube.

Of course it’s also important that students ask plenty of questions. Von Renesse addresses this in the blog post “Curiosity — A Culture of Asking Questions.” She discusses the gentle balance that naturally exists between relaxation, curiosity, and anxiety, and how to maintain that in the classroom. The DAoM video library has plenty of great examples of this, but watching von Renesse wrangle directional derivatives with a group of Calc III students is a beautiful example.

It was such a treat to sit down with these bloggers and learn more about their project and their passion for teaching and learning. I’ve only mentioned a small fraction of what you can find on DAoM, there are also e-books, assessment tools, content ideas, and the list goes on. If you’re planning to dip your toe into IBL this fall, I recommend you stop by for some inspiration!

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1 Response to Talking ‘Art of Mathematics’ With Its Creators

  1. Barb Bouthillier says:

    Great intro to IBL and DAoM. Thanks!

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