By Benjamin Braun, Editor-in-Chief, University of Kentucky
The 2014 American Mathematical Society (AMS) Committee on Education (CoE) meeting took place on October 16-18 in Washington, D.C. I attended as a member of the AMS CoE. In addition to the committee members, there were many attendees from academic institutions, government, other professional societies, and the private sector. Like the recent CBMS forum that Diana White discussed in a blog post earlier this month, the focus of the CoE meeting this year was the first two years of postsecondary mathematics education. In this post, I will reflect on some of the key themes that stood out to me during the CoE meeting.
The importance of collaboration
The most prominent theme of the meeting was the critical role of collaboration and cooperation at many levels: among department members, at the institutional level between departments and administrative units, among professional societies with common missions, and at the national level to “scale up” successful models for effective teaching.
In talks about department-wide efforts to improve mathematics education in the first two years of college, Matthew Ando (Univ. of Illinois Urbana-Champaign), Stephen DeBacker (Univ. of Michigan), and Dennis DeTurck (Univ. of Pennsylvania) all emphasized the importance of collaborative support for department- and college-wide initiatives. This support includes faculty participation in specific programs, but was also more broadly framed through such lenses as thoughtful academic advising, working with members of other departments (such as engineering), and establishing clearly defined cooperative roles for departments and administrative units. I believe that this is particularly challenging at large universities, many of which are facing problems such as declining state support, increasing undergraduate enrollment, and severe constraints on instructional resources. For teaching environments such as these, where educational environments are increasingly large-scale, the message was clear that faculty need to work together in teams to create effective solutions to local challenges. However, these messages came with the caveat that collaboration is time-consuming, difficult, and requires sustained commitment from faculty.
It was interesting that, in addition to faculty and administrators from colleges and universities, participants at the CoE meeting included representatives from organizations involved in K-12 mathematics education, namely the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and Achieve. This reminded me of the inherent connections between our challenges at the postsecondary level and the current national discussion regarding K-12 mathematics education (largely inspired by the widespread adoption by states of the Common Core State Standards). Institutions of higher education have increased their engagement in this discussion through the creation of advocacy organizations such as Higher Education for Higher Standards, demonstrating the type of collaborative efforts that are taking place at a national level. Another important aspect of post-secondary mathematics education that was pointed out during the meeting was the interaction between community colleges and institutions offering four-year degrees; the transition between these types of institutions is a rocky one for many students, and addressing this problem requires institutions to effectively work together.
The importance of student-focused teaching
Multiple speakers emphasized the necessity of broad adoption of student-focused teaching methods. Talks by Michael Starbird (Univ. of Texas Austin) and Ryota Matsuura (St. Olaf College) provided interesting perspectives on alternatives to college algebra and on Hungarian problem-based pedagogy, respectively, with emphasis on creating engaging courses for students. In the talks by Ando, DeBacker, and DeTurck mentioned previously, the need for clear learning outcomes for students was also emphasized, with teaching methods selected directly in support of these outcomes. All of these speakers emphasized the key role that active learning environments play in student development; however, the implementation of active learning environments they described was varied. For some, this meant having calculus recitations be organized around a carefully-crafted worksheet, with teaching assistants serving as “coaches.” For others, this meant largely eliminating lectures from classes, capping class sizes at 30-35 students, and using extensive group work carefully guided by the course instructor. The main message on this theme that I took from the meeting was that while student-focused teaching methods are critical, there is no “one size fits all” method that works best.
Many of the discussions during the meeting, both formal and informal, centered on the core question of “what do we want our students to know and to be able to do?” Without a well-articulated answer to that question, it is challenging to decide which teaching methods faculty should adopt. A phrase that stood out to me, mentioned by Herb Clemens (Ohio State Univ.) during his introduction to Bernard Hodgson’s (Université Laval) talk about post-secondary mathematics education in Quebec, was that we need “systemic caring” for students to be embedded in our institutions. Regardless of their specific form or implementation, the articulation of student learning outcomes and the purposeful use of student-focused teaching methods are important components of systemic caring for students.
The coherence of education initiatives in the mathematical sciences
There is a remarkable coherence among current educational initiatives in the mathematical sciences, broadly defined. This was especially apparent during the talks by Mark Green (UCLA), Karen Saxe (Macalester College), and Nicholas Horton (Amherst College) about the Transforming Post-Secondary Mathematics Education group, the Common Vision for Undergraduate Mathematics in 2025 project, and the American Statistical Association Guidelines for Undergraduate Programs in Statistics, respectively. Other important initiatives and reports that are worth mentioning along with these are the 2015 Mathematical Association of America Committee on the Undergraduate Program in Mathematics Curriculum Guide, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics report Principles to Actions: Ensuring Mathematical Success for All, and the National Research Council report The Mathematical Sciences in 2025.
These initiatives and reports share a strong focus on increasing the number of pathways for students into the study of the mathematical sciences, and on reducing the number of barriers for students to cross along the way. Speakers at the CoE meeting emphasized the important role that evidence-based teaching practices can play in this regard, and the need that faculty and departments have for professional societies to make such practices easily identified and accessed. I view the coherence of the recommendations arising from these non-coordinated efforts in the mathematical sciences as an extremely positive sign, as it provides encouragement for us to join efforts in pursuit of common goals; further, these reports provide a reasonably common language through which to do so.
A final observation
A recurring phrase used by participants through the meeting was “The Time Has Come,” hence the title of this article. I agree that the time has come for all of us involved in the mathematical sciences to work together to improve mathematics education at all levels.