On Attending a Conference About Inquiry Based Learning (OnACAIBL?)

There is an ancient Chinese proverb that goes: “I hear, I forget. I see, I remember. I do, I understand.” This proverb has basically become the main mantra of Inquiry Based Learning teachers. As mentioned in a few of my previous blogs, I have taught many classes using an inquiry-based style of teaching. This is not something I came up with on my own, and I still find it quite useful to talk to other IBL users and what they have learned from their own experiences. I also really enjoy seeing scholarship about how this method is working and what could be improved. In this post, I will not write exactly about Inquiry Based Learning, but about my experiences attending the annual IBL conference known as the “Legacy of R.L. Moore Conference” held in Austin, Texas.

I guess I should start with explaining the title of the conference. R.L. Moore was a mathematics professor who taught at the University of Texas from the 1920s to the 1960s. He was a pioneer for inquiry based learning, and had many students who went onto successful careers and who carried on his teaching legacy. Basically, Moore would give his students a set of definitions and theorems, and throughout the semester the students would prove the theorems and present them to the class. They were not allowed to collaborate or look up anything in a book. This is what people sometimes refer to as “the Moore method.” One of Moore’s most famous quotes is “That student is taught the best who is told the least.” For more on the life of R.L. Moore, you should go to the Legacy of R.L. Moore website , and for a very good introduction to the person and the method check out Keith Devlin’s blog, namely these two entries: The best teacher ever, parts I, and II.

“So, Adriana, if it’s called the Moore Method, why do you keep calling it Inquiry Based Learning?”, you may ask. Well, I answer, the main reason is that the literal Moore method worked best for Moore. Many people have modified certain aspects and created offshoots of the method, but the focus has remained to have a student-centered classroom, and to have the students explore questions and come up with original answers (hence inquiry based). There are also certain degrees of “inquiry-based”, depending on the teacher, class, students, etc. In this spirit, this year’s Legacy of R.L. Moore conference revolved around the theme “The Many Faces of IBL.”

The many faces were indeed represented at the conference. Lee Mahavier spoke about using IBL in high school classes, Patrick Bahls spoke about using an IBL approach to research with undergraduates (he is also a blogger, and you can find his blog here), James Epperson spoke about using a problem based approach to help students learn Calculus, Jill Guerra and Catherine Beneteau spoke about POGIL (Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning) which has been successful in Chemistry classes and is now being implemented in Calculus, Karen Rhea spoke about yet another way to teach Calculus using IBL, and Diana White spoke about using IBL to prepare pre-service teachers. And in a very interesting change of perspective, the keynote banquet speaker, Jonathan Hodge, spoke about lecture-based classes  as authoritarian regimes and inquiry-based classes as being more inclusive and democratic. I say this was a change of perspective because it had never occurred to me to think about a teaching method in such political terms, but the simile kind of worked for me.

The conference also included panels, breakout sessions (smaller simultaneous talks), and round tables (which involved discussions among attendees). These were interesting in many different ways, but in particular because they were more interactive. People who want to learn about teaching want to have discussions more than hear people talk about their own experiences. In this sense, I believe that the MAA PREP workshop (this year held in Santa Barbara) might be the best option for novice IBL users. I also recommend looking at the Journal for Inquiry Based Learning in Mathematics (JIBLM), for lecture notes you might consider using,  and the Academy of Inquiry Based Learning (AIBL) for their mentoring grants, and also to find an experienced mentor.

I do have one gripe against the IBL community, and it’s all these acronyms. Really, I have a lot of trouble keeping up with them (hence the snarky blog title).

I now want to end on a disclaimer: even though I do love this method of teaching, and it has worked very well for me, I am not here telling people how to teach. I am merely sharing my experiences during a teaching conference, and some resources for people who are interested in learning more.

Do you have any resources for readers? What are your experiences with teaching conferences in general? Is there another “face of IBL” you think should be included in the list I gave above?





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4 Responses to On Attending a Conference About Inquiry Based Learning (OnACAIBL?)

  1. Michelle says:

    My impression from watching videos of Moore is that his “Moore-method” classroom was infinitely more authoritarian than my lecture-based classroom. He seemed to have nearly zero respect for the students. He was downright abusive at times. And he was the arbiter of what was correct and what was not correct… there was no sense of a classroom community, just a bunch of individuals competing to please the king. The fact that his successful students carry on this legacy sweeps under the rug how many students were crushed by his methods and perhaps never went on in mathematics.

    I know that this is not what most IBL classrooms look like (including my own, when I am lucky enough to have a small class and be able to use such methods). But I find it really unfortunate to have this methodology tied so closely to his personality. I will never attend a conference with that man’s name attached. If the IBL community wants to spread the positive side of what they’re doing, I really think they would do well to separate themselves from the “legacy” and name of Moore.

    ps Diana White & I collaborate on teacher in-service stuff… she came to Hawaii and ran a Math Teachers Circle for me while I was at ICERM. Cool that you got to meet her. I’ll forward the blog post to her.

  2. Brie Finegold says:

    I don’t understand why your reaction is so strong based on a few videos.
    Maybe you know someone in particular who you feel was “crushed by his methods”?
    I never had any direct contact with Dr. Moore, but was taught by several people who had him as a teacher or adviser, and I was lifted up by their methods which they attributed to him. I would venture to say that the reason I enrolled in grad school was due to two things: the pure sense of curiosity that was fostered in those classes, and a conversation that I had with the late Bob Kauffman (who I met at an RL Moore conference).
    Rather than feeling like I was “trying to please a King”, I felt excited to come to class and show what I had come up with. And I didn’t get everything “right” either. Sometimes it became painfully clear that I was wrong through either other students or the instructor questioning me, but that only egged me on to figure out how to fix something or redo it.
    While it’s true that I am not generally one to strive to please other people, I would say that my Moore method instructors were some of the most humble instructors I’ve ever had. They almost never talked about their own accomplishments in class. In fact, many of the less perceptive students thought that these Moore method instructors were clueless because these students did not read between the lines.

    It is only natural that a teacher who is older will have more of a “parent-like” and therefore possibly more emotionally charged relationship with students. We all wish to pass on only the best of ourselves to future generations. I’m sure you can think of a characteristic of yourself that you’d prefer students not to emulate…I’m sure you can think of something that your adviser did that you wouldn’t have done….I hope that your passionate feelings will fuel your interest in attending the conference in the future and seeking out some of Moore’s students so that you can see what they are like.

    Take care!

  3. Stan Yoshinobu says:

    Thanks for the post! I will just emphasize that anyone who would like to use IBL can start by visiting the Academy of Inquiry Based Learning website mentioned in this blog post. Please visit and join the community!

    IBL has evolved over time. One major result from recent work by Sandra Laursen’s group is that it levels the playing field for men and women and other underrrepresented groups. I encourage those put off by some issues in the past to embrace what is happening in the present. Newton himself was not known as a kind person, yet we celebrate his intellectual contributions to this day.

    Education generates large classes of acronyms. It is the nature of the business — think of all of the words associated to teaching and learning. Those are the generators for many, many education phrases, which are symbolically represented by an acronym 🙂

  4. Stan Yoshinobu says:

    Nice post and thanks for sharing these! Acronyms are part of Education. Think of all of the words related to teaching and learning. Those are generators for classes of phrases, which then get symbolically represented by their acronyms 🙂 It is what it is.

    I want to encourage people put off by non-teaching or non-learning issues to consider the IBL movement today and what it represents today. The results from Sandra Laursen’s study (University of Colorado, Boulder) are striking. In particular, women and men have a level playing field in IBL math courses. In contrast, women lose interest and confidence in non-IBL math courses — researchers even go so far as to say that they can be damaging to some women. Similar results exist for lower-achieving students.

    To make an analogy — Isaac Newton was not known as a kind and gentle person. Yet we celebrate his ideas today. In the effort to improve education we need to take all of the best ideas and put them into action. This is what AIBL is supporting, and I encourage everyone to check out our website and get started.


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