Two elements of effective teaching

Mike Starbird (standing) teaches Bates faculty an important lesson.

Mike Starbird (standing) teaches Bates faculty an important lesson.

Last week, the Bates Math Department hosted our annual Sampson lecture. I have written about this event previously, when my collaborator Leila Schneps visited this past Winter. I was fortunate to also get to invite this academic year’s lecturer: good friend, colleague, role model, and all-around great guy Michael Starbird.

Every academic year, the Sampson lecturer gives a math talk for the department, and a public lecture to the larger Bates community. Mike’s math talk, “Geometric Gems”, captivated us by building on a very basic proof of the Pythagorean theorem and then building up to many geometry theorems I had no idea existed. The math students enjoyed the talk very much, as did the faculty.

The public lecture was on Mike’s book with Ed Burger, The Five Elements of Effective Thinking. I have written about a similar talk I attended at this year’s Joint Mathematics Meetings, so I will send you there for more information. This talk was also incredibly successful, and people were engaged asking and answering questions. Although possibly one of my students was not as happy, since Mike decided to pick on her for one of his examples (although how great to get someone in the audience to participate so much, even if they’re not too comfortable doing so!).

Different from other years, however, Mike agreed to do a workshop on Inquiry-Based Learning for our faculty. We invited all faculty (not just math) and we had a nice group of about twenty people from various disciplines. What I liked best about this IBL workshop is that, true to form, Mike decided he shouldn’t just stand there and tell us what we should be doing with our teaching. Instead, he led the group through an inquiry based lesson of our own.

The first thing he asked us was to imagine your students twenty years from now. What do we want them to be able to do? What skills do we want them to have from taking our courses? We essentially took the better part of the first hour answering this question. We made a list on the whiteboard (pictured above, featuring the less-than-perfect calligraphy of yours truly), which contained a variety of things, in part because of the diversity of disciplines. Although I found it truly inspiring that most of us wanted to create a group of confident and competent problem solvers (this phrase was actually coined by one of the faculty from Arts and Visual Culture).

The next step was to discuss how we thought we could accomplish these goals. For example, if you really want your students to go out into the world and be independent thinkers, do you really want to teach a class where they do very little independent thinking? The discussion here was also very interesting, and I mostly realized that everyone in the room already did their own version of IBL. Again, I was surprised at how similar the teaching styles were between myself and my AVC colleague. One thing that came up in different flavors, too, was the idea that we have to give students the opportunity to take risks, and fail, and learn from their failures as much as their successes (again a call-back to the 5 elements).

One thing to note, which I already alluded to, is that usually in workshops like this people self-select. That is, most people had already thought about active learning and other issues involving innovative pedagogy. Weirdly enough, most of the participants were female, and young. In any case, I don’t like criticizing how other people teach (it’s kind of on the level of telling people how to raise their own children), but I do think that many of us could benefit from just sitting for two hours and thinking about how we teach, and what exactly are our goals when we teach. And in that case, perhaps the people who would benefit the least from this workshop were the ones who attended it!

So I thought the workshop was successful, even if it felt like nothing too concrete came out of it (this is probably how most of my students feel in my IBL classes, I recognize). In any case, these two questions are important ones, and rarely do important questions have easy answers (and rarely can someone just give these answers to you). So I ask you, dear readers, to ponder these two questions yourselves: what do you want your students to learn in your class that they will keep for the rest of their lives? And given your answer to that question, what should you do in your class to accomplish this goal? If you feel so inclined, please share your thoughts and answers in the comments section below.

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