Painless Inquiry: TIMES Curriculum

I wrote a lot about my linear algebra class last fall. While many things had gone well, I was a little disappointed in some of my attempts at developing inquiry based activities for my class, and wanted to work on polishing (or completely re-making) a lot of my material before I teach it again this fall. To that end, I signed up for a minicourse at the joint meetings run by the TIMES (Teaching Inquiry-oriented Mathematics: Establishing Supports) project.

TIMES has pre-made curricula for linear algebra, differential equations, and abstract algebra. The activities I saw in the minicourse lined up very well with the way I like to teach: not straight up Modified Moore-style IBL (which works great for some people, but doesn’t really seem to fit me or my students), but more structured and supported. Through these activities, groups of students will get an intuitive sense of what it means for, say, two vectors to span a space, before the definitions are introduced. Each of the three subject areas has student curriculum, notes for the instructors, and even videos of the activities in action so you can get a sense of how the classrooms work. For a more thorough explanation of the goals of the project, a list of references, and details on how to access the password-protected parts of the curriculum, read a post by the three PIs of the project, Estrella Johnson, Karen Keene,  and Christy Andrews-Larson, over at the AMS Teaching and Learning blog.

I enjoyed the minicourse and planned to implement some of the activities in the fall, so when the organizers invited me to apply to be a TIMES fellow, I went for it. Last month, we had our training workshop at NC State.

Our (admittedly uninspired) divisions.

Our (admittedly somewhat uninspired) divisions.

We began with an icebreaker that I am definitely stealing. Normally this is my absolute least favorite part of a workshop, but this was pretty fun and a good way to encourage a lot of questions. In groups of four, we had to design a set of axes based on some yes-or-no criteria – do you have a dog? are you an algebraist? – in such a way that each group member ended up in one quadrant. We did this on our group whiteboards, which I’d used back in my K12 teaching days but hadn’t even thought about carrying over to college. They’re just showerboard, cut to size at the hardware store, and way, way cheaper than typical white boards. It comes in 4×8 foot sheets for under $15, and they’ll sometimes cut it for free if you’re nice.

The rest of the workshop focused on exploring the content of the curriculum, and how to effectively implement it by encouraging small group work and facilitating larger class discussions. We had surprisingly deep conversations about nuances of linear algebra which none of us had ever really thought about before, even though we all thought we knew the subject forwards and backwards. We talked about how to help students adjust to this different style of teaching – which I’m actually finding easier and easier as more K12 schools start adopting these techniques. And we talked about how to mitigate the dreaded effect on teaching evaluations (which seems to be negligible, possibly after an adjustment period).

I’m really excited about implementing this curriculum this fall, and not just because it will save me the work of designing something new from scratch. This community has a ton of great ideas on how to improve teaching and learning, and I’m looking forward to our weekly discussions. Oddly, I’m also looking forward to getting videotaped and having my own teaching critiqued. I haven’t been recorded since my very first lesson as a Teach for America teacher almost 15 years ago, and while I know the experience will be pretty painful at first, it will certainly improve the way I run my class.

 

 

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