Thursday, November 11, 2010

Handouts from presentation

Since we ran out of handouts, I've got a link to them here.  Please email me if you have questions or would like more information.

Greetings from Boston!

I'm in Boston at the AMATYC national conference giving a presentation on our school's redesign.  The presentation is at the left but you can also access it by clicking here.  Once you click the link, I suggest using the download feature so that you get all the graphics. 

The pass rates listed in the document are up to date as of 2 weeks ago.  I often get questions about our numbers and how they vary slightly (usually 1-3%) from various presentations.  This is because I'm always updating them with the new numbers after a term has passed.  If anyone wants specific numbers broken down by course, semester, and even 8 weeks, I can provide those.  We have so many variables that presenting them succinctly is quite challenging.  For example, every course is offered every 8 weeks so we're not only looking at a bevy of courses but when they're offered.  I'm happy to share details if there is interest.

This is an exciting conference with great people, sessions, and opportunties.  If you haven't had a chance to attend, consider AMATYC in Austin next year.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Best Practices in Developmental Education - Considering Redesign

Yesterday I spoke at an Illinois meeting of the DEAC (Developmental Education Advisory Committee).  It is a committee of the ICCB.  Terrific group of people working throughout the state to improve developmental education.  I learned so much and hopefully was able to share something that helped others as well.

My contribution was to share an overall guide to approaching developmental math redesign using best practices.  This document overviews suggestions for any school as they enter redesign.  It is also has links to case studies and specific information.

For a copy of the PowerPoint presentation, click here.  I suggest using the Download feature in Google Docs once it's loaded to be able to see all the graphics.

Here are some suggestions for those considering redesign:

1.  Do your homework

There are literally hundreds of schools changing their programs.  One size does not fit all in terms of ideas, budget, or resources.  The Best Practices document is a starting point for redesign case studies but there are many, many more.

2.  Look at the whole picture

One mistake I've seen in my research that many schools fall prey to is looking for the magic bullet or putting all their eggs in one basket.  How's that for mixed metaphors?  There is no one right way to fix developmental math nor one single tool that makes it all better.  Developmental math is a system and to make it work, all its components have to function well.  Look at each piece of your program and investigate ways to improve them.  Easily said and hard to do but it does work.

3.  Success does not depend on a math lab

Math labs are terrific.  That's where I started my work at RVC, the creation of our math lab.  Sure, it's helped.  But again, it's one piece of a bigger puzzle.  Many schools think that if they don't have everyone in a lab watching videos with instructors helping, their programs will never improve.  That's not true.  That model does work in some schools that have the funding and right population for it.  But it's just one way to approach the problem.  Like anything, it has its problems too.  We tried moving to a more emporium based model and had a multitude of problems.  It works as an offering for us but it did not fit all students or instructors by a long shot.  Your mileage may vary. 

4.  Success depends more on people working together than funding

I always say at talks, 'money's great but it's not the only factor in makinng changes.'  Getting people on board and working together has a far greater impact on the state of your program.  Money cannot buy that.  It helps, for sure, but it's only one piece of the puzzle.  Buy-in and cooperation also matter.

If you have a case study or story of success, please share it with me.  I'd like to start showcasing ideas on my blogs from other schools to help those embarking on the journey of redesign.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Developing your developmental math redesign

I'm currently in St. Louis after giving a talk at University of Missouri St. Louis on our school's developmental math redesign.  At the left, I've posted some documents that may help those interested in more information.  Check out these specifically:

  • Best Pratices in Developmental Math (PPT presentation)
  • RVC Developmental Math Manual (contains all our program details including MML course IDs)
  • 2010 RVC Program Brochure
  • Making Course Redesign a Reality
The program brochure lays out the development of content to show our progression.  It also has a table that shows how we address the 5 components I talked about (placement, advising, courses, instruction, and support) in terms of quality, consistency, affordability, and flexibility.

Making Course Redesign a Reality is another presentation I give to schools who have chosen the changes they want to make but need help with implementation.  It has some ideas to help you when you meet the natural resistance that change brings about.

The key thing I ask you to keep in mind is looking at the program from all angles.  Don't focus on one specific aspect with the hopes that you'll find the cure-all there.  We had semesters where the only change was placement cut scores.  Then we phased in standardized policies.  In each case, changes in pass rates were negligible.  It wasn't until we had all the pieces working in harmony that pass rates made a significant jump.

If you have questions, let me know.  There are so many ways to make your program work and those details don't have to match ours.  I feel like we stumbled on some large lessons in terms of structure but the details are where flexibility comes in.

Keep trudging.  Your efforts are worth it.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Tools for adjuncts

Long time no post!  I've just returned from a talk on how to bring a course redesign idea to life.  There are so many great ideas out there (just Google for ideas) on course redesign for any level of mathematics.  Picking an idea really isn't the hard part.  It's when you want to make those changes that the work really starts.  For more information, check out the presentation on the left under Documents.

But the title of this post is "tools for adjuncts" so it would be best to provide some.  At this presentation, I showed our developmental math manual.  It's also available at the left under Documents.  This is probably one of the best resources we have to help assist our program. 

So what's in it?

The idea of the manual is to be a one stop shop for anything related to the program.  So pacing charts, course information, MyMathLab information, MML master course IDs, study skills tips, placement information, program information and much more is available.  Having a ready resource is really helpful when your program has many components, as ours does. 

If you're interested in this idea, think about what your adjuncts need that you provide repeatedly.  Putting that information and any related documents in one place (print, online or both) can make your program operate more consistently.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Bringing Mathway to life

Over the past year, I've been involved in a national initiative to change developmental math education in a completely new way.  To learn more about the national project, Mathway, check out this link

But over the past year, I've been thinking about our school's redesign and the lessons learned.  While traditional in nature, it's still a successful redesign that has universal lessons.  Taking that success and integrating it with this new course would further create the complete system of developmental math that would help all students succeed and achieve.

I've mentioned before that I'm a believer in "show, don't tell".  So, here's a look into the approach and work that has been happening right here in Rockford with another colleague.

[Note: Mathway is the name of the initiative by Carnegie to bring a new path through developmental math into college level math. MLCS is the name of the main course that would make that happen: Mathematical Literacy for College Students.  New Life is the name of a related initiative to Mathway, but led by community college faculty.  I am a member of it as well.]

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Getting past paralysis by analysis

I've been thinking a lot lately about why some causes or initiatives take flight and others stay in the theoretical stage.  Basically, I think it comes down to the amount of talking and composition of the conversations.

Yes, talking. 

Like most academics, I've sat on more than my fair share of committees and task forces with a goal or charge.  Some did some things; others did nothing.  All of them had meetings.  Nothing like death by committee to give life to a dream...  Most of these groups produce something on paper.  But none of these activities constitute change.  Why is that?

Because change is about attitudes and behaviors.  It's not about words on a page or philosophy necessarily.  Change starts with talking but it ends with action.  Unfortunately, so many good ideas die in the talking phase; everyone wants to talk about what should be done, what could be done if there were more money/time/concern, what would have happened if .... you get the picture.  Well meaning people and ideas get lost in this paralysis by analysis.

I've been a part of some successful initiatives and in each one someone, at some point, said, "we may disagree and we may not have it perfect to start but we will start.  We will do something and if it fails, then we know what we need to do different.  But we will never know until we try."  In other words, we committed to doing something instead of talking about doing something.

Easy to say and hard to do.  But really it comes down to starting.  And then continuing.

So how does it work?  Here's a glimpse at my approach.  It's but one and not the only way but it's worked for me.

When I start a project, I do copious amounts of research all the time, whenever I can fit it in.  My husband can attest that I've been guilty of reading a research article between innings of little league games.  After reading, making notes, processing, synthesizing, and analyzing, it's time to do something.  And it may not work.  I've had some great successes and some pointed failures.  But regardless, I make a plan, outline all the things needed to bring that plan to life, and then complete them one by one.

As that process continues, I'm constantly asking for advice, opinions, comments, whatever input I can get to improve the product and include others, giving them ownership.  Review and revise.  Review and revise. 

The next step is knowing human nature.  All of us are resistant to change.  It's just that some are more resistant than others.  Most faculty can absorb change if they have or get the following:

1.  Plenty of time to get acclimated

Plan for your rollout and educate long before the rollout starts.  People need to time to understand and accept what's coming. 

2.  A way to give input with confidence that the concerns are respected and addressed

Faculty sometimes have petty reasons for objecting to a change but more often than not, their concerns are valid.  Regardless, value them and listen.  Compromise when you can but not to the point of changing the vision.  Because we are all human, sometimes we object because we just don't want to do something different even if it will work.  The big picture must be kept in mind otherwise the small things will cloud the process.

3.  All resources and then some

Someone is going to have do the work and get the needed resources, training, what have you so that faculty can see what the change will entail and have what they need to make it so.

Example:  Years ago our geometry course wasn't working.  So we suggested each person write their own notes packet, develop their own activites, etc.  Guess what?  Most didn't.  Sometimes people dkidn't know how and other times, they didn't have the time even if they did have the expertise.  Either way, it didn't matter because the changes didn't happen across the board.  They were just hit or miss.

Now we give instructors the students notes and activities, an instructor guide with everything in it, and an online course completely set up.  They'll add and adjust but at least they have a base to get them started so that they can take it to the level they want.

The last step is looking back.  Did it work?  Is it working?  Does it make sense?  Any math people noticing my approach is a lot like Polya's 4 steps to problem solving?  Understand the problem (i.e., research), make a plan, carry out the plan, and look back.  Fix things, adjust, don't stay in the new status quo. 

We've made a tremendous amount of changes to our developmental program and the pass rates are up 20 percentage points or more.  That doesn't mean the problem is solved.  The program is a bear to manage and maintain.  It's hard to scale up and down.  Our flow chart looks like an instrument of torture.  I'm not looking to make any more broad changes but I'm tweaking behind the scenes to make the experience better for everyone involved, including me.

This approach is not a magic bullet or simple but it does work.  From what I've gathered, it's easy to talk and hard to act.  But the reality is that the talking phase has to be just a phase and not a life sentence for change to occur.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

21st Century Expectations

I'm not sure if it's 13 years of teaching, general crankiness, or what but I'm finding the expectations of my students to be, shall we say, off.  In an effort to ward off potential problems, I try to explain my expectations at the beginning of the semester.  Like most instructors, I go through the syllabus and explain the general structure of my course.  And, that's boring.  And not effective.  So, I'm considering the following activity on day 1 of the semester along with a syllabus scavenger hunt as described below. 

Syllabus scavenger hunt

Heather Foes, Rock Valley College

1.  On the first day, have students form groups of 2 or 3 students. 
2.  Instruct students to write down 5 things their group wants to know about the course.
3.  Distribute the syllabus.
4.  Students should scavenge the syllabus for the answers to their questions, discussing their findings with their group.
5.  Reconvene as a class.
6.  Ask each a group for a question they had and the answer they found.

21st Century Expectations, aka, Welcome to College

Kathleen Almy

Post the following the blunt truisms about college.

1. The world does not revolve around you.

2. Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.

3. If you're working xx hours a week and plan to use that as an excuse, go to work instead of college.

4. There is no safety net in this class, in college, or life.

5. Your printer will run out of ink the morning your paper is due so consider printing it the day before.

6. We do carry on class even without your presence so think twice about asking, "did you do anything while I was gone?"

7. The responsibility for finding out course, program, and degree requirements falls on you. The sooner you learn that, the quicker you'll get out of here with a degree.

8. College is about delayed gratification. If you're looking for instant satisfaction, you're in the wrong place.

9. There are much less expensive and easier places to text than my class. Find one.

10. Your mother lied; you're not special.

Have a whole class discussion on their reactions to these.  Some students will undoubtedly not believe them or be offended.  That's ok; no one ever said the truth was a kind pill to swallow. 

Assignment:  write a paragraph of what they think of these statements and how they can use these facts of college to have a successful semester.

If you have suggestions or comments, please share.  I'm game for any way to improve these ideas.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Geometry? Check!

Problem:  Illinois requires Geometry prior to taking college level math.  Since we're one of the four states in the country with this issue, there are virtually no books to choose from and certainly no online courses for use.  Many schools use high school texts but there are multiple problems with them (pacing, distracting pictures, level of content, etc.).  We need something written for an adult student who's not trying to repeat high school.  It needs to have the right balance of theory and practice and be paced for a semester length 3 or 4 credit hour course.  It also needs to take into account the small amount of time we have in class, time that's best not spent copying definitions and theorems.

Solution:  See below.  Both are being published by Pearson Custom currently.  In addition to the student toolkit and instructor manual is an online MathXL course with homework for each lesson as well as a cumulative course review.

Beyond developmental geometry, these books can also be used for Geometry for Elementary Teachers classes because the focus is active learning and understanding geometry.  Students are a part of the development of the theorems and formulas used. 

To see samples, click here:   student toolkit sample chapter 
instructor's resource manual sampler.

If you have questions or would like a copy, let me know.  My rep will be happy to share.

 Product descriptions:

Geometry: A Toolkit for Success

This toolkit provides your students all the resources they need to be successful in geometry. Each class period is composed of problem solving and critical thinking from a geometric perspective. Most pages feature a helpful 2 column format with guided notes on one side and examples and problems on the other. Two column proofs are included; however, the instructional focus is on reasoning and applying geometric principles. Active learning, measurement, and hands on methods are featured throughout.

MathXL assignments accompany nearly every section. For certain concepts, a page in the toolkit is available to use for homework.

While any geometry textbook can be used as a reference, the book has been written to reference Geometry: Fundamental Concepts and Applications by Alan Bass, Pearson Publishing.

Student resource pages include:

• 3 hole punched pages for use in a binder
• Guided class notes
        o Worksheets for each class period with activities, theorems, problems, and definitions
• Perforated cardstock flash cards for 240 geometry definitions
• List of key theorems and formulas
• List of key geometry notation

An instructor resource manual accompanies the toolkit and includes the following:

• Annotated worksheets with answers to accompany student worksheets
• Pacing guides
MathXL master course with assignments for each section
• Sample tests
• Notes from the class test to assist all instructors including those new to teaching geometry and adjunct instructors

ISBN for Toolkit: 0558779948

ISBN for bundle (Toolkit, Bass book, MathXL code): 9780558677527

Friday, July 9, 2010

Consider Singapore and KISS

Sounds like an ad for Singapore's tourism ministry, eh?

Singapore's math methods are my latest interest for a couple of reasons:

1.  They're simple
2.  They make sense
3.  They work

Singapore has a very comprehensive way of looking at math education as illustrated by their pentagonal framework graphic below.  This graphic is courtesy of a detailed article on their approach Problem Solving in Singapore.

The U.S. isn't the only country to be unhappy with its math scores and try to make efforts to change that.  Singapore did exactly that to much greater success than we can for many reasons.  With a centralized education system that's small and has designated leaders, they can do more in terms of continuity.  We may not be able to do that but we can learn from their techniques, which are wonderful in their simplicity and clarity.  For example, they have a well balanced focus (not just procedural skills).  They consider the role of attitude and metacognition in learning.  Plus, they regularly give students non-routine problems and the resources to solve them.  Their approach isn't a magic bullet but it's certainly something to consider.

This is one of the single best articles I've read that will give you a taste of their method and how it can work:  Singapore Math:  Simple or Complex?  In it, you can see an example of their bar model method.  It's a terrific visual that boils the problem down into something a student can see clearly.  But more than that, the operations needed to complete the problem can be seen.  Want to take 3/5 of 40 but have no idea how to do that because you can't remember the rule?  That's no longer an issue because they're not teaching rules; they're teaching understanding.  Since many students learn by doing and seeing, their method takes an abstract subject like mathematics, especially algebra, and makes it concrete.

I've ordered some of their textbooks since they're available in the U.S. and some schools and homeschoolers are trying them.  Deceptively simplistic looking and small, they pack a punch.  My main critique would be the contrived nature of the problems but that's probably one of the few weaknesses.  For K-5, that's not really the worst thing anyway.  Kids at that age aren't so jaded about math and don't expect everything to be realistic.

A refreshing, simple, and effective way to approach math.  I guess the old K.I.S.S. method really does work after all.  Keep it simple and all.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A look at mathematics education courtesy of Dan Meyer

While I'm knee deep in geometry instructor manual writing, here is something to get you thinking about not only what's currently wrong in math education but what can be done to fix it.  Plus, he's funny!  What's not to like?

Monday, July 5, 2010

Band-aids and crutches

One of the reasons I started this blog was to have a "holding cell" for presentations and the documents distributed at them.  I've started storing some at the left such as our developmental math manual (the bible for our program), a description of our program model, and a presentation I gave at our state IMACC conference this spring.

I'm really proud of our developmental math program redesign and the fact that we went from a chaotic mess to an organized unit in less than 3 years.  In that timeframe, our pass rates jumped from 48% on average to over 65% and higher, depending on the course.  Because of the amount of changes and the outcomes achieved in a short period of time, I get requests to learn how we did it.  I'm happy to share the details both in print and in person since words on a page can't adequately convey all that happened to make these changes a reality.

Yay us!! 

Well, not exactly.

Our school has done a great getting students through algebra.  I have no bones about the truth.  We're not curing cancer here; we're getting them to pass algebra.  For those of us who teach it, that's no easy feat, hence the sharing of knowledge to help others do the same.

But should they be taking so much algebra?  Well now, that's a whole other question.  Answering that question and the efforts to make changes associated will also be documented here because that's what I'm working on right now and honestly, that's where my heart lies.  My students regularly tell me I'm a rebel, that I'm bucking the system.  And here's a little secret:  they like that.  It gets me into hot water occasionally but life's too short to sit in cold water or something like that...

Point?  Sometimes you need band-aids and sometimes you need crutches.  We've developed some pretty successful band-aids that will help a lot of schools until the larger problem, the one that needs crutches, is fixed.  That looming problem?  Are we teaching the right content to the right students?  I would argue no.  However, I want to be a part of the solution, not just the argument.  I like making things "right", fixing stuff, solving problems.  It's why math is so fun to me but it's also why these endeavors are so much fun too.  And things are fixable.  We complain a lot in education and blame everyone below us because it's easier and solving problems is just plain hard work.  But as a recovering Pollyanna, I do think a lot of hard work will get us to a solution.

So until we've got the Almy/Foes version of mathematical crutches, we've got band-aids for you in various shapes and sizes.  The dispensary is at the left.  If you'd like a personal consultation with the nurse, well, that can be arranged too.

Back to the trenches...

Trenches?  We don't need no stinking trenches! 

Yep, bad puns and lots of wasting time.  That's what you get when you don't want to finish a project that must be done ASAP.  So, after lovely fireworks, food, and friends last night, I'm back to the drawing board, well Microsoft Word, and finishing the geometry project today.  The book, Geometry:  A Toolkit for Success, is being printed now at Pearson custom for use at RVC in a month.  The online MathXL course that goes with it is 99% done so that's task #1 today to finish.  Task #2:  the instructor resource manual.  All the solutions and notes from each lesson need to be added to help instructors as use the toolkit. 

So instead of complaining about such a good problem to have, I will commence working.  Off to the land of Euclid and Archimedes...good times...good times...

Sunday, July 4, 2010

A Mathematician's Proposal

I just finished reading a tiny tome called A Mathematician's Lament: How School Cheats Us Out of Our Most Fascinating and Imaginative Art Form by Paul Lockhart. It directly relates to the MLCS course Heather and I are developing (more on that later) so it had me at hello, shall we say.

Some excerpts:

“A musician wakes from a terrible nightmare. In his dream he finds himself in a society where music education has been made mandatory. “We are helping our students become more competitive in an increasingly sound-filled world.” Educators, school systems, and the state are put in charge of this vital project. Studies are commissioned, committees are formed, and decisions are made— all without the advice or participation of a single working musician or composer.

Since musicians are known to set down their ideas in the form of sheet music, these curious black dots and lines must constitute the “language of music.” It is imperative that students become fluent in this language if they are to attain any degree of musical competence; indeed, it would be ludicrous to expect a child to sing a song or play an instrument without having a thorough grounding in music notation and theory. Playing and listening to music, let alone composing an original piece, are considered very advanced topics and are generally put off until college, and more often graduate school.

As for the primary and secondary schools, their mission is to train students to use this language—to jiggle symbols around according to a fixed set of rules: “Music class is where we take out our staff paper, our teacher puts some notes on the board, and we copy them or transpose them into a different key. We have to make sure to get the clefs and key signatures right, and our teacher is very picky about making sure we fill in our quarter-notes completely.  One time we had a chromatic scale problem and I did it right, but the teacher gave me no credit because I had the stems pointing the wrong way.”

In their wisdom, educators soon realize that even very young children can be given this kind of musical instruction. In fact it is considered quite shameful if one’s third-grader hasn’t completely memorized his circle of fifths. “I’ll have to get my son a music tutor. He simply won’t apply himself to his music homework. He says it’s boring. He just sits there staring out the window, humming tunes to himself and making up silly songs.”

In the higher grades the pressure is really on. After all, the students must be prepared for the standardized tests and college admissions exams. Students must take courses in Scales and Modes, Meter, Harmony, and Counterpoint. “It’s a lot for them to learn, but later in college when they finally get to hear all this stuff, they’ll really appreciate all the work they did in high school.” Of course, not many students actually go on to concentrate in music, so only a few will ever get to hear the sounds that the black dots represent. Nevertheless, it is important that every member of society be able to recognize a modulation or a fugal passage, regardless of the fact that they will never hear one. “To tell you the truth, most students just aren’t very good at music.  They are bored in class, their skills are terrible, and their homework is barely legible. Most of them couldn’t care less about how important music is in today’s world; they just want to take the minimum number of music courses and be done with it. I guess there are just music people and non-music people. I had this one kid, though, man was she sensational! Her sheets were impeccable— every note in the right place, perfect calligraphy, sharps, flats, just beautiful.  She’s going to make one hell of a musician someday.”

Waking up in a cold sweat, the musician realizes, gratefully, that it was all just a crazy dream. “Of course!” he reassures himself, “No society would ever reduce such a beautiful and meaningful art form to something so mindless and trivial; no culture could be so cruel to its children as to deprive them of such a natural, satisfying means of human expression. How absurd!”

A few more short nuggets of gold from this book…

“I can understand the idea of training students to master certain techniques-I do that too. But not as an end itself. Technique in mathematics, as in any art, should be learned in context. The great problems, their history, the creative process-that is the proper setting. Give your students a good problem, let them struggle and get frustrated. See what they come up with. Wait until they are dying for an idea, then give them some technique. But not too much.”

“So how do we teach our students to do mathematics? By choosing engaging and natural problems suitable to their tastes, personalities, and levels of experience.”

“Mathematics is not a language, it’s an adventure.”

“Mathematics is not about erecting barriers between ourselves and our intuition, and making simple things complicated. Mathematics is about removing obstacles to our intuition, and keeping simple things simple.”

“Efficiency and economy do not make good pedagogy.”

“Problems will lead to other problems, technique will be developed as it becomes necessary, and new topics will arise naturally. And if some issue never happens to come up in thirteen years of schooling, how interesting or important could it be?”

“First of all, forget the symbols-they don’t matter. Names never matter. …The only thing that matters in mathematics is what things are, and more important, how they act.

[Referencing proof] “So how do we it? Nobody really knows. You just try and fail and get frustrated and hope for inspiration. For me it’s an adventure, a journey. I usually know more or less where I want to go, I just don’t know how to get there. The only thing I do know is that I’m not going to get there without a lot of pain and frustration and crumpled-up paper.”

To read the entire book, all 140 small pages, head to amazon. To read the 25 page essay that led to the book, here you go.

His original essay was posted on and unleashed a firestorm. Many commented and soon after, Paul wrote a follow-up response.


I don’t agree with everything in the book or his original essay but so much resonated with me. I’ve been saying for a while to my students and colleagues that we’re focusing on the wrong things, that “x” isn’t the point. The notation and language don’t matter nearly as much as we claim they do. We’ve gotten mired down with the minutiae and lost sight of our original goal: solving problems that in some way involve numbers. Not algebra, not Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally, not which side of the fence you’re on about graphing calculators. None are the point.

I could go on all day but Paul did a much better job and was concise to boot. Tis the nature of academics to form committees, commiserate, and change little. I love to talk as much as the next chatty Kathy but action is far more important to me and this field. So, here is a mathematician’s proposal:

New Life and Mathway, of which I’m a member, has spent the last year developing new goals and outcomes, new course descriptions, and a new vision for what developmental mathematics should be. My colleague, Heather Foes, and I are taking said list of outcomes and bringing them to life.

This course is fundamentally like nothing we teach now at the dev. level, which is exciting and daunting all at the same time. Acquiring skills is not the goal of the course; acquiring the ability to think, solve problems, and see the world with a mathematical slant is.

An example: we may give them a situation (one that’s interesting and relevant to them) where interpreting a graph is needed. Some students will have no difficulty but some may not be able to get past the 2 dimensional aspect of it and need more help in that. Having tools, some individual and online, that assist them to improve their skills can be very beneficial. But the end goal is not the skill or proving mastery of it. The end goal is that original situation that needed to be understood and just happened to have a graph in it.

Sure we’ll have to do some direct instruction but that will not be the whole class. Students will ask for help and tools when they need them. Tell when they ask but not before then and not too much.

I want to get away from students "working the system" or just "playing the game" like I see so much in our current classes. Even some of my most successful students in the traditional courses like algebra, trig, calculus really don't grasp mathematically what we're doing, with good reason. That's not our focus and hasn't been in a long time. But in our statistics courses, Math for Elementary Education courses, and some other "non-traditional" courses, they have a much better grasp at what the point is. Those courses aren't perfect but the goals, methods, and outcomes are not fully focused on a set of skills but instead of way of thinking. I don't think it's coincidental that the pass rates are higher in those courses and students often enjoy them more.

The graph example I mentioned above is just a tiny view into our vision; it's certainly not the course or structure.  We envision starting with interesting, messy problems and letting them play some.  They're going to ask for help and need tools.  When they do, we have something to offer but not in the ways we're doing things now.  Open ended problems are frightening for students and teachers (by darn, we want an answer!) so we'll use some unique solution problems as well.  It's all about balance.

Talk is cheap so Heather and I are putting our time and energy where our mouths are, creating the course and everything an instructor and school would need to be successful. It’s not a book or an online homework system. Yes, there will be materials and tools for the both the instructor and student to journey into mathematics in a completely new way and be successful at it. But we envision so much more. I’ve seen through our school’s redesign and rollout of our new program that one facet of change or one resource will never be enough, that you’ve got to accommodate for instructors just as we do for students. They need many resources that work in ways that make sense to them. Some will want online, some want print, some want face-to-face workshops. Give them what they ask for so that they will feel prepared to take the course and materials and make change a reality.

This is a vague description at best; more will be forthcoming.  But until then, as Paul encouraged, it's pretty exciting to just play in the sandbox called mathematics.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Ivy Tech Changing Times conference - June 11, 2010

I recently spoke to a group of faculty and administrators in Indiana about making change.  It's easy to come up with a new plan for a course or set of courses but it's pretty hard to get people, especially faculty, to buy into those changes.  Ultimately, you want those changes to become reality and the new status quo from which to reflect, revise and improve.

I've attached the PowerPoint used during the presentation.  It was an interactive presentation in that for each barrier to change listed, the slide following it represents the comments from the group at the session.  We ran low on time so the last few barriers were introduced but group solutions were not developed.  However, I welcome feedback on any solutions to overcoming barriers that worked for you.

PowerPoint (pdf version through Google Docs)

Show, don't tell

Here is a great article from the NY Times on how factory jobs are coming back, but with a new catch.  The times...they are a changin'.

So what's this got to do with anything?  As Heather Foes and I are developing our vision of the New Life/Mathway course Mathematical Literacy for College Students, we're collecting articles like this one to have students read (yes, read, as opposed to skimming and looking for bullet points).  Show, don't tell is our philosophy.  We've tried telling students for years that they've got to improve their skills and thinking abilities to improve their job prospects.  You can imagine how far preaching got us.  Instead, we'll have them read articles like this, discuss with a small group and the class, and then reflect (i.e., write, as opposed to IMing, texting, and tweeting in rapid fire succession).  We want them to make sense of it in general and specifically to their lives.

The crux of these ideas falls into 21st century skills.  Technology can outsource some skills but not the ability to think critically and solve problems.


After debating for a while, I decided to bite the bullet and start blogging. I'll record the efforts and progress made on my various projects, travels, talks, conferences, and anything else that seems moderately related to changing math education.