Friday, January 8, 2021

Why I Use Dr. Y or Professor Y When I Teach

When I started teaching, I was given some advice to use my first name with my students. The idea was to be more friendly and make things more comfortable in class. Many of us, perhaps nearly off of us, got that message. I didn’t think about it too hard then, and I did that for many years, all the while not knowing that what I was doing was making things harder for women in academia.

Last month Dr. Jill Biden was the target of a disdainful WSJ op ed, basically saying she’s not a real doctor and full of sexism and anti-intellectual tones. It’s one example of a long history of sexist put down of successful, smart women in the academy.

Men get to be Dr. ___, even if they use Stan or Paul in class, but women get called Ms.___ or Alice, and it’s not always respected or assumed that the woman is a Dr. ___ and an expert.

This is how systemic biases can work. We do things without knowing that it undermines a group of people. A well intended suggestion I received early in my career, which sounded like good advice at the time, actually had some hidden( to me) negative aspects that oppresses women in higher education. Later I learned about the biases that make it so that women have to work harder and deal with more, and the extra challenges and burdens women have to deal with.

Consequently, I decided years ago to use Dr. Y or professor Y with my students. It’s out of solidarity with women and minoritized groups, and it’s with the long-term goal of contributing to shifting norms towards equity and social justice. If we all did it, then that’d be the standard way students would address *all* faculty.

In countries like Japan, all teachers in elementary and secondary schools, professors, medical doctors, other leaders are given the title, “sensei.” It is an honorable title for those who teach or help others in society. Japan is not a society that earns high marks for gender equity, so I’m not trying to say that the term is some magic bullet. Thinking about what sensei means in Japan, however, does provide useful insights. Doctor can mean more than one thing, and we generally lack norms that could help our education system be more inclusive and equitable for women.

The closest thing we have to sensei is professor, although professor has been earmarked as a rank. For those who are lecturers and without a Ph.D., we do not have a professional title. Given all this, I argue that it is appropriate for all college instructors to use the title “professor” in classes, just as sensei is used by K-college instructors in Japan. Words and titles can mean more than one thing, and their meaning can be easily understood in context.

Thus, I invite all my colleagues to consider using Dr. or professor with our students, if you haven’t done so already, because it contributes to shifting norms in a decisively positive direction. We could explain to our students why we are using our titles, and why it’s important to respect all educators for gender equity. Where possible, we can use our titles, identities, and positions at our institutions to level the playing field for women in higher education.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

How much professional development is enough?

This post is a summary of some research findings for a series of workshops we have conducted with NSF PRODUCT. The evaluation team for the project is Dr. Sandra Laursen, Dr. Tim Archie, and Devan Daly, CU Boulder E&ER (Link to work on professional development, link to people). The talk was presented at the Joint Mathematics Meetings on January 7, 2021.

One of the many research questions they studied is, "How much is enough professional development?" 

Some key points:

  • We offered two general types of workshops. 
    • One week, residential or online via zoom summer intensive workshops (IWS). These were 30 hours+ of workshop time with a year of follow-up email mentoring.
    • Shorter traveling workshops (TWS), where two facilitators would travel to a conference or department and offer a workshop that lasted from a few hours to a day or day and a half. 
  • IBL capacity is a measure of skills and practices related to IBL teaching. It's sort of like a battery pack for teaching. More capacity means more skills and knowledge.
  • One result from the analysis is that both formats had a positive and significant impact on increasing IBL capacity.
  • IWS participants implement a more intensive version of IBL compared to TWS participants. 
  • TWS reached a different subset of the teaching population and was effective at increasing interest in IBL. 
  • TWS reaching different subset of teaching population is due in part by outreach efforts to send facilitators to groups that are not doing IBL yet. For example, sending teams to 2-year colleges. The IBL community in math roots in the Mathematical Association of American, which skews toward 4-year and advanced degree granting institutions. Travel funding can be a barrier for IWS, and TWS commitment level is lower. (It's a commitment to spend a week of summer at an IBL Workshop.) 
  • Rather than the dosage analogy, a another analogy is TWS and IWS are different tools, and could be used strategically for different main purposes.  
  • Takeaway: Use TWS to increase awareness, interest, reach new instructors, and get people trying IBL methods.  Use IWS to increase depth of IBL implementation. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

IBL Blog Playlist (updated)

A really short post...  I've kept playlist of IBL blog posts organized by topic. Posts go back to 2011, and the idea behind the playlist is to help people find some of the more popular posts, instead of having to dig around. Here's the link:  The IBL Blog playlist.  Take care!

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Owning IBL History

History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history. If we pretend otherwise, we are literally criminals.   - James Baldwin

History can be viewed as inconvenient, and we can try and ignore it or hide it, and thus be trapped by it. But embracing our history and its lessons is in my view a healthy step in the long, meandering journey towards a better society.

The IBL movement in college mathematics in America has some roots with R. L. Moore. Moore was a sexist and racist, and this is well documented. This post is not about his teaching. This post is about the present day state of the IBL movement as unequivocally a movement for social justice in math education, and the history of how we arrived here. 

Let's be clear. The Moore method is not IBL. One of the four pillars of IBL is instructor focus on equity. Today in 2020, we value people from all backgrounds, and our teaching must reflect this. When RLM prevented black students and women from enrolling in a class, he was being a gatekeeper via overt acts of bias. That was obviously wrong, it's part of our profession's history, and it is why we do not include Moore method in IBL.

For many years starting in the mid 2000s, effort and thinking went into trying to expand the definition of IBL in order to move forward. At one point in time, group work was not considered acceptable by some (not me) who promoted the Moore method. I remember clearly after giving a talk, fielding comments about the problems of group work and how it was not Moore method...  Many of us, however, understood that we could not move forward with a binary choice between (a) Moore method and (b) lecture. There must exist a broader definition of IBL methods, and hence the idea by Sandra Laursen to use the "big tent IBL" phrase to be more inclusive of different viewpoints and implementation of active, student-centered teaching. We needed to expand on multiple levels to get more people feel welcome. 

What's common in the big tent? The four pillars of IBL or IBME are "student engagement in meaningful mathematics, student collaboration for sense-making, instructor inquiry into student thinking, and equitable instructional practice to include all in rigorous mathematical learning and mathematical identity-building." (Laursen and Rasmussen 2019 Link)

In 2015,  Dave Kung, St. Mary's College of Maryland was invited to speak at the IBL conference. Dave and I (and others) discussed the issue of the problem of RLM's racism and how that was negatively impacting our ability to move forward. I expressed to Dave my support to address the issue of changing the name of the conference, because I felt then and as I do now that it was the right thing to do. 

Below is a short excerpt from Dave's talk. 

One of the things the IBL community needs to do is to drop the RL Moore name from this conference... As hard as that is for many people, there's a community out there which will never come to this conference, which will never attend the R. L. Moore conference, but they will attend the IBL conference.     - Dave Kung

Some of us spoke truth to power during that time to change the name and to do more for social justice issues in math education and the IBL community.  Some of us, myself included, paid a personal and professional price for it, but it was worth it.  

The history of math education sadly includes things we are not proud of, which is not surprising given that teaching is part of our society. The question is what is our responsibility?  It's clearly not to hide or whitewash history or to merely change a name and move on. We need to do things that make society better.

In the aftermath of that period of time, some in the IBL community worked intentionally on justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI). The equity pillar was added to the pillars of IBL so that the definition of IBL includes an instructor focus on equity.  

We implemented a "ground game" to recruit math instructors from minority serving institutions, instructors of color, and women to IBL workshops. We did this so that high-impact teaching practices would reach more students from minoritized groups, which research strongly suggests can be beneficial to them. 

It needs to be said; the joke is on RLM. Good implementation of IBL levels the playing field for women and people of color. This is classic irony, where the person trying to exclude women and black students from his teaching, ultimately contributes to creating teaching methods that have pulled up the people he was trying to keep down. We have pulled up by orders of magnitude more women and people of color than he excluded in his lifetime.

The double irony in this story is those who reject IBL methods in favor of teacher-centered instruction, because of RLM's racism and sexism. Education research suggests strongly that teacher-centered instruction leads to women and minorities leaving the STEM pipeline. Thus, those clinging to teacher-centered methods in effect are maintaining the status quo, which was RLM's goal. This is why we need science and humanity to sort through the messy data and social constructs. (Theobald et al 2020)

Anyways moving on, facilitators involved in the NSF PRODUCT workshops during the past 3 years engaged in diversity training, and we implemented sessions on equitable teaching practices at our recent summer workshops. These sessions have had an impact on participants, and more instructors in college math now know about ways to teach equitably, and we have the ability to offer professional development in equitable teaching practices today in college math, which wasn't a capability we had in the past.

I created a self-paced workshop for college math instructors interested in starting the process of learning more about race in America (Link to The Beloved Community and Teaching self-paced workshop). This introduction to race in America is based on a longer list of videos posted here on the AIBL webpage (Link). Connected to this is the love, empathy, respect movement to re-humanize education, especially during a pandemic (Link), and we are making progress in assessment by incorporating equitable, bias-resistant strategies, such as mastery-based grading (Link). 

In the aftermath of the protests following the murder of George Floyd, I wrote a statement posted on the AIBL website. 

Statement on Equity and Black Lives Matter: AIBL is an organization that works toward equity, inclusion, and dismantling systemic racism in education.  AIBL strives to dismantle systemic racism via modernizing teaching via the 4 pillars of IBL. AIBL believes fundamentally in equity, inclusion, and promoting women and people of color in the Mathematical Sciences.  We believe black lives matter, and we commit to specifically support the black community in Mathematics.  While we acknowledge that some modern day teaching methods are rooted in the teaching methods of R.L. Moore, AIBL explicitly states that the Moore Method is not IBL.  We explicitly make this distinction due to Moore’s well-documented racism

Some have argued that we should change the name of the movement yet again. IBL = MM to some still, so it's tainted. I understand this feeling and I fully get why people would want to do this. This why I am sharing some of the history, so that people are informed about the efforts and battles of the past that bring us to the present day. My sense from all this is that embracing history is the way forward.

Embracing history to me means that we are honest about the mistakes we have made in our profession, and then work to fix these issues. We dropped RLM's name, and did several things listed above to start to move the needle. And we have more work to do obviously.

Dignity also matters. Everyone deserves to live and work with dignity. I understand this personally as member of the Japanese American community, where some of people I knew growing up were forced into concentration camps during World War 2.  Thus, I apologize to all affected when RLM's name was attached to the conference and other events in the past. I apologize to black mathematicians, who feel unwelcome in the IBL community, because a known racist was held up, while your concerns about racism were being downplayed and dismissed. More of us should have listened and done more.

One of my personal goals as an educator is to help build a coalition of people, that joins together in fellowship to do JEDI work in math. I know I won't be perfect and I will make mistakes.  I also know that I will own up to my mistakes, and continue to work with the shokunin spirit, guided by my principals, where everyday I will try my best to contribute positively to our community. 

Additional Links:

  • Dave Kung's slides for his 2015 plenary are posted here. The full talk is here.
  • CU Boulder E&ER (Laursen, Haberler, Hayward) has a page here, devoted to "studying how people, structures, and ideas are important to the past development, current growth, and future sustainability of an educational community that promotes inquiry-based learning in college mathematics." 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The case for love, empathy, respect especially during a pandemic

A global pandemic is raging. Children are stuck in online school, and teachers are struggling under the added weight of teaching online or in unsafe conditions, some who have little kids at home 24/7. Social problems are boiling over. Democratic norms are crumbling, and we struggle to coordinate even basic efforts to bring the pandemic under control. Teachers and students are trying to get through their courses, but with the world upside down. This is the context of education in 2020.  

If that's not enough, stories of schools giving out more Fs during the pandemic are making the rounds. This makes me ask, "What are we doing to be giving more Fs during a pandemic and social crises?" Failing grades are clearly a bad sign, and something is seriously not working. 

When a student is doing poorly, it can be for a number of reasons. If we are quick to judge them, it's really easy to blame the student. It's easy say it's their fault for not showing up or not doing the work. Deficit model sometimes kicks in stronger, and maybe the student just isn't "motivated" or "lacks the confidence" or innate ability. It is easy to judge.  Online or virtual teaching makes it even harder for human connection, and I conjecture easier to be more deficit model oriented.

I remind myself that we are in a pandemic, and there is real pain and suffering out there in all our communities. People are struggling. They may have lost a loved one to Covid-19, or they may be the target of racial, gender or other bias. They may be feeling the weight of poverty, or feel the stress of a family business going out of business. A student could be lonely, sitting in from of computer screen all day, trying to learn in an isolated environment that just feels worse and worse as the weeks go by. 

In reality, we don't actually know any student's full story, and this is especially the case if an instructor uses teacher-centered methods. Sure some students come to office hours and good teacher-student interactions can form in these situations.  But generally speaking, the less students talk in class and the less they feel comfortable talking, the less likely it is that an instructor will have a good sense for who a person is. Even in active learning, it can be a challenge. 

Love, empathy, respect in teaching is a few related things put together. It is a visible inclusivity image to remind us all to be kind and respectful to one another. It's also a way to signal to students, that you care about equity and inclusion, and that all students are welcome.  And yet another way to think about love, empathy, respect is in our attitudes as teachers towards our students as humans. Love, empathy, respect is a mindset of being understanding. This idea is called a strengths based approach. That is, we don't assume that poor performance or lack of engagement is due to some deficit, and instead we start from a position of emphasizing student strengths.

It's not that hard really to get started. It comes down to listening. What I do is listen to students, and try and understand what the situation is. Then work with students to find ways to get them through the challenges. Using practices like active learning and mastery grading puts my course in a better spot to be more compassionate, while being fair to everyone. Giving extra chances to try a problem or assignment, is part of the standard package.

Here's a good story. A student of color named Kim (a pseudonym) failed calculus multiple times. Kim took the class 3 times and failed each of those times. That's three Fs.  Most people would have given up, but she tried a fourth time. I actually had her in a different course (for future elementary teachers) during the same term, and noticed that in group activities and class presentations she did really well. When I learned about Kim's struggles with Calculus, it didn't add up. So I suggested she drop by office hours for her Calculus questions, and when she showed up I listened to her try and explain something to figure out how she was thinking.  I learned how she was approaching Calculus versus the future elementary teachers, and saw how in Calculus she tried to memorize without understanding and would get stuck and not know what to do.  In her other class, she worked from the core concepts first, and then was able to think through to find a solution.  Kim's brain was engaged in entirely different ways.  That was a key moment for her education, because she learned about her own thinking that hindered her progress in Calculus and her thinking that made her successful in her other math class.  Skipping forward several terms, she ended up passing Calculus and taking several more math classes, until she earned enough credits to get a middle school math teaching credential added on to a multiple subject credential. That's a huge turnaround!

This was possible because I started from a position of love, empathy, respect. I made sure I tried not to judge, I listened, and then we found a pathway forward, based on Kim's strengths.  Now back when this scenario happened, we didn't yet have the words, love, empathy, respect. There are other words and descriptions for this idea, and I am certainly not the first nor the best teacher to be a mentor like this. But I think today, if I didn't listen and was judgmental or dismissive, she might not have gotten out of the cycling of failing she was stuck in. In my mind it doesn't take great teacher skill or talent to do this, but rather it's mostly about being starting from a position of understanding and caring. 

Another story is about a student named Jerry (pseudonym). Jerry is a historically successful student, but in the class I had with Jerry, things were very different. Jerry missed classes and assignments. When in class, engagement was low and Jerry was spaced out. Anyways, this is a case where the student would likely be written off. You gotta do the work to pass, right?  Well, hold on. I'll email Jerry and check in... Ok, no response for a while. Ok, maybe I'll chat in person next class to meet outside of class... That worked, I think. Now it gets interesting.

It ended up being the case the student was going through a tough time with health issues. Life was hard, and the student was feeling depressed.  I listened. I did what I could to be supportive, by extending deadlines and put the student in groups with highly supportive and dependable classmates. I also pointed out the long-term possibilities of all the wonderful things that could be done in Jerry's major. We all need hope. In the end, even after a rough start, Jerry was able to finish the course.  Later on, I received an email from Jerry, saying thank you for the support and that it was truly a rough time, and that Jerry had thought about ending life. However, with the support of classmates, my teaching, and other community support, Jerry was able to turn things around. Good teaching can help save lives.

Today in 2020, love, empathy, respect is so desperately needed, by millions of students sitting in their rooms alone on their devices trying to get through school. We have a choice in how we engage with struggling students and in general people in our community. I also know that we are also working at over 100% capacity right now, and we're tired ourselves and it's hard to be even more for others. With that said, we all have a need to know that love is the opposite of hate, that empathy warms over the coldness of apathy, and respect counteracts the disrespect of deficit model thinking. 

Hang in there and stay safe!

Monday, October 26, 2020

Seven Ideas to Help with Reopening K-5 Schools from an Educator Perspective

The focus on reopening has primarily been about health and safety for good reasons. It's a good time for us to add another layer to this discussion, which is to think about how we can improve teaching and other related factors to help reopen smarter.

A typical situation parents might find themselves in is this... Their child is doing math homework on their own, and gets stuck. This is added stress on top of all the pandemic stresses. Dinner needs to be cooked, like is hard as is.  It gets emotional, parents are frustrated, Math feels awful, and then everyone wants to get back to in-person school ASAP! 

I totally get it. For many of us with kids at home, it's been a huge struggle during this pandemic. Juggling parental duties, work, taking care of yourself, it's a tough. We all want to go back to something normal. 

In this post, I share some thoughts about actions educators can take to help improve our situation. This is really important, because we want to make the decision to go back to in-person because spread is low and we have the resources to do it right. We shouldn't be reopening prematurely, because virtual teaching is bad. It puts people in harm's way for the wrong reasons. As of this writing, the US is hitting all-time highs in case counts, hospitalizations are increasing, and the government has literally said it's given up.

What this means for schools is that virtual is going to be a big part of reality for a long time. I don't see a way for us to go back and it's magically 2019. 

Many families can't go back to in person, because they have a high-risk member. They deserve a good education.  Others need to go back, because they have essential jobs. We need space for them.  Little children should be in some form of in-person school (assuming it's safe), because they are so young and it's what they need. Secondary and college students should be largely virtual, because we need to set aside precious space and in-person time for the youngest and neediest. But we can make virtual better, and in some cases much better. 

Caveats: I'll focus on Math, because it is my area. The ideas are generally applicable to other subjects.  Education is an extremely large sector. In California, there are over 6 million students in public K-12 schools. This means that the comments I write here are not going to cover all the cases due to the sheer size and range of scenarios that are present. But there are things we can do to (a) alleviate some of the pain and stress of virtual learning and (b) use better virtual learning as part of a larger strategy to carve out time and space for some in-person learning. 

I'm not commenting in detail about things like masks, coronavirus testing, or other health and safety measures. That's an area of expertise that I have been following closely, but it is not my area of expertise.  

Below is a list of some ideas to help with thinking through reopening schools from an educator perspective.  The perspective I can offer as a professional developer in Math Education is that I see areas where we can improve teaching and learning that have benefits with dealing with the pandemic and can have lasting upside even afterwards. 

1. Prioritize the youngest, neediest tiers of students, teacher safety
The top priority should be to the youngest and neediest students and the safety of teachers. If a child can't read yet, because they are in kindergarten, then zoom isn't the best format for this child.  Further, there are other situations for all grades (K-12), such as students who are homeless, who are not safe at their homes, or have special education needs or other needs. These students need to be on school campuses for their wellbeing.  Hence the priority grades are K-2. And other priority groups can be also be identified and put into this top priority tier.  

As our pandemic situation improves, we can add in more tiers. The tiers are preK-2 and high needs, grades 3-5, middle school, and high school. 

Teachers should be classified as essential workers, and they should be in the early phase of vaccinations. They work with large numbers of people, indoors, for long periods of time. Teachers deserve all the support we can give them, because they do so much for our society. Sick or dead teachers are devastating to schools, just as losing HCW in medical settings.

2. Try to decouple academics, socialization activities, and daycare
This section is about rethinking services provided by schools in a different way.  In 2019 and before, schools provided all three of academic training, socialization, and daycare.  What would help our problem-solving approach during a pandemic is to try and split these three things apart, as much as is reasonably doable. This doesn't mean we won't have overlapping areas with these three areas, but that we don't need to bundle them as all-or-nothing. Bundled, all-or-nothing thinking limits what we might possibly be able to do to help more children and families.

For instance we could have academics taught mostly or completely virtually (depending on the grade tier), have socialization events in person and virtually so that children can learn social skills and just have fun and be kids, and daycare could be provided in smaller group sizes, so parents who can't stay home have safer options.  

For example there are families, where the parents are essential workers and the family has an at-risk member. In-person could be too risky.  Families in this situation are put in a tough spot. Consequently, de-coupling the services schools provide opens the door for more solutions. In this case, daycare could be provided in a small setting nearby, while the children do mostly virtual learning, allowing the parents to work while mitigating risks. 

Secondary school students in virtual learning could do some in-person socializing, such as some organized activities in gyms or outdoor fields to do normal things like hangout with friends and get off of screens for a while. Of course properly distanced, masked, etc. 

Decoupling the three services is a complex task, requiring input from all groups, including parents, students, teachers, staff, and local officials. It'd be interesting to see existing solutions in this area, and my sense is that daycare is the key piece. If parents had good daycare, some safe options for socialization, and virtual teaching was good enough, we'd be in a very different context regarding the pressure to reopen schools.

3. Improve virtual (and in-person) teaching via active, student-centered teaching
This item applies more to older grades and upper elementary. But all grades will likely have to be virtual part of the time.   

So, imagine a world where virtual teaching is fun. Your kids are okay with it, and they are learning. This releases some (a lot?) of the pressure to rush back to in-person school, and gives time for scientists and the government to develop better testing and treatments.  

Good teaching is good teaching, whether virtual or in person. Teaching is a complex system and cultural activity. I can't do it justice in this space. The short version is that we can use active, student-centered methods like inquiry-based learning (IBL) to shift classes to engaging, collaborative spaces.  Uptake of active, student-centered teaching is still low in the US, and this is an area of need, whether or not we are in a pandemic. 

The four pillars of IBL teaching in Math are:
  1. Deep engagement in rich mathematical tasks
  2. Opportunities for regular collaboration between students and with the teacher
  3. Instructor inquiry into student thinking
  4. Instructor focus on equity
These pillars aren't specific to Math, and you can substitute in whatever subject.  On a typical day, roughly 2/3rds of class time should be spent on students doing tasks or engaged in thinking through questions, where students are guided by their teacher to think and discuss math questions, such that the process of answering these questions leads to authentic learning.  

Generally speaking, there exist ways to implement IBL methods in virtual settings that are promising for upper elementary and certainly for secondary. Professional development training for teachers is one way to get these kinds of teaching methods into our classrooms. Younger children need more hands-on learning, hence the need to prioritize bringing them back in the first round. 

More information about IBL is available on the AIBL website and on this blog.

4. No math homework in K-5!  
No matter the teaching methods used, one thing that can be done across the board is to eliminate or significantly change homework. Homework is not shown to help learning outcomes in K-5, and I'd argue that it's not needed everyday in secondary either. 

Homework for points adds stress, and even if students do it, many leave disliking Math due to the accumulation of negative experiences.  When students are asked to do problem after problem after problem without help, all alone, it can really frustrating for students who struggle, and entire families feels this, and just makes them want to go back to in-person, whether it's the right thing to do or not.

Math anxiety is a real issue. Many students carry math anxiety into adulthood. See this post on Math Anxiety Realities, where college students speak about their painful experiences from math classes. Teaching in ways that increases stress is not good for student learning, and sometimes leaves lasting scars. 

The best option is to eliminate math homework for K-5. Just don't do it. Do all the learning together synchronously or in-person where possible. 

For secondary, one option is to assign modernized, optional homework, where students are given handout to read about a math idea, technique, a solution to a problem, looking back at recently completed material just to name a few ideas.  

Another option, and a really easy one to implement is to state a problem or question and provide a detailed solution with an explanation. Ask students to try the problem first, and then have them compare their thinking with the provided explanation. 

5. Use mastery-based grading 
There are many reasons to update assessment. A points system is an extrinsic values framing of grades, which is actually not a good motivator, can lead to inequities, and isn't tied necessarily to actual learning. Students are told that homework is worth X points and tests are worth Y points, and it's all about getting points.  While this has been the standard, it's not as good as a system with intrinsic values framing, such as mastery-based grading. In mastery-based grading, students are given transparent learning goals, and given multiple opportunities to learn them. The focus then is on learning.  

A simple example of mastery grading is to give frequent quizzes/tests, where students are given two possible scores. One is "meets standard" and the other is "not yet."   For problems that students earn a "not yet," they are given chances to retry the problem until they earn a "meets the standard."  Quiz/test questions are centered on students explaining why things work, so that they the emphasis is on critical reasoning and problem solving.  Basic skills and concepts should be practiced in class together with informal assessments to give feedback to students and teachers. This feedback then informs the class whether they should practice more or move on.

Other mastery-based grading systems exist that are more sophisticated and tuned for student learning. The example provided is an easy-to-implement version that is compatible with the challenges and constraints teachers face in a pandemic.  See 

One key potential benefit of mastery-based grading is equity. I'll argue via an example. Suppose student A learns a topic in week 7 and student B figures it out in week 9.  The test is in week 8. Student A get a higher grade than student B, but both have learned the same thing.  Now let's say student A is in a middle class family with parents with college degrees who can work from home, and student B has to work or has parents who are working long hours, and student B has more non-school responsibilities.  In this case, mastery grading would result in the students getting the same grade, because they learned the same things. 

Mastery grading can be bias resistant. That is, it is less likely to penalize the student who has more in life to deal with and/or fewer resources.

In states like California, standards-based grading is already used in elementary schools. Where teachers can further make improvements is to drop timed tests, and use oral exams/interviews and other task-based live sessions to see if students are making progress. All these should allow for retakes after getting support. 

Online proctoring software raises many questions about whether they are ethical. Lockdown, surveillance testing is not morally sound, expensive, and completely avoidable. We can use better assessments that are more humane and aligned with learning outcomes that we value, such as critical reasoning and justification. (See this disturbing account reported on by The Washington Post, where a student asks a proctor if she can *vomit* Link).

6. Cull unnecessary or less important topics, and focus more on core topics
A typical math textbook has a lot of material in it. Most teachers and college instructors will say things like, "There's so much to cover."  This really doesn't have to be the reality and shortchanges time on better, high-level goals such as problem solving and communication.  

In every course, some topics can be covered less intensely, because they are less important or tangential to the main learning goals. Each subject area can be culled down to essential topics using the state standards as a starting point. Culling the list of topics can help teachers and students by giving more time for core topics, which actually matter in the long-run. 

Connecting back to the revised homework ideas above, secondary math teachers can cover less important topics by assigning reading, a video, or a handout for students to read and try something. In this way, students get exposure to additional topics, but it's not taking up valuable class time that could be better spent on larger goals.

The reality is that students use Khan Academy and other resources. Harnessing this for a range of uses opens time and space for educators to hone in on key ideas. 

7. Focus on community solidarity
More than any other time in our lives, we need community. We are living through a global humanitarian crisis, and it affects all of us in many ways.  Thus, building community should be one of the core goals of every class. To do this, some class time can be used to build community on a regular or daily basis. We don't only teach Math (or insert your subject).  We teach students, and they deserve an education that is humanistic, empathetic, and compassionate, especially in time like this. 

Why is building community so important? If students feel disconnected and stop caring about their education or worse their futures, then what's the point of learning how to add fractions or complete the square? Thinking of reopening schools purely and solely as a medical problem is incomplete and possibly dehumanizing or invalidating. Putting humanity first is the right move. 

Even in virtual learning, we can build community. Teachers can do this using chat, breakout rooms, padlet, jamboards, discussions, and others. Some socializing virtually can benefit students, and help them feel more involved connected to their classmates and teachers.  

Sample openers for class are fun polls like "What is your preference (a) oatmeal, (b) toast, (c) cereal?" Or "How many cups of coffee did your teacher need this morning?" Mix it up, have fun, be human and authentic!

Common misconception RE rigor
A common misconception area is that hard equals rigor. This is especially true in STEM subjects, where low grades, lots of homework, and lots of students doing poorly means the class is "rigorous."  The corollary to this is that classes where students do better is less rigorous and watered down.  

All of the suggestions above are not about reducing rigor or lowering standards or "dumbing it down." They are adjusting how we teach or assess to improve learning. It should feel easier, more doable, and more enjoyable, if done right. If a student learns more their grades will go up. That's not a sign of less rigor, it's a sign of student success.  If anything, regressive methods are ironically less rigorous, because many of the exam questions can be solved with google or looked up on This means AI can do much of the usual tests tests, which is less rigorous than having to explain or justify why something works or doesn't work. 

Colleges messed things up
Colleges should have been bailed out and been virtual. We effectively spent significant "in-person budget" on the tier of students most capable of learning virtually, all the while seeding more outbreaks. Bad policy and planning is directly affecting your school's ability to reopen safely. I won't go into details, but here are some links, if you want to dig deeper.

The coronavirus, poor leadership and being understanding
The pandemic is causing our problems. Let's be clear about this. While we may disagree about how to reopen or what to prioritize, the real problem, the real thing causing us all the pain and suffering is the coronavirus and the mismanagement of the pandemic. We need to acknowledge this and not unfairly blame schools or teachers or superintendents for the predicament we are in. Their job is to educate, not to do infectious disease public health. 

Further, East Asian countries have done a much better job managing this crisis, and they can run their schools close to normal. Lack of national leadership in the US, and a catastrophic lack of empathy have created this Groundhog Day cycle we are experiencing. The obstacles of reopening schools are unnecessary, avoidable, and directly a result of failed leadership. 

Thus, it's important we start from a position of understanding and kindness. Schools are not responsible for getting us into this mess, and we shouldn't place unfair responsibility on schools to get us out of this predicament, especially when many schools lack resources to even meet basic needs even before this pandemic. The predicament is on us as a society. Own it. 

Other major issues in education need to be addressed eventually on a societal level. Specifically we also need to take more action on inequality, old buildings, overcrowding, poverty, school segregation, lack of or inadequate healthcare, and more, because all these things directly affect our schools and prevent us from forming a stronger, more just society.  These issues overlap with the pandemic and can't be solved with improvements to classroom instruction alone. I mention this to contextualize the broader issues at play and the limitations of focusing on teaching.

What is outlined here isn't attempting to solve all the problems, because many issues are outside the locus of control of educators. With that said, real, practical, implementable actions we can make things a whole lot better right now. 
  1. Prioritize the youngest and neediest
  2. Try to decouple academics, socialization, daycare
  3. Use active, student-centered learning like IBL
  4. No math homework in K-5
  5. Mastery grading
  6. Cull content from course that are not essential
  7. Focus on community solidarity
Stay safe and healthy!

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Mastery-Based Grading: Interviewing Sharona Krinsky, David Clark

SY: Massive thanks to Sharona Krinsky and David Clark for sharing their thoughts on the topic of mastery-based grading or MBG for short. This interview grew out of a different conversation Sharona, David, and I had about a separate topic. MBG is an excellent framework for assessing students for learning with a focus on equity and is compatible with IBL methods and non-IBL methods. 

Question 1: First, tell us a bit about yourselves.

Sharona: I’m a full-time lecturer in the math department at California State University Los Angeles. I’m also the executive producer of Encore South Bay (Link), a community and youth theater company in Los Angeles. I have degrees in math from UC Berkeley and The Ohio State University, as well as an MBA from The Ohio State University. In addition to working, I love Israeli dancing, scrapbooking, and traveling.

David: I’m an associate professor in the math department at Grand Valley State University, in west Michigan. I’m also a boardgamer (although not a very good one…), hiker and backpacker, and amateur photographer. I’ve lived my entire life in Michigan and nearby. For grad school, I moved from Michigan south into Canada.

Question 2: How did you get involved in MBG?

Sharona: A few years ago I was looking for more ways to bring active learning into my Calculus classroom and stumbled across Kate Owens’ blog about SBG [standards-based grading]. Started reading it and then joined the Google+ group run by Robert Talbert. This led me down a rabbit hole that included Robert’s blog and posts by Josh Bowman. I dove in head first, converting three separate classes at the same time to standards based grading and never looked back. From there, I had the incredible fortune to meet Kate at MathFest a few years ago in Denver which connected me with Dave, Drew Lewis, and TJ Hitchman. This was followed by a serendipitous run-in with Robert Talbert at Poly Teach at Cal Poly Pomona. A year later, I was asked to redesign and coordinate our GE statistics class, which has over 1,500 students in 50+ sections every fall and about 600+ students and 20+ sections in spring. I convinced my co-coordinator to do standard-based, mastery grading and brought about 30 other instructors along for the ride.

David: As an undergrad, I took a few classes that used (what I now recognize as) Inquiry-Based Learning and Ungrading. They encouraged me to learn and persevere much more than my other classes. That experience lived in the back of my head throughout grad school, while I got more and more disappointed with the incentives that points brought into my classes (think: “Why isn’t this 8/10 instead of 7/10?”). After graduating, I heard a talk from TJ Hitchman during a Project:NExT session in which he offhandedly mentioned how he used standards-based grading in a geometry class. That started me down the rabbit hole, and I ended up completely re-working my syllabus to use SBG -- just weeks before I started teaching that course. That class was an amazing experience, and I couldn’t believe how much it improved my students’ experiences (they begged me to give them a quiz on the day before Thanksgiving break). Since then I’ve been slowly learning and converting more courses to use various forms of mastery grading.

Question 3: What are some of the key benefits to students?


  • Allows for growth through failure: Getting students to understand that failure is not only OK but a better way to learn is a huge breakthrough. De-programming the idea that only immediate success is how you succeed allows time to build on growth mindset ideas and build grit in our students.

  • Talking Math, Not Arithmetic (of Grades): Students get to focus on questions such as “what do I not understand about the math?” instead of “how am I going to get enough points to get the grade I want?”. Conversations with students are positive, encouraging, and about MATH. They learn more, and they discover that they can succeed by not giving up.

  • Encourages deeper thinking and communication: Students learn that there are a lot of ways to show that they understand the material. AND that understanding is not the same as getting the right answer. They learn to show what they know, even if what they know is partial or incomplete.

David: MBG...

  • Gives students time to learn. It gives students a chance to come back from early failures without penalty. Compare that to how, in a traditionally graded class, doing poorly on an early midterm exam can tank a student’s grade for the rest of the semester. Similarly, if a student doesn’t have some background that an instructor expected, MBG helps identify this and give students a way to learn background material without penalty.

  • Decreases test anxiety. Because assessments are lower stakes, there’s less pressure on each individual assessment.
  • Encourages students to develop a growth mindset, which can benefit them beyond any individual class.
  • Sets up a clear path to success. Clear objectives, and grade requirements stated in terms of those objectives, let students see exactly what they need to do to succeed in a class. It removes the sense that grades are something that happen to students, and gives them agency.

Question 4: The covid-19 pandemic has highlighted serious limitations of timed, (high-stakes) tests.  How do you see MBG helping in this current era? 

Sharona: In my opinion, MBG is the answer to the serious limitations of high-stakes tests. Although I still give timed assessments, the knowledge that the worst thing that happens as a result of the test is that they might have to test again tremendously lowers both the anxiety of the students and the incentives to cheat. Most students WANT to learn. That’s why they are in college. They want to do well, and they want the time spent studying to be worth it. If they can show what they know, get feedback, and then get to show it again, they quickly learn that it is worth it to do the work themselves. It also allows for tremendous customization of the learning process to meet students where they are, without placing undue burden on the instructor.

David: During the Big Pivot online last March, the one thing about my classes that didn’t need to change was my assessments: My MBG setup was flexible enough to keep working. MBG lowers the stakes on every assessment. Even if an instructor uses timed tests, each one becomes lower stakes, since students have opportunities to retake or revise later. MBG also supports instructors in using assessments that fit the COVID era better, such as portfolios, interviews, or student-made videos. These kinds of assessments aren’t inherent to MBG, but they work well with the philosophy of determining if students have demonstrated overall proficiency in their work.

Question 5: How does someone get started with MBG?  And if someone has a question, where can they go?

Sharona: In addition to reading about MBG and joining the community, instructors need to begin learning about and using Backwards Design principles to design the course. Begin by asking the big question “What should my students know and be able to do” after taking my course. And really hone in on that answer. Don’t just accept the list of skills that we have traditionally taught. For example, I really thought about what the core concepts of Calculus II were and came up with the math of “accumulation”, “the infinite” and “position and motion in space”. I then organized my learning targets around those core concepts. If you visit you will have links to over 16 hours of recordings from our first Mastery Grading conference, held online in Summer 2020.

David: Start by reading one or two of these articles to get an overall idea of how MBG works: Kate Owens’s standards-based grading blog post, Robert Talbert’s Specifications grading blog series, or my MBT article. Then check out the articles in the PRIMUS Special Issue on MBG. These articles are detailed explanations of how instructors have used MBG in many different classes, and they are free to all MAA members. Two great places to ask questions and get inspiration: Robert Talbert’s Mastery Grading Slack Workspace (the link invites you to join the workspace) and the super-friendly MBG community on Twitter. Follow @MasteryGrading, check out this list of MBG tweeters, and look at hashtags like #masterygrading, #sbgchat, and #pointlessgrading.

Question 6: Anything else you’d like to add?  

Sharona: MBG has been the single highest impact practice that I’ve adopted in over 30 years of teaching. I did workshops on “cooperative learning” in the 90’s and have used active learning for decades. I was an early adopter of the Hughes-Hallett Calculus text. Despite all of that, I never really succeeded in getting most of my students to really engage in the actual mathematics until I started MBG. The depth of content in my conversations with my students is incredible. And I really enjoy giving really high grades that my students worked incredibly hard to get. (My grades are bi-modal, all A’s, B’s and F’s). I call myself an MBG evangelist for a reason :)

David: My first time using MBG was a “glass shattering” moment. I’ve never again been satisfied using points in a class. It’s changed not just how I do assessment, but my whole focus when designing a class. MBG also fits well with active learning pedagogies like IBL: We’re trying to inquire into what students know and set up opportunities for them to demonstrate their understanding -- rather than forcing limited assessments with punitive results. Finally, the huge variety of ways that people use MBG, and all the acronyms that go with it -- SBG/MBT/Specifications/etc. -- can seem intimidating at first. There’s a lot out there, and everyone ends up finding the best way for themselves. You can dip your toe into MBG (maybe using it only with tests or quizzes) rather than blowing up your entire class plan.