Tuesday, April 14, 2015

"Activation Energy" and IBL Uptake

Here's a basic question.  What does it take to switch from traditional to IBL teaching?   This question can be answered in many ways.  I'm going to come at this from an education system reform angle.  Essentially the general problem is the implementation challenge in education.   Perhaps the biggest challenge for the education community now is implementing what works in the classrooms on a broad scale, and open questions remain about what it takes in time and investments to make the necessary changes.   In this post the notion of activation energy is used to shed light on what it might take to make reform stick.

In Chemistry, activation energy is a term that means the minimum energy that must be input to a chemical system with potential reactants to cause a chemical reaction.  Implementing IBL is analogous in that there is a substantial initial investment by an instructor to learn the necessary skills and practices to be successful in the classroom.  What is the activation energy required for an instructor to switch to IBL teaching?

Instructors of course vary greatly, due to experiences and teaching environments.  For our purposes a "back of the envelope" computation is all that's necessary to illustrate the main points.  Let's take as an example an assistant professor who attends an IBL workshop.  In this case, we have an instructor who elects to attend a workshop, is motivated to learn to use IBL, is invested in her job and institution, and wants students to learn authentic mathematics.

So here it is.  The activation energy required is 100+ hours, plus resources to travel to a workshop,  prepare for a course, and engage with the IBL community.   The breakdown is as follows.
  • 10 hours pre-workshop preparation
  • 40 hours of workshop time
  • 50+ weeks to prepare for a target course (begin course materials adaptation, plan activities for the first few weeks, syllabus, other course management.)
  • Plus hundreds of hours more through the first few terms of using IBL.
The aggregate investment per faculty is roughly between $5,000-10,000 to attend a workshop, materials, mentoring, and so forth.   Most of this cost is imbedded in the professional development infrastructure.  Experts need to be hired to develop the materials and run the workshops.  My initial estimate of the the IBL activation energy is approximately 100hrs + $10K (or 100+10 for short).   This is the base investment to get started.  Becoming an expert IBLer is a much, much longer effort that takes years.

It's noted that this investment level can go down with economies of scale, but we are nowhere near that level of uptake or infrastructure today. The infrastructure across the nation is not yet established to offer lower-cost options.  In fact, at this point in history a focus on efficiency is likely a major strategic mistake.  The infrastructure needs to be built up first, and then in the future as uptake increases, one can economize.  It's called economies of scale for a reason.

The situation quickly gets more complicated.  Colleges, CTLs, professional development groups likely do not have good estimates of the activation energy required for uptake of student-centered pedagogies (or are even aware to think about it this way).  Further, as we develop more sophisticated teaching frameworks, the complexity of professional development and the specific supports needed by faculty become more technical and discipline specific.  The activation energy is dependent on the PD available, the subject matter, and the varies by instructor, course, and institutional environment.  Teaching Calculus isn't the same as teaching Math for Elementary Teaching or Topology.

Further, an echo from the past that continues to be felt today that inhibits progress on implementation is the factory model mindset.   Lingering to this day is the sense that instructors are delivery devices for information.  With the factory mindset is the belief that fixes to the system are in the form of tweaking courses, chipping away at the margins, and changing textbooks.  This is one reason why I am presenting the activation energy concept for education reform.  When we view instructors as delivery devices and/or underestimate for whatever reason the real effort necessary to become an effective IBL instructor, then the level of support and resources allocated to the problem is too low.   Invariably some new IBLers will struggle (due to inadequate preparation), and then the next, linked fallacy that results is something like, "I can't teach via IBL" or "IBL doesn't work at my institution."

The Pendulum.  There exists a defeatist belief among some in education that there is an education pendulum, and that's just the way it is.  Things repeat like a sinusoidal function, over and over again.   I've written about this before here.  Those weary of repeated efforts to make changes have a reason to be this way, and I am sympathetic to a degree.  They've seen things swing one way and then another, and those with hopes for a brighter future have seen their efforts crash and and burn, which is highly demoralizing.  The activation energy idea sheds some light on the matter.   Let's think of it as an absurdly flawed road trip implementation.  If we put in only half the gasoline needed for the trip, and each time we get towed back home, then one interpretation of these events is that this is what vacations are about. We go, don't make it to your destination, because we run out of gas. Then get towed home.  Hence the pendulum.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Education is a human construction.  It's not like the stars and the moon, where we have no way to affect the universe outside our planet in significant ways (as of today).  We built it.  We can change it.   If we follow our own teaching philosophy, then we should ask good questions.  Why is there a pendulum?  What are the causes?  Is there a better way?

Let's the put 100+10 estimate into context relative to current institutional practices.  Faculty training programs often have 1-2 days of "new faculty orientation" or a weekly seminar that meets for 1 hours.  More or less this is an order of magnitude below what I am seeing as necessary, without considering the nature and quality of the programs.  It is fairly well known that current practices of TA training or new instructor training are not sufficient to address the broader uptake problem, where low percentages of faculty in STEM actually use proven, student-centered teaching methods.  With the activation energy perspective, we can start to quantify how much more effort is needed and what it would cost.  While we are below the mark that I estimate is necessary with current practices, on the positive side we know ways to get people past the activation energy.  Solutions exist!

On a personal teacher level, getting started with IBL is hard.  IBL, however is a "sticky" idea in the sense that once instructors use it well, they stick with it.  Indeed, once you see your students think creatively and transform how they think and think of themselves as learners, there's no going back.  And that's easily a worthwhile 100+10 investment!