Friday, October 28, 2016

A Vision for the Future of Active Learning: Professional Development Centers

I've been participating in the Mathematical Association of America's Active Learning Day/Week (#activelearningday), I've shared some videos of students sharing their opinions and experiences in IBL classes. I've also truly enjoyed hearing from my colleagues about their experiences and what they do! What an inspiration!

I think it's appropriate at this point to share an idea I have been thinking about for several years. The idea is centered on the goal of really pushing active learning forward in Mathematics. The idea is fairly straightforward, and is to create several Professional Development Centers in Mathematics Teaching and Learning across the nation, loosely modeled after the Mathematical Science Research Institute. Because regional needs vary significantly, it is likely a better strategy to create more of these in smaller sizes, creating a more nimble and responsive network.

Some Issues and Gaps
Some gaps in our system exist for preparing college math faculty to teach using active-learning methods exists. I'll highlight some of the main ones I have noticed to shed some light on the gaps, and then we can see how a PD Center can offer significant help.

Education reform is hard, time-consuming work. It involves working with people in diverse settings and in the system is gigantic. Just in my state university system, the California State University, there are 440,000 students across more than 20 campuses living in learning in a vast range of environments. Impactful change in just one system is an immense challenge, much less the challenge presented by a nation with over 300 million people.

Teaching is a system and a cultural activity. Hence change is much, much more than merely changing textbooks or rearranging the schedule from MW to MWF. It involves shifting fundamental ways in which students interact with the subject, which involves a lot of inertia. Hence, this is yet another factor that implies that changes in teaching is a hard challenge for each individual instructor.

The Uptake Problem is a label I use to represent the fact that the percentage of faculty using active-learning remains low, despite knowledge of the existence of active learning. One study by Dancy and Henderson suggests that time and other complexities affecting the process of changing teaching methods are significant. It's not enough to know a solution exists. To find ones that work for individuals is a specialized problem confronting each instructor.

Grant work has been instrumental in accelerating the progress of active learning, and we have gained and learned a tremendous amount from this. We would not be where we are today, without grant-funded projects. The grant-funded projects, however, do not cover all the bases, so arguing that we have external grants isn't a full solution. For instance, when funding ends, projects can lose momentum or die off. We can say that we are at a point where we can see the finish line because of grant-funded work. We are much better off, but this line of work tends to be more focused and not the broad, long-term work we need to take things to the next level.

At present, there isn't a professional group that works solely on implementation of active learning on a full-time basis. This is in my opinion a weakness in the system, and slows progress. Grants allow some of us to do this part-time, but our time frames are short and our reach is limited compared to the size of the profession. At the moment, we are primarily a grass-roots effort (which is good and necessary, but not sufficient).

Centers for Teaching and Learning on college and university campuses are wonderful resources. I truly appreciate what they do and the services they offer. One area that CTLs can struggle with is in the area of the details of discipline specific active learning. Teaching Abstract Algebra or Real Analysis or first-year Calculus present different challenges to math instructors. Hence, mathematicians and mathematics educators are best positioned to be the ones to do the PD work. General frameworks for teaching are a good place to start, and can be learned from CTLs, but what happens when your students have trouble understanding nested quantifiers in the context of proving a function is not continuous? CTLs can be partners in this, but another force is needed to take things across the finish line.

Experienced faculty in active learning are generally diffuse and are (at least) somewhat isolated from one another. At the moment there are some efforts to coordinate, so it is understood by some that this issue needs to be addressed. Still much of the time the experience, skill, and knowledge of the profession is not being fully harnessed via collaboration, sharing, and consolidating knowledge, materials, and expertise. Consequently, a PD Center is needed to assist with coordinating efforts.

Hence, opportunities to learn about and get support using active learning are largely ephemeral, and all the while the challenges facing instructions remain significant.

What Professional Development Centers Could Do
I'll sketch the kinds of activities PD Centers could do. This isn't a comprehensive list, and is intended as a staring point to explore what might be possible.
  • Focused on professional development for all faculty interested in active learning and improving student learning of mathematics
  • Short workshops, during academic terms, where faculty could visit classes
  • Long workshops during academic breaks for intensive work
  • Traveling workshops to visit to departments
  • Create repositories for workshop materials, course materials, and relevant research studies
  • Postdoc and visiting scholar programs for developing young faculty and future leadership
  • Host small groups of visitors during the academic year to customize experiences around their specific needs
  • Create a video library of best practices for multiple types of classes, so visitors can sit in live classrooms and study video to ensure they have access to the range of skills and practices needed for successful implementation. The video library would also have value in formal workshop settings.
  • Outreach work to encourage an ever increasing number of instructors to lean in and try active learning
  • Develop workshop leaders so that workshops can be run across the nation.
  • Offer grants to support faculty and departments, who need time and materials to get up to speed
  • Full time faculty and staff, who focus on this line of work, perhaps including postdocs and visiting scholars
My sense is that a PD Center should be housed at a college or university, where teaching is valued and a variety of course offerings are available. In this case, it could offer many different options for professional development.

Our experiences running IBL Workshops inform us that changes in teaching requires significant time and effort. The typical new IBL instructor spends hundreds of hours to get going with IBL, even when starting with a week-long workshop.  The "activation energy" is high, and efforts are spent over many academic years. A PD Center could offer support that matches such longer-term time frames for faculty development and institutional changes, unlike grant-funded projects, which come and go and have more limited resources.

Let's look at the example of the state of California, which has about 1/8th of the nation's population. I'm choosing this example only because this is where I am. A PD center somewhere on one of the CSU or UC campuses, could be a place where math professors and instructors from colleges and universities across the state (and west coast) could visit within a half a day's drive or short flight. Annual workshops and conferences could be hosted, and specific regional issues could be addressed, such as the preparation of future secondary math teachers, how to teach Differential Equations to engineering majors, urban commuter issues in the SF and LA areas, and so on... Steady, long-term effort could be spent on a wide range of issues with the help and support of a PD Center that brings people together to work collaboratively on our big challenges.

Consequently, it can be argued that the existence of PD Centers would significantly impact the long-term successful implementation of active learning across the nation. These efforts could be expanded into other STEM fields, and in time (or in parallel) into K-12 Math and Science.  We have a robust group of mathematicians, mathematics education researchers, and math instructors across the nation, all doing great work. The ideas outlined above expose where our nation is lacking in infrastructure, and how some of these gaps could be addressed with PD Centers.

Great schools depend on great teachers. Focusing our efforts on teaching and learning is, in my opinion, the best bang for the buck. It would be wonderful if we could provide the support, leadership, and vision befitting the challenges, needs, and goals of our math teachers, our profession, and ultimately our students.