Friday, March 17, 2017

Teaching with (Selective) Silence

"It's not the notes you play, but in the silence between them."  --  Miles Davis

By silence I mean selective silence at key moments. The technique described in this post is a variation on Think-Pair-Share or alternatively "Teaching with Your Mouth Shut" by Donald Finkel, and I think of it as an entry-level IBL technique. It can, however, be used in a broad range of IBL classes, and it's also a useful IBL starting point.

Suppose you are teaching a Calculus class, and you are at a point where an example would be useful. Instead of the instructor showing all the steps, the instructor can write the task on the board, and ask students to work on it and then discuss with a neighbor. Once students are talking to each other, the instructor can write the solution on the board.

The basic framework is presented here. You'll need to adjust the framework to fit your goals, the content, and the environment.

  1. Give Task  "Find the derivative of..." or "Here's the graph of the derivative, figure out if the function is concave up or concave down or neither of those."
  2. Ask students to try it and discuss with a partner.
  3. Silence Instructor waits in silence, and observes students working on the problem.  It helps to walk to the back corner, and then walk back up to the front. 
  4. Write When students start discussing, the instructor writes the steps on the board. Student can then compare.
Using this method at the beginning of the term, requires setup to encourage student buy-in. You should have some instructor guidance ready.  Examples of these are:

  • "I'd like you to try some problems sometimes before we look at solutions, so here's how it'll work when we do class activities..."
  • "It's important for you to practice and ask questions, so we can help each other..."
  • "This is like practice in sports or music lessons. It's time for you to try it, and for me to listen..."
This is Think-Pair-Share light. Students are not voting, suggesting, or sharing their solutions. But those options are on the table, and the instructor can opt-in to those. Instructors can elect to have students share their ideas when appropriate.

One advantage of this technique is that it does not require the same level of intensive preparation and class management as a more heavily student-centered IBL experience, where the sequence of problems and class discussions have to be organized carefully.  That is, you can throw this into your teaching toolbox and use it frequently.

One of the common instructor concerns is when students sit quietly and are not active.  I have talked to instructors who say that their students don't work in groups or don't want to work in groups. Getting students to try the problem and discuss is the instructor's responsibility. The main advice is to have students move their desks (if possible) or at the very least know who their partner is ("Point to your partner!").  The instructor should give clear instructions.  "Try this problem. Talk to your partner.  I want to hear you all talking." Then go visit quiet areas and gently ask them to talk to their neighbor.  Opting out should not be an option.  Moving to the side or to the back of the class momentarily helps visually cue that it's time for students to get to work. The act of walking off the stage sends a message that the instructor will be silent.

It's not a zero-sum game:  Frequent use pays off. What I mean by this is that as you get students more and more engaged, then it opens new possibilities to do even more inquiry. Students are more engaged.  They start asking more questions.  You get to know what their strengths and weaknesses are better, so you can make better informed teaching choices. And then this cycles in a positive feedback loop.

Interestingly, if you look at students' notebooks, you'll see nearly the same things as if you had done all the work on the board without asking students to take a turn. The difference is not usually evident on the pages of the notebooks. The difference is in the experiences getting those words and symbols onto those pages.

Lastly, one of the ways we learn about student thinking is to listen. It's much easier to listen when you are silent ;)

Miles Davis -- So What

Monday, March 6, 2017

IBL Mini-Conference at MathFest 2017

Here's a note from Alison Marr, Southwestern University and Patrick Rault, University of Arizona. Alison and Patrick are conference co-chairs of the IBL Conference at MathFest 2017, and are putting together the program for this year.

Interested in learning more about inquiry-based learning (IBL) and active 
learning? Have insights on how IBL works in your classroom? Then please consider attending the mini-conference, Constructing the Future of IBL: The Past 20 Years and the Next 20 Years, that will take place in Chicago as part of MathFest on Friday, July 28, 2017 from 5:30PM-9:30PM. The conference will include a panel discussion exploring various aspects of the diversity of IBL, a contributed poster session, roundtable discussions, and a plenary talk on the future of IBL by Stan Yoshinobu. More information about the conference and poster abstract submission can be found at

There is a $25 registration fee which includes heavy hors d'oeuvres, and you must register for the mini-conference when you complete your MathFest registration. We hope to see many of you there!

Alison and Patrick