Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Next 20 Years: Moonshot Challenges in Post-Secondary Math Education and IBL

This talk was presented at MathFest 2017 at the IBL Conference, July 28, 2017. The text is provided here for those interested in the IBL Community Challenges. Please sign up and join the effort by going to

Title: The Next 20 Years: Moonshot Challenges in Post-Secondary Math Education and IBL

Good evening!
Hello IBL Community!
It’s so great to see you here!

First thank you Alison, Patrick, Susan, Brian, Victor for inviting me to speak tonight to the IBL SIGMAA and the IBL community. It is truly an honor to be here tonight, and thank you for putting together such a wonderful event!

This is a picture called Moonrise Carrizo Plain
Moonrise Carrizo Plain, Stan Yoshinobu
“Glory lies in the attempt to reach one’s goal and not in reaching it.” - Mahatma Gandhi

Tonight I share with you moonshot goals.  We are going to aim high to see where that gets us.  I’m going to share a subset of some big challenges that lie in front of us that I think we can make progress on in the next 20 years

Before I share some moonshot challenges for the next 20 years, it’s time to think about how we got here and the past 20 years.

I personally have many people to thank...  Ed Parker, Carol Schumacher, Bob Eslinger, Sandra Laursen, Bill Jacob, Ralf Spatzier, John Neuberger, Tom Ingram, Ted Mahavier, Bill Mahavier, David Clark, Lee May, Mike Starbird, Albert Lewis, Norma Flores, Harry Lucas, Jr. and so many more…]  All of them mentored, supported or encouraged me, and most importantly made me feel like I was part of this community. I felt welcomed. Never in my professional life have I felt so welcomed. So thank you! Thank you for all you have done for me.

This highlights the importance of community.  Feeling welcomed and receiving support is in my opinion the greatest strength of this movement, and what I am most grateful for.

On that note, let’s extend this thank you to all those in the first generation. All those here tonight, who were at these conferences during the early years. You know who you are. Please stand up…  Stand up!  It’s time we said a proper thank you. Let’s all thank these pioneers for what they have done for us.  

Thank you!  Thank you for your leadership. Thank you for your courageous efforts. We would not be here today without you.  

Carol Schumacher gave a keynote talk at an IBL conference a few years ago about how students find innovative ways to deal with math challenges that we did not envision... It was an inspiring talk about ways of thinking about IBL teaching!  We create problem sets (AKA the bridges), thinking that’s what students might need to reach the learning goals.  And then they go and find their own way to the solutions.

In parallel some of what we have achieved in this community is unplanned and unexpected.  We have done things that few thought would land us here tonight under these circumstances.

I personally have had zero IBL courses in my education, K through PhD.  This movement started in the south.  The only thing southern about me is that I’m from Southern California.  Apparently that’s not the same thing. Yet, here I am, as someone who has been a part of the IBL movement for more than a decade, speaking in front of you tonight.

This actually makes a lot of sense, once you think about it.  Once you go beyond mere surface features, you see that we are all in the same family.  We have shared goals and shared interests.  We have common understanding that authentic learning experiences is what is best for our students. One of the great, transcendental powers of community is to be able to see past the surface and rally around fundamental values.

I’m going to share a few examples of successes you may not have been fully aware of, to further highlight the point of unexpected successes.

In 2006 I was told we would be lucky to have a 3 participants of the first IBL workshop actually use IBL afterwards.  That’s 3 out of 22 participants.  That was nice in a way, because it set the bar low.  I remember talking to Ed Parker thinking “Okay, we can probably get three.”  Well we did much better than that.  Fast forward a decade.  In total when combining all the workshops run by the IBL Centers and AIBL, over 11 years, we have reached more than 500 participants. Our uptake rates are over 70% in the cohorts for the AIBL workshops, which is a tremendous result for faculty professional development.

In just the highlighted in red workshops (2013-15), we had 138 participants, who taught 180+ sections of IBL courses to 4600+ students. This is in just the first year after participants attended a workshop. The impact will continue to grow for this group! That’s just a slice of the success story when it comes to our workshops.

I am going to highlight Sandra Laursen’s work...
“Overall, IBL approaches leveled the playing field by offering learning experiences of equal benefit to men and women, while traditional courses were more discouraging and less effective for women.”

One of the unexpected successes is that IBL can reduce or potentially eliminate the gender gap in Math. You can level the playing field, without lowering the standards.  I’d argue that we’re raising the standards, and are finally creating math courses worthy of women’s intelligence!

The CBMS has urged our profession "to invest time and resources to ensure that effective active learning is incorporated into post-secondary mathematics classrooms."  

I did not expect that CBMS would take this unified stand.  That is a sign of major progress!

Many other unexpected successes were achieved that I don’t have time tonight to discuss.  We value and celebrate all those successes, and we can continue the discussion afterwards.

Thus, it is so critical to suspend disbelief and have a growth mindset about our future in education.  Growth mindset applies broadly.  I often run into the word “can’t” when talking to others about education.  We can’t do this. We can’t do that. Or they won’t approve that…  Let us dream a little, because we can succeed in ways that we may not have imagined. Let’s add the word “yet” to those sentences. We can’t do it yet, and let’s keep working on it.

Let’s talk about the challenges.

Challenge 1 Establish IBL Professional Development Centers Across the Nation
This idea is based on MSRI, but smaller and more agile centers. The focus is on teaching.  Specifically, faculty professional development in active learning and IBL. Professional development is one of the main ways for math instructors to gain the skills and practices needed to be effective IBL instructors. We need dedicated centers, embedded at institutions of higher education, strategically spread across the nation.

Professional development centers can be places faculty go to throughout the year, get help, mentoring, visit classes, study videos, examine course materials, and all that.  Right now we are limited to summers and with soft money. What we have now will not cut it.

Permanent professional development centers can reach thousands of math instructors, and that is the scale we need to be working on. They should be open in that they welcome instructors from elsewhere and have specific programs for any math instructor interested in IBL.

These PD centers should have full-time people, who can continue to improve and expand professional development opportunities, strategies, and assets, that are relevant to their regions. All of us faculty here work on the IBL movement part-time. While that may be a necessity for most of us, there should be some people who can focus on professional development full time. It allows them to solve problems that part-timers can’t.

Currently we are relying on a part-time, volunteer force, with relatively small financial and professional incentives to carry out this work, dispersed throughout the country, in some cases with little support. Professional development centers would take us to the next level.

The PD Centers are a cornerstone to attacking other big goals, as you will see.

Challenge 2a
Increasing use of IBL methods to more than 50% of postsecondary mathematics courses

The IBL community is well-positioned to help make this happen. We have a community that can support faculty in their efforts to use active learning, and a long, successful track record.

Challenge 2b   
"IBL versions" of Calculus will be the most common form of Calculus
By "IBL versions" I mean that IBL teaching methods are used in the course regularly. We are not necessarily suggesting changes to textbooks. There exist strategies for using IBL that can be adapted to a wide variety of situations, including those with relatively little instructor freedom, where instructors work with the materials given to them.

Textbooks reflect the dominant culture. You don’t change culture by changing the textbooks, and it in fact you might run into more obstacles when you focus on textbooks. My position is that we need to work with people, respectfully and carefully over long periods of time. Then the changes we want will evolve naturally.

Most students don’t even read the book. Let’s think about this… Textbook battles are like arguing over what vegetables to put in your kid’s lunch, when you know they chuck the veggies and eat only the sandwich. Let’s make a healthy sandwich. Focus on the instructors!

A focus on higher levels of instructor skills is a stronger way forward, because those IBL skillsets are generalizable and long lasting. Once instructors go IBL they usually stick with it and expand it.

Challenge 3a
Expand the IBL community by two or more orders of magnitude
This can be done via multiple methods including but not limited to developing IBL consortia, expanding enrollment in IBL Workshops, widespread availability of AIBL Small Grants (or similar), and steady outreach efforts to work with our colleagues in the AMS, MAA, AMATYC, SIAM, ASA, NCTM, NAM, AWM, AIM, the flipped-classroom community, POGIL, Inquiry-Oriented Learning, and others.

I love MAA, and MAA is my home organization, but MAA is not the home organization for everyone, and we need to do the outreach work to bring people into the IBL community.

Fittingly, this is a numbers game.

Challenge 3b
Become a partner in efforts to reform and improve K-12 Math Education
I’ll touch only briefly on this one.  While we are focused on college and graduate math teaching, our work is connected to K-12 math education, and every student’s experience incorporates all levels. It is therefore an obligation to continue to build relationships with our colleagues in K-12 math teaching.

The IBL community has a direct connection to K-12 math teaching via courses for future teachers, our involvement in K-12 professional development, and our shared goal of student success. These connections can open doors for stronger ties, partnerships, and collaborative endeavors.

My belief is that we must engage with humility and respect. Just because we might know more math doesn’t mean we know how to solve their problems and challenges. Going in as a collaborator and a supporter, with open minds, will build more bridges. The main way we can help is by our work in our own classes. HS teachers tell me that one of the blocks or obstacles is that they point to colleges and lecture methods. Some HS teachers believe they are just getting students prepared for college by using the lecture method.

Challenge 4
Inclusivity: Women and minorities are represented in Mathematics proportional to their representation in society.

This is a big one and close to my heart. Women and minorities are much more likely to leave the STEM pipeline, and women and underrepresented minorities are not participating in STEM fields and careers at levels proportional their representation in society.  
Female recipients of PhDs in Math hovers around 25-30%.  Referring to the image above, this is not the steady state solution we want. I’m quite frankly tired of looking at this graph.

Where does IBL come into the picture? Research evidence suggests that the IBL framework can help minimize these gaps. Although changing classroom instruction is not enough to solve all of our problems, it is for many students the only opportunity to have a transformative experience that changes the trajectory of their life. It is a place we can start to make a difference, and we can build off of that.  

We have a advantageous position on inclusivity in the IBL community, because our teaching methods have been shown to make a real difference. That’s a good sign. That’s what we needed to hear, and should make you feel optimistic about the future.  There exists a solution and that solution is doable!  We can do something about social justice via effective teaching.

Policy and opportunity matters. So teaching reform isn’t enough. We will need to expand our focus beyond teaching on these issues and become advocates, push for change, and find other strategies we can’t see right now that helps us achieve equity.

Challenge 5 Address Math Anxiety, Promote Growth Mindsets
Math anxiety is rooted in fixed mindsets, poor teaching, and other cultural factors. I hope one day we never have to hear things like "I hate math..." and "I am not a math person..."  

This is a big problem.  It likely affects millions of people. There are 6 million K-12 students in public education in CA.  If 50% have math anxiety, then 3 million students have math anxiety.  That is approximately 24 million K-12 students in the United States.

Teaching growth mindsets, and de-stigmatizing mistakes are two components that can be included in IBL classes. We can once again do something about this via teaching, and we can share our ideas and spread them.

Challenge 6 Informing the general public about IBL
A few years ago when I approached my dean to help with fundraising for AIBL, he said something that really hit the nail on the head. He said that people don’t know about IBL or who you are. It’s hard to raise money for something that no ones knows about.  

Without support from the public, any movement will eventually fade or run into hard limits.  It is therefore our responsibility to inform not just our colleagues, but also the general public about what IBL is, how it helps students, and why it's important for everyone to care IBL. Social media and other avenues exist for us to inform our communities.

7. Other Challenges
This list is a starting point for the IBL Community and how our work connects to larger issues in society. Other challenges exist and are important, and just because something was not mentioned tonight, does not mean that it is not a worthy challenge. And I’ll share how you can put in your two cents in just a moment.  

Now it’s time to talk about courage. We’re going to need a lot of courage.  

“Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.”
― Maya Angelou

History is full of calls for change in math teaching. The active learning statement by the CBMS is the latest example. The Common Core movement is another. NCTM released the Principles and Standards more than 2 decades ago. John Dewey made calls for engaging students actively about a century ago.  Warren Colburn in 1830, nearly two centuries ago, published an article advocating for engaging students to discover math and think for themselves.  

Math Education has improved over the years, and we have made significant progress. Putting these successes aside for the moment, the calls for change persist. Pure lecture, where teachers do all of the work, still dominates. Fixed mindsets are far too common.

Something powerful binds us, and we are not yet free from these bindings. To change is going to take more than data, or evidence, or a new calculus textbook. Teaching is fundamentally a cultural activity.  We will need to work with people, one-on-one, and do the long work of building and expanding the community. That’s what has been going on here already in the IBL community.  Now the challenge is for us to continue to modernize, evolve, include, and expand our community.

Your courage is needed. Courage to do things that you may not be used to doing. The courage to collaborate when you prefer to work alone. The courage to talk to a colleague, who makes you feel uncomfortable about active learning. The courage to teach using a new method or strategy that you have not used before.  The courage and stamina to stay up late on a weeknight to make changes to your lesson plans, because you know it will be better for your students.

John F. Kennedy said in his Moon Speech in 1962... “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, ...”

My goal tonight is not only to share my ideas. My main goal is to share the next thing...

I invite you to join us in this work!  

Please go to the AIBL website and sign up to work on these challenges. Click on the community challenges link.  Read the challenges I shared tonight or think of your own.

When you get to the bottom of the page, you can sign up to join the effort. We need you! We need a big community working together. Tell us who are and what challenges you want to work on, and we’ll get going.

You don’t have to wait for the cavalry to show up. You are the cavalry!

You don’t have to wait for the big donors to show up tomorrow. You can take action now with what we have today!

You don’t have to wait for a superhero or a great leader, because there is much more power in a diverse community that is working together.

You don’t have to be a famous person or be a highly experienced expert on IBL. You just have to care, and be passionate about student success.

Just as we invite our students to share their ideas in our math classes, I am inviting you to join us.  Whether you are joining the community for the first time or for the 20th year we welcome you with open arms.

Two years ago, Dave Kung quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. in his keynote sharing with us that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but bends towards justice… and we can bend it.”  That was a powerful message about what we can do as individuals to enact change.

In a similar way I share with you this...
That the arc of the education is long,
But bends towards the bold and hard working.  
We can bend the arc of education!

While we stand here tonight looking out at the distant moon,
We know we got to the moon before,
And watched the earth rise over the horizon.
We can do it again together.  
And we shall do it again together!
Photo Credit, NASA, retrieved from

Thank you so much everyone!