Sunday, June 17, 2012

Moore ain't less

Back in January at the Boston Joint Mathematics Meetings my frolleague Stanislaus told me my name had come up in a conversation about plenary speakers for this year’s Legacy of R.L. Moore conference, an annual celebration of inquiry-based learning (IBL) sponsored by the Educational Advancement Foundation and the Mathematical Association of America. I was honored: this conference is well-known and reasonably high-profile. I wasn’t sure I was the best person for the job, though, for although I practice IBL in every course I teach, I generally do so in moderation. Only rarely do I use techniques that even closely approximate all-out Moore method, as I did this past semester in my two sections of Calc III. (Not having taught in Moore’s style for several years, I was a bit rusty at it, and I think the results were mixed.)

Nevertheless, I accepted the invitation.

I warned Stanislaus that I felt like something of a charlatan, for not only did I use Moore’s method infrequently, I had never even attended the conference before this past week. Stanislaus and others on the conference’s program committee reassured me and insisted that I might have something to say about inquiry and undergraduate research, something about which I do know a bit more.

So I set to work on my talk. It took me a while to decide how to pitch it. Should I focus on the act of research itself, and the role that inquiry plays therein, or should I try to tie research back to the classroom, where we’re more used to finding IBL more explicitly articulated? I settled on the latter approach, putting together an interactive presentation that would, I hoped, call attention to the parallel learning outcomes we encounter both in classroom teaching and in authentic disciplinary research, and highlighting the ways in which IBL helps us achieve those outcomes in whatever setting we might make them.

Early on Thursday afternoon, not an hour before my talk was scheduled to start, I was chatting with another frolleague, Ephigenia, whom I’d met during my postdoc at Illinois (she’d been a graduate student then). “I’m not sure I’m going to be saying anything new to anyone here,” I admitted. After all, I was smack-dab in the middle of IBL central. That research takes inquiry, and that research is in many ways no more than an extension of an interactive inquiry-based classroom, are not new ideas.

“This is sometimes a bit of a feel-good exercise,” Ephigenia assured me. (Boy, have I been a needy Nadine!) Makes sense: many of the folks at the conference are coming from colleges where no one else practices any sort of intentional IBL, and these folks need to find some kind of community. Hey, I’m not one to pooh-pooh the role that affect plays in teaching and learning.

I went ahead with my presentation, and as far as I can tell it was pretty uniformly well-received. It’s not likely that someone’s going to come up to my face and tell me that it sucked, but I had many tell me quite the opposite. I still don’t think I said anything new, though I hope it helped to give concrete examples of inquiry activities that don’t quite fit the Moore-shaped mold (the birdhouse exercise from last fall’s precalculus classes and the conversation on claw-free graph powers that took place between me and this year’s REU students about a week ago now). I might not be justified in feeling like a fake.

So now I’ve been to the Legacy conference. Will I go again? It’s good people, and I always like an excuse to get to Austin. But this time of year’s a busy conference season, and I’m pulled a hundred different ways these days.

We’ll see.

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