Newsletter #43     Dan Bernstein and a Conference

I am two most excellent topics in arrears, but before I hit either one, I wish to sound a loud trumpet, flap a large flag and (I fondly hope) make you grab for your calendars. The occasion for all this is an upcoming visit: on May 18-29 we will have with us Gail Burrill, president until a few weeks ago of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. That's the organization that published the famous "Standards" (otherwise known as the Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for K-12 Mathematics), thereby spearheading the current reform movement about which one hears so many conflicting reports. If anyone in the country has her finger on the pulse of the "Standards-based reform" it's Gail, and she has a lot of interesting things to say about it. Her public appearances are as follows:

  1. Monday evening, May 18, she will be the speaker for the spring dinner of the Puget Sound Council of Teachers of Mathematics. For details, or to sign up for the dinner, get in touch with Royal Pennewell (360-652-9052)
  2. Tuesday noon she will be our guest for a Brown Bag in the Math Lounge.
  3. Tuesday at 4:00 she will give a colloquium jointly sponsored by the Mathematics Department and the College of Education. The title will be "What's going on in the current math reform". This talk will be particularly geared to those of us on university, college and community college campuses,with an eye to what we can hope to expect and how we can encourage those expectations to come true.
    There will be a reception in the Math Lounge after the colloquium.
  4. On Wednesday at 4:30 in Room 210 of Kane Hall, she will give a talk jointly sponsored by the Department of Mathematics, the K-12 Institute and the Office of Educational Partnerships. Its title is "What's happening to Math these days?" This one will be geared to the wider community--K-12 teachers and administrators, parents, community members at large--and our hope is to attract many such to campus to hear her. Please spread the word of that one to anyone you think might be interested.

Enough of the future--let's go back to the past. Last week, at a Brown Bag and then a CIDR Forum, Dan Bernstein from the University of Nebraska got us thinking about an issue which is playing an ever- increasing role on the current campus scene. As the public focuses more and more attention on the educational aspects of the research university three needs become clear. They are not new needs--just newly emerged into the spotlight. One is the need to teach well. That is certainly no new idea--what's new is a recognition of a certain level of ambiguity in what that means. A well prepared and presented series of lectures, while it still has an important place in some academic contexts, is no longer the uniform gold standard for all of them. All manner of new ways of teaching are being tried and developed and used--and sometimes misused. Which brings up the second need: assessment. We need a handle on what's working and what's not, on whose teaching is producing effective student learning and how. That's not easy. We are all painfully aware of the weaknesses inherent in student evaluations. My own feeling is that quite apart from issues of subject-bias and gender-bias and grade-expectation-bias a lot of information is just plain unavailable from that quarter because too many parts of the landscape are simply not visible from a student's-eye perspective. Some information is there, mind you, and should be given due attention--but it is very bounded. The obvious step from there, then, is to where the perspective is less limited--otherwise known as peer review. That does have some real virtues, and I get the impression there have been some definite benefits since we instituted them a few years ago. The snag is the inevitable ease of slipping into letter of recommendation mode, and we all know where that one leads. And that's where Dan Bernstein's work comes in. Starting from a workshop sponsored by the American Association of Higher Education, he has been involved in a Peer Collaboration and Review of Teaching project that takes the virtues of shared perspective and negociates its way past the recommendation mode. It involves longer term partnerships in which two faculty members, probably from the same department but not necessarily, discuss goals and ideas and difficulties over a significant period of time, keeping records as they do so. This includes discussing not only what the faculty member hopes the students will learn, but how he/she intends to determine whether that learning has occured and how he/she responds when it hasn't. For instance, partners might inspect not just each other's tests, but a set of tests which have been taken and graded--looking with an eye to effectiveness of the commentary. And a highly significant aspect of the process is that the first period is, as Dan put it, sheltered from assessment--giving people freedom to try out ideas generated by the conversation without fear of imminent evaluation. Later in the process comes the assessment portion-- but throughout it there has been record-keeping, which provides for the third of the needs I initially referred to: the need for a form of assessment which is visible, and legible, to the outside eye.

Dan made a number of interesting and cogent comments in the course of the Brown Bag and forum, but two of my favorite lines come from an article of his that CIDR sent out in preparation for the forum. One, commenting on one of the virtues of this peer review system, could serve as the Why? line for our Brown Bags: "The exchange of good ideas about content and practice is enjoyable, and the conversations about student learning, though occasionally a little sobering, can result in changes in practice that make both learner and teacher happier." And the other articulates nicely the issue I raised earlier about the ambiguity of "good teaching": "While students ultimately bear a large part of the responsibility for learning, we can influence the likelihood that learning will take place by the choices we make in structuring courses." Influencing the likelihood that learning will take place--it doesn't sound too glorious, but that's really what we're about, yes?

My other chunk of past history had a quite different flavor. With the percentage of my energy and effort that goes into building communities, it is a great privilege and pleasure to go and be part of one. A couple of weeks ago, the annual Washington Community College Math Conference took place in Chelan.There were people there from community colleges all over the state and a batch of universities as well. My excuse for going was to run a panel about our Math 100/102 program. That's the department's developmental (what used to be called remedial) program. The reason it is pertinant is that because it is taught by a form of modified discovery teaching, graduate students responsible for a section of it receive a lot of mentoring. We--more recently, I--spend many hours at the back of the classroom taking so many notes that the pen nearly smokes. As a result, when community colleges around the area have faced the difficult task of getting an assessment of the teaching abilities of an applicant (see above!) they have taken notice of the 100/102 troops. One result of which is that these annual conferences are like old home week for me. But that's not the only reason I enjoy them. I get to hear some neat talks (like, for instance, Jerry Johnson from Western Washington talking about Mathematics and Metaphor) and take part in some sessions (like the one on the mathematcis of the Pit and the Pendulum)--and most of all I get to watch a lively and close-knit community enjoying and profiting from each other's company. All in all, one of the better ways to spend a week-end!

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