Newsletter #49     Variegated Brown Bags

I do love contrast. And it's a good thing I do, because the last two Brown Bags certainly provided it. They did have some things in common: each had a nicely mixed collection of people--faculty and student, math department and others--and each dealt with issues of interest and importance to us all. But beyond that, they diverged.

On the fifth, our guest was Cindy Walker, a recent arrival to theEducational Psychology group in the College of Education. Knowing from conversations with her and from helpful inside information that her field of study is assessment in mathematics teaching, I felt that she was someone who ought to be brought into our ongoing conversation about teaching and learning. By good fortune, the day she came was one on which three other people from the College of Education were able to come (two graduate students and one faculty member) and the ensuing hour seemed to me to open some lines of communication that I have very much wanted to open. Cindy led off by describing her thesis, in which she used data from the TIMSS report to study the relationship between student scores and teachers' views on what it means to teach and on how students learn. As it turned out, her results were inconclusive, because the data base was too general (it takes more than even carefully chosen reponses on a questionnaire to tell how a teacher actually deals with students.) Her conviction about what constitutes good teaching remained unshaken, though, so she is now launching some studies at a far more personalized level to validate them.

That led, naturally enough, to a discussion of what it is she is looking for in a classroom and hoping to see in students. The next stage of the conversation was a little too familiar, as issues of what sixth graders ought to be able to do (and can't) alternated with those of what our freshmen ought to be able to do (and can't). Worth a little time, because we need to stay conscious that our problems are shared. But I was acutely grateful to Jack Beal, who neatly pulled the conversation out of the incipient bog by asking: "Then what is it that the ideal student looks like and can do?" I don't remember a whole lot of the rest of the conversation, because it really was exactly that, with no particular format. I do remember some "ought to"s going by, like Cindy's "It ought to be possible to establish that teachers who think in terms of students developing their own ideas produce students with more effective intellectual autonomy", and Steve Tanimoto's "It ought to be possible to use the huge developments in computers and networks to bring about some of the changes we need." But chiefly I remember the sensation that a bunch of people who have not had much chance to talk were listening to each other, and enjoying doing so. It gave me a great deal of pleasure.

So did the Brown Bag on the twelfth, but as I said, in a quite different format. That was the day we had Jim Minstell as our guest. Jim's philosophy of learning seems to me to match Cindy's on many points. His, however, is the product of thirty years of experimentation. First he began trying things out in his own classroom as a high school physics teacher, then he intrigued colleagues into joining him (Gini Stimpson among them--one of the CCML gang). After a long period of dividing his time between part-time teaching and experimental research, he decided the teching was tying him down too much, and now spends his full time on projects that have developed out of the basic ideas he launched in his classroom. Central to his work is The Diagnoser in which carefully (VERY carefully) chosen multiple choice questions, asked by an interactive computer program, let the student know which concepts s/he has grasped and which misconceptions are lurking in the underbrush, lousing up the comprehension. Jim didn't design the computer program. His love is the questions--finding them and tuning them and generally making them work. His original batch deals with physics, and has been used in a number of classrooms. It's never a replacement for instruction, but it serves an excellent function as exactly what it says: a diagnoser. Furthermore it gives a swift, combined read-out to the teacher, giving warning if some concept has simply zinged past the whole class, and confidence that others have settled in as hoped. Physics is still the best covered, but he has also developed some questions in probability and in calculus, and I have the impression that he is now working in a whole bunch of directions.

Jim gave us a three page summary of his ideas on the meaning of teaching, and its ideal forms. Mostly though, we were too busy listening to what he has done to delve into the background. Putting the two together, though, and simplifying the situation within an inch of its life, I'd say the summary provided the underpinnings and philosophical justification for his life work, which consists of a search for the right questions. I had the impression I was in good company in regarding this as an impressive, interesting, and highly worthwhile mission.

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