Newsletter #7     Sundry newsbits

When I set this up, I proclaimed that it would be asynchronous-- meaning that you would never have the faintest idea when the next issue might turn up. Intervals have now ranged from under six days to over six weeks, so I'd say that aspect was pretty well established! Actually, there's been only one Event in the interim, but a certain number of newsbits have also accumulated.

The event in question was Neal Koblitz's colloquium: The Case Against Computers in K-13 Math Education. Since his basic objective was to promote discussion, Neal kept the talk short and took the somewhat harrowing course of stating his case in a form that was strong and sometimes provocative. Judging by the large and animated conversations in the lecture room and the math lounge after the colloquium, and by an e-mail correspondence of which I have had the benefit of cc's, I'd say he had succeeded!

The first newsbit has to do with the two courses which the department voted into existence last spring, both of which are now up and running. At the graduate level we have 597, which is a one credit seminar on teaching. After spending Christmas break hoping fervently that the students would outnumber the faculty coordinators, we were delighted to find twelve (or more, counting auditors and random sightings) friendly faces joining us at the meeting hour of (yeough) 3:45 on Fridays. So far discussion has ranged from the highly applicable ("Who was your most memorable professor and why?") to the relatively abstruse ("What does it really mean to prove a mathematical theorem, and was it there before someone found it?") We hope to hit a number of levels between those by the end of the quarter, and expect to hear yet more interesting ideas from all fronts.

One level down we have our other new course (497). It runs each quarter, with the common points being 1) the course number, 2) the fact that it bundles all of its three credits worth of time into a single, really hefty late afternoon session, so that in-service teachers can take it and 3) whoever is teaching it is doing a topic they really enjoy doing. Last quarter, Jim King used his Geometer's Sketchpad expertise and taught Geometry in one of the computer labs. The course went nicely, but enrollment was on the low side. We decided to attack that directly-- everyone teaching classes for high school math majors during autumn quarter kindly gave the class a plug. This ploy was successfull beyond all our hopes, with the result that I am now teaching Probability to twenty-five spendidly varied students--a wonderful mixture of in-service and pre-service teachers, with a couple of masters students in Science Education thrown in for good measure. I don't believe I've ever taught a more responsive bunch, or had more fun doing it.

The other news would be synopses of the two Brown Bags that have happened since the last newsletter, except that they were not very susceptible to synopsification. We contemplated worksheets two weeks ago (Julie Nuzman brought in a nice supply). We considered the different uses (review, guided progress through new material and variations thereupon) and the different styles of working with them (individual, grouping suggested, grouping coerced) and the virtues, vices and dangers in each. We also heard about the galvanic effect of doing a worksheet in gameshow format with a batch of highly competitive MIT undergraduates, but decided that that tactic would probably not thrive in our mellower context. Furthermore, motivation by the desire to score points over your classmates left us all a little leery.

That leads us neatly into the next Brown Bag, which had largely to do with motivation by the desire to raise a GPA. It seemed pretty clear to all of us that that form of motivation can overshadow and eventually pretty much wipe out motivation by the joy of learning. What wasn't so clear was what could be done about it. There are examples of functioning credit/no credit classes--for example, 170 and 171 both work fine--but it's not clear how to generalize from them. There are also distressing examples of the effect of unilateral attempts to foster student responsibility by stepping out of the role of controller-by-grades. What there aren't, unfortunately, are any nice universal solutions.

For the next Brown Bag I have ordered a videotape from the Bok Center at Harvard. Surely, coming from Harvard, it will offer a firm, universal solution to SOMETHING!

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