Whoosh! Autumn quarter is underway. So much so, in fact, that the season's first Brown Bag has come and gone. Since I sneakily declared a Brown Bag on the same subject I had just written an AWM Education column about, I shall give a slightly minimalist description of the former and then append the latter.
The subject in question was the Transition Project, a rather massive effort launched a year or so ago by a consortium that includes, among others, the Gates Foundation and the Office of the Superintendant of Public Instruction. The Project's objective is building some kind of bridge over the chasm between the expectations university faculty members have for their students and the high school teachers' perceptions of said expectations. Various meetings and workshops occurred last winter and spring, but it wasn't until summer that we on the UW campus got tuned into the action. Fortunately, despite that lateness we were able to provide two excellent representatives to the week-long workshop that took place at the Sleeping Lady in Leavenworth in late August. Jenni Taggart and Matt Conroy, both of whom teach many, many incoming students in one pre-calculus course or another, took part for the whole week. I managed to get over for the last day to tune in on the project, so it seemed to make sense for the three of us together to conduct a Brown Bag. Most of the transcribable part of what we said is covered in the column below, so I won't duplicate it. I will just note one neat development. One of the things that most pleased me about the document (or rather, skeletal draft of a document) that the workshop produced was the fact that the leading position in the collection of needs of a student is held not by a specific mathematical topic, but by a set of attributes like being able to take responsibility for learning, and being persistent in problem-solving. I believe the original description stems from a document put out by AMATYC (Association for Mathematics at Two Year Colleges). I found out at the Brown Bag that one reason these attributes are given such prominence in the Transition Project's document is that Jenni threw herself headlong into the effort to promote them. Go, Jenni!
And now the column:
It is time for a long-overdue acknowledgment: since a short time after I began writing these columns for the AWM Newsletter, my daughter Eleanor has been improving every one. Sometimes it has been a general comment ("This sounds like a neat project, but I didn't really figure what it was until the last paragraph"), sometimes highly specific ("Mother, no one in the world but you and Gayle Ball would actually use that word"). Always the column has emerged more focused, more readable, and altogether something I am happier to present. Be it hereby known to one and all: I am very grateful!
High School to College - the Great Transition
Some years ago in the course of a casual conversation, a friend who works with a program on campus asked me what was wrong with the mathematics department. "A lot of students come the University and flunk calculus", she said. "and these are 3.5 or 3.6 students." I was dumbfounded. I knew about the failure rate, and was only slightly jolted by her assumption that a 3.5 from an unspecified high school defines a student as automatically academically outstanding. What stunned me was her clear conclusion that the only ambiguity about the source of the difficulty was whether the mathematics department was incompetent or uncaring.
That was quite a while ago. In the intervening years a lot has happened. For one thing, our department, which not only is competent but cares a lot about its students, put a huge amount of time and energy into revising a calculus sequence whose flaws were getting in the way of its considerable strengths. For another, a communication gap became clear first to me (because of my choice of working areas) and then to a number of my colleagues: by far the most widely accepted source of information about the question: "What do the mathematicians at the University really want of their incoming students?" was our placement test. Given that this test is a slightly generic one used for all of the state's four-year colleges, that very few members of our department have even seen it, and that those who have are rarely at ease with its choices of emphasis, the gap might perhaps better be described as a chasm. On the other hand, when it came to articulating what the needs really are, conversations ranged from lively to chaotic, but were rarely productive.
I was so conscious, in fact, of how much easier it is to spin resonant prose on the subject of the ideal student than to produce useful suggestions that my first reaction when I heard of a "Transition Project" designed to improve students' transition in mathematics from high school to college was that my sky already had enough pie in it. Only after several people for whom I have a lot of respect had more or less hit me over the head with it did I begin to take the Project seriously. Eventually I wound up at part of one of its workshops, at which point I became downright enthusiastic. The working community included a lot of voices from a lot of contexts - a good balance of secondary and post-secondary, plus some folks who do assessment on the national level, and the like. There was also a lot of listening going on. From this there emerged the ideas for a document, solidly cushioned by the agreement that no document on its own was going to solve any problems.
The document ideas have now converged into a slightly skeletal draft, and my enthusiasm remains unabated. Possibly my retreat from skepticism has turned me into a Pollyanna, but it seems to me that the balance between mathematical content and other needs is unusually fine. The proposed document includes an excellent selection of topics that are important to a student entering college (and the listing is due to be fleshed out with examples of both minimal and beyond-minimal problems on each subject.) On the other hand, in terms of transition far more students crash and burn for lack of understanding of the academic expectations for a college student than for lack of any one specific chunk of content. Among the most disastrously disillusioned of college students are those who come in armed exclusively with really polished skills at carrying out whatever procedure the teacher or textbook tells them to carry out. Also subject to high distress are those who are convinced that a mathematics problem that requires more than five minutes to solve represents an unjust imposition on the part of the teacher. Both these and other similar "attributes or characteristics" are addressed in the very opening paragraphs of the transition document, and I find that very heartening. Even the mathematical content description, which can so easily degenerate into a laundry list, maintains the emphasis by presenting "concepts and procedures the student needs to be able to select and use."
It will take some more time and energy for the draft to get fleshed out, finished and distributed. After that comes a phase that could be even tougher: getting it accepted, and making it possible for those who accept it to act on it. That will require support not just from teachers but from administrations, parents and the community at large. All were discussed at the workshop, with a variety of suggestions proposed. My own particular working subgroup looked most closely at school administrators and felt that the "Lenses on Learning" seminars produced by the Educational Development Center could be of huge benefit. Others addressed other components. No one, oddly enough, came up with the perfect solution for any of them, but a lot of good ideas got floated and recorded.
Clearly this is a work in progress. If you would like to check its current state, see http://www.transitionmathproject.org . Let's hope that in a few years I can do a follow-up column on its impact - we shall see!