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Legacy of R. L. Moore Conference Pitches a Big Tent

When David Bressoud (Macalester College) attended the Legacy of R. L. Moore Conference for the first time in 2008, he discovered there a "large tent," an environment welcoming to any advocate of active-learning approaches to mathematics education.

David Bressoud at the 16th Legacy of R. L. Moore Conference. Source: Kirk Tuck and the Educational Advancement Foundation

Five years later, the tent has only expanded. When the 16th annual meeting of inquiry-based learning (IBL) practitioners and enthusiasts kicked off on June 13, inclusivity and community-building topped the priority list. "We Are IBL" brought more than 200 participants to the University of Texas at Austin for two days of plenaries, panels, and networking. The MAA and the Educational Advancement Foundation (EAF) sponsored the event.

To increase the number and diversity of perspectives aired, conference organizers changed the number of parallel sessions in the program from two to three. And anyone brave enough to take the microphone could claim a slot during one of the three half-hours devoted to five-minute talks.

Motivation to expand the reach of IBL stems from the conviction that skills such as thinking for oneself and independently wrestling with difficult questions have application beyond mathematics.

"I feel confident that your use of IBL will help your students . . . get through the everyday business of living," EAF's Harry Lucas Jr. told the audience during his introductory remarks. Experiences gained in the IBL classroom—turning initial failure into eventual success, for example—are "transferable to lifelong learning," he said.

The EAF has been the primary funder of efforts to spread methods of instruction inspired by the work of University of Texas topologist R. L. Moore. A forum on the opening afternoon of the conference, however, aimed to elicit from attendees ideas for securing the additional money needed to accelerate the IBL movement.

"I'll call it a 'movement' because I don't know what other noun to use," explained panelist Tina Straley, executive director of the MAA from 2000 to 2012.

Straley stressed that whatever organization results from the strategic planning now under way—establishment of a public nonprofit is one option on the table—it will be one in which the community has a voice.

And what a varied and vibrant community!

Inga Johnson described how she and a colleague revamped the senior seminar required of math majors at Oregon's Willamette University such that students collaboratively write a textbook over the course of a semester. They use an instructor-created skeleton as a starting point and receive a printed copy of the result on graduation day.

Carl Seaquist (Texas Tech University), currently working with a blind student, issued a plea for help locating appropriate resources. He has one set of IBL course notes translated into braille, he said, and his student is "absolutely enthralled with the process" of working through them.

Speaking about the Navajo Nation Math Circles Project, Tatiana Shubin reported that elders on the isolated reservation marveled at how the initiative lengthened the attention spans of its pre-teen and teenage participants. What sorcery could account for the increase? "No magic," Shubin said. "Just nice problems."

IBL has yet to make substantial inroads into secondary mathematics education, but that could change. John Mayer (University of Alabama at Birmingham) came away from the 16th Legacy of R. L. Moore Conference with the impression that more high school teachers attended the meeting this year than in the past, and he sees a connection between IBL methods and the Standards for Mathematical Practice outlined in the Common Core State Standards.

"I think the interest of teachers at all levels will continue to grow," he said. —Katharine Merow

News Date: 
Tuesday, June 25, 2013
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