Solving the classroom equation

Before he was an associate professor of mathematics at UNI, Theron “T.J.” Hitchman held a one-year visiting position at Williams College, a liberal arts college in western Massachusetts.

It was there that he first realized he didn’t know what he was doing.

TJ Hitchman

“[I realized] standing at the front of the classroom and lecturing 45 hours each semester is not going to get what I want in terms of student results and satisfaction, so I better do something different,” Hitchman said. “I set out to learn how to do it.”

“I had a miserable year,” Hitchman recalled. “It doesn’t matter if I’m charming at the front of the classroom. It doesn’t matter if I know any math. That’s not what teaching’s about.”

So when he was hired at UNI, where he has spent the last eleven years, Hitchman made a deliberate effort to re-evaluate and reinvent his teaching methods.

“[I realized] standing at the front of the classroom and lecturing 45 hours each semester is not going to get what I want in terms of student results and satisfaction, so I better do something different,” Hitchman said. “I set out to learn how to do it.”

This has led to a classroom emphasis on what is known as inquiry-based learning.

“What it boils down to is that I structure my classes in such a way that I give the students interesting and approachable things to do and then we run the class based on them presenting their work and the students discussing it,” Hitchman explained.

“And I get out of the way as much as possible.”

Hitchman offers his classical Euclidean geometry course, for which he has written all of the materials, as an example. The material is ancient, with no theorems more recent than the 1800s. But Hitchman argues that learning the theorems is less important than the students understanding how to work like a mathematician.

“So if somebody gives you a statement, do you know how to go about figuring out if it’s true or false? And once you’ve decided, do you know how to go about constructing an argument that could convince another person of what you believe? And then can you write that down rigorously in a way that a mathematician would recognize and know that’s a proof?

“And that’s what the class is about,” Hitchman said.

The most rewarding part of this style of teaching, for Hitchman, is when a student demonstrates the ability to do something that he didn’t previously know they could do.

“The best moments are where you know you have a student that is struggling at this -- because what I’m asking them to do is really challenging -- and to see it all of a sudden click. They show up to class one day, and they did something awesome and they share it, and everybody in the room knows what happened and everybody cheers. It’s a big deal.”

And as he is wont to do, Hitchman is quick to get out of the way when it comes to claiming credit. He wants his students to own their success in his classroom.

“We run a class journal. Before, we were writing one-page arguments. Now we’re getting into really complicated ones. I like that. I like seeing them grow. I don’t get to take credit for it though, right? Because they’re the ones who do all the work.”

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