In many mathematics classrooms, “doing mathematics" means following the rules dictated by the teacher, and “knowing mathematics" means remembering and applying them. However, this is not a typical mathematics textbook and is likely a significant departure from your prior experience, where mimicking prefabricated examples led you to success. In order to promote a more active participation in your learning, this book adheres to an educational philosophy called inquiry-based learning (IBL). IBL is a student-centered method of teaching that engages students in sense-making activities and challenges them to create or discover mathematics. In this book, you will be expected to actively engage with the topics at hand and to construct your own understanding. You will be given tasks requiring you to solve problems, conjecture, experiment, explore, create, and communicate. Rather than showing facts or a clear, smooth path to a solution, this book will guide and mentor you through an adventure in mathematical discovery.
This book makes no assumptions about the specifics of how your instructor chooses to implement an IBL approach. Generally speaking, students are told which problems and theorems to grapple with for the next class sessions, and then the majority of class time is devoted to students working in groups on unresolved solutions/proofs or having students present their proposed solutions/proofs to the rest of the class. Students should—as much as possible—be responsible for guiding the acquisition of knowledge and validating the ideas presented. That is, you should not be looking to the instructor as the sole authority. In an IBL course, instructor and students have joint responsibility for the depth and progress of the course. While effective IBL courses come in a variety of forms, they all possess a few essential ingredients. According to Laursen and Rasmussen (2019), the Four Pillars of IBL are:
- Students engage deeply with coherent and meaningful mathematical tasks.
- Students collaboratively process mathematical ideas.
- Instructors inquire into student thinking.
- Instructors foster equity in their design and facilitation choices.
This book can only address the first pillar while it is the responsibility of your instructor and class to develop a culture that provides an adequate environment for the remaining pillars to take root. If you are studying this material independent of a classroom setting, I encourage you to find a community where you can collaborate and discuss your ideas.
Just like learning to play an instrument or sport, you will have to learn new skills and ideas. Along this journey, you should expect a cycle of victory and defeat, experiencing a full range of emotions. Sometimes you will feel exhilarated, other times you might be seemingly paralyzed by extreme confusion. You will experience struggle and failure before you experience understanding. This is part of the normal learning process. If you are doing things well, you should be confused on a regular basis. Productive struggle and mistakes provide opportunities for growth. As the author of this text, I am here to guide and challenge you, but I cannot do the learning for you, just as a music teacher cannot move your fingers and your heart for you. This is a very exciting time in your mathematical career. You will experience mathematics in a new and profound way. Be patient with yourself and others as you adjust to a new paradigm.
You could view this book as mountaineering guidebook. I have provided a list of mountains to summit, sometimes indicating which trailhead to start at or which trail to follow. There will always be multiple routes to top, some more challenging than others. Some summits you will attain quickly and easily, others might require a multi-day expedition. Oftentimes, your journey will be laced with false summits. Some summits will be obscured by clouds. Sometimes you will have to wait out a storm, perhaps turning around and attempting another route, or even attempting to summit on a different day after the weather has cleared. The strength, fitness, and endurance you gain along the way will allow you to take on more and more challenging, and often beautiful, terrain. Do not forget to take in the view from the top! The joy you feel from overcoming obstacles and reaching each summit under your own will and power has the potential to be life changing. But make no mistake, the journey is vastly more important than the destinations.