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Ongoing learning ‘one small step at a time’

April 15, 2011
Harvey Blau

Harvey Blau

It’s ironic that a mathematician such as Harvey Blau often finds that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

But Blau’s educational philosophy, some of it formed on basketball courts and in musical rehearsal spaces, embraces just that.

“I volunteered as a basketball coach for my wife’s teenaged special education students during the first years after we came to Illinois. In this role, I realized the importance of teaching literally one small step at a time,” Blau says.

“I was impressed by the Suzuki system of music instruction when my children studied violin. The curriculum separates, teaches, reinforces and then integrates every relevant component of technique and musicality, and is structured so that kids have fun,” adds Blau, who also applies that same technique to the choir that he founded and continues to direct in his local Jewish congregation.

And so it is in Blau’s classroom that connected increments of learning are most effective.

Quizzes each class period help students to measure how well they are understanding and mastering content.

Those “kept us on our toes and inspired us to immediately apply what we had just learned,” says Lisa Grilli, an instructor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences and a former student of Blau’s. “It created a buzzing atmosphere of ongoing learning.”

“Professor Blau challenges students to think about problems at a range of difficulties so that everyone learns in his class,” student Ashley Case says. “If a student needs to see a second example of a particular concept, then he is willing and able to provide one.”

When students are puzzled in the classroom, Blau gladly starts over and clarifies each step of the solution. When students pose questions about the homework, he offers hints rather than answers.

When students are struggling, he offers to hold out-of-class seminars. When the professor returns graded homework, it is covered in his valuable feedback, positive and constructive.

“It’s labor-intensive, but effective,” he says. “My piano teacher in college gave me a small wooden mouse with big ears as a reminder to listen when I practiced. I try to listen to what my students are telling me in their responses, and to how my teaching is being received.”

Blau, a member of NIU’s Department of Mathematical Sciences faculty since 1969, earned his bachelor’s degree at Reed College in Portland, Ore., and completed his master’s and doctoral degrees at Yale.

He has written study notes for several NIU math courses and, when asked to take over a geometry course required of all mathematics education undergraduate majors, he revised the course materials and then wrote what has become the text.

Blau also designed, wrote and taught a graduate-level course in geometry, numbers and algebra for the department’s new master’s of science in teaching program with a specialization in middle school mathematics education.

Blau is an active research mathematician with more than 50 publications that include joint projects with colleagues in Israel, Germany and China. He has supervised four NIU Ph.D. dissertations, and has four current Ph.D. students.

He created and organizes his department’s yearly math contest, advised the Math Club and has escorted various student groups to the annual meeting of the Illinois section of the Mathematical Association of America.

In 1993, he won the university’s Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award.

“The greatest motivation I can give students is the knowledge that they are becoming better at doing something useful and important,” Blau says. “Of course, human limitations can impede progress. Nurture won’t always trump nature. But I believe that any good teacher must proceed as though it will.”