|Children experiment with gravity, geometry, friction, and design with a marble run they have constructed.|
One of the major reform initiatives currently supported by the U.S. D.O.E. and Indiana Dept. of Education (http://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/us-education-secretary-arne-duncan-issues-statement-release-presidents-council-a) is improvements in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education. That is a commendable goal.
However, there is one problem. Under the current standardized high stakes accountability framework and linear curriculum structures with which teachers and students are forced to operate, providing space, time and opportunity for children to develop personal, meaningful relationships with STEM content will be difficult at best.
A major research study recently released by Indiana University and University of Louisville, reveal Indiana students with improving ISTEP scores perform no better on ACT exams (http://newsinfo.iu.edu/news/page/normal/22841.html ). What does that say about the current trends to standardize educational experience? If policymakers want positive outcomes in STEM education, then they better provide teachers with a framework to make learning experience personal for their students. Heterogeneous groups of learners in classrooms around the U.S. and in Indiana are the rule and not the exception. Yet, teachers are expected to provide a common, standardized learning experience for each of their charges. Policymakers would be wise to provide teachers with flexibility in the use of alternative assessments making it possible for deep integration of STEM across the curriculum. Portfolios come to mind. Indiana used to be a national leader in electronic portfolio development. That program was abandoned after selected high stakes testing was mandated at the beginning of the millennium.
With electronic portfolios the fusion of STEM with the visual arts and other subject areas will provide deep transformational learning experiences for children. Authentic STEM learning experiences documented in electronic versions of Leonardo da Vinci’s visionary notebooks comes to mind. The possibilities and dynamic range of learning experiences custom fit to motivate and engage individual learners with unique talents, interests, passions and structures of mind are endless.
Using standardized testing and experience as a way to drive STEM learning activities means knowledge and content is fixed and static. Learners in these situations are typically passive recipients of knowledge and are left outside the decision-making processes central to the learning activities they engage in ( http://www.indiana.edu/~ceep/hssse/ ).
If the U.S. DOE and the Indiana DOE want to engage learners with STEM content and improve STEM learning outcomes then they would do well to provide teachers with opportunities to facilitate learning experiences that allow children to learn STEM subjects the same way scientists explore scientific phenomenon in various laboratory settings or the way visual artists investigate their ideas, materials and content in the studio setting. A STEM classroom experience emphasizing didactic learning experience and text based rote memorization of a bunch of facts and formulas is a recipe for disengagement.