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Not every student needs to prepare for a Google-like workplace. And, as popular as STEM is presently, most students don’t want to become software engineers or scientists. But every student, in any job, will collaborate as a member of a team. I once talked with a student who told me he wanted to be a Fed Ex driver. “Just drive around and deliver things,” he said, “No teamwork there.” I urged him to look at the handheld device carried by every driver—the one that communicates with a worldwide network and plugs the driver into a global team.
Every student needs to be prepared for that environment, partly for employment opportunity, but mainly because the deeply embedded mental model of learning and creating as an individual process is obsolete. No one, any longer, can isolate themselves from someone else’s knowledge base, and collaboration has shifted from its earlier incarnation as a social networking skill into the chief way in which we talk to one another in order to get things done. Powerful collaboration is driven by incisive communication—and out of that process come the very best expressions of innovation, creativity, and critical inquiry. In other words, collaboration is now the foundational 21st century skill.
Thinking that students are ‘naturals’ at this is a fallacy. High performance collaboration requires training and the development of key personal skills. For teachers, two initial steps will help launch this process. First, reframe the conversation by using the terminology of ‘teams,’ not group work. Think of your favorite sports team and now call them a ‘group.’ Feel the difference? Teams focus on accountability and commitment; they form for a purpose and operate through norms and shared expectations.
Second, import and adapt the high performance principles common in the work world to teams in the classroom. This requires time, good coaching skills, a relentless focus on the quality of interaction between students, and a set of team tools, including contracts, rubrics, and exercise. But the payoff is noticeable. Once students form teams over an extended period and begin to collaborate well, they learn more, get better at teaching others, produce more powerful products, and enjoy the process. Here are ten principles that can help you design high performance teams:
Thom Markham is a psychologist, school redesign consultant, and the author of the Project Based Learning Design and Coaching Guide: Expert tools for inquiry and innovation for K-12 educators. To download the tools mentioned in the blog, go to the PBL tools page on the website, www.thommarkham.com. If you can’t find what you need, contact him at email@example.com.
Recently a colleague asked me a question that made me pause and reflect. “How successful is PBL, really?” He’s an advocate for PBL, like I am, so the question wasn’t designed to nitpick or argue against PBL. He was reflecting on his own experience, and asking if mine had been similar.
I began to look back on the nearly 175 workshops I’ve presented and the large number of schools I’ve coached that have taken on PBL in hopes of changing the culture of teaching and learning. All of them wanted to move toward more depth and inquiry, and away from direct instruction, pacing guides, coverage, and the general lethargy that pervades schools as they labor under outmoded rules of engagement. Most of all, they hoped to sustain PBL year over year to power their school into 21st century learning.
How successful have they been? There are two answers to the question. For schools designed from the ground up to support integrated instruction, an inquiry-based culture, and a relentless focus on 21st century skills, the answer is clear: Extraordinarily successful. When the organizational philosophy supports student-driven inquiry, the natural outcome is great projects. These schools are the lights across the land—the Envision Schools, High Tech High, or the New Technology High Schools—that have become well known , as well a growing number of similar schools in every state. The students at these schools perform at world class levels, in some cases leading the world.
I’ve worked with many teachers, principals and superintendents who have toured leading-edge schools. They return to their own campus, wanting the same results. So they plunge into PBL. How successful are they? The answer, unfortunately: Not very.
Mostly, the schools start well. A core number of teachers implement projects that begin to show results. Students get excited; teachers feel satisfied; principals report a turning point. But that’s the first year. By the second year, typically after a strong start in the fall, PBL fades. The effort is not sustained. Why? It’s the well known rubber band effect. The industrial system can stretch to accommodate new viewpoints, but over time the constraints—mainly in-the-box thinking about tests scores and the lack of a collaborative culture committed to change—take their toll. Everyone settles back down into the routine.
This same dynamic, by the way, now drives the debate over the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Will they transform schools or become a new and improved laundry list? Here, the lessons of PBL are instructive. More than anything, it tells me that grafting an inquiry-based culture onto an industrial framework is an impossible dream, unless the effort is accompanied by a innovative focus on organizational change and high performance. This is a holistic endeavor, requiring a crucial brew of synergistic elements that work together to create a seamless system for sustainable change.
What are the key ingredients? For those schools that did transition successfully to PBL, I can think of six essentials that enabled them to power through tough barriers and emerge at the other end of the tunnel. I suspect the list for the CCSS will be the same:
Thom Markham is a psychologist and author of the Project Based Learning Design and Coaching Guide: Expert tools for Inquiry and Innovation for K-12 educators and the forthcoming book, Redefining Smart: Make your mind bigger than your brain. Download tools for project based learning on his website, www.thommarkham.com, or contact him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"What was taken away from my children's education
in order to make them better at taking standardized tests?"
- Alfie Kohn (USA Today, 2001)
Parents send their children to kindergarten full of hope, dreams, creativity, and energy. Teachers don’t use the term “joy of learning” in kindergarten, because students are curious and naturally enjoy discovery at learning centers. Students smile and laugh in whole group, small group, and independent settings. School is a place to learn with friends and to explore how things work. In the third grade, most states begin administering high-stakes tests to students. This is when anxiety begins and students discover that “The Test” is the main thing.
Test Anxiety creates feelings of fear, hopelessness, depression, low self-esteem, and resentment. Some students are naturally anxious and they would develop Test Anxiety on their own. Parents, community members, teachers and administrators are the reason a majority of students develop Test Anxiety. This article will address ways that adults have created a fear of testing and what can be done to redirect the way we prepare for the annual high-stakes tests.
Test Prep Boot Camp
What comes to mind when you hear the term “Boot Camp?” I think of a drill sergeant yelling at the troops, push-ups, and training camp. It does not seem like something that would motivate an eight year old to increase performance. Some schools purchase camouflage t-shirts and the staff walk around in fatigues. There are companies which profit off the Boot Camp mentality by selling camouflage pencils, stickers, certificates, and t-shirts. The final two months of the spring are spent in drill and kill review sessions. While this approach may sound like something from a movie about education, it happens each spring in a school near you.
Test Pep Rally
As a fifth grade teacher, I remember leading our K-5 students in a Beat the Test Pep Rally. We had cheers, songs, and skits like a high school pep rally. At a high school pep rally, students cheer and work themselves into a frenzy as their team prepares to slay their archrival. One year, my students designed a banner to run through (i.e., Friday Night Football). While the Test Pep Rally sounds like a positive approach, it raises anxiety and sends a message to students that this is very important! Don’t let your team, your teachers, or your family down with a low test score.
Test Survival Kit
When I think of the term survival, I think of a hurricane, fire, snow storm, loss of power, poverty, and being stranded in the middle of Mt. Everest without any food. I struggle to see how a Test “Survival Kit” motivates students to do their best on the test. In some schools, the PTA or the teachers create survival kits with a ziploc bag, snacks, a pencil, candy, and a motivational quote or poem. The San Diego Unified School District has directions for creating a Test Survival Kit. What is the opposite of survival? Do we want students to “survive” a high-stakes test or do their best on any assessment that they face in life. Using terms like courage, perseverance, and success to prepare students for a test may be the reason so many students end up discouraged and feeling like a failure.
Test Prep Packets
In the spring, teachers across the U.S. begin making photocopies of sample test items and preparing students for the “big test.” Have you ever noticed how often the copy machine breaks in the spring? Teachers use test prep books, released items from other states, teacher created items, and district assessments to prepare students for the “big test.” As a parent, I have witnessed test prep packets that are over twenty pages long. Teachers tell students, “Don’t worry. We don’t have to complete the packet this week. We will spend the next two months working through the packet so you will rock the test!” In some schools, there is pressure from parents to provide test prep packets. If you are the only teacher not providing a test prep packet, some families may see you as a weak teacher. Test anxiety can be created by families.
Test Prep Strategies
It is sad to see how many days are spent teaching third grade students to completely bubble in the circle. Our students have Instagram, XBox 360, Skype, and iPhones. Do we really think they need more than one class period on filling in the circle? Test prep strategies include the process of elimination, reading for the main idea, using your scratch paper to solve problems, pacing yourself throughout the test, and searching for the ‘best answer.’ It is inappropriate to send students into a test unprepared. However, I believe most of these skills can be taught throughout the year, rather than during the final two weeks prior to the test. All students need to have access to test strategies.
‘Curricular Reductionism’ is another popular method of improving student test scores. Curricular Reductionism is a narrow focus on the tested subjects or exclusion of certain skills and concepts because they cannot be measured on a multiple-choice test. This frequently means that science, social studies, and the arts are taught bi-weekly, bi-monthly, or not at all in elementary and middle schools across the United States. This type of instruction does not support student understanding.
Parent Pep Talks
I have seen more harm from parent pep talks than any other form of test prep. Principals place pressure on teachers to perform and teachers place pressure on students. When parents receive survival kits, notes from their teacher, test prep packets, inspiring poems and breathing techniques, they receive the message.
Parents can create test anxiety by saying:
1. Are you ready for the test? You really need to do your best.
2. This test will impact the teachers you get next year.
3. You have never had a test this big. Please do your best.
4. Are you nervous; because mom is nervous?
5. I am going to pray for you, because this is a really big test.
Test anxiety is a plea for help. We claim to provide a safe learning environment for students. Safety should include mental health and the joy of learning.
The ASCD Whole Child tenants are:
When we review the key terms in a Whole Child school, they do not sound like Boot Camp, Pep Rally, Survival Kit, Test Prep Packets, Pep Talks, or Curricular Reductionism. If students are taking standards-based tests, then schools will be able to prepare students through unpacking the standards and teaching the key skills and concepts outlined in the standards. There seems to be hysteria each spring. Together, adults can support the Whole Child and we may be able to cure test anxiety.
In the long term, there is just one answer to the problem of school safety: More love. The short term solution, on the other hand, lies in the unhealthy mix of force, fear, guns, security, locks, and other devices meant to barricade our children from a small, but obviously lethal, subset of the population.
I’ll leave the short-term answers to parents and politicians. Instead, let’s support advances in education that take us closer to the ultimate goal of raising, nurturing, and educating children who feel psychologically safe. That, really, is the sole purpose of whole child education.
The formula is simple. Feeling safe is the central feature of feeling secure. Secure people do not feel afraid, except in the face of dire circumstances. In the absence of fear, positive emotions bloom. When positivity reigns, the brain responds by becoming more expansive, creative, and open to ideas. Emotions stabilize. The terrible effects of isolation, loneliness, depression, withdrawal, and other outcomes of emotional dysfunction disappear or are resolved. Many fewer people feel compelled to murder a child. Those who do receive compassionate help from a greatly enlarged safety net of understanding, emotionally mature adults.
The foundation for this transformation is love. However, I don’t mean a kind of greeting card, Valentine’s version of love, as in, “Oh, aren’t little children just the sweetest little souls? I just love all of them!” Rather, I suggest that it’s overdue to recognize the hard science informing us that care counts. It’s time, really, to get out of our own way by integrating the most recent evidence-based findings about positive emotional development into schools and make healthy emotional development the centerpiece of learning.
Until society is willing to turn that corner, unsafety will plague us. With that in mind, here’s my list of simple ideas for educators to embrace that reflect the science of the second decade of the 21st-century. These findings point us toward designing schools as havens of safety and seedbeds for stable individuals who can be beacons of love throughout society and the global village:
Emotions and thinking are not separate. The 200-year misconception that emotions and cognition are separate has been disproven. The brain is an integrated organ that processes thoughts and emotions simultaneously. In fact, positive emotions help power the frontal cortex. Rather than an academic downside, a greater focus on the emotional health of young people will result in better performance, particularly in areas like 21st century skills and critical thinking. See Barbara Frederickson’s book on Positivity for the evidence.
The brain changes with the culture. There is no greater story at the moment that brain plasticity. Neurons change every millisecond, and the neural pathways work as fast as they can (and they’re fast) to adapt to new surroundings and the incoming culture. Everything about schools should be reviewed in this light. What messages do the hallways and the classrooms send to the brain? What is the atmosphere and climate of the school? Is nurturing the norm or the exception?
Let go of the brain. Now for the flip side. Not everything occurs from the neck up. Recent science shows intricate connections between the heart, gut, and the brain. Fear registers in the heart before the brain, and then communicates via the vagal nerves. The body acts as a sensory organ for safety—and the brain follow the lead. More fear equals less activity in the prefrontal cortex, the favorite part of the brain for any teacher (that’s where attention and learning take place.) In other words, holism is a reality, not a wish.
Emotions and physiology are one conversation. When you see a child in emotional distress, that means the child’s body is not working optimally. For example, stress is an over-mobilization of the natural resources of the body (too many hormones, at abnormal levels, and a high octane sympathetic nervous response.) The good news is that by calming the physiology of the body, we also alter emotional states.
Emotions are good, not bad. Research into positive emotions is shaping up as the next big advance in science. The old model of emotions, focused solely on survival mode, is a legacy from the caveman days. We’ve evolved; now science has confirmed that humans who generate and experience emotions such as contentment, joy, inspiration, and love respond by becoming more fulfilled, higher achieving people.
Relationships change emotional states. The connections between us and others alter emotional states. The mind, in fact, is not just within us any longer; it’s somewhere in that space between us, as Daniel Siegel in Mindsight shows us. The constant interplay takes place subconsciously, either through mirror neurons in the brain or energetic exchange. Regardless of the mechanism, it’s now clear that humans communicate in real time, at all times, on an emotional level. Every message from teachers, conveyed through facial expression, body language, words, or hidden assumption, carries weight.
Stress and challenge differ. Love does not preclude challenge, meaning you can still test children to figure out what they’ve learned. But it does tell us that removing the unnecessary stress of learning is a good thing. Constant testing invokes stress; a few meaningful exams pitched as a way to understand the gaps in your knowledge stirs up challenge. Here’s one clue to the difference: Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, causing the armpits to perspire and one set of muscles in the face to contort; challenge brings a blended response of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems—and a genuine smile.
Mindfulness works. Whether you choose mindfulness, meditation, or heart-focused breathing, they all work. Each dissolves stress and liberates a calm, safe feeling that leads to positive health and better learning. It would be interesting to see the results on high stakes testing if every school day in America began with a five-minute meditation!
Love, compassion, and gratitude make you smarter. Some of the most powerful research recently shows the impact of gratitude on brain function and physiology in the body. Love calms, and the simple, yet profound, act of appreciation seems to have forceful consequences. As we move forward in schools and society, it is the job of adults to create a world in which children have ample reason to feel appreciative. If that happens, we’ll all feel safe.
Thom Markham is a psychologist and author of the Project Based Learning Design and Coaching Guide: Expert tools for inquiry and innovation for K-12 educators, and the forthcoming book, Redefining Smart: The return of the heart. Download Tools for PBL on his website, www.thommarkham.com or contact him at email@example.com.
The use of Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences (MI theory) has been increasing by leaps and bounds in countries across the globe. In many countries, it has become part of national policy. In India, for example, as part of its National Curriculum Framework for School Education teachers are required to have familiarity with the concepts of multiple intelligences. Gardner himself writes: “…I have been amazed to learn of jurisdictions in which the terminology of MI has been incorporated into white papers, recommendations by ministries, and even legislation…I have heard from reliable sources that MI approaches are part of the policy landscape in such diverse lands as Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, China, Denmark, Ireland and the Netherlands” (Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory and Practice, p. 248).
At the same time, research studies based on multiple intelligences have multiplied in higher education institutions around the world. Journal articles dedicated to this subject have covered populations from areas as diverse as Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa, Malaysia, China, and Japan. In Geneva, Switzerland, the prestigious International Baccalaureate (IB) Organization, which offers programs to over 600,000 students in 128 countries, has acknowledged Gardner’s role in influencing its own approach to learning: “Howard Gardner has been influential in changing views about learning and the ways we learn. Access and equity within the IB today is much wider than it was previously. It is acknowledged that all students have strengths and weaknesses which must be supported in a strategic way for them to meet their potential.” (IB World, September, 2007).
In the Phillipines, the MI International High School in Quezon City (a suburb of Manila) puts MI theory to work in the cause of promoting entrepreneurship among its students. Students are challenged to develop real-world business plans based on ideas that emerge from MI lessons. A linguistic group, for example, developed Flash Range, a media center that creates books for teens that deal with environmental and personal and emotional growth issues. A musical group created a business called Boom Box Music, which offers musical composition and record production services. A group of people-smart students conceptualized their own family restaurant –Pastuchi- featuring a fusion of Italian and Japanese cuisines.
In Denmark, the industrial manufacturer Danfoss, has created a theme park—Danfoss Universe– that incorporates many strategies and ideas from multiple intelligences. They have essentially created a multiple intelligences interactive museum, where children and adults participate in over fifty activities designed to both test their multiple intelligences and also raise awareness concerning the many different ways of being smart.
In my own work with multiple intelligences, I’ve given keynotes and workshops in twenty countries including Iceland, Singapore, and the tiny province of Andorra. I’ve had my books on multiple intelligences translated in over fifty foreign editions into twenty-three languages (including 11 editions in Chinese alone). It’s truly been marvelous to see the broad impact that MI theory has been making internationally.
To learn more about the impact of multiple intelligences in cultures around the world, see: Multiple Intelligences Around the World, Jie-Qi Chen, Seana Moran, and Howard Gardner (eds), San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2009. To read my chapter from the book, click on the title: “When Cultures Connect: Multiple Intelligences Theory as a Successful American Export to Other Countries
This post is a part of the ASCD Forum conversation “how do we define and measure teacher and principal effectiveness?” To learn more about the ASCD Forum, go to www.ascd.org/ascdforum.
I have recently been reading Sustainable Leadership by Andy Hargreaves and Dean Fink. They note that there are three challenges to creating change. Change must first be desirable, then doable. The most challenging aspect of change is making it durable and sustainable (Hargreaves and Fink, 2006, p.2). These components came to mind as I was reflecting on the role of effective teacher preparation programs. (I humbly note that I do not have a background in developing teacher education programs, this merely reflects my personal experiences and observations in the field as an educator.)
Educators are individuals who have chosen this field because of their desire to positively impact students’ lives. In choosing to be a part of this extremely challenging and rewarding profession, the desire component of change is easily fulfilled.
Making change doable is the role of educator preparation programs. It provides prospective teachers with the necessary foundation for their chosen practice. Two considerations are:
How are effective preparation programs structured?
An educator preparation program must have practicing teachers, especially in curriculum development and pedagogy courses. Although I currently reside in Canada, I received my teacher preparation in the United States. I was very fortunate to have professors who were also currently practicing in local elementary or secondary schools. Prospective teachers need practice putting the theory into action. My professors had practical and relevant classroom experiences to share with me. They were able to help me dissect and reflect on my practice because they too were doing so with their own classrooms.
Integrate teachers into the classroom right away. The program I was a part of did this, much earlier than many other institutions at the time. In the first year, we participated in observations of various classrooms, which then moved to assisting the teacher in classroom duties. In years two and three, we then created a lesson to present within our supervising teacher’s unit, then constructed and implemented an entire unit of our own. We also were assigned to work with one struggling student in our supervising teacher’s class for an extended period of time.
Give prospective educators the space to understand the work is about students, not just your content area of interest. In my early years as a prospective science teacher, I was so nervous about creating the perfect lesson plan and making sure I understood my material perfectly. I had not yet understood how to effectively address the socio-emotional needs of my students. My assignment to work with a struggling student forever changed my interactions with future students. In that time, I learned how this student’s struggles at home impacted her ability to focus in school—it was no wonder that she could have cared less about labs and demonstrations. Over our time together, we devised a plan and met regularly. I carefully modified my work in response. In the end, she was able to both increase her grade significantly, improve her overall attendance and we had forged a stronger teacher-student relationship. Most importantly, she taught me the importance of taking the time to slow down, listen, be flexible and understand how to truly connect with students.
What other voices and experiences should prospective teachers be exposed to?
Give educators the opportunity to spend more time in the classroom than “required.” In my fourth year, I participated in the standard teacher practicum that is the norm in many schools. The education department at our university had close ties with the local school board and would inform us of upcoming teaching training opportunities. In my last two years, I opted to apply and participate in an optional two-year internship that this school board offered. This required me to be in the classroom for additional hours beyond my teacher education classes. Having this additional time in the classroom provided me with opportunities to learn from other practicing teachers, participate in the life of a school, receive feedback and refine my practices. It gave me a much clearer sense of what my life as a future teacher would look like.
Teachers must understand and learn how to integrate social justice issues into their work. Later in my educational career, I had the opportunity to work in a school that focused on social justice education. It was evident in the mission, diversity in the faculty and staff, as well as the culture we tried to create. The voices and experiences of our students were reflected in everything from the curriculum and teaching practices, to what hung on the school walls. I became a better educator through this experience. In our global society, our success as educators is dependent upon our ability as educators to reach, influence and engage ALL students. Prospective educators must feel comfortable speaking and responding to issues of equity and diversity. Thoughtful integration of social justice issues into one’s curriculum takes practice to ensure that they are addressed appropriately and in an inclusive manner. Therefore, preparation programs across the board must help foster a strong foundation by integrating this within course requirements, not merely making it an add-on component.
Encourage experienced teachers to continue to grow throughout their educational careers. Finally, what about the sustainability of learning in our profession? My practice as a teacher changed and further developed when I decided to leave the United States and move to Canada. In doing so, I was challenged to learn a new curriculum and had to adapt my programming, while also exploring new classroom practices. I have always been the type of person that is eager to learn new things and reflect on my work, but a complete change in school systems forced me to become a “new teacher” again and learn valuable lessons to reinvent my practice. Obviously it is not viable for individuals to move to different schools to seek this type of growth. However, I do see the value of new experiences in that they can positively disrupt and shape us to grow even further.
So it leads me to question: Who is responsible for that work? Providers of Teacher Preparation Programs? School Districts? Administrators? Teachers? All of us? The growing use of PLNs (Professional Learning Networks) is an essential piece of this growth, but these are largely driven by individual educator efforts on one’s own time. I am currently pondering how we can invest in teacher leadership programming. I am not referring to administration programs for those who are looking to becoming a principal, vice-principal or curriculum/department leads, though such teacher leadership programming could certainly include similar topic areas.
My rationale is this: If we believe that creating change in our schools is based on the work of effective leaders, then we must consider that leaders must be present at all levels of our schools. We must invest in the leadership capacity of all educators, not just those in the traditional leadership roles. The question again is what does this effective programming look like and who is responsible? The answers are critical to sustaining a culture of leadership and learning in our schools.
Hargreaves, A. & Fink, D. (2006). Sustainable Leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
The debates go on about value-added ratings for teachers, teacher quality, teacher effectiveness, teacher tenure, teacher unions, and teacher this and that. Many powerful forces in society have taken aim at teachers and schools, dwelling on mediocrity, resistance to change, an easy work day, and outdated methods. In no small way, it’s been open season on the education profession.
I share concerns about the adequacy of the teaching profession. But I always am brought back to one constant about teachers: Mostly, they love children. Sometimes I see teachers as more of a problem than a solution, but even in those who frustrate me, or disagree, or prefer the safety of the old ways, a certain light and commitment shines through. They have put their lives, their working days, and their ambitions to work on behalf of young people. They believe.
Never has this been more apparent than in Newtown, where teachers defended students with their own lives. How many of our elected officials, the critics who can’t seem to find sufficient funding for schools, or work on behalf of offering teachers solid middle class wages, or imagine any model of measuring teacher effectiveness other than test scores, would stand between children and a shooter?
Every discussion about teachers should begin with one fact: In over 100,000 schools, private and public, this nation is honored to have a corps of people who go to work every day to make society a better place now—and a generation from now—by trying to figure out what makes children tick and what they need to learn. Very few people can make this claim. And until many more of us—including those who move money for a living or exploit workers overseas or persist in rancorous attacks on American education—step up and show that they are willing to do as much as teachers, its time for teachers to stay proud, stiffen their spine, and say to all: Care counts, and that’s what makes me an effective teacher.
STEM education—the focus on science, technology, engineering, and math—is rapidly becoming a national priority. Having helped start several successful STEM schools, I like the trend. But as I read the national conversation about STEM, I see educators falling into the same traps that keep education from truly becoming a 21st century enterprise.
One sign of the confusion is the newest acronym, STEAM, a push to include the arts in STEM programs. I like this trend, also. But it misses the point. Art and design thinking permeate the adult workspace these days; similarly, every class and program should be partly aimed at teaching a design and problem solving approach. It’s takes imaginative thinking to design a better widget; so does solving the problems of the Middle East.
The larger issue with STEAM, however, is that it reinforces an old notion: That STEM is a collection of math, engineering, and science classes that students ‘take.’ Line up the required classes in the proper sequence, graduate more students with additional math and science seat time, revive the science fair, schedule in an honors class in molecular genetics, and from that emerges a STEM program. Add an Art class down the hall in 5th period—and call it a STEAM program.
As I’ve written previously, most people don’t know the history of STEM education. The term was first coined in the 1890’s by the Committee of Ten at Harvard, charged with the task of reforming an agrarian school system. In their view, STEM described the attributes of a good industrial school system that would raise the standards of excellence for modern students.
Whether we choose STEM or STEAM, if we remain wedded to the view that school is simply a collection of classes and activities, I believe we’ll get the same result envisioned in 1890: Better education for an industrial world. STEM will take its place as a place marker for more math and engineering classes. But if we want to turn STEM into a transformative idea that can fuel fundamental change in schools, I think the following ideas are important:
Use PBL as the primary teaching method. Great STEM education arises out of the process of teaching and learning, not coverage of a specific curriculum. The most powerful STEM programs adopt an inquiry-based, student-centered, skill-driven approach to teaching and learning. Most use high quality project based learning to achieve their curriculum outcomes. The Common Core is taking all subjects in this direction; but I believe that STEM courses will be among the first beneficiaries.
Make STEM and innovation indistinguishable. Thinking in terms of STEAM isn’t necessary if a STEM program values and teaches innovation. I italicize that sentence because many values we hold in education never get explicitly taught. Use creativity rubrics with breakthrough categories, teach students to follow a design rubric, turn student teams into peer evaluators, allow time for prototyping, failure, reflection, and redesign—all these train students in innovative thinking and spur creativity. Of course, as the Committee of Ten recognized, this is good training for life as well.
Don’t confuse technology with STEM education. Hopefully, we have matured on this subject. In the early 2000’s, STEM programs started up with all the digital, gee-whiz tools available. Then programs failed. The reason: Technology is a tool for good education, but not a substitute for the personal skills necessary to be a good investigator or competent engineer, such as attention to detail, willingness to redraft, and perseverance in pursuit of perfection. At its heart, STEM is a way of systematically examining the world and identifying critical elements that lead to great change or improvement. This is a human factors subject, and good STEM programs start with building a culture of engagement, excellence, mastery, and effective collaboration prior to turning students loose on their iPads.
Attend to core content. Certain disciplines rely on argument and the exchange or development of deep ideas. STEM courses are not exempt, but they usually have more rigorous core content requirements and greater cognitive demand. Even a 9th grade Biology class, for example, introduces more new vocabulary than a Spanish 1 class. Good STEM programs blend inquiry with traditional teaching and core content methodology. They also sequence and scaffold the balance between student-centered inquiry and adult-facilitated instruction through the grade levels, expecting their 12th graders to be far more inquiry-driven and self-managing in terms of information than 9th graders. The goal is to have STEM students exit with an excellent command of the material, plus the skills to apply it, use it, and demonstrate it.
Trade in groups for teams and cohorts. Helping students move beyond FaceBook posts of their faves is essential to educating young people to work as effective collaborators. We can start by letting go of outdated concepts of group work and cooperative learning, and teaching the values and language of teams. Use contracts, peer collaboration rubrics, individual work ethic rubrics, and protocols to train and assess students on their ability to create a quality product through teamwork, as well as teach them about the accountability and commitment required for teams to operate at a high level. For STEM students, who may end up working in medical and engineering design teams, this training is vital. To give students practice in collaborative communication, as well as promote individual achievement within a team environment, have students form cohorts that help them track and refine their individual products during a project. Cohorts rely on careful analysis, precise feedback, and shared observation. This will make for better learners and products—and better scientists
Welcome the challenge of STEM. I have yet to see a good STEM program compatible with the existing rules and structures of traditional schooling. STEM teachers, if they’re doing their job, should bump up against grading systems, scheduling issues, teacher evaluations, curriculum requirements, collaboration time, graduation requirements, course sequencing mandates, pacing guides, and just about everything else associated with industrial methods. A good STEM system reflects the operating values of a tech-driven, design-oriented, can-do, entrepreneurial society. Schools can get there, and STEM can help.
Thom Markham is a PBL consultant and author of the Project Based Learning Design and Coaching Guide: Expert tools for inquiry and innovation for K-12 educators. Download Tools for PBL on his website, www.thommarkham.com or for more information on STEM contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How do you know if your worldview is based in reality…if your expectations are well-grounded? You need reliable perspective. How do you get solid perspective? You step outside of your own realm of experience and see how others live.
In my fourteenth year of teaching, I was also leading a number of professional development offerings for Spotsylvania County Schools. And like so many of us in ed tech, I was being pushed more and more to train colleagues on technology. It was at this point in my career that the husband of one of my workshop attendees approached me. “I hear you’re really good. Why not do what you do well for more money?” He worked for a consulting firm that worked with government agencies and private sector firms. They needed a technology trainer.
More money caught my attention…that and the offered title of Senior Technology Trainer made it tempting. After all, there weren’t many options for upward mobility within K-12 other than building and district administration. If I accepted the offer, I would be working at the Department of Housing and Urban Development right in downtown DC. My kids were young…not even in Kindergarten yet…so I asked for an assurance that I wouldn’t be doing a lot of traveling and I got it. It was June, the end of the school year…the perfect time to make the move. And so I did.
What a different world. Starting on day one I hit the ground running, meeting with HUD staff, learning every application used within the agency, and developing and delivering training. I was also on call for technology user questions, as happy clients got you “atta boy” letters of commendation that my consulting firm valued and would use to pay me bonuses and raises. What a different model from public education!
I was in the fast lane and on the fast track. Everything moved quickly. I would login on any given morning at my desk and a message would pop up saying “Joe So-and-So no longer works here. Please send all requests for assistance concerning his projects to Cathy Such-and-Such.” I quickly learned that no one was indispensible and you’re only as good as your last success. I also learned that once you’re in, you’re in for whatever the client needs. So even though I had been given an assurance from my consulting firm I wouldn’t be traveling much, within a few months I was being asked by the client to travel to HUD field offices around the country: Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco. No room for hesitation. No questions asked. And so I traveled.
At the same time I was taking a course in instructional design with a brilliant professor who worked for the Arlington, Virginia Public Schools. The course gave me a lot of tools for my work at HUD, but it also reminded me of everything I loved about working in education. Over the course of the semester it was a source of substance and sustenance. I needed to keep learning and growing, even as I met the rigorous demands of life as a contractor. We got through the Y2K scare, during which I spent New Years Eve into the next morning manning phones in the event any of our systems went down as a result of entering the new millennium. Then came the change of administration in the White House, which meant changes for every federal agency from the top on down.
Talks of shake-ups and turn-over started in January, and my more veteran consulting colleagues talked me through everything coming into play as the change in the air was palpable. I kept my head down and my eyes on my work. Rumors circulated and the pressure ratcheted up as workers worried what the change would mean for them. We had huge meetings in packed rooms where HUD administrators spoke cryptically about what lay ahead, offering equal doses of caution and reassurance as nervousness turned to anxiety.
Finally in April the announcement came down immediately and all at once. A large number of workers were being let go and the new Secretary would be looking at major reorganization within the agency. My supervisor and all my tech-training consultant colleagues were let go. Inexplicably, I was the only tech trainer left standing. I was stunned. How was this possible? Why was I spared the axe? What do I say to all these people I had been working with closely who were coming in that day to clean out their desks and be escorted out by security? It was a very tough, very real-world lesson about so many of the assumptions I brought with me from public education. Job security, seniority, loyalty…nothing is guaranteed. I was so grateful to still have a job but so shaken by the reality of life outside K-12.
Later that year, after much soul-searching, my instructional design professor suggested I apply for a job as an Instructional Technology Coordinator with the Arlington, Virginia Public Schools. I missed education, and even though the job and the money as a consultant were good, when Arlington made an offer I accepted. I knew I was an educator at heart and I needed to come back where my instructional background could make a difference as technology continued to make its way into classrooms.
I eventually moved on to become a technology director and ultimately an assistant superintendent for data and technology. But I never forgot the perspective I gained working outside of education for that one segment of my career. It was a reality check. It changed me. I no longer feel entitled to anything. I am grateful to have meaningful work helping teachers and students. And I understand that giving my all in that work is the true definition of being a consummate professional…even as I have moved from K-12 to working for the world’s leading professional education association. Everything else is secondary, and in some cases, a distraction. We can lose our way…our sense of what’s important…important to us personally and as professionals.
As we prepare to vote next week and move forward in education, I encourage you to find an opportunity to gain new perspective. Even if it’s volunteer work, or summer work, or a sabbatical…whatever options you might have…get out there and experience the world outside of education. Get new perspective. It will change how you see your work and how you view your self as an educator.
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