Even in the most supportive of middle schools, students’ performance in math and science can decline sharply. With a larger peer group to judge themselves against, many students who exuded confidence in elementary school no longer feel they can measure up, and stop trying—harming not only the students but society at large. Fortunately, new research from McREL and IMPAQ International shows that math teachers can help by significantly boosting their use of formative assessment, without sacrificing other responsibilities.
An anecdote at the end of a recent New York Times article caught my attention because it raised the question of what constitutes meaningful student work. For a unit on Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, students in a Michigan high school were given a choice of assignments: give a regular class presentation (meh) or use a 3-D printer to illustrate a theme from the novel (super cool!). The teacher proudly Tweeted one such student artifact: a 3-D gavel that illustrated the novel’s theme of social justice.
Or … is it?
Without wading into the thornier issue that the assignment was slyly related to a side business the teacher was running out of his basement (the focus of the Times piece), I had a question about the educational value of the project: What do we imagine students are thinking about when they engage in this sort of exercise?
Learning to use software and a 3-D printer to manipulate shapes and objects is a perfectly valid objective. But this was supposed to be an opportunity to think about themes from the novel. The student who chose the printer assignment probably didn’t put much thought about social justice into the task.
We know from cognitive studies of how our brains process information that we must at some point concentrate on what we’re learning to develop long-term memories. As University of Virginia cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham states: “Students remember … what they think about.”
The alarm bell has been sounding for a while now about a shortage of skilled STEM workers in the U.S., with business leaders often calling on schools to do a better job of preparing students for a hypercompetitive global economy. As a result, we’ve seen a dramatic, nationwide rise in STEM initiatives—from large federal programs like Educate to Innovate to your local elementary school’s afterschool robotics program.
Others, however, say there is no evidence of such a shortage and that other factors are at play, such as businesses not being willing to pay higher wages that would attract more skilled workers. Some critics have even suggested that focusing too much on math, particularly algebra, is taking away from other, more critical skills students need to be learning.
So what’s an educator to do? In the December 2016/January 2017 issue of Educational Leadership, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin and Heather Hein try to get some answers by taking a look at what the research says about the skills gap and how to best fill it.
We’ve all seen it: A group of teenagers sitting together, perhaps at a restaurant or the mall, but all of them glued to their phones, barely interacting with the friends right next to them. As common as this sight has become, it still gives us pause. What, you may wonder, is this doing to our kids?
In September’s Educational Leadership, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin takes a look at the effects of our “plugged in” culture on students and their teachers. One clear effect, he finds, is how students relate to others: One analysis of more than 70 student surveys, for example, found that empathy among college students is at its lowest level since 1979—a whopping 40 percent lower.
Not surprisingly, researchers and educators alike have noted a loss in the ability of students to have deep, empathic conversations. In an article for The Atlantic, one such teacher in Kentucky described how, in a classroom interview activity, most of his high school students were unable to move beyond the scripted questions and engage in more spontaneous, authentic dialogue. His solution? He asked his students to record their conversations on their smartphones, watch them later, and self-assess their conversation skills.
The 5th-grade class gathered by the creek that ran between their school and neighborhood, reminiscing about years past when it was safe to play in and around this water. The creek was now stagnant, cloudy, thick with algae, and foul-smelling. Thus began their yearlong GreenSTEM project that used STEM concepts and processes to investigate the problem with the creek, and inspired students to design and carry out a solution.
Over many years of guiding schools and districts on integrating technology and instruction, the costliest mistake I see is the rush to purchase hardware and software without first identifying a clear purpose and plan for the new technology. This kind of oversight can lead to misuse or neglect of expensive equipment and systems, resulting in little of the intended impact on student learning outcomes. Before you add new technologies to your school or district, here are six vital questions—and a few related ones—I recommend you ask first to help you look before you launch.
In 1989, I became the principal of a technology magnet school. Nine years later, I was named an Apple Distinguished Educator. As the lead author of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works, 2nd Ed. (2012), I remain an active proponent of technology-infused learning. Technology enables learners to do or create things that might not otherwise be possible. Knowing all of this, you might ask why I, of all people, would ever advise educators to restrict technology in the classroom.
How do we teach our students to pursue a line of inquiry that connects personal, community, and global decisions to an understanding of relevant science, technology, engineering, and math? “GreenSTEM” is an engaging and innovative approach for both students and teachers.
In an effort to distinguish traditional science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs from those with a focus on ecology and sustainability, some educators have recently been adding “green” to STEM programs. The concept is so new that a standard definition of GreenSTEM—one that fuses the real-world connections intrinsic to STEM learning with the deeper concept of sustainability—has yet to be penned.
Educators face many challenges each day—large and small—that when addressed effectively have the ability to inspire better teaching, leading, and learning. Our staff continually ask themselves the same question you might ask yourself: As educators, how can we make a bigger, better difference in student engagement and knowledge?
STEM is a hot education initiative these days, with numerous schools investing energy and resources to create more, and more robust, learning experiences for students in science, technology, engineering, and math, all with a goal of boosting student interest and readiness for post-secondary STEM education and careers. Yet despite the investment and focus, research studies show that many of these efforts fall flat, producing few, if any, gains in student achievement and interest.