STEM Beats - June 2011

Can Teaching Stifle Discovery?

June 30, 2011


Don’t let the cat out of the bag right away. That’s at least one lesson teachers can draw from a new study out of MIT that raises questions about the way math and science are too often taught in our schools. According to a story out of the MIT Press Office, “explicit instruction makes children less likely to engage in spontaneous exploration and discovery.”

MIT researchers gave 85 small children a new toy with at least four different features: “Pull on a yellow tube and it squeaks; press a button and a blue tube lights up; touch a pad and hear different music notes; and look through a black tube to see a reversed mirror image of your face.” They then gave the toy to several groups of children. The first group received “direct instruction.” That is, an adult told them, “This is how the toy works!” and then demonstrated just one of the functions. Three other groups of children were given less explicit information about the toy. Indeed, one group was given no instructions at all.

The result? The group that received the most explicit direction spent the least time exploring the toy, and they were least likely to discover more than one function. The lesson for schools seems pretty clear: Let students explore. Don't let them think you've shown them all there is to know.

I can already hear howls of protest from traditionalists who see this argument as the thin end of the wedge for touchy feely education theories. They need not worry. Students cannot just stumble into an education. Teachers will still have to teach. Knowledge is still very, very important. As the MIT study's lead author says, "Things that you're extremely unlikely to figure out on your own--how to read, how to do calculus, how to drive a car--it would make no sense to try to learn by exploration."

But the study offers yet another reason to reexamine how our schools teach math and science--or any other subject for that matter. Is instruction stamping out exploration?


Tags: math, science

Do We Need 20 Million More College Grads?

June 28, 2011


Stories of Harvard grads sweeping hallways have fueled the claim that too many Americans are going to college. This view has gained ground recently, as more scholars question the goal of college for all.

Tony Carnevale, a researcher at Georgetown, has a decidedly different view. In a new report, he concludes that we have far too few workers with college degrees and that getting more kids through college would narrow the growing wage gaps that threaten our ideals. He finds support for his claim in the fact that the wage premium for a bachelor's degree has grown so quickly. The law of supply and demand tells us that a shortage of college grads--and a surplus of dropouts--has widened the gulf between the haves and the have-nots.

One remarkable finding of Carnevale's report: Even in low-skilled jobs, college grads earn more. For example, a telemarketer with a Bachelor's degree earns about 68 percent more than a telemarketer with no college, he finds. In these tough times many college grads may be under-employed, but their prospects are still much brighter than those of someone who never made it past high school.

Carnevale argues that, by 2025, we will need 15 million new workers with Bachelor's degrees, 1 million new workers with Associate's degrees, and 4 million new workers with at least some college. If current trends continue, we won't come anywhere near that target.

Critics will no doubt counter that our efforts to get many more young people through four-year colleges can have unintended consequences. Many students drop out of college with little to show for their efforts--besides debt. Others will likely contend that we need to show students the pathways to good jobs that lead through two-year colleges, not just through four-year degrees.

In any event, Carnevale's new report is sure to add fuel to an already intense debate over college.


Tags: jobs & workforce

Key Ingredients for Creating World-Class Schools

June 28, 2011


Today's guest post is written by Linda Fandel, special assistant for education to Iowa Governor Terry E. Branstad.

Being good at math and science is a ticket to a prosperous future – for young people, the state, and the nation. That’s why Iowa’s overall drop in the rankings on national tests is alarming. And why the achievement gap, between Hispanic and African-American students on the one hand and white students on the other, is tragic.

A much greater emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education is needed. How can we engage more students in these subjects? Which programs work best to boost achievement? How can business and industry play a greater role in shaping what is taught in school, so it’s relevant to the real world? All of this must happen as part of creating world-class schools.

Iowa’s statistics are troubling:  Iowa eighth-graders on average scored first in math in 1992 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But by 2009, they had tumbled to 28th place, with 16 states or jurisdictions scoring significantly higher.

And between 2003 and 2009, no state’s eighth-graders made less progress in math on those tests except West Virginia’s. Indeed, white Iowa eighth-graders saw no academic growth in that period.

Now look at Iowa’s achievement gap: In 2009, there was a 21-point gap in the average math performance of white and Hispanic eighth-graders compared to a national gap of 26 points. The gap between Iowa’s black and white eighth-graders in math in 2009 was 28 points compared to the national gap of 32 points.

The movement to adopt common educational standards by most states – including Iowa – won’t be enough by itself to improve the grim statistics. Instruction must become more effective, including better preparing elementary teachers to teach math and science.

Students struggling to learn need more help early on. The culture of expectations in and outside schools has to change. We will leave our children at a disadvantage if we fail to put in place policies that give them a globally competitive education.

That’s what the world’s highest-performing school systems have done. They were not always international academic stars, but decided to deliberately transform education, and saw success.

The Change the Equation website calls for “Great Teaching,” “Inspired Learners, and “A Committed Nation” to improve STEM education. Iowa should lead the way in meeting that challenge.

This blog was also posted today on Linda Fandel’s Iowa Education blog.


Tags: STEM & the states

Should We Test Kids More in Science?

June 27, 2011


Science has gotten short shrift as schools focus most of their attention on math and reading, the two subjects for which they’re accountable under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. So goes one well-known critique of the law. The National Research Council (NRC) just affirmed that critique in its new report on K-12 STEM education.

So what should we do? Test science as often as we test math and reading, the NRC recommends. What gets tested gets taught.

BUT (and you knew there was a "but"....) We should "use a system of assessment that supports learning and understanding," the report concludes, adding, "such a system is not currently available." Science tests have taken a back seat to math and reading tests, the report suggests, and and even those math and reading tests tend to focus on basic skills.

So we have an awful lot of work ahead of us to reinvigorate K-12 science education (assuming it was ever vigorous in the first place). Daunting, indeed.

But not impossible. The NRC is putting out a framework for new science standards that treat fewer topics and greater depth. (Experts have often cited the "mile-wide, inch-deep" content standards in many states as one reason for our students' poor performance in science.) The framework, and the science standards that emerge from it, could help states create better science tests down the road.

Of course, the path to such standards and tests is long and treacherous. But that's no reason to sink into the Slough of Despond. The stakes are far too high for that.


Tags: science

Teachers and Computers as Colleagues: The Wave of the Future?

June 23, 2011

 Videos can spark a revolution in teaching, writes Bryan Hassel. They can free teachers of the need to lecture an entire class and allow them to spend all of their time doing one-on-one work with students. They can also help us cut our teaching force and save money, he adds. If videos do the heavy lifting on presenting content, Hassel believes, then far fewer teachers can reach many more kids with truly personal instruction.

Hassel's inspiration is the Khan Academy, a remarkable online collection of thousands of brief videos that offer tutorials in subject like math, history, policy and economics. Sal Khan, the creator of all this content, is in his own words a "faculty of one." Yet millions have downloaded his videos. How's that for a student/teacher ratio?

Not everyone is sold on the idea. Some argue that it isn't really all that new. (Remember when television was going to revolutionize education?) Others argue that, even when they lecture, the best teachers still interact with their students to pose and answer questions, explain ideas and probe for understanding. Still others insist that no form of lecture--and especially not videos--have no place in the classroom.

Yet champions of Khan's work, including Bill Gates, see in it the seeds of an entirely new way of teaching kids. "Star" teachers could reach thousands or even millions online, while flesh and blood teachers can work with very small groups of students to ensure that they truly grasp the content delivered by the stars.

So what do you think? Is this a Utopian vision? A nightmare scenario?