I blinked in surprise. My oldest son sat across the table from me. He was finishing up his first year of college. In high school he’d made a 35 on the ACT (having missed a math problem because – according to him – he made a silly mistake.) He was acing his coursework in calculus, physics, as he always had in mathematics and sciences. And now at dinner, he had just announced that he’d decided on his major. He was going to major in English – specifically, creative writing.
His explanation was simple. He was tired of subjects with “right and wrong” answers. He wanted classes that allowed him to think. He wanted to wrestle with responses and ideas. After a physics test on which he made the highest grade in the large freshman class, he wrote beside his posted grade: “Anything a Physics major can do an English major can do better.”
This happened in the 1980s. I know that the maths and sciences require students to think, but at what level was inquiry-based teaching and critical thinking emphasized in ‘80s STEM-related classes? I don’t have a hard number, but in those days it didn’t seem to happen in most high school classes and certainly not in those supersized freshman level college classes.
Fast forward to today’s K-12 math and science classes. I wonder how many math and science teachers still expect students to follow a specific predetermined procedure that gets them to the predetermined “right” answer. And how well do these canned lessons prepare them for today’s world?
Before heaving a sigh of despondency, let me tell you another story. I recently watched a video of a teacher in Mobile, Alabama working with her 2nd graders. They were sitting on a rug in front of the board with nothing but their brains – no paper, pencil, or other tools. The teacher wrote the number 53 on the board. Then she told her students, “Think about this number. 53 is the answer. How did we get this answer?”
You could tell the kids had done this before. They studiously regarded the two-digit number, and when they had a response they put their “quiet thumb” up under their chins. One by one, the teacher asked them to share how they arrived at the answer, until all the students’ solutions were on the table. Then they talked about all the answers. The roads to 53 are amazing and creative.
STEM can grow better thinking
The point of my story, of course, is that these second graders weren’t being asked to recite the “right” answer — they were being encouraged and allowed to come up with multiple pathways to get to a satisfying solution.
That’s the part of the STEM process that can revolutionize our subject areas. In our middle grades curriculum designs, we want students recognizing that there are multiple ways to solve a problem, and then coming up with as many as they can. And we don’t have the corner on the market. Today this process is beginning in elementary schools! (I visited a kindergarten team meeting in Birmingham, AL where the teachers decided to pose this problem to their students: “The answer is 20 cookies. What is the story?” Delicious.)
I wonder what my son would have thought about math and science if he had been taught to tangle with a variety of approaches to solving problems and conducting investigations — to look at a possible math and science career as an a adventure and not a life filled with routine and predictability.
I expect he would have still majored in English. He’s a really good writer. But maybe his reason for majoring in English would have been different, and not reflected his discouragement with math and science – subjects that should engender wonder and excitement in young minds.
STEM needs to be about wonder
In my past blog posts I’ve attempted to describe various parts of the engineering design process, but I feel especially passionate about this one. This element of excited curiosity is critical to developing tomorrow’s workforce, but it’s also critical to developing students who enjoy learning, who can see possibilities, and who arrive at potential solutions. It’s critical to tomorrow’s society, when you get right down to it.
Today’s teachers do have to teach in a way that allows students to explore, create, and develop multiple solutions for problems before reaching consensus on the best one to try. That’s the only way we’ll ever put the “E” in STEM. And that’s the only way we’ll ever turn out students who can solve the problems our world faces.
Problem-solving, problem-solving, problem-solving. How do you help your students do that? How would you like to help your students do that? Regardless of your subject area, have you ever had really good professional learning opportunities — the kind that helped you learn how to support your students as they devise multiple pathways to problems? Just wondering . . .