As I typed these words, I realized that they could be re-arranged to fit the ubiquitous new buzzword of education gurus – STEM. But I am resisting that temptation for now because that really isn’t the point I want to make.
Somehow when we talk about STEM and STEAM initiatives, activities and projects become part of the landscape. And they should since the real goal is for young people to see how we use science and math to engineer technologies to solve our problems and design solutions to improve our lives. “Use” obviously means to apply and application is inherently active. Unfortunately, in many of these endeavors, the first half of the previous sentence gets lost and there is little connection to science and math. The reality of most classrooms is that teachers already feel pressure to “cover” too much material and activities without good content connections create increasing pressure and cries of “but I don’t have time” and “I need to prepare them for the test”. Teachers who truly want to be part of the solution unwillingly become part of the problem in the face of layered-on activities without a clear curricular link. They often fall back on old habits of transmitting information with the token inclusion of “hands-on” activities, losing time and opportunities for learning.
All of the cognitive and pedagogical research of the past few decades clearly points out that we have ruined the experience of learning science for many young people. Anecdotally, I have lost track of how many times my description of some of the initiatives I am involved in have been met with “If my science classes had been like that, maybe I would have liked science” from adults ranging in age from 25-75 around the world! So many teachers are trying to embrace the doing and the discovery of science in place of the rote memorization that has been so prevalent. But the roadblocks can be overwhelming. In a testing-obsessed environment. How do you really test thousands of students for their ability to “do” science and objectively grade their willingness to be curious and embrace discovery? It sounds ridiculous, but that is a reality of most teachers’ lives. In the workshops and classroom visits I have conducted since the beginning of the new school year, the need to put grades on a report card is always there. So often, teachers are overjoyed by how engaged and curious their students are when they use more active strategies, yet the need to give and take tests often overshadows the fact that science is once again fun!
Not all teachers and students are beholden to massive amounts of standardized testing. Independent and private school teachers often have a bit more leeway. But, in most of those environments, teachers will cite pressures such as parental expectations of traditional grades and competition between schools for enrollment and college placements as the source of assessment pressures. Assessment is admittedly the “white elephant” in most classrooms and it is an issue that I grapple with constantly as an advocate for more active learning. But my real point today is to focus on empathy for what that teacher is really dealing with. Real change will only happen if the teacher is part of the solution and that won’t happen if teachers are constantly faced with time and testing pressures. In a massive education system focused on assessment, testing will be slow to change. The smaller environment of the classroom offers much less inertia, but only in the hands of a willing and well-supported teacher.
Making and tinkering are not part of the STEM acronym, but they are part of engineering and engineering relies on science and math. Often embraced as “hands-on learning”, they bring little value to the average time-stressed, test-focused teacher. Making obviously supports and develops creativity, but encouraging making for its own sake is not fair to the average classroom teacher. Making that is at the end of a design process grounded in the application of something learned in science or math class is much more likely to “stick”, both as part of a teacher’s pedagogical toolbox and as part of a student’s model of how the world works. And although convincing both parties that deeper understanding will translate to a good performance on routine tests is an uphill battle, clear connections to content will go a long way in terms of building that confidence. Making for the sake of making is fun and has value, but we need to enhance and incorporate it more carefully to make a real asset in support of learning.
Tinkering has a role in the classroom as well but also needs to be part of a meaningful process if we hope to highlight learning. Webster’s Dictionary defines tinkering as “to repair, adjust, or work with something in an unskilled or experimental manner”. In the hands of young people, that translates to “try it and see if it works” which generally means that there is no process involved and little understanding of how it actually worked and why. And, if we think of science as the realm of “Why?” and engineering as the world of “How?”, we have obviously lost a valuable opportunity for meaningful connections. It is far better to incorporate tinkering into the engineering process as either “reverse engineering” to see how something works or as part of the modification and optimization phase, where documented changes lead to improved performance. It’s a win-win; children learn by doing and teachers have an opportunity to make the connections that support the curriculum by requiring predictions, explanations, and justifications. It sounds a lot like “Claims, Evidence, and Reasoning”, our new model for the scientific method.
It is unfair to ask teachers to embrace “hands-on” activities like making and tinkering without weaving in clear connections to concepts they are expected to teach and ideas that will appear on tests that are often out of their control. But, all research supports the fact that “doing” can create amazing support for the development of lasting mental models and understanding. Making and tinkering have valuable roles in the classroom if they are woven into a process and not simply layered-on.
In conclusion, I can’t resist the temptation to “tinker” with the acronym. Maybe there is a new way to look at STEM, or at least one version or subset of it. Let’s pull out the E and stress making and tinkering as important tools in solving problems. Solving Tinkering ENGINEERING Making or maybe stEm. All are action words actively supporting learning. It would go a long way towards demystifying and supporting Engineering with “hands-on” activities leading to “minds-on” learning.