The Time Has Come for a (Simple, Scalable) STEM Revolution

Decades of "reform," billions of dollars of spending, and a huge dose of top-down political posturing have not moved us any closer to achieving our national priority of becoming a leader in mathematics and science education. In fact, many key metrics show us slipping further behind.

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) study at the end of last year made all too painfully clear that the traditionally competitive American approach to teaching STEM in general, and mathematics in particular, is failing. Big time.

It should be clear that something has to dramatically change, requiring nothing less than a revolutionary approach.

Amazingly enough, the key to global competitiveness may lie in simple, yet profound collaboration.

Endlessly blaming the vast majority of the United States’ highly dedicated teachers for this failure may be akin to blaming factory workers for producing a sub-standard product through a defective process designed by management.

A problem of this magnitude isn’t the fault of individual teachers. It is the result of an abysmally ineffective system.

Our currently entrenched STEM education is rooted in aggressive competition: competition to winnow and reward the fastest, best pre-prepared students in the most elite schools from the vast majority students without those same advantages.

The result? The United States is producing a tiny minority of STEM “stars” while depriving most students of learning critical STEM life skills and positioning ourselves further and further to the back of the pack, by not taking advantage of the potential of women, minorities and our potentially powerful population as a whole.

The good news is that there is a simple, easily scalable solution that has proven effective in historically low-performing schools.

This new pedagogy is rooted in collaboration. At the New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), a nonprofit organization where I serve as Executive Director, we are continuously improving free, downloadable course materials for mathematics and science instruction.

Taking advantage of technological advancements, teachers no longer have to reinvent the wheel with every new subject. Instead they can download and customize engaging interactive white board lesson plans. They then can provide feedback to us and help us upgrade the materials as a collaborative group that includes the very best of teacher insights.

The students collaborate in solving the problems seated at round tables. Slower learners benefit from the capabilities of the faster students; and the faster students in turn develop a deeper learning by helping their classmates.

Handheld student responders, known as “clickers” allow students to share their conclusions and for teachers to get a real understanding of each student’s understanding in real time.

Perhaps what is most revolutionary is that students can retake quizzes and tests when they feel they have learned more and would like to raise their grades. This keeps students in the game by constantly leaving open the possibility of success and never giving them the mandate to accept failure.

To address the fact that more than a third of US children don’t have access to physics education, CTL began using these same practices to prepare successful teachers in every academic field -- including the humanities -- to successfully learn and teach physics and related STEM courses of study. Excitingly, we have become the #1 producer of physics teachers in the country with a strong track record of success.

Can any good humanities teacher excel at teaching physics? Absolutely.

It turns out that although teaching is unquestionably both a talent and a hard-earned skill; a proficiency in STEM subjects is comparatively easy.

Now, as we embark on a new year in 2017, this new opportunity becomes truly scalable as we partner with Colorado State University Global Campus to bring the opportunity to teach STEM to teachers everywhere, with an online course of study: https://njctl.org/teacher-education/online-courses/

What if our goal was actually to empower every American student with the life-changing impact of strong skills in mathematics and science, rather than to winnow out the elite few? The opportunity for our students to collaboratively improve the future of our world may have truly unlimited potential.

Let’s go ahead and start this revolution together.

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