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Problem-Solving Before STEM #TBT

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STEM is really more than the four separate subjects the acronym represents. It holds the potential for purposeful change in the structure of schools and the teaching and learning within them. When stepping out of the limiting subject silos, creating learning environments that provide purposeful integration of subjects taught in service to each other, students at all performance levels can become engaged, innovative, responsible learners.  This has been shown, in both research and practice.

Schools are struggling to become schools of this century, making sense of whether this important work is the result of mandates or whether they are really left to discover what lies beneath those surface fixes. Behaviors required for learning include attention, focus, interest, motivation and, yes, readiness. Those behaviors are difficult to engender, simultaneously, for all students in a classroom. To create that space requires the highest art and the science of teaching and the open heart and will of the teacher.

To align all the variables into the moment when students can learn best is critical.  When subjects become silos, beginning even in the earliest of schooling years, and children learn they are good at some and not others, that they like some and not others, we begin to lose them. If only a passing connection among subjects is offered by well-intentioned teacher, our chances of seizing the optimum learning place is diminished. In real life everything is interconnected, yet we have created schools in which that is not the case. Actually, the place where a student gets examined holistically is often on a report card. That view reinforces our assessment of strengths and weaknesses and doesn't change our practice.

In order for STEM, or any alternative approach to learning, to benefit all students, an understanding of how students learn must be examined and reexamined relying on new neurosciences and become the conversational focus of the organization.         

STEM may be the new watchword of this century, but the learning behaviors and ideas about subject integration are not. Education Week's Curriculum column in 1983 published an article that began:

An increased emphasis on reasoning and problem-solving in the schools is regarded by many educators as a more pressing need than the teaching of so-called "basic skills."

A wide brush was used to capture the issue. Tests were being developed to try to measure these reasoning and problem-solving skills. An "energy-education program" was funded by Tenneco Inc., and sponsored by the Massachusetts Association of School Principals. The program was piloted in Massachusetts, with the aim of extending its use regionally, then nationally. Students were introduced to "government responsibility, economics, and consumer education." It also included guidelines on how teachers can use the materials in an interdisciplinary course.

At that same time, the Mathematics Association of America was studying the "articulation" between high-school and college mathematics programs.  There were concerns about the concepts and what is really meant by things like 'derivatives' and 'functions,' and not simply knowing how to use them.

And, a national task force, chaired by Ben M. Harris, professor of educational administration at the University of Texas, was formed. The Association supported their work for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). Their goals included...

...defining new demands on the profession, determining how schools can improve student achievement in the face of "pressure for basic skills," and "defining the competencies that curriculum supervisors need and how best to train them."

And finally, the article reported The Foundation for Teaching Economics provided grants of up to $5,000 to help school districts buy economics textbooks and pay for staff development. Funded by the foundation in partnership with about 20 corporations who at that time had contributed funds.

Problem Solving And Applied Learning In 1983 To STEM Now
Thirty-one years later STEM is everywhere...in newspapers, magazines, cable and network television, blog posts, books, and boardrooms of businesses and school districts. Parents are sending the children to  STEM camps and clubs and career fairs.  It seems the corporate need for employees with STEM skills has grabbed everyone's attention. It is impacts us because those workers are sitting in our classrooms, today.

This need of business offers us an invitation to reconsider how children learn and gives us incentive to reframe how we work to be in alignment with the way they learn.  Science and technology are swift currents revealing and changing how students learn. We are having trouble finding our footing in this moment but they are rushing on.

This is the open certainty we can have about the future....science and technology will force us into flexibility. Our role is to prepare students for that world. Facts today are gone tomorrow. Science fiction of today is real tomorrow. Education cannot be about subject content without also being about problem solving and agility. The power of STEM comes from the fact that its seeds were planted decades ago and it has been taking root ever since.  

Although the technology was different thirty-one years ago, and sharing of information was much slower, it appears there was interest from business and higher education to work in partnership with K-12 education.  It remains somewhat of a wonder that we didn't jump at the chance then.  But now, the game has changed.  The future has come and we are still looking pretty old. Those silos remain entrenched. 

True STEM education has its roots in its interdisciplinary nature.  Thematic, problem-based opportunities paired with meaningful communication of understanding, often to an authentic audience, is not a new idea.  It is simply one that has not been widely embraced. The answer is not to add another program or a class in reasoning or problem solving or science or engineering. The answer is to step back and look at the mismatch between what students are able to do, what they need to be able to do, and how they need to learn. 

This look back is a reminder. Look outside and think about how much the world out there has changed in thirty years. Look inside...have we kept pace?  None of us can assert credibly that we have. It's not that we don't have the information available.  In fact, many of us studied the progressive sources from the beginning of the last century. We remember the arguments for learning by doing, integrating curriculum focused on themes, problem-solving and critical thinking, collaborative learning, social responsibility, life-long learning, and assessment including projects and presentations.  Perhaps, they were called progressives because they saw this century coming. 

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