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Use the Summertime to Rethink Teaching and Learning

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Summertime is upon us, and a change of pace, bright sunlight, and a time for reflection accompanies it. Summertime is often when data is reviewed.  It invites us to look at mastery rates, failure rates and, now, maybe, a projection for teacher and principal evaluations.  We think these can be helpful only if they are part of a larger data set. There many options before us and so much information available in the extraordinary number of websites and books published that we may not know how to choose. But, a personal and professional summertime reset is always possible and it is important to beginning newly next year. 

What keeps schools from changing?  Regardless of the schedule and the flexibility of teacher certifications, subjects remain subjects. White boards and handhelds aside, the past is still reflected in today's classrooms. Changes that have taken place in schools have been more about changes in behavior. Gruenert & Whitaker say,  "Changes in behavior show an effect on climate, not necessarily culture" (p.137). They go on to say "Rewiring a culture is like turning around an ocean liner--it takes a long time" (p. 141). 

The coordinated energy required to turn an ocean liner around is hard to muster. We look to our leaders for direction, signs of hope, and the momentum to move forward.  Yet, in education, it is not uncommon to find leaders exhausted from what Warren Bennis (2009) describes as, being mastered by their context rather than doing the mastering.  The structure of schools is contributing to the struggle. Blaming laws and regulations, policies and past practice is an efficacy drainer. No leader can energize the organization by being drained and defeated by the very environment she or he is leading. We need to find and support leaders in an endless pursuit of passion. 

Thinking About STEM
Does the current attention on STEM negate the other facets of students' education? Is it overshadowing the social emotional needs of children and the humanities?  Our answer... yes and no.  It depends upon the leaders who have begun the implementation of a STEM initiative in their schools and their vision.  If the vision of STEM is the focus on the four subjects of science, technology, engineering, and math, then STEM may render other dimensions of students' education less important.

In these cases, students who find these four subjects interesting and are drawn to work hard in them will continue to step away from their age peers. The achievement gap might even be widened for students and a hierarchy of content subjects be created within faculty. Schools can easily move in that direction because it is popular policy and easy to implement.  We think STEM merits further and careful examination to learn what this thing called STEM is ...or can be...all about.

On one hand, the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math are pretty well established as the fields in which the 21st century workforce will be engaged. "Being competent in STEM fields is the modern equivalent of being literate and numerate in the 19th century" (Ossola, 2014). It is simply hard to think of career fields where one of those areas is not essential. A chef is thinking about the science of food. Those in marketing and public relations rely increasingly on technology. Artists and musicians are engaging in the use of technology.  The field of art-sci has appeared. Certainly do not want to lose those fields from the richness of our social fabric.

Educating Every Child        
The responsibility to prepare students for the careers of their futures requires changes in what we are doing in school and how schools are organized.  It just makes sense.  No matter whether the predictions are right or wrong, we have some powerful indicators right now. We may not know the jobs of the future, but we do know the jobs that exist right now.  We also know that science, technology, and engineering jobs are being filled by employees holding work visas because we do not have enough educated American professionals in the field to fill those jobs.  That is the economic incentive of the moment.

But the call to educators remains to educate every child, and prepare every child, for their lives as productive adults. This goes far beyond a focus on four subjects.  It requires a combination of view from the ground and view from 30,000 feet in order to see the field.  Teachers and leaders report frustration and feelings of burnout as they continue to hear "schools are failing"  "teachers are not good enough" "students are not being prepared." In the shadow of these callouts, being energized to lead a systemic change, shifting practices of all who work in schools, can seem, to some, as impossible.

While researching and writing about the potential STEM has to offer schools as they work to become 21st century learning environments, we determined that focusing on the nature of teaching and learning, when used as the fulcrum for change rather than as a program, energizes the system, ignites teachers, and engages students. Leading a STEM based learning environment for the purpose of improving schools offers a framework that can include every teacher, every grade level and every child. 

It Is Not a Matter of STEM or No STEM
It is a matter of seeing the value of changing the way teaching and learning takes place in all subjects for all students.  Working harder has brought us to this point but it cannot take us to the end line of eliminating the achievement gap and preparing children to be college and career ready.  This is an important time to work smarter.  This summer can be a time not only of renewal for leaders but a time to learn more and allow a new vision for the future to emerge. 

Gruenert, S. & Whitaker, T. (2015). School Culture Rewired. Alexandria, VA:  ASCD
Bennis, W. (2009). On Becoming a Leader. Philadelphia:  Basic Books

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