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Define STEM Broadly Before Hiring STEM Teachers

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There is no good reason why we should fear the future, but there is every reason why we should face it seriously, neither hiding from ourselves the gravity of the problems before us nor fearing to approach those problems with the unbending, unflinching purpose to solve them aright. - Theodore Roosevelt

Change takes time.  Some are very patient. Others are not. In 7.5 years, we will be 25% of the way through what we still call a new century. It is marked by only modest changes to the manner in which schools operate. It is obvious that in this century little remains the same, except schools. Advances in technology and medicine continue to change at increasing speed. Even warfare and terrorism have changed. Schools have become the ballast against the winds of change impacting other sectors. They have survived but now, they, too, need major, thoughtful, change. 

The ages for entering and exiting school, the number of days and weeks in a school year, the required minutes of instruction in subjects as separate silos, the bell schedule rolled over from one year to the next, the tentative embrace of technology, limited and limiting professional development opportunities, all have remained relatively the same. The structure itself constrains innovation.  No organization as a living organism can survive in the same structure over centuries.

More STEM Teachers Is Not The Answer

In a recent EdWeek Commentary, We Need More STEM Teachers; Higher Ed. Can Help, authors Michael Marder, Monica Plisch, and R. Casey Brown make recommendations for "STEM professional societies and university and college disciplinary departments to help spark STEM majors' interest in teaching". Their recommendations include:

  • Promoting middle and high school teaching as a career with undergraduate and undergraduate students.
  • Providing accurate information about the teaching profession with undergraduate and graduate students.
  • Advocating for high-quality academic programs to prepare students for STEM teaching and expanding strong models to more universities.
  • Offering students and graduates with financial and academic support.
  • Advocate for increases of $5,000 to $25,000 in annual teacher compensation, including summer stipends, for teachers in the hardest-to-staff STEM disciplines.
  • Support programs that improve the professional life and community of STEM teachers.

We agree that these are recommendations that should be taken seriously. We also argue that this proposal will only partially support the need to change the structure of teaching and learning in schools. The addition of highly trained STEM teachers and paying them, as well as all teachers, for work they do is a good direction.  But, without a fundamental structural change that supports a new way of teaching and learning, we will continue to get nearly the same results. Without the partnerships of business, community organizations, and higher education, we cannot leverage the change fully. Without architects who understand that STEM/STEAM learning labs must allow for flexible structure in classrooms and for maximum use of technology, the facility will prevent innovation from taking root.

STEM Is A Way Of Learning

During our journey for research before publishing The STEM Shift, we met leaders and teachers who are making a difference in their shift into serving 21st century students. Although some of those exemplars have strengthened the opportunities for students in science, technology, engineering, and math, for most of them, there had been a shift in thinking about the curriculum, time, and methods that made the difference. 

If we are to meet the needs of the students in our schools today, and not leave some behind, we believe it has to begin early, with all students.  These subjects cannot be left to the students who are, innately, good at them.  Students for whom math or science, reading, and communicating are difficult can have their minds changed as they discover how those subjects relate to each other and to their lives in the real world. Success often follows relevance.  

Rather than a push for math practice, reading and writing instruction, and communication requirements, shifting the way things are taught is a route. Having problems and projects drive students toward learning and discovery helps students discover the wonder of mathematical thinking, the pleasure and excitement of reading, the purpose of writing and communicating in a variety of genres, the experience of coding and scientific discovery, all spark the very creativity and engagement teachers hope to see in all of their students. How the subjects learned in school connect to the real world remains elusive for teachers and students alike.  That is where the value of partnerships serves students and teachers alike. Lines between subjects must become permeable. Certifications and school structure must allow and encourage the interdisciplinary and cross disciplinary engagement. Teachers must be encouraged, taught how to, and given the space to experiment in subject blending. Meeting separate standards can still be maintained, but how all subjects are taught needs to be part of the re-design.

STEM Is Best Understood As A System Shift

We do not only need talented science, technology, engineering, and math educators in middle and high school, we need them in grades K-12. We do not only need talented STEM teachers who know those four subjects well, we need teachers who understand and incorporate the arts, history, literature, physical education as inter-disciplinary and connected to have learning make sense to our students. 

This is a call to leaders to consider, with faculty, staff, and community, where your school/district has been, where it is, and where it can go. Define what this 21st century means for students and the way they learn. Research, visit, have conversations, invite business and higher education folks to the table.  It is time for a change. Actually, it has long been time for a change. The definition of STEM can be narrow or board. It can be grade limited or system wide. It can be for a few students or for all of them. These are local decisions and they will make all the difference for teachers and students in your district. They will determine if all students 21st century prepared or if only some are. They will determine if STEM teachers are added or if STEM becomes a catalyst for system change. We hope for the later.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email. 

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

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