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Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

The problem with teaching STEM

Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine have announced they have evidence that mice can pass traits to offspring through bacteria’s DNA.

That’s it, guys, I’m done.

I took biology in high school, and enjoyed it, even though it is the squishiest of the sciences. I remember learning about genes and DNA and inheritance and Punnett squares. In the textbooks, it all looks so cut-and-dried. But it has been simplified to the point of being almost-but-not-quite a lie. (Physics has the same problem when it comes to extremely complicated matters like flight or, you know, relativity; with chemistry, it’s the whole solar-system model of the atom business.)

Science is wonderful, and the best thing about it is that it’s an ongoing process of discovery. We know about DNA now, but the way DNA and genes interact to influence our growth and development continues to surprise us, even though we know more about it than we did ten years ago. Above all else, however, discoveries like the one I mentioned above underscore a fundamental truth: science is weird and wacky. There are stranger things on this Earth than are dreamt of in any of our philosophies, and just when we think we’ve gotten to the bottom of something, someone in a lab coat somewhere picks at yet another thread, and the whole thing unravels into a new mystery. That’s awesome for our understanding of the universe, but it’s a problem for how we teach STEM in schools.

In Ontario high schools right now, you are almost guaranteed to have to take an exam at the end of your course. It’s just a thing that has somehow ended up in the curriculum and makes up 30% of your final grade. Exams are not in and of themselves bad; like any assessment tool, there are times and places where they are useful. The problem with an exam in a science class, however, is that it tends to focus a lot on facts. The best exams will try to compensate by also testing skills—but most of the questions, if not looking for quick-fire knowledge of definitions, want students to explain or analyze a situation. Can you identify which of these steps are not in the Krebs cycle? I could. I can’t now, seven years on….

And therein lies the problem. Those annoying students who shout out, “When are we ever going to need to know this?” have a point: much of the time, we don’t. I didn’t go on to study biology—I never took a science class at all after leaving high school—and consequently most of my practical knowledge of science has atrophied into a husk of general knowledge occasionally augmented by the pop-science articles that bubble up through my RSS feeds. Now, that doesn’t mean I view any of my science classes as a waste of time. I loved them, but I loved them because I had (and still have) an intrinsic love for learning. The problem, however, is that if you subscribe to the theory that education is supposed to prepare students for life after school—whether it’s specifically for potential careers, or just for existing in our society—then STEM classes and STEM exams are not doing a great job.

The article I linked to earlier demonstrates that it is literally impossible to teach science as received knowledge. Any approach to a science class that privileges the memorization and regurgitation of knowledge over the process of inquiry and critical thinking is doomed to failure, because most of the information that we learn in science class is obsolete by the time we hear it. Even when it’s not, it has to be grossly oversimplified for students—and that is not the fault of teachers or even of curriculum designers but simply an artifact of the way the system works.

This problem is not unique to science. Every STEM class faces it in one way or another. Technology classes that focus on trying to get students to master HTML, or Java, or any specific language instead of focusing on general computer and code literacy will be doomed to failure (especially if they’re being taught on the kinds of ancient equipment many schools run—or on Windows 7 computers running on CRT monitors like I’ve seen at my old high school). Math classes are a bit different, because most new discoveries in math are happening at a level so abstract and inaccessible to the average high school student that it makes no difference in how we teach high school math. But that doesn’t let me, as a math teacher, off the hook. Because if all I’m doing is teaching students knowledge or even skills, then I’m not preparing them for the crazy and weird world of math that awaits them outside the safety of the classroom. (And I am not just talking about university math here. Anyone who has worked in a trade knows they do math all the time—but they don’t scribble it on a chalkboard or even on paper. They use highly esoteric units peculiar to their fields and processes such as “eyeballing” followed by gut estimation. That’s still math, and someone who graduates with a better understanding of the processes of math will be better at it than someone who is barely competent at fractions and arithmetic.)

STEM classes need to be environments where students are shown the tools and processes that are most fruitful for inquiry. They need to be places where students can screw up and make mistakes without fear of judgement. (Now I sound like Ms. Frizzle. There’s a reason for that.) You can’t do that in a classroom where the threat of a final exam requiring knowledge of specific facts looms ominously over the students’ heads. You can’t do that in a classroom where knowing that pi is approximately 3.14 is more useful than understanding what pi actually means.

We need our classrooms to be places like this, because the Western model of industrialized education is no longer appropriate for the society in which we live. We cannot pour facts into students’ heads and expect them to succeed after leaving school. The facts, such as they are, are outpacing our ability to absorb, teach, or demonstrate them. We already have access to more knowledge, as an individual, than our entire species had access to a century ago. Yet our schools still privilege having knowledge over having an understanding of where to find it, how to critically evaluate it, and how to ask questions about it. We will not succeed if we focus on teaching our kids about DNA, because what we know about DNA is changing every day. Rather, we need to teach them how to ask questions about DNA, how to learn about it on their own, and how to evaluate the “facts” they find in books, online, or by word-of-mouth. If we can do that, then maybe we have a chance.

None of what I’m saying here is new. It’s just that the article that jumped out at me has reminded me of how important it is that we accomplish this paradigm shift.

I know I’m preaching to the choir when I say this to fellow teachers. We all feel it on our bones, at least those of us who recognize the problem, even if we don’t practise what we’re preaching in our classrooms (because reasons). At the policy level, educators are making attempts to address this. You see it in the curriculum here in Ontario, and in the much-derided common core in the US. Alas, sometimes those attempts are a little too heavy-handed, or they are well-meaning but are still grounded in the fundamentally flawed obsession we have with data, numbers as grades, and measuring “progress” in a ranked fashion. Sometimes these attempts have done more harm than good, because they turn into public relations disasters, which is how you get parents confused about “New Math” and requesting that we go back to the “old ways.”

I am all in favour of going back to the old ways, but first you have to hand in your phone, your computer, your Internet connection, and pretty much any convenience or cultural construct older than the 1960s, OK? No? You want your MTV?

Then too bad. Schools have to change, then, buddy, because the world, she is also a’changin’. The world is changing faster than we can keep up with it in schools, faster than the spread of fact—so let’s stop focusing so much on them.

Let’s make science classes about discovery instead of knowledge. Let’s make math classes about exploration and conjecture instead of formulas and rules. Let’s make technology about building cool stuff instead of paradigms and algorithms.

I’m ready to do it. It’s going to be a little scary. But so was my first day of kindergarten. And you know what? I still wanted to go back the next day.

It’s time for education to grow up. Are you ready to grow with it?