Posted tagged ‘Learning’

PUTTING STEAM BACK INTO STEM EDUCATION

November 13, 2011

Recent media reports express concern over the number of college students who are deciding not to continue their science based studies. The major reasons are the unanticipated difficulty of both the math and science courses. Analysts state that the decline in solid elementary and secondary education in math and science are major contributing factors. Considering the national goals of expanding and invigorating instruction and careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), this is a discouraging development.

IT’S THE TEACHERS, RIGHT? This is the motivator for all of the local, state and national efforts to tighten the methods and extent of teacher evaluations. In my opinion, with minor exceptions, we should not thump the teachers. The classic barriers of over-populated classes, curriculum goals that seek to satisfy national testing rather than student learning, and dreadfully fickle administrative guidelines that undergo school-board opinionated revisions, all turn the education process upside down. By the time all of this descends upon and around the teacher, student education has become a locked-stepped march into confusion. In spite of this, most teachers strive to teach and to inspire each student to learn. This turns a regular school day for teachers into an average 12 to 15 hour day when they really work to make learning successful and joyful.

JOYFUL LEARNING? There is an inherent stress for most youngsters during the education process; even for the super-bright ones. Making the process joyful, when suitable, reduces the stress, opens the mind and makes learning pleasurable instead of either deadly dull or frightening. In most cases, this approach is the product of highly motivated teachers who dress up their presentations (art, videos, student demonstrations, visiting heroes, etc) that far exceed the dry-as-toast curriculum dictated by the national test score mantra. All of these extra efforts are variables and in many cases difficult to consistently sustain so overall the education process FAILS with respect to future STEM success.

SO WHAT’S TO BE DONE? As and example let’s take five critical areas for consideration. These examples all presume a standardized education concept that enhances both STEM and HAMLIT education. This combination imposes a considerable demand on teachers through all elementary and secondary grades. Right now both are cut short because of the imposition of that national testing mantra. Yes, we do need to evaluate the system and how well it is serving the education of our young, but under no circumstances should that evaluation debilitate a sound and well structured curriculum. Broadly speaking the White House does not seem to recognize this educational impediment built into its mandates.

The five critical areas are as follows (The emphasis on items 1-3 are for elementary education, K-3):

  1. STEM and HAMLIT should be specifically present at the Kindergarten level, but in a most innovative way. Here the joy of learning is most important. Simple math concepts and delightful literature and music experiences should be presented in a most memorable and enjoyable way.  Young minds grab at these concepts when presented in this manner. Additionally, parents must be more actively recruited to support what is happening in Kindergarten. They should be fully aware of the program and the variety of supportive things they can do to enhance their children’s early learning experiences.
  2. STEM and HAMLIT follow the youngsters out of Kindergarten into the first stages of elementary school.  Now all children don’t learn at the same rate and not all will be serious STEM learners, but all of them will be at ease with HAMLIT when creatively presented. Yes, creative presentations. Most teachers, particularly elementary level teachers do this automatically and usually very creatively. These efforts must be extended to STEM as well. Math can be so dreadfully dull if presented in that way, but when creatively presented (using a variety of teaching aids) it can win over children that appeared not to be good STEM candidates.
  3. ENTER THE COMPUTER: Although the students may have already had some exposure (home or school) to computers, the Third Grade is the key place to begin using the computer to enhance STEM learning. Right now, there is some concerns about how effective this will be, but as the article in the foregoing link points out there are steps that, if taken, can make the computer a vital and highly productive instrument for enhancing the learning process; particularly for STEM. Teachers must be directly involved in the choice of software programs to be used. A misfit of program and teacher methods will produce a zero learning result with both frustrated students and teachers. Administrators and school-board officials must recognize this and insist on teacher input in the software selection process.
  4. ELEMENTARY LEVEL EDUCATION is critical to the full success of the youngsters through their Middle and High School experiences. A poor foundation in this area coupled with the greater student independence and learning responsibilities in these advanced grade levels can lead to a student drop-out. This is quite simply a tragedy whether the student was a good STEM candidate or more HAMLIT oriented. Dropping out is like shooting curiosity and imagination on the spot. Again, teacher instructional latitude, even with heavy computer participation, is critical. Impositions of the standard testing mantra, worrisome and severe teacher evaluations and often bumbling administrative processes can severely cripple these advanced learning experiences. So again, before harping, its the teachers, we need to carefully examine the teaching environment, the available tools and the level of administrative imposition that distracts teacher productivity.
  5. COLLEGE/CAREER PREP should actually start in Middle School and increase in supportive ways through the remainder of secondary education. Right now the push is for college from everywhere and everyone, and yet many students are either not ready or are just not interested in that direction for their future. Sound counseling on alternatives that continue to bolster the students opportunity profile should be included along with the standard college pep talks. There are a host of technical training opportunities, including the military services, that provide a student with some promising career alternatives. These should not be ignored. Additionally joint sessions with the non-college oriented students and their parents should be conducted to help prevent the forceful persuasiveness of parents fixated on college for the kids.
ALL of the above requires extensive time and effort on the part of both teachers and counselors. Again, the extremely tight schedules, mandated curriculum and standards test preparation along with the complexity of both STEM and HAMLIT subject matter demand more from teachers than neither time nor class size permit.  Yes, computers will help somewhat, but under no circumstances should they become tools to free up a teacher to perform those distracting administrative tasks. Computers are good, but they cannot sense all the nuances of each student’s learning method. Only a teacher can do that, and when he or she is intensely distracted by non-academic endeavors that alertness is muted. Guess who suffers?
Well, it is obvious that things must change, and the responsibility rests with every one of us, not just parents, teachers and board-members. All levels of government that interact with our education system must hear from us, and what we say must be in full concert with making sure that there is an ample supply of steam in the STEM program and also lots of bright words, art and stunning music in the HAMLIT program. We can then begin to bask again in the aura of bright, highly creative and dedicated young people and adults whom we so desperately need to keep us moving forward.
Well, it really all comes down to this (See video)>
About the Author: XiNeutrino (Waddell Robey) after leaving the high-tech aerospace and health science fields, he devoted a little over seven years working as both a TSS (Therapeutic Staff Support) and Therapist in Children and Family Services. Most of his time was spent in school settings with his young clients and this has given him a unique and highly informative perspective on our education system, its teachers, and the varying success of its students. Those experiences along with his independent observations and discussion with teachers and administrators have formed the opinions and recommendations expressed in this blog article.

IMAGE CREDIT: Cartoon depiction of STEM at work. Courtesy: eidmladenkaraman.com

Exploring The Digital Classroom

September 29, 2011


Digitizing the classroom, especially, in elementary education is on its way to becoming a standard. It is possible that youngsters intent on their laptops and digital subject-matter will rarely interact with their teacher or with each other. How good is this, and how bad could it be? A former New York city schools chancellor and education professor, Rudy Crew, states that. “the best of technology is never proxy for the best of instruction.”   Similarly, in an elementary school in Arizona that has a digital classroom curriculum, records show that although digital learning is exciting, test scores are not reflecting the same level of exciting progress.

Good, Bad or Indifferent: Considering the above, both many parents and teachers have reservations about the efficacy of a totally digital curriculum. As professor Crew exclaims the absence of direct personal instruction by a teacher cannot be as effective as parents should expect in their children’s education. So is technology-based education leading our future in the wrong direction?

A direct yes or no answer would be misleading in either case. The ideal, of course, is a mix of direct teacher instruction and computer instruction/exercises.  There is incredible potential in digital programs that can expand on a teacher’s efforts and increase individual student participation in the learning process. The key is an integrated curriculum that applies the very best of both methodologies. Let’s examine how that might be accomplished.

Curriculum Breakthroughs: The ideal mix will require a great deal of planning, teacher training and orientation, programming magic, and full-scale administrative and school board support. Most importantly, it is essential to understand that the digital classroom is not just the simple act of placing a laptop at the desk of every student. The teacher then is relied upon to bridge the gap between standard instructional methods and the new technology. This will spell F A I L.  Here are five key milestones that must be fully accomplished before a successful digital classroom enhances the education process.

  1. Teacher Readiness: This is a process of blending technology and curriculum with new presentation methods that link the teacher’s personal instruction with digitized course material. Separating the two will defeat all of the potential benefits of a digital classroom. System programming is a vital element of this process. The desired interactive instruction just won’t happen without an effective and efficient technology linkage that binds program, teacher and student into a fully interactive learning relationship.
  2. Student Readiness: Today’s youngsters are born almost computer literate. They take to the digital quickly and with great skill. With this realization, preparation of students for the digital classroom should start at the very beginning of their school experience – kindergarten. At this start-up level it is just introductory, but strictly within the context they will experience when they enter the digital classroom. This exposure increases in each successive grade with the student participating fully in a digital learning environment by the third grade.  Are we ready for this? Not right now, but adopting this concept insures that digital learning gets fully integrated into the curriculum and quickly loses its uniqueness. This latter phasing out of the “oooh ahhh” effect is vital to achieving full implementation of the technology into the curriculum.
  3. Programming Innovations: Some of the most creative people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing are computer programmers. Their ability to envision topic areas and then convert them to attractive, compelling digital presentations is a powerful combination of art and science. This is exactly what must be the pattern for digital learning systems in a school classroom setting. As stated above in the item on Teacher Readiness there must be a direct and essentially unnoticeable linkage between whats on the computer screen and what is being presented by the teacher. They must be mutually supportive. This will be a huge creative challenge for the programmers, but that is also a guarantee of some absolutely innovative programs. These efforts are expected to produce breakthrough technology in this new instructional methodology.
  4. Curriculum Development: Reading, writing and arithmetic are still essential regardless of the method of presentation. Additionally, presentations on the arts, history, and broader areas of science are also vital, especially in today’s high sci-tech society. Cramming all of this into an elementary school program is very demanding. Digital instruction directly linked to teacher presentations can better facilitate these efforts and also more vividly present the information to students. The key requirement is for the entire educational system to work with teachers and programmers to produce well integrated material. Patchwork, quick digital presentations will be forgotten two seconds after the laptop is shut down.  What you want is the youngster to go home and excitedly exclaim, “you know what we learned today?” This incident is very rare right now. In most cases parents have to pry from the youngster what was learned today, and some parents are too busy or stressed to do that.
  5. Bring In The Parents: There is nothing new here. Parent involvement remains an essential that is an extreme variable from a reality standpoint. There are a host of reasons or excuses for limited to poor parent involvement in the entire educational process of their children. Where there is direct involvement the overall benefit to the school, the teachers, the students and, most importantly, the parents is awesome. It moves the entire system smoothly forward. With digital learning, it must be stressed that the computer does not replace parent involvement with the school or at home. In fact, it should increase that involvement with a host of specific rewards for the parents. Parent-child interactive homework on a laptop can be structured so that the parent’s participation is recorded, acknowledged and rewarded. A unique bond begins to be created that reaches all the way back into the classroom. Now there can be an open dialog, almost daily, between parent and child on school lessons. It could even evolve into an exclamation by both parent and child stating, “look what WE learned today.”
Summary: Yes, I understand the above five key items are generalities that include many important details that will require creative efforts by all parties. This in itself poses a major evolution in our education system and its structure. To implant digital learning without going the full course of this evolution will at most present a fractured and frustrating learning system. The importance of increasing STEM instruction is an added demand that if the new system is only a haphazard effort then STEM staggers. In addition to STEM there must be both a renewed and expanded presentation of the arts, literature and history. This can be both highly challenging and exciting. Suddenly imparting knowledge to young minds reaches across to teachers, programmers, administrators, parents and even you and I as we welcome our future with both open arms and minds.
  • The video below is a very simple example of a combination of techniques to produce a memorable instruction, in this case on the importance of Zero. Certainly digital learning systems will be more sophisticated, but should not overlook or intentionally exclude fantasy or cartoon style presentations to make an important point. The grade level, the age of the students are key factors in the development of such presentations. Memorable, enjoyable are important factors, silly and forgetful are obviously to be avoided.
IMAGE CREDIT:
School children in a digital classroom: Courtesy   morrisworldnews.com

Please, No Questions! The Exploration Barrier.

June 30, 2010

One of the most exciting and most challenging interactions with young minds is responding to their curiosity and almost endless questions. In today’s social environment, schools are locked into strict curriculum goals and student performance. This setting along with busy, often tired, often stressed parents present discouraging settings for the inquisitive minds of children.  It is their innate thirst for explanations to a entire range of both real and imaginary mysteries that is the motive exploratory force that is born within us.

I can still recall my own frustrations and sometimes embarrassment when my questions, sometimes off the wall, earned me either a “we will get to that later” from a teacher or a round of laughter and teasing from my classmates.  At home, my busy parents either did not have the time, the inclination or the understanding of the subject area to respond other than to say, “not now and you need to be doing your homework.”  The discouraged, seemingly bored expression on the youngster’s face in the image above pretty well reflects my own feelings after one of those failed cognitive explorations.  My situation was not unique and is repeated today, regularly, among children around the globe. The fact that in spite of these unrewarding encounters many children go on to become some of our greatest scientific and creative minds.  I just wonder how many more we would have if we could do a better job of responding to those youthful inquiries?

I am not really lambasting either the school systems or parents, what I am really attacking is the press of these times that keep all of us too busy, and too often self-absorbed to see what both we and the youngsters around us are missing.  Additionally, as a parent, I did not do all that well either. Actually it was not until I started, much later in life, working with children with a variety of cognitive and behavioral problems that I begin to see what we were missing. This exposure took me into classrooms in a wide range of grades and schools and into the children’s homes. This is when the light came on, and I begin to see all of those beautiful minds pinging away at teachers, at me, at parents, and between themselves in their cognitive explorations. As I have said above, a most challenging and most exciting environment.

In talking with parents, they would often bemoan the fact that they really did not know the answers to their offspring’s questions.  In this regard, we discussed the idea of the parent explaining this to their youngster and suggesting that they jointly search for the answers.  In our modern computer driven, Internet linked info-world this kind of joint activity is easily initiated. This is true even when the parent is not terribly computer literate.  In most of these cases, their youngsters are fully literate and facile in manipulating both computers and the Internet. So, here we have a dual learning experience which can and usually does create an incredible new bond between parent and child.

Well, what about our schools? Another thing I learned from my days in all grades of our elementary school system was just how hard most teachers work, and how many organizational potholes there are that mar their real progress to impart knowledge.  At the same time, I also witnessed in one very outstanding elementary school a high degree of parent volunteerism.  Some of those sessions were “lets learn together sessions” where parent and student, not necessarily their own child, would work together to find answers.  It was stunning and so very successful.  For the teacher it was a welcome respite that allowed him or her to stay caught up with the system’s demands and stimulate young minds.  How nice if this wonderful model of joint efforts by parents and teachers could become worldwide.

Well, all of this is about humankind’s obligation to explore, and we should be learning that this obligation extends to the intellectual stimulation and nurturing of our progeny.  In doing this we are fulfilling one critical step in the exploratory ethic which I have discussed here previously. For me, and for many parents I have talked with who have begun either volunteer work in their children’s schools or doing the “lets learn together” routine at home, or in many cases, both, the personal sense of fulfillment is just plain joyous.  In doing this we are fostering and moving forward in our obligation to explore.

Let’s get busy, and tear down those barriers and encourage those amazing, boundless and challenging questions.  It is the exploratory ethic knocking at the door.