Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Constructivizing STEM

It's hard not to detect a certain worry among those who write STEM articles for Education Week that the drive to educate students for careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics might include a drive to increase core scientific and mathematical content at the expense of things that Constructivists hold dear. Things, for example, like "model building," "data analysis," and "communicating findings."

These are what Jean Moon and Susan Rundell Singer, in their backpage Edweek Commentary on Bringing STEM into Focus, want to be sure schools are focusing on:

Re-visioning school science around science and engineering practices, such as model-building, data analysis, and evidence-based reasoning, is a transformative step, a step found in the NRC report, which is critical to STEM learners and teachers, both K-12 and postsecondary. It puts forward the message that knowledge-building practices found under the STEM umbrella are practices frequently held in common by STEM professionals across the disciplines as they investigate, model, communicate, and explain the natural and designed world.
Not that this is all that Moon and Singer care about. They also care about big ideas, which they divide into two categories: "crosscutting concepts (major ideas that cut across disciplines)", and "disciplinary core ideas (ideas with major explanatory power across science and engineering disciplines." The former include "scale, proportion, and "quantity or the use of patterns;" the authors don't cite any examples of the latter.

Besides "practices" and "ideas," the authors mention "strategies" and "tools" (again, without specific examples). What they don't mention is underlying content, except to say:
Lest some believe this is setting up another false dichotomy in science or mathematics education between content and process, let us quickly add a strong evidentiary note: Epistemic practices and the learning and knowledge produced through such practices as building models, arguing from evidence, and communicating findings increase the likelihood that students will learn the ideas of science or engineering and mathematics at a deeper, more enduring level than otherwise would be the case. Research evidence consistently supports this assertion.
I'm curious what "research evidence" means, but I gather that it doesn't include the research evidence that cognitive scientist Dan Willingham cites in support of the idea that students aren't little scientists and need a foundation of years of core knowledge before being ready to function as actual scientists.

In promoting their ideas as "transformative," the authors are overlooking the fact that the kinds of Constructivist practices they desire are already standard in many schools (particularly those held up as models for others). If they want to promote something truly transformative for STEM, they should instead be advocating a reinstatement of the years of solid, content-based instruction in math and science that many of our K12 schools used to offer (and that one still finds in schools in most developed countries around the world).


James O'Keeffe said...

No doubt the "research evidence" to which the authors allude consists of mirror opinions from like-minded "experts." As a philosophy constructivism may indeed have its merits, but when constructivists persist in presenting their philosophical preferences as scientific fact, those merits are only blighted and diminished.

1crosbycat said...

I wonder how many students enticed by the hands-on artsy side of STEM/STEAM (gotta have the A for arts) will change majors and drop their math and science college courses when they find out that a "STEM career" requires a lot of very hard work.

1crosbycat said...

I just stumbled on this after looking up the college where my kid's basketball game happened to be and thought I'd pass it along - Cal U has a Master's program in STEM. Here are a few excerpts from course descriptions:

"This course explores recent developments in the science of learning with an emphasis on inquiry as practiced by the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professions. Candidates will examine the nature of inquiry through historical biography, case studies of exemplary teaching practices, and research on how elementary/middle school children learn STEM content and practical experience conducting STEM inquiry projects."

"Candidates will design and complete integrative academic assignments that demonstrate application of STEM education, experiential education and service learning instructional strategies."