The Answer to STEM concerns may already be in the Hands of our Students

America has an urgent need to cultivate a strong workforce of innovators in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) subjects, but too few students receive the academic support and many lack opportunity to study STEM in school. Why should we care? In the next five years it’s expected that STEM job openings will grow twice as fast as other jobs in the United States, however Department of Education figures show that only 16% of American high school seniors are interested in a STEM career. The figures for minority students are particularly low.

But a solution may be right in our students’ hands. A study commissioned by the Verizon Foundation found that more than one out of three middle school students report they are using smartphones and tablets to help with their homework. Not only that, students reported that using mobile devices at school makes them want to learn more about STEM subjects than students who don’t. As a teacher, this is music to my ears. Another study by Harris Interactive reinforced these findings. Incredibly, nine out of ten students reported that mobile devices make learning more fun.

Early intervention appears to be the key. While I believe that there is no age that is too early to introduce STEM based lessons, dynamic programs using technology aimed at middle and high school students are a way to maintain students’ interest in STEM as they progress to graduation.  Last year I was the co-advisor for a team of middle school students who participated in a national contest to design a smartphone app. The students who participated in this challenge learned valuable skills, not only related to STEM, but to all aspects of learning. We had rich discussions on the topic of community challenges and concerns, and how technology and science could help alleviate them. The team decided to design the Chow Checker app, which would identify ingredients in food products to help people with food allergies.  At the end of the process the students left with a greater awareness of the issues that children with food allergies face on a daily basis.  Out of hundreds of teams from around the country, my students were one of the winning teams.

Our team was a diverse group of learners, each with their own level of comfort and understanding of technology.  A key feature of this process was that at the start not every student who participated considered themselves a “techie” however, by the end all of them learned that STEM education was not beyond their reach, and that there were elements of STEM that they all could be experts at.  I know that they will remember this process, and most of them will continue to hone their app building skills for their future.

As adults, we use mobile devices to manage our work and social lives, and we know that the current generation of kids will integrate these technologies in ways we can only imagine.  So why shouldn’t we encourage kids to integrate these devices into their school lives in a fun and challenging way? I encourage students to submit their idea to the second annual Verizon Innovative App Challenge, which is open until December 3rd. They might be inspired to invent the next great innovation.

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Just some of the reasons I love New Hampshire.

Just for fun…

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Some Thoughts on Finnish Lessons

I recently re-watched a video of Alan Lishness (who designs middle school science programing for the Gulf of Maine Research Institute) talking about his visit to Finland and his reflections on their educational system.  While I believe deeply in American public education, it seems there is much to be said about Finland’s system and how it compares with ours.  Yes, there is more to uncover than just educational policy, such as how economics plays into education, but there certainly are some interesting philosophical differences that we can examine and perhaps learn from.

One of the differences that got me thinking was the point made about teacher autonomy.  I can recall starting out teaching at a small middle school in Vermont, and having discussions with my team about what topics, standards, and assessments we were going to use to teach our kids.  Those conversations changed every year, as did our students.  While there were state frameworks to examine and use as guidelines, we were allowed much more freedom to assess our students’ abilities, readiness, and interests, then plan lessons accordingly.  We did have state testing (a great portfolio system) and while our assessment often drove instruction, we were not bound by the perspective that education was a “race”.  This was also before NCLB and just before newspapers printed school rankings based on state testing.  I now teach at an independent school and I am afforded the same flexibility and autonomy not to teach to an assessment.  I do have a curriculum and we do test our kids (although not using a “state” test), but I am given the freedom to put aside topics, timelines, and sequences without the worry that I am not “covering” enough content relative to a statewide test.

In Finland it seems that teachers are given that same level of autonomy over their classrooms and curriculum.  There are guidelines, but the teachers are very well trained and they are allowed the freedom to explore with their students.  There is no national test to drive instruction or curriculum, and teachers are encouraged to take chances and mold their curriculum around their students, rather than their students around their curriculum.  This seems to be a key factor in Finland’s success.

What struck me about this, is that while it is the opposite direction American education is going in, it is precisely what many independent and private schools do with much success.  I recently had a conversation about this direction with some public school colleagues at a conference.  Inevitably the conversation centered on the Common Core Standards and how the assessments (Smarter Balanced and PARCC) will drive instruction.  They spoke highly of how their districts are incorporating them, and their excitement and understanding of how they will integrate them into their classes demonstrated why, for the most part, I support the standards.  However, when it came to being bound to a specific assessment driven curriculum I illustrated the differences in our schools by offering the example that last year in my social studies class, during the Israeli/Palestinian crisis, I was able to put aside my scheduled curriculum and create and focus on a whole new set of standards, not test driven, but driven by current events, pedagogy, and student interest.  Their response was simply that they could not do that.

I worry that as a country we continue to work at building a better test when what we should be working on is building better teaching and learning.  In NY, according to the Buffalo Summit for Smarter Schools, the testing of elementary students has jumped from 650 minutes to 3200 minutes over the last ten years.  In addition, the stakes from these state tests have risen to include school and teacher rankings, state funding amounts, employment options, and school closings.  High stakes standardized tests are an inherently flawed means of evaluating student learning and thinking, and one that we would not tolerate in our classrooms, so why do we tolerate it from our state and federal leaders.

The really interesting piece is that during that three week period, I still touched upon many of the Common Core standards.  However without the worry of “covering” a state assessment driven curriculum I was able to engage my students in real world issues and thinking, and isn’t that what college and career readiness is all about?  So I wonder, if Finland can do this, and American independent schools can do this, why can’t our public schools?

To view the video of Alan Lishness: Indigenous Innovation….click here:



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Let’s hope for smarter and balanced uses for our assessments

I hope everyone’s year has gotten off to a great start.  The first few months of the year are always a roller coaster ride, between getting to know our students, creating new lessons, parent conferences, open houses, and statewide testing, we cover so much ground in a short period of time.  I have tried to use some of my time to research and learn about the upcoming implementation of the Common Core and the Smarter Balanced assessments.  In doing so I recently came across this article on Twitter, An Open Letter to the Architects of the Common Core by John Merrow ( also printed below).  It is an interesting post and the comments that followed it on the blog are equally as interesting.

I believe wholeheartedly that there is a need to reform public education, and I understand that the new Common Core standards are an attempt at reform (and I like them for the most part), however every time I hear/read about “standardizing curriculum” or “regulating data” I can’t help but think of the factory model of education so many of our schools still utilize, and I wonder, is this reform?  The article highlights the complexities that go into learning and assessment, and questions whether or not the current plans for assessment can factor in enough measures when determining success or achievement.  While “data driven accountability” and “value added assessment” are touted as strong parts of the education reform movement that is wrapped around the implementation of the CCSS, we need to consider where the data is coming from that supports such initiatives and make allowances for the variety that exists across our country.  It seems to me that many of our national and regional initiatives seem to be driven by data collected from large urban school districts or at the behest of private groups far removed from the education process, such as the National Governor’s Association and Achieve.

While many of the measures to assess teachers, students, and curriculum, including some of the current assessments of the Common Core, may provide us with some useful information, they ought not to be considered the standard measure of student success, let alone the final answer to education reform.  Much like the article states, my concern over the hyper focus on standards reform comes not from the standards themselves, but from how they will be measured.  As an educator I have spent a lot of time discussing and learning about the different types of and uses for assessments.  It is hard to imagine a teacher who hasn’t been trained in formative and summative measures and isn’t expected to use a variety of assessment tools effectively.  Perhaps we should ask the same of our municipalities.  Perhaps we need to look back upon the recent history of education reform and testing, and assess its effectiveness.  And perhaps, for true reform to occur, we need to ensure that the types of assessments made this time around, and more importantly the data generated from them, be smarter and balanced.


An Open Letter to the Architects of the Common Core by John Merrow on 29. May, 2013

Dear Architects of the Common Core,

How do you propose to test the skills and capabilities learned by the 8th graders at King Middle School in Portland, Maine?  If you missed our recent [PBS] NewsHour piece, you may watch it here.  In just 11:38, correspondent John Tulenko and producer David Wald brilliantly capture how a 4-month ‘deeper learning’ project changed the lives of Liva Pierce, Emma Schwartz, Nat Youngrin and other young students.

John made four trips to Portland, beginning last October. He was there when the two science teachers explained the project: the kids were going to imagine and then design their own energy-generating devices that would improve people’s live.

The kids were clearly intimidated.  Liva Pierce told John, “That’s way too much. I don’t know the first thing about electricity. I don’t know the first thing about windmills. I am totally going to fail.”

Emma Schwartz was equally pessimistic: “First of all, I can’t build anything, and I have never handled a screwdriver in my entire life or an electric drill. Like, this isn’t going to work.”

So what happened?  Over the next four months the King School 8th graders worked in teams to build robots (and held a competition).  Next they read extensively about wind power and then constructed their own wind turbines (another competition).  These regular kids in a regular public school learned by failing, just as we do in life.  For example, Nat Youngrin’s sound-controlled robot failed during the competition because as Nat explained, he hadn’t anticipated that the cheers of the crowd would drown out the sound of his clapped commands, making his system inoperable.  But Nat didn’t quit; he learned and moved on.

The culmination of the final phase–designing energy-generating devices–was not a competition but a public performance.  Each 8th grader had to get up in front of a large crowd of fellow students and adults from the community to explain their device’s function, the science behind it, and to ‘sell’ its practicality.  Emma and Liva were poised, confident and determined.  In just four months they had been changed–I would say ‘transformed.’

What knowledge, skills and capabilities did Emma, Liva, Nat and the others acquire? Here’s a short list: the value of teamwork; the importance of grit and tenacity; the science of electricity, wind, et cetera; the art and science of public speaking/communication; the importance of citizenship and making a contribution to society; confidence in their own power to create a meaningful life; and, finally, a sense of wonder.  (I would also wager that the adults came away with a new appreciation for education, students and teachers.)

Is that overstating it? Watch the piece and decide for yourself.

But here’s my problem.  I am following the Common Core story with interest and am pleased that we are going to raise standards and challenge our students more.  I know the Common Core lists “Speaking and Listening” as one of its four English Language Arts priorities for grades 6-12, and that is broken down to include “comprehension and collaboration” and “presentation of knowledge and ideas.”  That is, you folks are using all the right words and saying all the right things.  That’s a step, or two, in the right direction.

However, so far I have not seen anything that convinces me that our system is anywhere near ready to test for the skills and capabilities that we witnessed those 8th graders acquire at King Middle School.

If past is prologue, things that aren’t being tested won’t end up being taught. It’s not just kids who ask, “Is this going to be on the test?”  These days, when test scores determine which adults get fired, they’re probably the first ones to ask, “Is this going to be on the test?”

If it’s not tested, then say goodbye to that King School program and others like it.

After all, what sort of standardized paper-and-pencil (or computer-based) assessment can test for grit, teamwork, communication, innovation, ambition and the like?  To test those skills and capabilities, we would have to be willing to go back to the days when we trusted teachers to assess their students.  We would have to back away from our current small-minded policies that embrace test results as a way to judge, threaten and punish teachers–and instead use tests and assessments as we once did, to improve learning and teaching.

I predict that parents, teachers and students would go to the ramparts before they’d allow marvelous programs like King Middle School’s “Expeditionary Learning” program to disappear.

And I also hope that millions of people will watch our report and say “Let’s do that in our schools because that’s what we want our kids to experience, and because that’s what we want our kids to be: confident and capable, just like those kids in Portland.”

Even if it means saying to hell with the tests.


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