Spring 2015

Improving the Quality of STEM Education

If You Want Better Collaboration Around STEM, Build Infrastructure

If You Want Better Collaboration Around STEM, Build Infrastructure

The structure for collaboration between STEM teachers already exists at most schools. The most recent Teachers Know Best survey suggests that upwards of 68 percent of teachers have dedicated collaboration time with peers. However, the same data suggests that this time is not well used, with only 7 percent of teachers reporting having strong collaborative structures in place.

The structure for collaboration between STEM teachers already exists at most schools. The most recent Teachers Know Best survey suggests that upwards of 68 percent of teachers have dedicated collaboration time with peers. However, the same data suggests that this time is not well used, with only 7 percent of teachers reporting having strong collaborative structures in place.

I believe that while we have built the structure for collaboration in the form of people, time and place, we have failed to provide the infrastructure for collaboration. Processes, common definitions and systems constitute collaborative infrastructure, and the lack of these elements can undermine collective work. I believe that teams need to do three things to build collaborative infrastructure: Put your purpose on the table, make your individual “bets” about learning clear and define your team’s “Venn Diagram.”

Put your purpose on the table

Most educators work under an illusion of a common purpose. Almost every school I work with has a “mission” or “vision” statement that describes why teachers teach and students learn. These statements usually contain phrases like “Students will be equipped for 21st century work” or “life-long learning,” which are too vague to provide much guidance about what teaching skills to build and what skills to de-emphasize.

This issue is worse in STEM, where vague aspirations like training “good scientific/mathematical thinkers” hide all manner of critical differences in opinion about the nature of good teaching. 

These differences in purpose matter. If one teacher believes that the purpose of STEM education is to create “scientifically and mathematically literate citizens who individually can process scientific popular literature to make informed political decisions,” this implies something critical about how they will approach creating assessments and lessons. Compare that purpose with one that aspires to create “practicing citizen scientists who can apply the scientific method rigorously to real-life scientific and engineering problems.” These two purposes certainly have some overlap, but two teachers with these distinct purposes will not see eye-to-eye on how to write a project or test together. 

Developing robust collaboration between STEM teachers requires alignment around a clear and detailed purpose. To avoid using jargon to hide disagreement, play “buzzword Taboo” by empowering each other to raise an alarm when someone tries to define the team’s purpose using a buzzword. Push each other to unpack the idea until everyone understands what it describes in commonly understood language.

Make your individual “bets” about learning clear

STEM educators signal their assumptions about student learning through the instructional choices they make. When I work with teams in schools, I describe these assumptions as “bets,” a best-guess theory about the connection between a teacher action, student action and learning. Consider two physics teachers who have just introduced kinetic and potential energy. One physics teacher might define a “rigorous” homework assignment as one that gives students a series of repeated practice problems on calculating kinetic and potential energy. In the selection of this homework assignment, the teacher has made an implicit bet that students learn a new concept best when given multiple chances to practice a discrete type of operation.

Another physics teacher at the same school might define rigorous homework as a single complex energy problem that requires students to unpack multiple concepts in a real-life scenario. This teacher has made a bet that students learn a new concept best when they have to grapple with complexity and pull information from a messy situation.

Neither of these teachers is wrong, but they have both made different bets about the connection between their actions and student learning; even though they might both label their assignments as “rigorous.” They are speaking different languages and may not even know it. STEM teachers in particular can have widely varying bets depending on whether they come from a more project-based or traditional pedagogical style. 

Teams can jump start collaboration around STEM by openly discussing their individual bets. Teams do not need to strive to have the same bets. Discussing the assumptions that teachers have made about instruction lays the foundation for collaboration and individual teachers may agree to disagree on certain elements of their practice. Collaborative teams must approach these conversations non-judgmentally, striving to remain open to the ways that other teachers think about their work. 

Define your team’s “Venn-Diagram”

STEM teams do not have to believe in the same bets, but they are better off when they know where they align and where they do not. The two physics teachers introducing potential and kinetic energy clearly make different bets around the best way to practice new ideas, but they may in fact hold similar bets around assessment. Recognizing this overlap allows them to collaborate more effectively by naming their areas of agreement first. 

What the team puts in the outer edges of the Venn Diagram also serve an important purpose: they seed innovation and discovery. When teachers identify that they have different bets, they can explicitly decide to try different teaching strategies and bring the results back to the group. This discussion builds a powerful habit of experimenting with new techniques and furthering the discussion about what improves student learning. This discussion occurs more easily when common assessments exist, so I often recommend that teams try to converge there after resolving their common purpose. Once a framework for assessment is in place, teams have an easier time comparing outcomes from their individual innovations. 

Teams grow and learn when they clearly identify the points of agreement and make it acceptable to try new things. STEM teams that build around the places where their individual bets align and simultaneously harness the learning from places where their bets diverge lay a more robust foundation for innovation and rapid improvement. 

Teams that lay down collaborative infrastructure are more likely to build the trust and mutual understanding that powers any high-functioning team. These three steps support the development of that infrastructure in a way that minimizes judgment and respects the practice of individual teachers even as they aim to build a team that is greater than the sum of its parts. 

Doannie Tran

Doannie Tran is the Founder and CEO of The Teaching Genome which helps educators understand their teaching styles to improve instruction. Doannie spent six years as a science teacher for middle and high school students before joining Teach For America (TFA) to run professional development for all new TFA teachers in Massachusetts. During that time, the Massachusetts region was in the top 10 percent of all regions in terms of effectiveness, satisfaction and retention of teachers. The 2014 NCTQ/US News and World Report study of teacher preparation programs gave the professional development program he designed and executed the only high rating given to an alternative certification program. He currently is pursuing his Ed.L.D. at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and is an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at NewSchools Venture Fund in Boston.

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