When you visit a middle or high school science classroom, what do you see? You may see students working on tablets or laptops, a teacher projecting the latest NASA images on the interactive white board, or a laboratory filled with probes and other gadgets. Does this mean you’ve entered a classroom that prepares students to negotiate the rapidly-changing yet imminently accessible global knowledge base?
Probably not. After a decade of ogling the shiny devices that promised instant student transport to the information age, I think we are finally ready to admit that they were necessary but hardly sufficient. We need to dig deeper and ask serious questions about the architecture of our courses and programs those devices were purchased to support. What, exactly, should drive curricular designs in an information age? After leading teams to develop over 2000 pages of secondary STEM content and visiting over 1000 secondary classrooms, I share with you four considerations for changing the shape of secondary STEM programs, as well as the curricula supporting them. While my team strongly believes in supporting skills development, the following considerations focus on how to help students negotiate information in the 21st century.
Our brains naturally utilize hierarchies and patterns to make sense of the information that bombards us from a plethora of sources. Without an internal organizational network or schema, we cannot assimilate new information easily (Piaget, 1983). Just for fun, ask your fellow colleagues whether their courses are planned with networks, patterns/themes or hierarchies in mind. We notice that even in a project-based learning environment, curricular designs tend to cover certain content only once and foster skills in a haphazard manner. We need to think more deeply, as a field, about curricular models that build long-term vertical coherence and are fortified by networks of horizontal connections. These are the constructs that will serve students well in an information age.
In a way, curriculum is schema for the brain of the school. What patterns and perceptions are we helping students build via the STEM curricular designs we employ?
- Math done in math class is different from math done in science class.
- Chemistry and Biology are only related to each other in the easy, beginning chapters of the textbook—or in the call-out boxes that no one reads.
- Engineering is something that only older students in advanced math or physics are permitted to do.
- Technology = Digital Devices
Many high school math and science courses are built according to topic- or chapter-based designs. These designs tend not to emphasize knowledge networks or iteration. Rather, topic-based curricular models deliver information packets in a single sequence within a single timeframe. While I agree that much of math and science builds over time, the user interface of STEM classroom curriculum is often a ‘learn it, leave it and lose it’ experience for students. This is the schema for information accountability that many of our students may be building:
- The teacher determines how many information packets are going to be on the test.
- The teacher determines when the test is taken.
- Students who are not ready for the test are slow learners.
- After a long hiatus, information packets from the beginning of the year must be re-learned for one big test at the end of the year.
Information gained in school and information gained in the real world are organized by completely different schemas. It is ludicrous to add hardware and software to curricular models that bear no resemblance to the way information is organized and assimilated in the 21st century—or in the human brain.
Piaget (1983) felt that the easiest way to acquire new information is through the process of assimilation, since new information can fit into existing schemas without trouble. This requires existing schemas to serve children well. How can our STEM curricular designs better prepare students to assimilate new information over extended periods of time? As one initial step, we can heed the research and build coherent vertical schemas for critical concepts with which we know students struggle. It is imperative that we remove curricular barriers to subsequent learning progress.
For example, we know that fractions and ratios are gateway concepts to Algebra success (Watson, 2014). It’s time to design curricula that intentionally revisits fractions time and again, in different disciplines, and for several critical years in upper elementary and middle school. Moving up the math vertical, Algebra I & II become gateway courses to university success—regardless of major (Adelman, 1999). So why are we not populating middle and early high school science and technology courses with more Algebra, using persistent schemas?
Another way to support information assimilation is to ensure that students have enough appropriate schemas in their repertoire. The current model of ‘school’ requires a degree program, an instructor, a class schedule and a syllabus populated with electronic and print resources. Yet in the information age, both formal and informal learning can happen anywhere one has a mobile device and connectivity. By adhering to traditional learning formats, we are not positioning students to enter a world of learning opportunities that do not fit traditional school schemas. Learning needs to equate to multiple, varied schemas in the minds of our young people, or we will be to blame for generations of people who are ill-equipped to learn in the 21st century.
Our team has thought deeply about the organization and volume of content that belongs in a single year of secondary STEM curriculum. Many teachers lament that there simply is not enough time to cover the content required for success on state and national exams. On a course-by-course basis, we agree. However, as we zoom out and view secondary STEM verticals, we begin to see how inefficient curricular models waste precious time.
Here is a simple exercise to conduct with your high school science faculty: Convene the group and their accompanying curriculum maps or pacing guides. Review the beginning of everyone’s year. What chapters are taught first? The Scientific Method? “[fill in the subject] and You?” Does the biology teacher go over a little chemistry, but not too much? What biology, chemistry and earth science concepts are retaught (in the same way) in that Environmental Science elective? Note whether the same concepts are named either nuclear chemistry or nuclear physics depending on the course. Then add up all time across courses devoted to the ‘ramp-up’ or overlapping content. Fascinating, right?
Deconstructing just two of the four years of subject-specific high school science to create a more integrated approach can afford more time for deeper, spiraled learning experiences. Not only does integration better resemble the way STEM is authentically practiced, it also helps complex, real-world issues come to the fore. The integrated curricular schema helps connect student learning to their future adult lives.
Deconstructing just two of the four years of subject-specific high school science to create a more integrated approach can afford more time for deeper, spiraled learning experiences.
From a logistical standpoint, integration can open pathways for students formerly stuck in a track due to scheduling issues. And the integration of two or more of the STEM subjects might also encourage higher enrollments in advanced courses (Rubin and Wilson, 2001). In June 2014, a group of researchers from the National Association for Research in Science Teaching (NARST) released a series entitled Supporting the Implementation of NGSS through Research. Their call to action resonates harmoniously with an integrated curricular approach.
Information Generation (Content Creation)
Regardless of curricular model, educators must make a single profound decision daily: who in the classroom is generating the information used by the classroom? One of my favorite New Zealand educators, Karen Boyes, says “we must stop giving students the final product of our own thinking.” Yet when I visit STEM classrooms I see teachers using PowerPoints and Prezis to deliver snazzy products of their own thinking. The only person actually negotiating raw information is the teacher, and 99 percent of the time that negotiation is completed prior to class.
Of course, time and testing are the culprits: “We need to explain the content clearly to students so we can get through the curriculum in time for the [insert your favorite standardized] test.” I urge the field to consider, however, what students are supposed to do when the real world feeds them raw information. Not only might the information itself look different, it undoubtedly will be conveyed using different language. Do our 21st century students possess the cognitive enzymes necessary to digest raw information themselves?
Students do require direct instruction and explanation from the teacher, but we need to reduce the percentage of pre-digested information they receive. In STEM classrooms, raw information is free and plentiful, available in the form of large public data sets, reference tables, real-time satellite images, global reports on hot topics, environmental regulations, credible blogs, open-source code, etc. And, by consuming raw information that is readily available, students hone the critical thinking skills necessary for information production.
Ultimately, students should produce their own information while simultaneously learning how experts have done the same over time. In this fashion, students become hands-on apprentices to the masters—masters that include but are not limited to their teachers.
STEM contexts provide exciting, rich opportunities for ushering students into the information age. It is time to provide curricular designs that optimize the delivery of meaningful STEM learning experiences.
Adelman, C. (1999). Answers in the toolbox: Academic intensity, attendance patterns, and bachelor’s degree attainment. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
Carlson, J., Davis, E. A., & Buxton, C. (2014). Supporting the implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) through research: Curriculum materials. Retrieved from https://narst.org/ngsspapers/curriculum.cfm
EduChange, Inc. (2014). Project-based Learning and Integrated Science. Los Angeles: EduChange, Inc. Retrieved from http://educhange.com/site/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/PBL-vs-Integrated-Science.pdf
McCain, T. (Ed.). (2005). Teaching for tomorrow: Teaching content and problem-solving skills (1st ed.). Newbury Park, CA: Corwin.
Piaget, J. (1983). Piaget's theory. In P. Mussen (ed). Handbook of Child Psychology. (4th ed., Vol. 1). New York, NY: Wiley.
Rubin, C. S. & Wilson, S. (2001, October). Inquiry by design: Creating a standards-based high school science program. The Science Teacher, 38-43. Washington, D.C.: National Science Teachers Organization.
Watson, E. (2014, April 24). Fractions: The gatekeeper to algebraic thinking. [Blog]. Retrieved from http://www.watsonmath.com/2014/04/24/fractions-the-gatekeeper-to-algebraic-thinking/