Constructivizing STEM

by Robert Pondiscio
February 22nd, 2012

The following guest post is by Katharine Beals, who blogs about education at Out in Left Field, where this post also appears.  — rp.

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).

Katharine Beals, PhD is the author of Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World: Strategies for Helping Bright, Quirky, Socially Awkward Children to Thrive at Home and at School. She teaches at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and at the Drexel University School of Education, specializing in the education of children on the autistic spectrum. She blogs about education at Kitchen Table Math and on her own blog, Out in Left Field.

2 Comments »

  1. To kids who lean in a STEM-y direction, or even averagely bright non STEM-y kids, you don’t have to spend much effort teaching “scale, proportion, and quantity or the use of patterns.” You point them out as you go along, but you rely on their growing store of knowledge and observational skills to do the reinforcing. Sheesh.

    Comment by balsam — February 22, 2012 @ 3:30 pm

  2. Well, someone has definitely failed to point out and reinforce those skills to a lot of the students I teach intro college physics to…

    Comment by Rachel — March 19, 2012 @ 3:37 am

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