STEM to what? For what?

A lot of modern Edurhetoric is based around the concept of students being successful in the STEM subjects, Science, Technology, English, Maths. Being the horror I was at school, (an “oxygen thief” as I am sure I would be described by my teachers if I was at school now) I had no idea that Science, English and Maths were even important. (That I am now teaching these things has my aforementioned teachers spinning in their graves I am sure.)

And important they are. English permeates my country, it is the language of choice, but it is changing. Shakespeare got it though, as did Melvyn Bragg and many others. If Shakespeare did not have a word on tap, he would make one up – and he was working in a medium where he could make it stick. (Take bubble, for instance, that has an interesting history.)  Why, then, do so many people think that English does not evolve? Why do kids language skills devolve into a few, shorter monsyllabic adjectives?

Now Science, I could really get my teeth into. Particularly my teacher, the soft part of his throat would have been good. (Met him again some time later, he was short, obviously in love with his wife and had the softest and most compassionate eyes I have ever seen on any man- the fire breathing monster was well hidden!) Mysteries of the universe be damned, how can I make a bomb?

Maths, my darkest hours and thoughts occurred during maths lessons. I developed an unhealthy interest in voodoo as a result of maths. I knew that maths was actually a religion, it had unbelievable catechisms, fanciful assumptions and so much just had to be taken on faith alone because some prophet, who had been dead for two and a half thousand years, said so. Everything had to be done precisely the right way or like any spell or prayer, it would fail.

The question here is why do students not see the importance of these things and sometimes go out of their way to avoid these subjects (particularly maths)? Why then do parents complain about their child “failing”, blaming teachers?

Have we ever considered that the students and their parents may be right? Are teachers to blame for their children failing maths? Not as silly a notion as some may think actually. At some point, teachers really do need to accept some responsibility here. Not for not doing their best- for most teachers I know do try their best. What happens, though, when a whole class is so poor at maths? Do we change anything? Not a chance, we cannot. The maths curriculum is usually so proscribed that we cannot sneeze without asking permission.

This post, an article in the New York Times, Sunday Edition, wonderfully outlines the problems, but there does not appear any kind of possible solution other than to keep doing what is clearly failing. The post strongly makes the point that we should not pamper lower expectations, and quite right too. The author, Andrew Hacker, suggests that forcing students into a maths class for no reason other than they are forced into a maths class, is a self defeating exercise.

At this point, I would state that the problems in the US are similar to those experienced in South Australia, in this instance, which suggests they have a common cause and would respond to a common solution. But what?

Has anyone even considered the delivery of maths? Should the content change, obviously not, but should its pedagogy remain as it always has been? Hacker’s view seems to support a more General Maths approach would be better, but it is still a Maths Class – with a Maths Teacher! There is nothing new in what he suggests, the same pedagogy, not even rebadged. How boring is that?

How about recognizing that the majority of students have no real talent for maths, so why can we not let them drop maths altogether? Have additional lessons in Humanities and Social Sciences and Technology classes. We can use graphing, mensuration, area, capacity, geometry and other maths topics in Tech classes, or Workshop or Home Sciences or whatever other appellations these classes may have. Working out the volume of air and air flow and the time to replace it in a room to ensure occupants do not doze off in a sea of carbon dioxide might be more interesting in a Tech studies class than working out the capacity of  of a room in a maths class. Social sciences and Science can use date math, distances, and a number of other important maths topics as part of their units on geography, astronomy, geology, biology or history. How about working out, in history, how far Sherman’s march to the sea was and then compare it to the Long March? What was the dollar costs of building the Panama Canal as opposed to the recovered documentation about costing Kufhu’s Pyramid?

In Science, calculating the actual times that light travels from the Earth to the Moon, and back, might be more interesting as part of a unit on astronomy than in a Maths class. Algebra is the language of science, teaching the formulae would, I suspect, lead to better understanding of algebra than students get in a Maths class. The application of algebra is right there, right in front of them, from their first formula.

While maths is not being taught to these students who cannot cope with maths, then it becomes critical to nurture those students who do have a talent, even a minor talent, or even interest, with or without talent, in Maths. Would they not get a far better grounding if not distracted by those who are disinterested in Maths?

This should never be about dropping altogether or barring students from traditional maths classes, it should be about encouraging those students who have an interest or a skill into developing that interest or skill. Many who have the skill may not have the interest- so teachers should find was to encourage students to take an interest. Drill and kill worksheets won’t do it, but genuine encouragement shall.

STEM subjects can interact with others and none more so than Maths. Why is there so much importance placed on Maths with so little positive result? Why, when the focus is on Maths, the results seem to decline more rapidly? Is the pedagogy actually getting it wrong? As David Langford said (something like) “If you always do what you have always done, then you will always get the same outcomes.” Or the more apt, “Change is mandatory, survival is optional.” Dr D Edward Deming


One other thing, this link got me thinking about rote learning. Good or bad? Two things that are often overlooked. One is that rote learning is usually done in unison, a sing-song cadence for recalling mindless things, letters numbers. It is a shared experience, a common bond between participants. Why are hymns so important to a church? For impressionable children it becomes a lifelong memory, long after they forgotten their former classmates names and faces, they still remember the chanting.  This is established social conditioning, forging shared experiences, positively socializing children. The other is one I cannot provide evidence for, but I suspect it greatly. Rote learning builds memory pathways, helps in the development of our ability to recall things. I don’t know of any work in this area and I am certainly not a clinical psychologist so I may be off the mark completely. I have never bothered to look for anything to confirm or deny this contention. It is an observation based on my perception that student’s ability to recall is in decline, and there are many factors, one of which may be no rote learning.

About colinfraser

I claim the title of educator, because I want to be more than "just" a teacher.
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