Fixing the STEM Problem by Asking the Right Questions-Don’t ask “Who, What, When, Where”; ask, “Why, and How?”

Fixing the STEM Problem by Asking the Right Questions 

Essay by

Allan C. Jones, President

Emaginos Inc.- Engaging Every Child Through Customized Education

Don’t ask “Who, What, When, Where”; ask, “Why, and How?”

Education in the No Child Left Behind era is all about answering “who, what, when and where” (4W) questions. But the questions that really matter are why and how. In a European history class, students are asked, “Who fought at the battle of Hastings?”, “What armies fought in the battle?”, “When was it fought?”, and “Where is Hastings?”. I can still remember that the English fought the Normans led by William the Conqueror in 1066. I don’t remember where Hastings is, if I ever did know it. What I don’t know is why it was fought and how it affected history. In considering what I know and don’t know, it seems like the stuff I know doesn’t matter and the stuff I don’t know does matter. In general, what matters is the stuff you learn by asking why and how.

The country’s leaders constantly complain about today’s students not learning enough about Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). STEM topics are boring if you focus on the 4W questions.  But if you focus on “why and how” they come to life. Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in the southern US before the civil war. Boring! Why did he invent it? How did it work. How was it powered? Why was it important? What recent inventions have had a similar impact on a nation’s economy? The last is a “What” question, but not a recall question. These are the interesting questions about the cotton gin – and they lead to a rich discussion of STEM.

Let’s make the issue more contemporary.

We tell children to use soap when they wash their hands. When they ask why they need the soap, the typical response is that soap gets the hands cleaner. This is usually where inquiry stops and authority takes over – just do it! But any healthy, curious child is thinking, “How does soap work?” The answer is, “Soap makes water wetter.” What does that mean? Soap breaks down the surface tension bonds between the water molecules. So the next obvious question is, “Why does that matter?” Because it allows the water to penetrate the dirt better to float it away. It also emulsified the grease molecules; allowing them to detach from the object and rinse away. I like to give the students another use for this piece of knowledge so I tell them that the next time they find a tick and are trying to kill it, the easiest way is to drop the tick into a cup of tap water. Initially, the tick will appear to float. (The little suckers are really hard to kill.) But ticks are not buoyant. They are not floating. They are standing on the surface tension. Add a drop of dishwashing liquid to the water and the tick will sink like a stone and drown.

We were recently at yet another STEM meeting where the people were all excited about an excellent robotics activity that they were proposing to engage more girls and minorities in STEM. Robots are cool; and designing and playing with them can be engaging and instructional. But why go the expense of creating an artificial world for STEM learning? Students are surrounded by STEM every minute of their lives. Some questions they might enjoy answering could include:

  • How do they get stone-washed denim to look that way? Do they really stone-wash it?
  • Why do the tires on a mountain bike look so different from the tires on a racing bike? Do car and truck tires have the same or different tread designs? How do they decide what is the best tread design for different uses? How does changing the amount of air pressure affect the performance of the tires? When do you use low tire pressure and when do you use high pressure and why?
  • Why does it get easier or harder to pedal a 12-speed bike when you shift the gears? How does the Derailleur work? How is the Derailleur different from a manual transmission on a car? Why does a manual transmission need a clutch and an automatic transmission does not? How does the clutch work? Why does a clutch burn out?
  • How do iPods store all that music? What other options are available to store it? Why was the one they use chosen? What may be the next better storage mechanism?

If you want to tie it into history, ask how people 200, 400, 600, 800, and 1,000 years ago did what we do routinely today. What did tires and treads look like at those different time periods? How were vehicles propelled? How was music stored and enjoyed? How does communications technology affect social unrest? Which technologies that were originally invented for military uses have become everyday household products? Did you know that microwave ovens came from radar technologies developed for guiding missiles?

The list of fascinating STEM topics is endless. More importantly, they are an integral part of everybody’s world. All of the inventions and the underlying technologies were designed and built by engineers and technologists based on work by scientists and mathematicians. STEM is not some remote esoteric set of knowledge reserved for nerds. It’s a fascinating set of knowledge and skills that make up the world we live in. The 4W questions are only interesting if they are used in the context of why and how.

Dropout prevention is another big issue in education. Because understanding why and how something happened are much more interesting than the 4W questions, students get more engaged in their learning when seeking answers to why and how. We need to get away from the model where the teacher asks the 4W questions and students answer them. We need to pose problems that require the students to determine what the questions are that they need answered in order to solve the problem. If you put the students in small ability-level based groups and frame the questions as problems to be solved, every student is actively engaged in learning. This student-centered learning environment also allows the teachers to work individually with every student and customize the learning for each of them.

Going back to the battle of Hastings, knowing why and how it was fought and how the result of the battle impacted the subsequent history of England might be of use in looking at the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Can we learn any lessons from Viet Nam, Afghanistan, and Iraq that will enable us to make better decisions about the value of those strategies?

We need to change the questions we ask our students and the way we pose them, not only in class, but also on assessments. There is an old axiom that applies; “You get what you pay for.” Since educational institutions get ‘paid’ for good assessments, they will structure the teaching and learning activities to produce what is assessed. So we need to do less assessing of who, what, when, and where; and start doing a better job of assessing students’ mastery of why and how.

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The Power of US Foundation

 

The Power of US Foundation is a grassroots organization focused on growing support for transforming America’s K-12 public schools from their traditional teacher-centered model to a new student-centered model that customizes education for every child and in parallel with that effort, to improve educational and digital equity across all demographics.

 

The Power Of US Foundation, connects teachers, parents, educational communities, business leaders, and government representatives across K-12 who share our goal to create transformation in education with powerful information and collaborative ideas.

 

To achieve this goal of transformation we are engaged in a number of related programs.

  • Website – We are building a website that will serve as the central clearinghouse for a wide range of research and communications activities.
  • Blogs – establishing communities of interest and providing a virtual place for exchanging ideas and organizing activities.
  • Research – Collecting, cataloging and posting links to relevant research, publications, and reports.
  • Communications – providing a means for people to be kept informed of events and information in which they have expressed an interest.
  • Relationships – There is a wide assortment of interest groups that are working separately on specific components of the larger problems of educational quality and digital equity.  Our plan is to work with them, identify those areas of common interest and assist them in sharing resources where appropriate.
  • Resources –
  • We gather examples of what powerful ideas are needed to transform schools, and then educate communities as to what they can do by example.
  • We are building relationships with a broad spectrum of individuals and organizations that have developed or are developing student-centered educational resources in all disciplines across the curriculum.  We will then provide annotated links to these resources so they gain greater use and impact.  One of these relationships will ensure that all of the resources are integrated into the Discovery Learning System curriculum.
  • Digital Equity – We see the pursuit of digital equity, social justice and an ability to use the new technologies as a new civil rights issue.  Because simply having access to technology does not fix the problem, we are working to fuse the digital and educational equity issues into a single effort.
  • Conferences and workshops – We provide informational presentations and chair panel discussions at major educational, technical, and digital equity events and conferences.
  • Program planning – We initiate and participate in grassroots initiatives to promote change. We participate in formal and informal conferences, forums, and initiatives to gather ideas, information, and innovation.  For those people on the digital dark side of the road or those without proper connectivity, we provide examples, ideas, and information about funding sources.

Most school teachers work largely in isolation from their peers, and many interact with their colleagues only for a few moments each day. In contrast, most other professionals collaborate, exchange information, and develop new skills on a daily basis. Teachers in disadvantaged communities are often in the classroom where the bell and the loudspeaker or PA system may be the most significant technology they see/hear all day.  In many schools the cellphone is forbidden and the Internet, even if accessible, is not a given 24/7 opportunity. We provide new models and examples of teacher communications and collaboration.

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The way public education is funded through local property tax assessment results in enormous resource inequities among and between communities.  Providing for equality of educational opportunity at racially isolated, disadvantaged, distant, and rural schools continues to be an important area of concern for educational policy makers. Quality teachers are essential to promoting equal opportunity and for broadening engagement .There are examples of excellence that are shared, shown and talked about that escape even the schools that are connected.  Our programs will give these exemplary programs wider visibility for emulation and adoption.  We are working to provide support for the under-resourced schools and districts to write grants, be involved in the conferences, or to conquer the other factors of their digital divide. We participate at many levels to provide examples of grassroots initiatives, toolkits and professionals to start the conversation, and to create transformational educational landscapes.

 

Support – We donate most of the intellectual energy required for pursuing our goals.  Living in Washington DC allows us to be involved and influential in a number of important programs, but we rely upon outside support for covering the cost of travel and participation in the many relevant conferences and events.

 

 

Bonnie Bracey Sutton, Executive Director.

 

Who is Jack Taub?

We will create a public/private partnership and a national movement in collaboration with teachers’ unions to unleash America’s largest, unlimited, and virtually untapped source of renewable energy: the minds of all of our children!!!! Customizing education for every child will ensure that never again will our children’s hopes, futures, and dreams be determined by the color of their skin, their gender, the quality of their healthcare, the poverty in their home and/or community and – last but far from least – the teachers’ and students’ ability to withstand the frustration and boredom inherent in today’s public education systems. The needless NCLB ‘teaching to the test’ which dominates our schools is really the result of public policy made by legislators, business leaders, and policy makers often against the wishes of teachers and others involved in education.

-Jack Taub 2008

History

Jack is a boy from Brooklyn who dropped out of high school to avoid terminal boredom.  One of his friends from the old neighborhood was Al Shanker who grew up to lead the American Federation of Teachers for many years.  In the late 1970s he was the one who first turned Jack on to the issue that less than 5% of high school graduates had reading proficiency.  This did not include science and math and it was before the Flat World that Thomas Friedman describes allowed China and India to compete for low-skilled jobs.    When Jack dropped out, he began pursuing his passion, stamp collecting.  He did it very well.  So well, in fact, that at one point he owned a significant share of Scotts Publishing (He was Chairman of the Board) and the publisher of the Scott’s Catalog – the “bible” for stamp collectors.  He had a store located across the street from Tiffany’s at 57th street and Fifth Avenue.  Not just the store; with his brother and friend, they owned the whole ten-story building.  He then convinced the US Postal Service that they could make a profit selling stamp collecting materials.  He ended up with an exclusive contract to sell his products in 35,000 post offices, and the USPS has earned over $10B by retailing philatelic paraphernalia and other non-stamp items.

In 1977, he got restless and he took some of the money from that success and invested it in a new concept that allowed people to use computers and modems to exchange ideas using email and bulletin boards.  The business was called ‘The Source’ (See the article below) and it was the first consumer online business.  It became the model for the consumerization of the Internet and all that followed.  In 1980, he sold that business to Readers’ Digest for a significant amount of money.

At that point, he began focusing on the educational needs of his physically challenged child.   He was trying to get his child a good education in public schools.  His experience led him to realize that even with the then existing Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), schools were not only not meeting the needs of challenged children; they were not serving any children well, while boring most.  He was reminded of the earlier comments from Al Shanker and decided to dedicate his life and the resources he had to customizing education for every child in the country.  That was in 1980, three years before the seminal report, ‘A Nation At Risk’ that concluded, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.” Jack has been pursuing his vision for customizing education ever since.  He has built a team of people who share his dream and dedication and together they have designed and implemented the model at three schools that prove it can be done.  Along the way, he passed on many opportunities to make significant profits from some of the elements of the solution because he didn’t want to be distracted from the need to transform the whole system.  He determined that if he was successful in transforming K-12 education it would be America’s greatest social and economic engine as well as an historic legacy and a great business.  Jack never thought that transforming K-12 education would be one of the most complex journeys in history and that it would take 30 years and most of his resources to solve.

Jack believes that every child is precious and at risk, some at greater risk than others.  The great tragedy and human rights issue is that virtually every child first shows up in kindergarten with unlimited curiosity and a genetic need to learn.  Then we start ‘helping’ them learn to pass tests.

America has about 100,000 public schools, nearly 4,000,000 teachers and 55,000,000 students.   All of this is organized into about 15,000 locally autonomous school districts – each making their own decisions.  Neither the president nor the governor has control over the local district decisions.  Consequently, the solution must be from the communities up, not the top down.   The program must benefit all the children and all the teachers.   It is both impractical and unnecessary to replace the existing schools and teachers.  We need to transform them.  To be a scalable solution, it must eliminate student boredom, be supported by the teachers and their unions, and affordable to all schools within existing budgets.  If you do the math, transforming 10,000 classrooms a year (which in itself would be Herculean) would take 400 years to get done once.   His goal, to complete transformation of public education in 15 years will start after the receipt of the funding for the first 1,350 discovery and innovation schools.  That led Jack to realize that we would need a national grass-roots movement consisting of over a million parents, students, teachers, administrators, business leaders, academics, and politicians to support the transformation.  The Power of US Foundation (www.thepowerofus.org) has been established to recruit and coordinate members in support of the transformation.  At their website, you can read their “Call to Arms” and “Implementation Plan”.

In the ensuing 30-plus years, more than $100,000,000 dollars (not all of it Jack’s money) have been spent building implementing, testing and improving the model.  The solution he and his team built integrates virtually every known research-based organizational and student-centered-learning best practice into a smoothly operating system.  As a result, all of the elements have already been thoroughly researched and proven in multiple locations.  The integrated system his team developed, that includes a multidisciplinary project-based, small-group learning environment, has been in operation as the Discovery Learning Systems (DLS) model at the three schools (elementary, middle and high school) at the Tracy Learning Center (TLC)  for over eight years, representing over 8,500,000 hours of student and teacher experience, with outstanding results.  In the DLS model, the teachers are able to observe and assess individual student behaviors and learning and customize the learning for all 54,000,000 students.  This ongoing assessment means there is no need to teach to the test.  In addition, the ongoing data-gathering and analysis allows the model to continuously improve programmatically while scaling exponentially.

The DLS model was originally implemented as a charter school in order to allow the designers to start with a clean slate.  However, from the beginning, Jack and his partner, Dr. Keith Larick, were determined to create a model that could be scalable and replicable in any public school in the nation.  The needless NCLB ‘teaching to the test’ which dominates our schools is really the result of public policy made by legislators, business leaders, and policy makers often against the wishes of teachers and others involved in education.  The DLS model totally avoids teaching to the test and the resulting student boredom and teacher burnout.

The DLS model is a comprehensive change from the current teacher-centered learning environment.  So to be scalable, we provide an equally comprehensive program of professional development and change management.  The staff and teachers have 24/7 access to a broad range of support services at no cost to the teachers.

To be successful, children need a quality education and good health.  DLS addresses the health issue in two ways.  The curriculum includes a number of grade-level-appropriate health and wellness projects on topics like obesity and substance abuse.  We also provide free access to primary healthcare services via a telemedicine network.

The DLS solution is not an education management system that takes over and operates the schools.  DLS is a subscription-based education transformation service that includes unlimited usage of all of the best practices listed below. Beyond that, the fixed subscription cost includes all of the upgrades that result from the DLS continuous improvement program.  Budgeting and procurement for many of the services included in the DLS subscription package are frequently problematic for school districts.  Many of the critical services often end up on the chopping block during difficult financial times.  Which should we cut, the volleyball team or the drama program?  Should we replace the computers or retain a teacher?   It is not that the school board feels any of these options are unimportant. It is that they have to make difficult choices and local pressures frequently overwhelm good educational practices in a political climate.  Because all of the elements of the solution are research-based best practices and are an integral part of the comprehensive DLS model, they are bundled into a subscription that cannot be purchased a-la-carte.   This simplifies the budgeting for the school board.  They know what they need and they have a guaranteed fixed cost for the package that they can budget.  It includes providing and refreshing (every three years) all of the district technology.   AT&T is assisting the DLS team in designing, implementing, managing, and refreshing the participating schools’ technology infrastructure.  AT&T is looking forward to rolling out the model as a national program.

“There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come”

– Victor Hugo – 1857

Jack’s present activities include two related programs.  The first is to raise funding to transform 1,350 schools to schools of discovery and innovation in the next five years.  The plan then is to transform the rest of the schools across the country within the following ten years.  His goal is to demonstrate that the transformation can occur and to build the momentum for getting it to happen.  At that point he expects other organizations to join in the effort and help in transforming the remaining 100,000 schools.  The other activity is continuing to build relationships with other organizations that share our vision and explore means for supporting each other’s efforts.  He believes that schools should regain their status as community centers – but not just for education.  The school should also be a center for primary healthcare, innovation, culture, entertainment and community/economic development.  For more information about the DLS program for creating schools of discovery and innovation visit http://www.emaginos.com/.   Jack’s goal is to make schools places where children want to attend, not have to attend.  For anyone who doesn’t believe Jack’s vision is attainable, he challenges them to read the history of the Manhattan Project and see what the nation did in three years.

Jack identifies personally with the Peter Finch character, Howard Beale, in the movie Network (1976), when Beale expresses his despair over the continual political bickering while the citizens are faced with unemployment other societal ills.  Beale says, “We’re as mad as hell, and we’re not going to take this anymore.”

Approximately 10,000 children a day are dropping out of school or graduating but incapable of earning a living.  These 10,000 kids all showed up for kindergarten with unlimited curiosity and a genetic need to learn.  Through the Power of US he hopes to get millions of volunteers (parents, teachers, students, and community members) as mad as hell like he is.   They must all join him and come together to stop destroying the futures of virtually all of our children and our nation.

Jack Taub’s Theory for Educational Transformation 2000

* The CHild equals CUriosity minus  Boring Education = Infinite Intellectual and Creative Energy.

1978 Washington Post article about the Source

The following article from the Washington Post was the first mention anyplace in the world of the concept that came to be known as the ‘consumer online industry’.  Jack Taub pioneered and funded digital broadcasting which gave birth to The Source.  People from the Source led to the creation of America Online.  The Source ultimately became the model for the consumerization of the Internet.  In today’s terminology Jack’s 1977 vision is now known as ‘cloud computing’.

If you look towards the end of the article, you will see Jack quoted as saying that the demonstrated capabilities will become as famous as McDonald’s hamburgers.  At the time this article was being written, there were only three people on his online system.

Jack believes that the greatest days in using these technologies still lie ahead of us through the development of DLS Discovery and Innovation schools and empowering all children – no matter how poor or remote.