Saturday, January 05, 2013

Making Schools Better: An Intersection Conversation

At The Intersection Event next week I'll have the chance to present a project or idea I'm working on to a  group of successful professionals from many disciplines. This is a rare opportunity for a classroom teacher who typically spends her days busy coaching young children in a variety of content, knowledge and skill areas.  I've been thinking a lot about what project I'll present, and the ways that these professionals can impact the work I do each day.  The letter below reflects the focus I'll lead.

January 2013

Dear Intersection Participants,

My school system is doing a lot of great work.  We've got dedicated professionals, adequate facilities, many wonderful tools, and students who are eager and ready to learn. I'd like to see our school model, in part, replicated in places where educators struggle to serve children well.

I'm curious about your learning paths, and wondering about your answers to the following questions.  Understanding how successful people learn and what they think is important impacts my work with children with strength.
  1. What was the most positive event in your learning life as a young child?
  2. What was the most negative event in your learning life as a young child?
  3. When thinking about the future of education, what do you believe will be the most important ingredient, and how should we embed that ingredient into the learning lives of young children?
At first, I thought I would focus my 10 minutes on those questions, but now I think I'll focus the discussion on a main problem facing the education of young children and that's the implementation of STEAM (science, tech, engineering, art and math) labs in every school

I envision the STEAM lab as a center of innovation and creativity similar to IDEO-- places where children have the tools and equipment to solve meaningful  problems with technology and other tools while also learning the basic principles, facts and information related to STEAM knowledge.

I believe that one reason the U.S. is lagging behind other countries with the numbers of scientists and engineers is that we start STEAM education too late for children.  Children come to my classroom hungry to invent, create and explore. Great STEAM labs would definitely create change in this regard.

As a teacher, I'm passionate about following students' passions and the multimedia composition aspects of STEAM--I invest many hours in learning about ways to help students make movies, access information, learn about themselves and present knowledge.  I use many tech tools in this endeavor including iMovie, Garageband, Animoto, KidPix, QuickTime, YouTube and Google apps.  These tools are easy to use and offer unlimited avenues for growth and exploration.  I'd like to find more tools with regard to model making, programming (we use SCRATCH a bit) and animation (I'm on the hunt for great animation tools) to add to my collection. I like my tech tools to be streamlined so that more time is spent on the learning, exploration, collaboration, problem solving and composition than on figuring out the tech tool. 

There are many factors that stand in the way of STEAM in elementary schools today:
  • Physical Space--we simply don't have adequate spaces for this type of education.
  • Enthusiastic Teachers: Similar to math, many teachers of young children do not have strong science, math and technology backgrounds.  
  • Models: This kind of learning is not happening in that many elementary schools.  There is little information about this yet I recently read this great post about some great STEAM work in New York. 
  • Time and Testing: Students are tested on many, many facts and skills--so many that there isn't even enough time and energy in the year to meet all the standards. Students are not tested in science, so science often doesn't get the time or attention it deserves. I'm not advocating for more tests. Instead I'm advocating for the time to foster science engagement and exploration. 
  • Attitudes: Only a few sign their children up for extracurricular STEAM while almost all parents engage their children in sports activities.  Many invest in the arts too.
  • Mindset: Our country idolizes movie starts and sports figures, but rarely glamorizes scientists and mathematicians.  I'm interested in learning more about this and this is one resource that I think may shed light on this exploration. 
  • Tools: There are many tools available and I'm anxious to begin exploring those tools with greater depth. I'd like to explore gaming tools as a way of building understanding.  Resources on my radar that I'd like to explore more include Quest Atlantis, Concord Consortium, SCRATCH and Code Academy.
What are your ideas for changing the STEAM tide in schools for young children today--how do we foster greater innovation, creativity and hands-on problem solving for all students throughout the country and in my own school. An early, engaging start in STEAM will change the way students learn and work beyond grade school.

Thank you.

Maureen Devlin

Note: As I receive feedback on this post, I continue to revise and change the emphasis and detail. I welcome your ideas as I explore this great opportunity for growth and idea sharing.

February 2018 Update: As I review this post, I realize that much of what I hoped for has happened in schools and communities all over the country. This is good news. In my own teaching/learning arena, we have great STEAM projects and many good materials. Space and tech remain a challenge. We are somewhat crowded in our classrooms leaving not enough room for all the materials. I plan to do another renovation soon to try to fit all the materials into the room in ways that still leave room for the investigations. I'd love a blank check for new furniture and shelving as well as a bit of help in renovating the classroom STEAM lab. Students now have one-to-one tech which is awesome, but there are many more restrictions about the tech I can use therefore I don't use as much variety or creativity tech as I did. I am not happy about this, but I have given up on this advocacy at this time for multiple reasons. It seems that our Middle School and High School are able to use a lot more tech variety than elementary school.