I found this report from CNN illuminating. Here are some key points to consider about STEM teaching and learning as it now stands here in the US:
- STEM professors foster competition rather than collaboration. Rather than trying to keep students in their classes, they push toward having the ones that can’t cut it, drop out
- Students enter unprepared by high school classes and their college classes are sink or swim, so they sink
- STEM professors are rewarded on their research rather than teaching abilities, so, their teaching is often sub par
- There is a divide in the American psyche that science is not for everyone (see my earlier post about reaching across the aisle to STEM… and that in many other countries this is just not the case. Even artists take and are expected to do well in math.)
- Schools admit more science students than they expect to graduate and do not teach students to support each other
- Little mentorship is available in STEM
I will dwell a moment on the teaching bit. When I worked in Hollywood, I got a chance to see directors do their work. I was flabbergasted by how complex, demanding, crazy-making, and expensive directing is. When you watch a film or TV show and you think it is bad, the first words out are “I could do that or I could do better.” Being up close in Hollywood, I know that is just not the case. Just because you witness it does not mean you can do it. Not unlike teaching. Everyone has been to school, so, everyone thinks they know how to teach. Academics have spent most if not all of their lives in some kind of school…teaching is just something you absorb, right? Or, it’s a gift that you naturally have from getting your PhD. Or, the fact that you got a PhD makes you so brilliant and your students should just be lucky to be in the room with you, that you don’t really have to do any hard thinking about pedagogy or put much thought into the how of what you you are teaching, just the what.
I taught someone something for 13 years. I have taught everyone from K – graduate school. My master’s in pedagogy from the New School was KEY to why I did not suck and suck bad as a teacher. My many years of professional development in trainings required on-the-job and in subsequent graduate programs, including reflection on my practice, were the reasons I didn’t just “not suck” but actually was effective. My point is being a good teacher, whether K or of doctoral students is not just magic. I won every single minute of being an effective educational practitioner through knowing learning theory in and out, reading a lot of the best practice and research, working to make that practice and research work in my classrooms, and slugging away at hours upon hours of differentiating the learning and the material. Why then would anyone think they’d be naturally adept at something that everyone else needs training in? No one is that brilliant or attuned naturally. And as much mud is slung at K – 12 teachers in our society, no, people in the academy are not that much more brilliant. K – 12 teachers are not trained in teaching methodologies because they are too stupid to know better. Last but not least, even if there is such a thing as a “natural teacher,” which I have yet to encounter, for what it was worth, a couple times a year administrators sat in on my classes and then gave me feedback on what they saw, what was working and what could improve. I also had constant feedback from students because either they were getting to the goals or they weren’t. My job was then not to complain about the “weren’ts.” My job was to get them there, too, from wherever they are. So if what I was doing wasn’t working, I went searching to try something else.
What I do know, and what I have learned, is that good teaching, whether K or graduate school, is not as different in process as you think. Research shows deep subject experience matters…. but also deep experience and reflection on teaching and learning. Also, knowing where you want to go and how to get there….. Teachers are masters at thinking backwards from a goal. A good teacher does not state a goal and begin to plan from step A to B how to get there. A good teacher states a goal, and works backwards from the last step before the goal back to the first step.
In life I have often encountered people who want something big, but have no idea or no commitment to all the little steps it takes to get that something big. Maybe even the start is strong, but then everything peters out. The advantage at working back from the end is that each step along the way is considered. The end steps are already envisioned and activated, so that the finish can be as strong as the start. It is not enough as a teacher to be a cheerleader at the beginning or be the one to yell, “Get ready, get set, go!” The real mark of an effective teacher is the management of all the little tasks and the guidance of the process, not just pointing students in the direction of a product and saying, “Now go do that. You figure it out.” Does that mean babying students? Absolutely not. It means also guiding and monitoring when students are ready to achieve on their own and being able to recognize that readiness. It is also starting with them and their knowledge where they are (and assessing that before moving forward) rather than where with where you are.
I have this mean and evil plan that if one day I am a university professor and I get to advise graduate students, each and every one will have to take at least one pedagogy class with those education major dummies they complain about encountering in some of their subject matter classes. I think I will make my doctoral students take elementary school pedagogy, where how we learn as children is really broken down, and where each teacher has to devise clear learning objectives for each task. Working backwards from my end goal, the objective here would be for my students to become humble about what it means to teach, to have reverence for being able to do so and for those people who commit to it and it only as a profession, and to get a wake up call that their subject matter brilliance isn’t enough. Being a good teacher is also something that is earned… something worked for. I would want my doctoral students to become aware of themselves as educators and also aware of the responsibilities of teaching. Last but not least, elementary school pedagogy is often kick ass with experiential learning, differentiated learning, individualized learning, and meeting students where they are. Sounds like the CNN article above is saying that STEM in higher education could use a healthy dose of that.