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December 1, 2014
Vol. 72
No. 4

One to Grow On / The Kind of STEM Teachers We Need

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In a preschool class a few years back, I watched 3-year-old twin boys puzzle over a pulley with a plastic bucket on it. They were absorbed by the contraption for the full 10 minutes that I watched them. One boy would tug on the pulley cord, and the bucket would rise. Both boys would look up for several seconds, then the other one would tug on his side of the pulley cord and the bucket would descend. Another pause, this time to look down. Silence. They were not simply jerking a cord for the sake of pulling it. They were inquirers on the verge of figuring out something deeply important to them at the moment.
After a time, their teacher knelt on the floor beside them and asked, with her full attention on their faces, "What are you thinking?" One boy replied, "The bucket goes up and down on purpose." The second said, "It happens every time." For several minutes, the teacher posed questions and follow-up questions and added conjectures of her own. Together, they tested the capacity of the pulley to lift objects in the bucket. One of the boys mused, "This pulley makes me strong and tall." I wanted to stay in the room a lot longer than my schedule said I could.
More recently, I watched an elementary math teacher lead her students in an inquiry about prime numbers. Her questions were carefully calibrated to guide and provoke reasoning. Ultimately, students began to ask one another questions rather than only answer the teacher's questions. At one point, a girl was puzzled by a peer's explanation and said to him, "Could you help me understand your thinking? If I use your logic, every number will be a prime number." With confidence, the boy began to illustrate his thinking by writing on the board as he spoke. Soon, there were pauses in his explanations, then a restart, then a sputter. Then he faced his inquisitor and said with poise, "I believe I need to disagree with myself at this point."
I watched an English teacher and her middle school students look at photographs the kids had taken in the schoolyard the day before. They had hunted for images to photograph that spoke to them in some way. "How did the textures of the object affect you?" she asked at one point. At another time, she said, "I think I see contrasting feelings in your explanation. Did you sense that as well?" Later, a student remarked, "I like the contradictions in my image, or maybe they are just contrasts. I like the idea of looking at one thing and coming away with mixed feelings."
These teachers, in my book, were all STEM teachers, although only one of them was teaching a class in math, science, engineering, or technology.

The Teachers I'd Put My Money On

I'm great with the idea of STEM for all students. I get the need for a society to have a sustained crop of scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and experts in technology who move forward the frontiers of its national and international prospects. I'm skeptical, however, that course taking in STEM areas will, by itself, yield what we need in terms of thinkers and innovators for tomorrow.
Instead, I'd put my money on a broad cohort of teachers in every subject who dedicate themselves to the full engagement of young minds in whatever they teach. Give me teachers who relentlessly cause kids to wonder—who ask why? and how did that happen? and what if? as though those questions were the lifeblood of learning.
Give me teachers who insist that students observe and do so systematically; teachers who say, "You must question what you see and what you hear"; teachers who make it imperative that students find the patterns in everything—and explain what those patterns reveal.
Give me teachers who say to their students, "Don't just provide facts. Build a case. Evaluate claims by holding them up against solid evidence. Seek more evidence. Question the assumptions of others—and question your own assumptions."
Give me teachers who push their students to dig deeper, look at the other side of things, learn to tolerate mental messiness and ambiguity, and value truth more than right answers. And give me teachers whose classrooms and lives commingle logical thinking, divergent thinking, and critical thinking—educators who teach students to be aware of their own thinking and how it can serve them poorly or well.
Once the United States has classrooms, buildings, grade levels, and departments stocked with such teachers, we'll have STEM for all students. We'll have producers, consumers, and connoisseurs of pivotal ideas. We'll have thoughtful readers and viewers of television, and we'll have solid citizens. Good stuff!
I've always liked John Muir's assertion that "when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." We'll get the crop of STEM graduates we need not so much when we mandate courses in certain disciplines as when we support teachers in all subjects to help their students develop the attitudes and habits of mind at the core of seeing—and seeking to understand—what's all around us in the world. And I'd bet those same habits will lead students to be wise stewards of that world.
End Notes

1 Muir, J. (1988). My first summer in the Sierra. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, p. 110.

Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia's School of Education and Human Development. The author of more than 300 publications, she works throughout the United States and internationally with educators who want to create classrooms that are more responsive to a broad range of learners.

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