Perspective: Working Together: The Time is Now
We know a great deal these days about how people learn science, math and engineering and about how good, technology-based curriculum materials can deepen this learning. The National Science Foundation and other agencies have for decades funded inquiry-based programs and approaches that show solid evidence of effectiveness. Yet despite this effort, public awareness about great teaching and learning is still low, and approaches that we know work best have moved barely inches closer to wide adoption. Even with dozens of groups around the nation dedicated to high-quality, technology-enhanced STEM learning, we’re seeing minuscule changes in the big picture. It’s time to work together.
Long ago, the notion that technology had educational value seemed like no more than a good idea. True application of technology-based tools and learning materials in the classroom felt like a novelty, something futuristic that might only someday be possible. In many ways, this feeling still held as recently as a few years ago.
The concept of inquiry-based learning has proceeded along a similar trajectory. The idea was almost entirely foreign just two decades ago. Of course, many saw its promise and championed the concept, dreaming that inquiry-based learning would someday find its place in the classroom. Since then, uptake has increased and understanding of inquiry’s importance for STEM education has matured significantly, yet adoption of good inquiry-based curricula and teaching still remains strikingly low.
The time is now
Inquiry-based pedagogy and technology-supported teaching and learning are ideas whose time has come. We now understand far more about the nuances of inquiry-based education than ever before, policy and research recommendations are clear about its importance and a wealth of examples and guidebooks exist for its implementation. For technology, times have changed even more radically. In the past few years, we’ve watched the status of educational technology shift from intriguing novelty to core assumption. Recent developments in consumer technology and investment in educational technology have created a clear expectation that technology should be central in teaching and learning.
We have reached a critical window of opportunity. Interest and new development in educational technology have reached a fever pitch, and conditions are conspiring to create a crucial period for the role of inquiry-based learning. Leading forces such as federal policy documents and the redesigned AP curricula have paved the road for redesigned curriculum approaches, and the NRC Frameworks and the Next Generation Science Standards stand poised to propel the need for inquiry-based learning to center stage in our country’s classrooms. This shift also brings with it important new ideas about how students should understand and participate in the practices of doing science. All of these changes arrive against a backdrop of renewed capacity and expectation for technology-supported curricula.
There has never been a more important time to act on a vision of inquiry-based, technology-supported teaching and learning. The conditions are set. The urgency is there. The call for change is clear and present. Yet answering this call is another matter entirely. While technology seems to be surging forward, real, transformative, deeply digital uses—those that tap its true potential for STEM learning—are rare. Understanding of inquiry-based pedagogy is even more inadequate. Perhaps more importantly, both of these concepts have barely any voice in our current public discussions about education, which typically focus on a generalized need for STEM competitiveness or nebulous debates about teacher quality or standardized testing.
But the solutions are more subtle—and more achievable— than the picture these clarion calls and doomsday discussions paint: we must help teachers understand and teach with inquiry-based methods, and we need to provide high-quality solutions for the use of technology in science, math and engineering classrooms.
The problem is fundamental, and the answer is momentous and clear. We and literally dozens of other excellent organizations across the country are working to find solutions. Still, none of our organizations working individually has managed to achieve anywhere near the widespread change we dream about. At this critical juncture, the only solution is to band together.
Partnering for progress
Raise understanding. We need to model what high-quality, technology-enhanced STEM teaching and learning looks like. Teachers from elementary to higher education—as well as institutions preparing tomorrow’s teachers—need guidance and clearly demonstrated examples to help them see the value of these approaches. Parents and policymakers also need a similar deep understanding of STEM education to help them ask the right questions at town hall meetings, prepare them for parent conferences or aid them in drafting good legislation.
A national marketing campaign would raise awareness of these ideas and help create a grassroots demand. Such a campaign could tap into growing concern on the part of many that current approaches focused on standardized testing may overlook or de-emphasize important skills and understanding.
Build a bridge for the best examples. A partnership could also help ensure that more of the excellent curricula funded by federal dollars survive the transition from concept to classroom. Currently, federally funded programs are among the best—and often the only—examples of curricula and approaches in which in-depth knowledge about teaching and learning are applied to their fullest and results are research-based. Despite this, few of these curriculum materials make their way into wide adoption.
The failure of these curriculum materials or approaches to take off is typically not due to lack of promise on their part. Instead, a complex combination of motivational, societal and market challenges often stop them well before they reach the runway. While no single solution will remedy this complex problem, dozens of organizations when joined together could provide useful models for this transition, share a knowledge base, generate powerful innovations and create increased presence and bargaining power or even a separate marketplace altogether. This would result in a win for federal agencies, national organizations and classroom teaching and learning while helping increase the value of millions of dollars of federal investment.
Create a toolkit for technology-based STEM education. The power of such joined forces comes into even sharper relief when considering the possibility technology offers for scaling and accelerating these groups’ efforts. The best thinking of organizations across the country is helping develop ever better examples of how technology can aid STEM education. However, many more ideas out there are squelched before they even begin, simply because of the reality of the infrastructure demands implicit in bringing a solution into classrooms across the country.
A group of organizations working together with common ideas, tools and infrastructure could help reduce this problem significantly. Building and sharing both common tools for STEM learning and more complex environments for delivering deeply digital STEM curricula would radically accelerate the work. Such a partnership wouldn’t need to promote one predominant platform or settle upon only one set of tools; even modest coordination would greatly amplify efforts over time and allow new projects or grants to avoid reinventing the wheel.
With these goals and a common focus, there is a chance to unlock the significant opportunity available to us today. Ready to help us get started? Email us with your ideas and support at STEMemail@example.com.
Chad Dorsey (firstname.lastname@example.org) is President of the Concord Consortium.