Sunday, November 18, 2012

Want to succeed in STEM? Listen to the experts!

President Obama believes “The quality of  math and science teachers is the most important single factor influencing whether students will succeed or fail in science, technology, engineering and math.” The problem is that our “quality” teachers  and their administrators are not given the freedom to support children in ways that will produce the scientists and innovators our country needs.  This is because we are stuck in an outdated system that values test scores and grades rather than creativity and innovation.  

This is no secret.  America’s great scientists and innovators have been clear about how our nation’s schools need to change to support great thinkers like themselves. Unfortunately it seems those with the power to make decisions (the politicians and corporations) are not listening to the very type of people we say we want our students to become.  

Let’s take a look at what those in charge are failing to hear when our nation’s historic inventors, scientists, and physicists share their advice and experiences.

  • Albert Einstein
    Einstein clashed with authorities and resented the school's regimen and teaching method. He later wrote that the spirit of learning and creative thought were lost in strict rote learning. At 15 he convinced his school to let him leave by using a doctor's note. After he left school he wrote a short essay with the title "On the Investigation of the State of the Ether in a Magnetic Field." At sixteen, Einstein sat the entrance examinations for the Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zurich where he failed to reach the required standard in several subjects, but obtained exceptional grades in physics and mathematics.
  • Thomas Edison
    In school, the young Edison's mind often wandered, and his teacher called him "addled". This ended Edison's three months of official schooling. His mother supported his learning outside of school where he taught himself mostly everything he knew about science and technology. His two favorite pastimes were reading and experimenting.
  • Richard Feyman
    In high school, his IQ was determined to be "merely respectable. Feynman scoffed at psychometric testing. At 15 he taught himself trigonometry, advanced algebra, infinite series, analytic geometry, and both differential and integral calculus. His advice was to “Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.”

    As a physicist Feyman gave
    a now famous lecture on education where he shared that he figured out that the students had memorized everything, but they didn’t know what anything meant.  They could pass the examinations, and “learn” all this stuff, and not know anything at all, except what they had memorized.  He explained that he couldn’t see how anyone could be educated by this self-propagating system in which people pass exams, and teach others to pass exams, but nobody knows anything.”
  • Michio Kaku
    In the video below physicist Michio Kaku explains that e
    xams are crushing curiosity out of the next generation through the memorization of facts. In light of this he questions why we wonder why kids aren't interest in science.

Despite these insights, our schools are still places that reward compliance, memorization, and regurgitation. They give young people little time to work independently, discover passions, or pursue much of anything that requires independent thinking or hasn’t been laid out for them.  In many cases schools also restrict them from using the technology tools and online resources they need for success in the world.

Instead of fostering success in science, technology, engineering and math, schools have pushed young people to achieve success outside of school. As a result many talented youth are learning that when it comes to being innovative and creative, leaving school behind is often the best option.  To address the issue of our failing schools let’s think about how the following modern-day school rejects and trouble makers could have been supported in our school system.  

  • Aaron Iba Aaron Iba is a computer programmer who became a mulit-millionaire in his early 20s after Google bought a great product he created and also hired him.  Iba shares that school was a boring waste of time but he had one exception during his entire k - 12 experience. It was in 4th grade when his teacher allowed him to sit in his own space in the classroom doing logo programming. Iba laments that he just isn't the type of person who could sit back passively listening to a teacher try to impart knowledge. He liked interactivity and engagement which was why he drawn to technology.  The school system labeled him as a multi-problem child. Fortunately, Google did not. 
  • Nick Perez Nick Perez is a successful software developer who was traumatized in a school system who had no place for someone with such a passion.  Perez endured a long and hard road in school that included prescription drugging, to the humiliation of being singled out from the rest of his peers, to threats of litigation. He left school at the age of 17 after deciding that he’d had enough of his school district’s attempts to forcibly shift his attention toward the classroom, and away from the studies about which he was passionate. Perez notes that this is the result of rigid systems that have yet to bend and break under the pressure of progress. Read his story here
  • Mom’s Story Education experts told Jo-Anne Tracy without any doubt in their minds, that she would be foolish to keep thinking that her son had what it takes to succeed and he was being placed in a class where ineducable children would taught life skills and a vocation. She knew they were wrong however, the school system does little to honor or respect the insights of mere parents who don’t have the “credentials” necessary to properly identify “problem children” like hers. The one-size-fits all school system experts refused to consider her input and explained they were not giving her son any other options. As a result she removed her son from school at 9 years of age. Today he is studying geoscience at university.
  • Jack Andraka At 15 years old, Jack Andraka created an important test for pancreatic cancer.  He explains that he could not have done this without the use of the internet. He came up with the idea for his research when he was attempting to chill out in biology class and read a scientific journal.  Like many teachers, independent work was not allowed in her class and she confiscated the journal.  Andraka was forced to leave school to do his research which he began by going to Google to begin his research.  Then he wrote to nearly 200 actual biology labs where he could do the work of a real scientist  in a real science lab.  
You can watch Adraka’s video below to hear how he was able to reach his potential, pursue his passion, and save lives.
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The answer
It’s time to change tradition, change direction, and change our lessons learned from politicians and corporations to our nation’s experts.  The scientists, programmers, physicists, inventors and others are telling us that supporting them really is not rocket science. The answer is not more teachers, tests, and textbooks.  Instead it is in helping our students explore, discover, and develop their passions. It is not in doing what is common, but supporting the uncommon with personalized plans for their success. It is not keeping kids locked up in schools listening to lectures under fluorescent lights, but rather releasing them to live and learn in the world. The answer is not in measuring grades on tests and requiring the same standards for all.  It is in allowing young people to show what they know in authentic ways and develop areas of focus customized to their success.  

Parents, their children, and innovative educators know the answer.  Let’s stop sitting back and start taking charge of doing what is best for our children’s success.  It’s not easy going up against the politicians and corporations, but they do not own our children’s learning. That is in the hands of children, parents, and teachers.  It’s time to take it back!


  1. Great article!

    I think most of what we have in education today is due to control issues. Politicians, government, teachers, administrators, even parents want to feel like they are in control of circumstances and the end result.

    As a homeschooling parent who follows unschooling most of the time, learning to let go is really hard. It does pay off in the end because I can see that the most valuable lessons my children know they have figured them out on their own, not doing worksheets or listening to a lecture, but exploring their surroundings.

  2. Lisa, this is a great post that shares the opinions of some very wise people. I also advocate for innovative learning experiences that allow students to solve problems, create products and performances and provide community services in real contexts. Real-world learning. There are examples of this peppered through your post. You and your readers may be interested in my new website - inspiration for innovative learning. While the site is new and has only a small number of posts, you will get an understanding of the direction in which it will develop and I hope you will pop back often to watch it grow.