Carl Weiman’s Observations on STEM Education Re-form

In the fall 2012 edition of Issues Online in Science and Technology,  Nobel Lauriat and Physicist Carl Weiman directs attention to how humans learn as being the key to understanding how to effectively employ STEM education reform efforts in the US.

Weiman points out that past (and often current) assumptions about how STEM subject matter is learned relied upon the “inherent talent and interest” of students to absorb and apply the knowledge, facts and procedures they were exposed to.  Students with STEM talent were thought to grasp concepts and processes ‘easily’, thus indicating a propensity for success.    But, Weiman notes, scientists are discovering that “complex expertise is a matter … of intensive practice of cognitive processes … and effective teaching can greatly reduce the impact of  initial differences among the learners.”  Weiman also notes that “[t]he appropriate STEM education goald should be to maximize the extent to which the learners develop expertise … defined by what scientists and engineers do.”

Learning is achieved when the relevant cogntive processes “are explicitly and strenuously practiced” which Weiman says is achieved through “deliberate practice”.  Deliberate Practice requires learners solving challenging, but doable, problems with intense effort to progress, internal reflection by the learner and feedback from the teacher.

In understanding the current research on learning, Weiman also notes that “learners must believe that hard work, not innate talent, is critical” to successful learning.  In order to guide students to their optimum learning, an effective STEM Teacher much:

  • Understand expert thinking and design suitable practice tasks
  • Target student thinking and learning needs.
  • Motivate the student to put in the extensive effort that is required for learning.
  • Provide effective feedback that is timely and directly addresses the student’s thinking.
  • Understand how learning works, and use that to guide all of their activities.

“Effective STEM teaching is a specific learned expertise that includes, and goes well beyond, STEM subject expertise. Developing such teaching expertise should be the focus of STEM teacher training.” Write Weiman.

Although Weiman’s teaching experience is at the post-secondary level, he understands and clearly articulates the needs and deficiencies found in high school courses and curriculum.  He also points out that “very few K-12 teachers … acquire sufficient domain expertise in their preparation” and lack the pedagogical understanding of the learning process necessary to design a classroom “environment focused on achieving long-term retention.”

Weiman goes on to identify several factors that have failed to produce STEM education reforms to date, including “Sliver-bullet solutions” such as assuming that curriculum designed by subject matter experts (scientists) will result in novices (either teachers or students) embracing and understanding the content.  Weiman specifically points to conceptual flaws in most in-service professional development as being a gross misapplication of resources and perception that they will result in effective learning and teaching.

Improving undergraduate STEM teaching to produce better-educated graduates and better-trained future K-12 teachers is a necessary first step in any serious effort to improve STEM education.”  Weiman identifies several fallacies of the teacher education and professional development systems that need to be addressed and reformed if the STEM education system is going to be revamped effectively.

 

You can read the full article at:  http://www.issues.org/29.1/carl.html

Summary written by:  Kathryn Culbertson, Director of Programs, The American Council of STEM Educators

 

kculbertson

Kathryn founded and serves as the Executive Director of the American Education Forum and provides programming, guidance and support to Professional Educators around the country through the Forum’s sister organization The American Council of STEM Educators. In her spare time, Kathryn also produces and teaches interdisciplinary courses focused on Environmental Stewardship/Earth Awareness and Engaged Citizenship with elementary and middle school – aged students.