The late pathologist Arthur Aufderheide mused that “all knowledge is connected to other knowledge. The fun is in making the connections.” In a world that has become so wonderfully globalized and richly interconnected, our long-held tradition of teaching in subject silos becomes increasingly irrelevant. Enter interdisciplinary education, a contemporary approach to teaching that seeks to combine two or more disciplines in order to connect, synthesize and contextualize teaching and learning. One such interdisciplinary approach is STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), a particularly illustrious combination of specialties that has rapidly infiltrated everything from camps, to after-school programs, to the classroom itself.
Firmly ensconced within the 21st century framework of progress and innovation, STEM education seeks to foster creativity and critical thinking, centred on the idea that science and mathematics influence each other in both theory and practice. Through STEM, students are exposed to real-world applications of math and science via technology, engineering and design. The interactive nature of STEM allows learners to experiment, create, collaborate and innovate in the classroom and beyond, while also allowing them to apply math in meaningful and relevant ways.
“Inquiry” and “discovery” are electrifying buzzwords in education, and STEM consistently provides substantial opportunities for students to think critically while they explore and find patterns in math and science, using their prior experiences and knowledge of concepts to solve mysteries and reach their own conclusions. STEM allows us to build bridges both literally and figuratively in order to exercise creativity while honing problem-solving skills along the way. With STEM, students are provided the opportunity to enhance their conceptual understanding, procedural fluency, adaptive reasoning and productive disposition, all critical aspects of learning that together, define what it means to achieve a high level of math proficiency.1
In my own classroom, a particularly wonderful triumph of STEM has been its ability to transform students who possessed a self-proclaimed fear and downright hatred of math. By applying math in new and creative ways, my students felt a lot more confident in their abilities when it came to “doing math” and they were often the ones who would end up taking charge when it came to collaborative tasks.
Taken together, it appears that STEM may be the much-needed revolution in education today. But do we actually need STEM? Statistics say yes. In the last few years, Canada’s performance in the innovation sector has been seriously lacking when compared to our global competitors. The gap between Canada and the world’s top five performers is frankly embarrassing given how high the demand for STEM-related jobs has skyrocketed in recent years and how low the percentage of qualified Canadian graduates entering the workforce has become.2
By teaching STEM, we are allowing for a vocational approach to teaching, in which the key focus is on preparing students for the future. And while it may seem as though “producing” STEM-literate citizens is a cold, almost robotic neoliberal attempt to satisfy corporate giants, it is important to note that the goal of STEM is not to create capable and proficient citizens; the goal is citizenship. STEM is fundamentally a solutions-based discourse that is vital in addressing some of the dire issues we are faced with today, including climate change and disease. From designing energy-efficient solar panels to optimizing the decomposition of organisms, an underlying objective of the STEM paradigm is to tie fundamental mathematical and scientific ideas to sustainability and social justice. Social justice is a core value of education that should be woven throughout the entire curriculum, but this is often a difficult endeavour when it comes to mathematics, and indeed, though scholarship on the topic exists, direction and consensus as to how we can teach math through a social justice lens is lacking. By adopting STEM, we finally have a way to apply science and mathematics to the real world in an easy and practical manner.
Problem-solving, inquiry, design and social justice: by the looks of it, it seems as though STEM education may be exactly what we need to revamp math education. But what if STEM is a detour that completely misses the mark when it comes to addressing the elephant in the classroom: the apparent “crisis” that young learners appear to have lost the ability to do basic math. A Google search of “Mathematics in Canada” offers up countless headlines woefully proclaiming the dismal state of math education. Despite new research and improved strategy, it is clear that when it comes to math education, something just isn’t adding up. Parents today are frustrated because their children do not know basic multiplication tables and other fundamentals, so to speak. They barely understand the theory and reasoning behind the equations they use and their procedural knowledge and computational fluency is basic at best. The concept of automaticity, a crucial goal of traditional mathematics education seems to have been pushed to the back burner with the constructivist introduction of experiential learning. Some blame untrained teachers, while others blame the authorization of calculators and other aids that take away from student responsibility and motivation.
In STEM, the “M” is just one component of the interdisciplinary quartet. In merging math with science, the potency of math in its original form—theories, equations, drills and skills—is reduced. Is this wise? If knowledge is power, it appears this generation of math students is the weakest yet.
This conundrum of whether math should emphasize the learning of “the basics” or if it should connect and apply to the real world is an issue we continue to skirt around. What needs to be fundamentally recognized is the idea that there is a strong interdependence between the two. Procedural and conceptual knowledge in mathematics is not the unidirectional “procedural to contextual” understanding that we are accustomed to; it’s bidirectional, with improvements in one knowledge supporting improvements in the other.3 Making math meaningful through connections helps pave the way to mathematical competence, and this also works the other way around. STEM provides students with an inductive approach to learning whereby their tangible, evidence-based observations can help them determine patterns to be generalized into math knowledge and theories that, because they are contextualized, will stick with them for longer.
Teaching fundamentals by encouraging rote memorization is one way to ensure students have a grasp on foundational concepts; however, it comes with its own set of problems. Math anxiety has become an increasingly common phenomenon provoking negative attitudes and avoidance behaviours in students. By pushing drills and timed tests, while also asking students to memorize formulas, we make our students more susceptible to completely shutting down due to math anxiety.4
Another issue with rote teaching is the language used to define keywords and symbolic representations. Teaching students that an equal sign means “is” or saying that addition “makes things bigger” are helpful shortcuts for students to memorize and tuck away, but they are fundamentally inaccurate definitions that do not hold true across all contexts, leading to misconceptions down the road.5 STEM opposes the rote learning paradigm and instead posits that it is through learning by exploring, creating and doing that students are better able to utilize and understand math. For instance, an engineering task that requires students to create a blueprint will contextualize ratios by using scales, a tangible, key idea that students can refer back to when dealing with ratios of any form in the future.
STEM should not and will not replace the teaching of fundamental concepts through procedural means, but what it will do is serve as an initiative that will inspire students to become more engaged and intrinsically motivated towards learning mathematics.
Would we say that students today are lacking a comprehensive understanding of math? Most definitely. Will adding more drills improve their performance on tests scores? Perhaps. However, teaching in order to improve test scores is a complete deviation from the purpose of education and does nothing to mend the current state of mathematics education. Mathematics can only be mended when students are inspired enough to utilize mathematical theory and knowledge to solve problems, when they engage in reasoning, reflection and proof in a way that encourages them to make sense of their own big and bright world. Yes, we as teachers come to school every day to prepare our students, but our goal is foremost to inspire them. With the introduction of a widespread and pertinent paradigm like STEM, students will have a greater inclination and interest in math, and as has been shown time after time, interest is highly linked to achievement and success. However, how STEM can be optimally, widely and successfully integrated into the curriculum and what steps need to be taken with respect to pre-service teacher preparation remains to be explored.
STEM may not immediately put Canada on the top-tier pedestal it yearns to shine on, but it will encourage students to explore the dynamic and functional world of mathematics by sparking a glimmering flame. As has been imparted to us by poet W.B. Yeats, “education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
1 Sharkawy, A., Barlex, D., Welch, M., McDuff, J., and Craig, N. (2009). Adapting a Curriculum Unit to Facilitate Interaction Between Technology, Mathematics and Science in the Elementary Classroom: Identifying Relevant Criteria. Design and Technology Education, 14 (1), 7-20.
2 DeCoito, I. (2016). STEM Education in Canada: A Knowledge Synthesis. Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education, 16(2), 114-128.
3 Johnson, B.R., Schneider, M., and Star, J.R. (2015). Not a One-Way Street: Bidirectional Relations Between Procedural and Conceptual Knowledge. Educational Psychology Review, 27, 587-597.
4 Harper, N.W. and Daane, C.J. (1998). Causes and Reduction of Math Anxiety in Preservice Elementary Teachers. Action in Teacher Education, 19(4), 29-38.
5 Faulkner, V.N. (2013). Why the Common Core changes math instruction: it’s not New Math exactly, but the Common Core calls for sharp changes in how math is taught and ultimately conceived in earlier grades. Phi Delta Kappan, 95(2), 59-63.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sara Chaudhry recently completed a M.Ed in Curriculum and Pedagogy with a focus on Math and Science Education. She is an Elementary Occasional Teacher with two school boards and works with the Boarding Department at Branksome Hall in Toronto. She is also a member of TVO’s Regional Councillors Advisory Board.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Winter 2019 issue.