STEM the Tide: Reforming Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education in America

You don't need to be a only need a talented teacher to produce able mathematicians. Really? asks Averil Macdonald

January 12, 2012

David Drew intends this book to "present a positive blueprint for reforming STEM education in schools, colleges and universities" in the US. Given the 20-year erosion in the number of UK students choosing to study science, technology, engineering and maths subjects after the age of 16, this statement will surely resonate with anyone working to arrest this decline. But his diagnosis of "the fatal flaw in American education" (his italics), namely that "many students have been excluded from the study of mathematics and science education because it has been falsely assumed that they lack the intelligence to master the subject", surprises me. Does this really account for the fact that the US routinely ranks behind international counterparts in STEM fields, the problem that this book seeks to address?

Drew's thesis is that teachers (and parents) make assumptions about aptitude based on the financial situation of a student's family, his race and his level of disadvantage, and many students are allowed, or even encouraged, to opt out of courses that require mathematics - a subject that Drew believes can be a catalyst for social mobility. He is adamant that, with encouragement, all students can master maths. He is critical of teachers basing their pedagogical approach on the notion of a student's aptitude for maths; having lower expectations of some students, he argues, can limit their achievements. He strongly recommends teachers to identify a student's "strengths" in order to encourage engagement with the subject.

In Drew's numerous descriptions of highly inspirational teachers and education leaders and the impact of their work with their students, it is notable that these individuals are not necessarily teachers of STEM subjects. The advice he offers for effective teaching is already generally accepted as good practice, and is not that enlightening for those struggling with the specific problems encountered when trying to enthuse students with STEM.

To demonstrate that people from different racial groups are often wrongly stereotyped as unable to progress in maths, Drew tells the story of the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, who at a young age and despite limited education, was "obsessed by mathematics" and "devoured a text book" and was finally recognised by a teacher for his particular strengths (or should we say aptitude?) in maths. Once he was provided with the right environment and education, he went on to achieve great things, doing groundbreaking work at the University of Cambridge before his untimely death in 1920. However, Drew's account of Ramanujan's life contradicts his main thesis that there is no such thing as aptitude and that it requires only a talented teacher to inspire students to work.

I would certainly support Drew's view that achievement in maths, as in many subjects, requires many hours of hard work. He cites the oft-quoted assertion that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become proficient. He also notes that, for some students, it is part of their modus operandi to create study groups where peer support, as well as hours of work, go a long way to enabling them to succeed. However, what is missing from this account is how a teacher (or parent) persuades students who prefer to spend these same hours in other pursuits such as sport practice, music, earning money or socialising, to devote time to doing maths. At no point, it seems to me, does Drew take into account the different attitudes and approaches of teenagers. It seems a little unfair that the blame for some students' limited achievement is laid almost entirely at the door of their teachers, when in fact teachers can provide only the initial input. It is the student who has to put in the practice.

I wanted this book to provide an answer. I have had students who simply "got it" with relative ease and were inspired to go on to considerable achievement, those who struggled to master topics, and those who really didn't want to know, whatever approach I tried. Instead I found that this book was a call for an idealised world in which there is huge investment in research in all universities and not just the elite few, where teachers are highly qualified, rewarded and respected, where education leaders are unique inspirational individuals, and where there is provision and access to affordable higher education for all. But if we really are exploring how to get to Utopia, then changing society's attitude to scientists and engineers, giving them status and rewarding them as we reward medics and lawyers would probably provide the incentive that might prompt students to put in the 10,000 hours. As a blueprint it would probably go a long way to solving the problem, but I suspect it's one that won't get off the drawing board.

STEM the Tide: Reforming Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education in America

By David E. Drew

Johns Hopkins University Press

264pp, £18.00

ISBN 9781421400945

Published 18 October 2011

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