Iterations

Solutions and re-solutions for education

Archive for February, 2012

Social Dynamics in the STEM Classroom

Posted by Dr. Ann P. McMahon on February 27, 2012

As I design strategies for integrating STEM with social and emotional learning, I’m talking with mental health professionals, educators, and parents who work with neurotypical students as well as those with special needs. The Conceptual Framework for New Science Education Standards calls for more emphasis on science and engineering processes and 21st Century skills. An ideal way to accomplish this is to provide more project-based learning, which means that students will be working together more often, and in ways that might be new to both students and teachers. It’s not enough to focus only on the cognitive learning that must happen for each student. Students and teachers must attend to the social and emotional dynamics of the working group as well. But how? Just as there are strategies for teaching and learning science and engineering processes, there are strategies for facilitating healthy social dynamics.

Problem-based learning curricula often provide rubrics for collaboration among students. For neurotypical students and their teachers, these rubrics might provide reasonable and sufficient guidance. But I’ve worked with students in high needs school districts for most of my career in education, and many students come to school from environments so stressful that their ability to learn and work in groups is compromised. The effects of stress and developmental trauma on student learning and behavior are well documented. I dealt with it in this previous post. Even students from stable home environments experience ordinary developmental trauma (such as the birth of a sibling or moving to a new grade with a new teacher) that can interfere with their learning. How we educate children might be changing, but child development is not.

The challenge we face is how to help teachers create circumstances that allow students to feel safe and calm enough to work and learn together respectfully and productively. This requires teachers to connect deeply with children in a teaching environment that is increasingly driven by pacing guides and standardized tests. My approach is to arm teachers with a framework for understanding that all behavior has meaning and is rooted in a student’s prior experiences. Research has shown and teachers know that students’ cognitive understandings in the present are influenced by their prior cognitive experiences. Similarly, research also shows that people’s social behaviors in present events are influenced by past experiences that have wired the brain to respond a certain way, even if present circumstances differ from past ones. By decoding and addressing the meaning behind social behaviors rather than responding to them in an automatic or prescribed way, teachers can create the opportunity to meet a student’s needs in a way that can enable the student to choose to participate productively in learning activities. This approach makes classroom management easier for the teacher and improves the classroom climate for all students.

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My Research Findings Applied…

Posted by Dr. Ann P. McMahon on February 21, 2012

I wrote in my previous post about my dissertation research findings. In that post, I mentioned that I showed the engineering process used by designers at IDEO, a product innovation firm in northern California, to my elementary teacher participants as an example of best practices in engineering design. IDEO was founded by Dave Kelley, an engineering professor at Stanford, who has institutionalized his design thinking approach at the Stanford d.School. I wanted to experience that approach first hand, so last summer I traveled to Stanford’s d.School and earned a Professional Certificate in their Innovation Masters Series course called Design Thinking and the Art of Innovation.

It was awesome! I came home and immediately applied that approach by conducting an Innovation Institute for the administrative team at the University City Children’s Center through their LUME Institute. We’re using what I learned at Stanford to design and deliver innovative early childhood education experiences to children, parents and educators. Here’s a link to Stanford’s Student Spotlight profile in which I talk about my experiences in the course and how I applied what I learned to early childhood education. As I travel around the country speaking to and working with educators, scientists, engineers and businesspeople, I’m bringing similar insights and strategies for innovating K-12 STEM education. If you’re interested in learning more about my Innovation Institutes and unique approach to K-12 STEM education, invite me over for a visit.

Posted in K-12 Engineering Education, Social and Emotional Literacy, STEM Education | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

My Research Findings Are In…

Posted by Dr. Ann P. McMahon on February 14, 2012

I’m back to writing my blog now that I’ve finished my doctoral dissertation and degree. For my dissertation research, I studied the mental models elementary teachers have of what engineers do and their ideas about how they might incorporate the engineering process into their teaching practice. The Next Generation Science Standards are due to be released soon, and they will require that engineering practices be incorporated into the curriculum from elementary through high school grades, so my research is quite timely. What I found out should be important to teachers, parents, and school administrators as they work out how they will teach engineering to students.

Here’s what I did. I interviewed six elementary school teachers who teach engineering units that deal with science concepts as part of using LEGOs to solve design challenges. I also interviewed six elementary school teachers who teach science with textbooks and/or kits that include some kind of design challenge as a culminating activity. During each individual interview, I asked each teacher about how she teaches science and/or engineering, and showed her a video of designers at work. In this 22-minute video, designers at an innovation firm called IDEO redesigned a shopping cart. The IDEO designers’ process is quite engaging, and you can watch the video in three parts: part 1, part 2 and part 3. After each teacher watched the video, I asked her how she might translate what she saw to her classroom. I analyzed each teacher’s transcribed interview using a research method that allowed me to turn her statements into a mental model of how she perceived the designers in the video thinking and acting, both individually and in collaboration with their fellow designers. I also constructed my own mental model before I interviewed any of the teachers by having someone interview me in the same way I interviewed them. I used the same research method to construct a composite mental model for the IDEO designers. Then I compared all the mental models to each other to discover how each of us – and the composite IDEO designer – made sense of the process of redesigning a shopping cart.

What I found changed my focus significantly. I thought I would find that teachers who teach engineering units would talk about the cognitive steps in the engineering process with more depth and understanding than those who didn’t teach engineering. I thought that my own engineer/educator’s mental model and the composite IDEO designers’ mental model would provide clues about how to better teach the cognitive steps of the engineering process to teachers so that they could better teach it to their students. But that’s not what the interview data told me. Instead, all twelve teachers recognized the cognitive steps of the engineering process equally well, but every one of them fixated on the social and emotional norms and practices that the IDEO designers used (e.g. encourage wild ideas, defer judgment, build on the ideas of others, stay focused, everyone contributes, give feedback respectfully). That’s what each teacher wanted to talk about when she thought about how she would translate the design challenge into her classroom. That’s what she wanted to know how to teach her students. Each teacher believes that the cognitive steps can only be learned by everyone if the social and emotional classroom environment allows students to feel comfortable participating in the engineering process and working with their peers. (Go ahead, watch the video at the links above and you’ll see what teachers valued.)

When I compared teachers’ mental models to those of the professional designers and my own, I found that the professional designers/engineers focus on the cognitive steps of the engineering process and manage the social and emotional aspects of collaboration as part of those tasks. In other words, we know implicitly that we must work together well if we are to solve the design problem. We realize we can’t do it alone and adapt our behavior to work with others.

So here’s the bottom line: in order for students to be able to work together interdependently, teachers must teach those skills explicitly and intentionally. Though I only interviewed twelve teachers, both groups of six teachers were unanimous in their fixation on the collaboration skills they saw in the video. I think I’m on to something here that could be borne out with further research. I’ll be exploring the consequences of these findings in future posts.

Posted in K-12 Engineering Education, Social and Emotional Literacy | Tagged: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »