Iterations

Solutions and re-solutions for education

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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