A Better Approach to STEM - Interview Part II

We’re really proud of the work our colleague Larry Myatt has done at Manchester New Hampshire’s West High School. Despite a proud history in the Queen City, the school has struggled with declining achievement and one of the state’s highest drop-out rates. It has all the challenges that face many kindred urban schools and communities. Yet, of, late some truly bright spots have emerged. The school’s fledgling STEAM (STEM+) initiative was recently lauded in a University of New Hampshire evaluation link and West was recently awarded a Barr Foundation grant for initial redesign efforts. Link here. 

STEAM Ahead NH Engineering Lab

STEAM Ahead NH Engineering Lab

In an era of flat achievement and declining student engagement, Larry’s work with West High School’s STEAM initiative has shown what is possible --with committed teachers, leadership, resources, and importantly, different thinking about the systems, culture and practices. We wanted to talk with him about it.

Here is Part Two of that interview

--Wayne Ogden and Katrina Kennett


WO- The last time we spoke you were talking about flat results for STEM programming in general. What did you mean by that?

LM- Well, let me say first that I appreciate STEM initiatives. They provide funding and energy when money is scarce and I especially like it because it tends to bring business and industry players to the table, and they can make things happen in ways that school districts, higher education and state departments of educations can’t. So, STEM for me holds a lot more promise than we currently expect from it and push for.

Having said that, I was struck by a detailed Wall Street Journal article a few year ago, and subsequent research that pointed out that after a decade or more of substantial STEM investment in schools, the number of students pursuing degrees- at the undergrad, masters and doctoral levels- had barely changed.  Still more men than women and still fewer candidates of color, but overall, no increased interest in entering fields where science and math are building blocks.

WO- What do you make of that?

LM- Well, to me, on a more superficial level, we portray STEM as for geeky kids building robots and taking all advanced classes. And that’s unfortunate. I actually asked several people who work nearby in Kendall Square, a global tech mecca, what they think of when they think of STEM, and that’s pretty much what they said. Pocket protectors and super heavy backpacks, mostly limited to high achievers.  But I think that the problems that dissuade students from science and math go far deeper than that. I think the roots unquestionably go back to the student experience in middle and high school, where we have all the data mentioned in part one of this interview – greater disinterest in school learning, perceptions that what we ask them to in school is not relevant or meaningful in the long run, more novelty and exciting ideas available outside of school -culminating in the fact that the longer students are in school, the less enjoyable it becomes. Deborah Meier had a wonderful essay on that some time ago, “Why Kids Don’t Want to Be Well-Educated”. That’s a plausible but overlooked explanation for the flat NAEP scores, just one among several other indicators of low engagement.

KK- You mentioned a New Hampshire STEM study as well.

LM- Yes, that students surveyed in 8th grade are turning away from science because of how they’ve experienced it thus far and how they see it being offered in high school.

KK- What is it, do you think, that turns kids off?

LM- Well, first of all, the way we’ve come to think about and organize curriculum has little to do with the ways that we actually learn, or care to learn, the way the brain and motivation co-exist and inter-play. We’ve developed huge lists of “standards” and materials that portray a smooth and steady path to “knowledge”. We ask teachers to dole out little bytes of content and skills each day as some kind of linear, step-by-step exercise and expect students to care about them and be diligent in memorizing them.  What we really know is that learning starts when learners encounter something they wish to learn. And the student voice data suggests that the topics chosen by teachers (and hardly ever by young people) are of diminishing interest, and are taught in un-engaging ways.

KK- The other thing you’ve been saying regularly is that STEM initiatives cannot survive the industrial architecture of schools. Can you explain?

LM- Sure. If you’re asked to spend 50 minutes reading some Romeo and Juliet, then dash off to Algebra for 50 minutes, then on to the Civil War, a 25-minute lunch, then the water cycle or photosynthesis,   topped off by 50 minutes of Spanish or gym or health class, how interested and excited would WE be if that was our diet day after day? A colleague described the traditional curriculum alignment as being like carbon monoxide- its puts us to sleep without us knowing or even thinking about it. Who that you meet in a store or at the gym or the workplace can tell us why its organized and pursued this way? No one! It’s much more of an impediment that we realize, and helps to explain the epidemic of student disinterest.

Furthermore, it’s an impediment to pursuing big ideas and topics, to curiosity, creativity and passion for learning. Ideas in school come in fragmented form and themes are short-lived, truncated, dispensable. Things like “PBL” and thematic instruction are limited in their impact by where we see them able to fit in and how much time we can give them before we have to move on. Marion Brady has critiqued the traditional curriculum alignment quite articulately, by the way.

Getting back to school, as my friend Tony Monfiletto says, we have to find ways to put the thrill back into learning. “Erase the lines” has become a mantra -the lines between classes and courses, between themes and topics, the lines between in school and out of school.

KK- do you have ideas on how to do that?

LM- Sure. Its how we’ve made this progress at the school and how other schools we work with are beginning to think about what happens in the classroom. We’re flipping where the standards fit until further down the road in project design, and not only hoping for but managing and structuring in ways for students to do rigorous work, but work they care about. Diversity is natural, its good, it can be harnessed for the purposes of challenging intellectual work (Newmann). Everyone is reading, writing, curating, presenting, researching -all the standards are there and at a rigorous level. We just don’t start by telling the students what they should care about. And using things like Learning Murals (see link) brings colleagues and especially students into the design process.

Manchester West HS STEAM-Ahead staff members prepare Learning Murals for presentation to their colleagues

Manchester West HS STEAM-Ahead staff members prepare Learning Murals for presentation to their colleagues

KK- It sounds like it requires a different kind of teaching.

LM- Yes, it’s a very different management schema than trying to move 20-30 kids down the road together in lock step but it finally flips the role of teacher from presenter, content expert, entertainer, chooser of topics and materials, to that of coach, connector, advocate, facilitator. Ultimately its more satisfying and more rewarding. That’s the change I mean when I talk about moving from a culture of teaching to a culture of learning. We evaluate successful teaching by focusing only on the adult as the agent and then some test scores down the road.

I prefer to assess quality learning by a focus on what and how students are doing, what they are passionate about and supported in pursuing. We’ve been overdue in making that distinction and supporting it with tools and routines for half a century now. We have those tools now, and a team of teachers working with teams of students can really begin to transcend some of the limitations imposed the traditional high school. Linda Chick at Manchester NH’s West High School STEAM Team says she now conducts “near-constant negotiations” with students and small teams, helping them to pursue the mysteries and passions they have, connections and extension, going deeper, to fuel projects that can last weeks and beyond. I love that word “mysteries” as Roger Martin posed it, the myriad different things that touch us and move us differently as individuals from childhood onward.  And again, now we have the tools and routines that help students learn to do that negotiation and pursuit with less and less provocation from adults and more confidence in their own learning. We can integrate technology regularly and smartly, with contextual uses, such as learning spreadsheet alongside water quality analysis or weather patterns, finally giving the term personalization some true meaning.

WO- How might that impact our thinking within the traditional “school architecture’ as you call it?

LM- Here’s one example. I recently asked a stellar group of thinkers that ERC convened to operationalize more robust school redesign and when I asked them how long a project should last, unanimously they answered, until the curiosity fades. Beautiful! That’s how it works for us and our mysteries. But that simple but brilliant thinking can’t survive when learning has to end with the bell, with the next topic, with the marking period, with the report card.

Another example is that if ninth-grade students are excited about and able to learn skills and content that might traditionally not be presented until “11th grade”, that’s going to mess with our rigid sense of scope and sequence –of who can learn what when. But what a great problem to have! What’s out there that only a 13 year old can learn, or only a 28 or 56 year old? This reliance on the old model of school is killing authentic interest in learning and we have been reluctant or unable, as innovation expert Clay Christensen said, to offer up new models of school.

WO- That’s a lot, but its powerful and positive. Any final thoughts about this?

LM- For sure. One is to bring higher education into these settings, sending new educators for year-long co-teaching with master teachers, moving the locus of “teacher training’ to the school. And not to do what they’ve always done in teacher development but to join in the new construct. Schools and teaching are going to change radically and this is the chance for the new generation of educators to get it right.

Next, my redesign Charrette colleagues reminded me forcefully that documentation is the best assessment. I knew that, of course, from Project Zero, from Reggio Emilia, from my teaching years, and my own children’s learning. But we lose sight of it in the torrent of more simplistic and mechanistic “instruments”. Archiving and curation, interviews, portfolios and presentations will show schools and communities how students are learning.

Fabrication Station

Fabrication Station

My last two: One, get the “A” for “arts” into STEM.  It’s the biggest piece my schools are missing right now. Student creations and performances of an artwork provide opportunities to clarify what students are (or aren’t) taking from STEM activities. They’re an on-ramp for learning. Designing, creating and interpretation offer high levels of critical thinking and help students to better understand concepts and ideas via a range of learning styles: visual-(learn through seeing), auditory-(learn through talking and listening), tactile -(learn through touch; psycho-motor) and kinesthetic (learn through doing and moving). Arts, technology and design should be integrated into all projects, supported by Humanities and integrated Math/Science as the curriculum pillars. It’s also a chance to finally get a math curriculum together that is meaningful and doesn’t turn students off.

Finally, we need the business community to dig in directly to schools, not through intermediaries. Their energy, brains and resources are critical, and they know by now that current education policies are unhelpful to developing their work force. We need them to help guide us, regularly, at the school level. Left to the traditional conveners, too often STEM investments are for more of the same, such as more AP courses for select students and teachers. Businesses make a difference. When I served at Brown University with Ted Sizer in the 1990’s, business folks were always at the table and investing in a big way, and they understood it would take research and re-design, multiple and diverse ways to re-think school. That was before they lined up with “think tank” policy makers for efforts such as Achieve and other reductive, top-down approaches to improving schools. We need to get them back at the table.

Businesses have a lot to gain from investing in STEAM. Communities as well. STEAM-Ahead NH is a great example of something that’s begun to grow in the ways I think are a model for the future. To me, this transformation is simply not that hard if we have the will. See link. I invite anyone who wants more and better from STEM investments to contact us. We can do better.


Dr. Larry Myatt, ERC Co-Founder