Emerging Educational Trends & Insights for the Decade Ahead
Nearly 100 years ago, the Roaring ’20s was revving its engine and propelling Americans into a decade of remarkable prosperity. Technological advances led the way to a major economic boom as assembly lines streamlined mass production of goods purchased by those flooding into US cities. Media flourished, with newspaper and radio providing a burst of advertising aimed at a population with disposable income to spend. Time-saving household inventions also created room for leisure activities, so the decade was as much about the pursuit of happiness as it was about a strong economy.
Science and technology fueled the boom. From communications and transportation to home goods, inventors of the era delivered on the promise of a better tomorrow. The populace bought into it, and economic growth was off and running. Not everything about the 1920s was an unmitigated blessing, but the achievements of the era beg the question: How can the United States reprioritize its science and tech bona fides to roar into the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
The key ultimately lies in how we approach STEM education and invest in future generations. The teaching of science, technology, engineering and math is critical for America to compete globally in the decade to come. To educate the inventors, entrepreneurs and leaders of tomorrow, we must commit to transforming STEM education today.
1. A Deeper Understanding of “STEM”
STEM education happens at all stages of life, both in and out of school. Though today the concept of STEM is often treated as a commodity in the form of curricula, toys and teaching products, the truth is that the movement’s origins lie with educators who championed inclusivity and wanted deep, meaningful learning in these subjects available to all. It’s important to examine these historical roots to understand where we’ve come from and to fortify the movement for future generations.
2. Let Kids Be Kids, Not Test Takers
According to a 2015 NEA survey, 70 percent of teachers believe that their students’ standardized tests are not developmentally appropriate. Since No Child Left Behind mandated testing, students have spent more time preparing for high-stakes exams that seek to assess genuine learning with narrow forms of questioning. It’s worth noting that in Finland — one of the best educational systems in the world — children do not take standardized tests and perform much better. It’s time to embrace a more holistic approach.
3. Introduce STEM Early and Often
King’s College London reports that most children’s views about science are formed by the time they reach age 14; or by the end of middle school. If we’re going to inspire a love of science, confidence in math and the desire to pursue STEM careers, the time to do so is when students are young. Implementation should take the form of authentic play and exploration rather than rote drilling of facts. While students experiment with blocks and other manipulatives, encouraging them to question and try new approaches forms the foundation of scientific thinking.
4. Pay Teachers Better in Money and Time
A full 18 percent of teachers take on additional jobs to make ends meet. They’re also leaving the profession at the fastest rate ever recorded, and they won’t be easy to replace. STEM teachers are particularly hard to come by, as technology professions often pay far better than starting teacher salaries. To attract and retain motivated teachers, they need a competitive salary. They also require additional time to learn from mentors who are not only subject experts but also masters of classroom management and pedagogy.
5. Put Libraries at the Center of Learning
School libraries aren’t just for books anymore. In her work, Azedah Jamalian found that 61% of middle school libraries also incorporate maker spaces for students to experiment and build on ideas. School librarians are working hard to put to rest the idea that they work in silent spaces and are instead transforming libraries into learning centers where students and teachers can not only find information, but use it to solve problems together. That’s the essence of STEM, and it should be at the center of the school community.
6. Support the Arts and Humanities
Too often, STEM is positioned in opposition to the arts and humanities. While it’s true that there’s limited funding to go around, arguing that one subject is more valuable than another is counterproductive. Scientific thinking is also creative thinking, and STEM fields benefit from expertise in design, psychology and many other disciplines. STEM and humanities teachers should be allies, not adversaries when it comes to advocating for better funding and stronger practices for all students.
7. Educate for Life, Not Just University
Overall, college enrollment has increased significantly over the past 20 years, rising 24 percent from 1996 to 2006 and another 12 percent from 2006 to 2016. Student loan debt has also increased sharply, with the number of debtors doubling over the past 15 years. Parents, teachers and the culture at large all push kids to go to a four-year college, but it’s not the right choice for everyone. Robust STEM education should also include the type of hands-on learning required to thrive in the trades, medical support jobs and more.
8. Commit to Inclusion in the Classroom
Excellent STEM education is often seen as an enriching activity. It certainly is, but that doesn’t mean that only honors students deserve to learn. All students, regardless of background or ability, should be provided access to STEM education that meets their needs. This means providing accommodations for learning differences and ensuring that STEM programs provide equitable access to technology for students who can’t afford to bring their own iPads to school. STEM is for everyone.
9. End Arbitrary School Accreditation
K-12 school accreditation systems are outdated, and they aren’t clearly aligned to accountability standards. There are several accreditation boards across the country, and their standards and processes aren’t always transparent. A growing body of research has found that this practice in its current form is both expensive and ineffective at pushing schools to improve educational outcomes. Instead, it’s time to focus funds on programs with proven results and use AI / big data to better understand schools.
10. Focus on Quality, Not Quantity
China and India far outpace the US in the number of university graduates with STEM degrees. That’s largely due to population, so it’s not possible to compete on quantity. We can, however, produce better quality, highly skilled workers that are simply the best at what they do. To make sure that American STEM professionals are the most sought-after in the world, we need to provide a world-class education from kindergarten through college.
The economic boom of the 1920s was the result of government policies that favored businesses, easy credit and an incredible onrush of technological advances all happening at once. As we rapidly approach the upcoming decade, America finds itself once again at the cusp of new era. Automation, artificial intelligence and super-connectivity are all poised to transform the economy in unpredictable ways.
Will the United States continue to lead the way? With well-educated leaders in the STEM fields, the next decade could usher in a Roaring ’20s for the new century. Therefore, tomorrow’s prosperity begins with today’s commitment to STEM education in American homes and classrooms.
“The First Way To Boost STEM Learning? Stop The Constant Standardized Test-Taking” — an iteration of this this article, was originally featured in Newsweek on November 8th, 2019 and updated for Medium on November 11th, 2019.