by Jesi Sucku
In a world where technology is progressing at the speed of light, it is imperative that we not only stay on top of the emerging information, but that we pass on the skills needed to survive in such a world to the next generation. Unfortunately for many in our nation this has not been a successful effort. Math and science scores are almost embarrassingly low across the board for our students and while the STEM field continues to grow in size and demand, our children are woefully unprepared to fill those roles. Between 2008 and 2018, jobs in STEM fields increased by 25% (Hand, 2017), and in 2012 the President’s Council in Science and Technology called for a million more STEM graduates to keep up with the demand for people to work in these fields (Picha, 2018).
Science and math aren’t just important to the economy, however. Studies have shown that children between birth and age five are in the most critical stages of brain development (Hand, 2017). During these years, infants and toddlers develop almost 700 neural connections per second, making it an optimal time to harness that natural and inherent curiosity about the world that children are born with.
Efforts are being made to encourage more of a focus on learning designed to boost mathematical and scientific knowledge and the field of education is painfully aware of the needs of their students. Head Start has added it as one of their domains in their early learning settings (Gerde et al, 2017) and advancing US students from the middle to top tiers in STEM has become a federal priority (Hand, 2017). Yet elementary teachers spend just 6%-13% of their instructional time on math and science instruction, with preschool teachers doing even less (4%-8%) (Gerde et al, 2017). So where is the disconnect? How can this field of well-educated and passionate educators be failing the next generation in such an important subject?
To truly understand the why behind the lack of impactful and meaningful math and science exploration in early learning classrooms, we have to go back a generation or two. We must look at the education our teachers received when they were early learners themselves. According to Gina Picha, avoidance and anxiety towards math begins as early as five years old and nearly 50% of the country has math anxiety and this number is even higher for women (Picha, 2018). Math anxiety starts early, snowballing and leading to difficulty and avoidance and despite evidence that success in math and science is completely unrelated to overall intelligence, it leads to a lack of confidence and the belief that math cannot be taught if you do not have a “math brain”. One of the main causes of math anxiety is the pressure to succeed for students. For many years the focus in the US has been ranking children and their schools by their scores, making math a “performance” subject. Despite evidence that shows timed tests are a direct cause of early onset math anxiety, common core’s focus on math proficiency and fluency means that many teachers still used these timed math tests in their classrooms (Boaler, 2018).
All of this leads to the two main reasons teachers struggle to teach math and science in their classrooms: insufficient content knowledge and insufficient pedagogical content knowledge (Haverly, n.d.). This means they lack subject knowledge as well as the knowledge of how to teach it, leading to low self-efficacy or “perceived capacity to effectively educate children”. A teacher’s self-efficacy in a subject is absolutely paramount to whether or not they will be successful in teaching a subject, and low self-efficacy can be directly linked to low outcomes in children’s learning (Gerde et al, 2017).
The anxiety and fear of teaching STEM-related subjects can be crippling for many teachers, specifically those in early learning. Whether this anxiety comes from a lack of training, resources and support or a negative personal experience in their own lives, these fears are being passed onto the children in their classrooms. It is most likely not a conscious passing of emotions, but rather a fear learned by osmosis—teachers avoid the subject entirely or do not passionately support a child’s interest in STEM due to not feeling like they know enough or are qualified enough to do it justice. In turn, children do not learn these subjects and begin to avoid them as well, perpetuating the cycle.
In an activity presented during the Early Learning Numeracy training created by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) at the Elevate Early Learning Conference in Tacoma, Washington last year, participants were asked to stand by a number that represents their feelings towards math—be it learning it or teaching it to others. In the beginning of the class, the vast majority of participants shuffled towards the giant number one posted in the corner of the room. They shared smiles and laughs and then were given a chance to explain why they had chosen the lowest end of the spectrum. “I just didn’t get it,” said one. “My teachers didn’t think it was worth teaching me since I was a girl and girls weren’t any good at math anyway,” said another. “My brain doesn’t deal well with absolutes,” was my own response. “I need flexibility. I need creativity. Math is neither of those things.” Two hours later after exploring our attitudes and feelings more deeply and taking the time to solve simple math problems and then share how we got to the answer, my feelings had shifted dramatically. Out of five people at our table, not one of us had a method that matched someone else’s. Perhaps math is creative and flexible after all, I thought. When we were asked, once again, to choose a number between one and five to represent our feelings and attitudes about math I confidently headed for the three.
Since then I have coached many teachers on how to see math and science with a different lens. To see it as a way to encourage children to question and be creative instead of a way to force memorization of formulas and unmoving equations. I have even found myself in the position of being a trainer for the OSPI course that changed my world two years ago. I laughed when I agreed to present the series this quarter—“If you had told me a few years ago that someday I’d be teaching teachers how to teach math I would have laughed you out of the room!” My view of the subject changed, so my attitude towards the subject changed. What was once a scary, unlearnable and unteachable monster of a subject became manageable and enjoyable when I looked at it through a constructivist lens. The ability to find the same answer through a multitude of different approaches had turned on that lightbulb in my head and I was determined to help other teachers make the same connection I had.
Studies by the National Science Teachers Association show that “young children learn through active exploration and the drive to observe, interact, discover and explore is inherent in their development.” (Hand, 2017) Teachers should present children with open-ended exploration opportunities that allow them to practice and participate in the scientific process. These experiences should be hands-on and focus on their curiosities and interests, rather than a teacher-chosen theme. This model of play-based, constructivist education is the most effective way to teach math and science concepts, as it provides a real-life context embedded in a child’s daily life rather than an abstract concept that holds no meaning for them. Gina Picha notes in her article for Education Week that quality science and math instruction should use real-world, collaborative methods that give children the ability to enjoy the process, rather than creating a product. They should be allowed to struggle, debate and converse as they problem solve, strengthening the neural connections their brains are making around critical-thinking and executive function skills (Picha, 2018).
It is through child-led, developmentally appropriate pedagogy that we can finally help our children reach their true potential in the world of math and science. In tackling our own fears and doubts as educators, we ensure that we will not pass down our anxiety to the next generation, but rather we will raise curious-minded problem-solvers, ready to take on the newest challenges the world has to offer them. We could be the teachers who help mold a world of scientists, doctors, inventors and educators who know how to do things we can only dream of. The first step is changing our own attitudes and beliefs and embracing these subjects to become co-learners on a rich journey with our students.
Boaler, J. (2018, June 27). Timed Tests and the Development of Math Anxiety. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2012/07/03/36boaler.h31.html
Gerde, H. K., Pierce, S. J., Lee, K., & Van Egeren, L. A. (2017). Early Childhood Educators’ Self-Efficacy in Science, Math and Literacy Instruction and Science Practice in the Classroom. Early Education and Development.
Hand, K. (2017, March 29). The Issues: Why STEM Education Must Begin in Early Childhood Education. Retrieved November 25, 2018, from https://www.unlv.edu/news/article/issues-why-stem-education-must-begin-early-childhood-education
Haverly, C. (n.d.). Many Elementary Teachers Have Anxiety About Teaching STEM Subjects. Retrieved from https://grandchallenges.100kin10.org/assets/downloads/many-elementary-teachers-have-anxiety-about-teaching-stem-subjects/GrandChallengesWhitePapers_Haverly.pdf
NewsHour, P. (2018, March 06). Many preschool teachers are scared of teaching STEM. Here’s a solution that might help. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/many-preschool-teachers-are-scared-of-teaching-stem-heres-a-solution-that-might-help
Picha, G. (2018, November 28). STEM Education Has a Math Anxiety Problem. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2018/08/07/stem-education-has-a-math-anxiety-problem.html