How do we change teaching methods to ensure that students have greater understanding of STEM subjects and improve their skills?
It’s no surprise to state that little has changed in how we teach STEM in Nigeria in the last century. As a result, it seems, Nigerian students have been left behind, falling further back in science and math literacy.
There have been futile national reform efforts to improve things. The issue with them has been a lot of inconsistencies and the lack of a cohesive effort, as changes in teaching practices have been minimal.
In our reform efforts in working with schools, I have aided some teachers to implement modifications, with some success. The crux of the matter is that more often than not, the changes aren’t as substantive as they should be. They don’t get to the heart of the matter – what it truly means to teach and learn STEM
Traditional Approaches To Teaching STEM
The way we have been teaching STEM normally follows this pattern: The teacher demonstrates a set of steps that can be used to solve a definite kind of problem. Then the same type of problem is introduced for the class to solve together. Afterwards, the students get a number of exercises to practice on their own.
A ready example that springs to mind is when students are taught about the area of shapes, and we give them a set of formulas. They then put numbers into the correct formula and calculate solutions. Harder questions might give the students the area and have them work backwards to find a missing dimension. They are then given a different set of formulas each day: perhaps squares and rectangles one day, triangles the next.
What happens is that they are learning to follow a rote process to arrive at a solution. This is how we have been teaching them without wondering if it is right or wrong.It makes sense to a majority of the students and it also seems satisfying.
The irony is that teaching STEM this way hinders learning, as children, for the most part, become dependent on tricks and rules that aren’t always correct in all situations, which makes it harder to adapt their knowledge to new situations.
A perfect example of this is how we teach distribution through the traditional methods, with children learning that they should distribute a number by multiplying across parentheses (brackets), and then practicing this with numerous examples.
When these children get to solving equations, they have issues realising that this is not always required. Look at the equation 3(x + 5) = 30. We have mostly programmed them to multiply the three across the parentheses to make 3x + 15 = 30. They could have easily divided both sides by 3 to make x + 5 = 10. It is usually hard for them to break away and utilise this different method – although both ways are equally correct.
This is what we should strive for – transforming education to drive more conceptual understanding. Concepts are about the meaning and relationships behind ideas. It’s more than just utilising procedures (like calculating the area of a triangle) but the deeper meaning behind the procedure (what is ‘area’? Why is it relevant?).
We ought to move away from rote memorisation, as there is less and less need for storing information these days. Most formulas are easily retrievable online. Our focus should be on the transfer of knowledge to various situations, in order to rapidly solve problems.
When I taught ‘area’ to my students, I carried out project-based learning exercises that emphasised what ‘area’ meant and how ‘areas’ of different shapes are related. This understanding correlated to their grasp of what volume was.
It is harder and longer in the view of most teachers to convey STEM concepts but when you take a long term view in teaching, you get why it’s absolutely critical we do this. Our students must be taught how to think!
Research has proven that teaching conceptually enables students to do better on achievement tests – hence our emphasis on STEM education, which has project-based learning as its cornerstone.
Renowned education expert Pasi Sahlberg states it well:
“We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test.”
Adetola Salau; Educator / Speaker / Author/ Social Entrepreneur / Innovator
She is an Advocate of STEM Education and is Passionate about Education reform. She is an innovative thinker and strives for our society & continent as a whole to reclaim it’s greatness. She runs an educational foundation with the mission to transform education.