Collaboration for Innovation in Schools: STEM TEACHING AND LEARNING K-12

Working in groups, teams or collaboratively is hard work.

While it has been a fundamental aspect of life in the business world and university research for ages now and its effectiveness has been shown in studies by Benjamin Jones, Northwestern University and in a review by Adi Gaskell in Forbes,  it has only been making its way to the educational world for the last couple of decades-at least in a formalized way.

But is it helpful in an educational setting or it just another of the myriad reform efforts championed by experts who are convinced that school ought to be run just like a business (usually with disastrous results?)

Excellent research by Carrie Leana, University of Pittsburgh, critiques the assertion that teacher quality is the sole factor in improving student achievement. Her excellent discussion of the current reform movement should be required reading and shows that increasing “social capital” of teachers through effective collaboration is essential.

It won’t be easy though.

As a person who switched careers to become an educator, I have often been surprised, confused and frustrated by the lack of collaboration between educators.  At the building level, there is a high degree of mistrust and poor communication skills that impede teacher collaboration.

Plus, the very thing that makes an individual a good teacher- enthusiastic, extraverted personalities, who are perceived experts in their classroom, tend to make them less than exemplary members of groups. Teachers are used to being the center of attention who seem to have a very difficult time switching that off in a collaborative setting and listening to others.

Most importantly,  they are ridiculously tired and busy from the unsustainable demands placed upon them.

To the extent that there is a collaboration, it is usually done poorly, with a few people dominating the discourse and others playing with their phones.

Given that most collaboration is dictated by an administrative mandate in which teachers are put into subject area groups and told to collaborate on a given topic, with no training in communication skills or group dynamics, it is no wonder that these are usually underwhelming experiences.

I was also surprised at how little collaboration occurs between various “levels” of education- with elementary and middle school teachers having no idea what the high school course content is like. High school teachers may have no idea what content and habits that a student learned previously.

For example, many high school teachers just assume that students know how to study for tests and to take notes, thinking that someone at the middle school taught them.  This even occurs when students switch classes at the semester- “Didn’t you learn mitosis first semester?”  Only to discover that some teachers “ran out of time” and didn’t get to it.

High school teachers just assume that success in college and in getting a job will be just like it was 10, 20, 30 or more years ago when they went to school- when clearly the world has changed.

At the administrative level, districts chase after a new idea that they learned at a workshop, provide a 3-hour training on it and don’t even talk about it again, just assuming that of course it will be implemented by the teaching staff. Training that the building level administrators likely have not attended, even though it is their responsibility to ensure that the training is understood and utilized.

Besides they are too busy dealing with dozens of phone calls from angry parents whose children did not get a parking permit in the lottery or with the contractor who failed to install the new plumbing in the locker rooms correctly resulting in two inches of water in the bathrooms.

Adding to the problem is that the content research and pedagogical ideas developed at the university level are never disseminated or are so theoretical and difficult to implement on a large scale basis that they remain largely ignored by the majority of educators. The consequence is that the textbook and materials provided by their publishers remains the lifeblood of the student’s educational experience.

Not that this is necessarily bad, but I don’t believe it is sufficient in the world we live in.

More importantly, the kids know it is not working for them either.

According to a 2016 Gallup poll, only about 50% of U.S. High School students report feeling “actively engaged” daily and about 20% are actively “disengaged.”

That fact should send shivers down our spines.

My fear is that it is only going to get worse as every level of education now has ridiculous and unattainable curriculum standards mandates and results driven by multiple-choice standardized tests that are of questionable validity.

While the educational experience has always had elements of “boringness”- answering questions from a book, taking notes, watching slideshows, remembering names of capitals, to name a few- but it always seemed to serve a purpose. We used to believe that educated people “knew” things- an agreed-upon body of facts and knowledge that somehow constituted a necessary education.

The internet has destroyed this epistemological foundation.

For the typical student, there is no point in memorizing capital names or correct spelling because they know they can quite simply look it up. To color a map by hand is antiquated when they have amazing graphics design programs that can shade, highlight, and even animate a map.

Even more problematic is that  people with vasts amounts of “education” as evidenced by degrees, can’t even agree on what is “fact.”

True to our nation’s pragmatic and “can-do” spirit, knowing is being replaced by doing.

This is being recognized by progressive employers and some higher education programs which are now supporting a wider variety of credentials than before, or in some cases not requiring credentials at all if the employee can demonstrate the requisite skill set.

In 2019, doesn’t it seem a little preposterous that a student who earns 120 credits (thus a bachelor’s degree) is more qualified than someone who earns 119 credits (and no bachelor’s degree)?

Should an individual who has 22.5 credits and no high school diploma be deemed a failure by society whereas someone who took that 1 extra class is worthy of an elaborate public celebration and greater financial remuneration?

This raised an even larger issue which I will elaborate in a future post as to what do these “standards” even mean?  A person can in some cases earn a high school diploma with a D minus (60%) average. Does this mean that 40% of the content was not learned? What standards did they miss? What can an A student even do with a bachelor’s degree, other than know how to read dull texts, take tests, and write essays?

My personal stance is that education is a birthright and we should all have lifelong access to high-quality, low cost,  learning experiences and that we ought not to fall prey to the false narrative of an individuals worth or potential worth being determined by the perceived quality of their credential or degree.


Needless to say, I was excited to see that not only was Western Michigan University the only Michigan university listed as a finalist in the National Science Foundation Big Ideas competition, one of only 32 nationwide selected from 800 entrants.

I was especially excited to see a pathway to a fundamental shift in education presented by Dr. Todd Ellis, assistant professor in geography and science education who presents us with the prospect of a STEM Teaching and Learning Incubator.

This incubator would be modeled on the business incubators already in place at large research institutions where ideas can be researched, developed and evaluated prior to larger implementation. It also provides a space and process for collaboration-true collaboration based on the reality of whether or not an idea actually works, not based on who is the most persuasive or bellicose proponent.

Dr. Ellis’s vision: “Most importantly, the incubator can support the formation of a community of practice for STEM educator-scientists, affording them a chance to leverage regional and national partnerships to secure new opportunities for themselves and their students regardless of classroom size, location, or district budgets. When thus empowered, STEM education will thrive as our teachers are given a real chance to innovate in a supportive environment where they can develop and demonstrate new answers to the questions of what works in STEM education.”

To my ears, it sounds like a path forward for our students and educators to demonstrate once again why learning matters. Hopefully, if it proves functional in the STEM domains, it can expand to humanities and arts as well.

While I am not naive enough to think it will solve all of our issues in education, I do believe it presents something important- hope.

For a 5 minute video presentation click here.



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