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Brain-STEM: Growing the Best Brains Possible

Jim Burgett

By Kenneth Wesson, General Session Speaker, 2015 MASB Annual Leadership Conference

DashBoard, Sept. 9, 2015

The majority of schools across America will be implementing four major educational reforms over the next two years. These include the Common Core State Standards for English/Language Arts, the CCSS for Mathematics, the Next Generation Science Standards and the 21st Century Skills. Implementing these major changes in consecutive years would be a difficult task. However, introducing multiple significant changes simultaneously is unprecedented, as well as an overwhelming assignment for our schools.

Equally important is the question, “How do we prepare students, teachers and parents for a successful transition into these new standards, and what does it all mean for teaching and learning in American schools?”

Over the last two years, a number of speakers have been crisscrossing the nation to work with educators to assist in translating the new CCSS and NGSS from paper documents into classroom practices. Two conceptual umbrellas offer the greatest promise for a new instructional “canopy” under which the greatest number of disciplinary standards can be taught effectively and meaningfully.

The first is “STEM,” where science, technology, engineering and mathematics serve collectively as the instructional centerpiece. The second is ST2REAM, which is an expanded version of STEM, that includes a second “T” for thematic instruction (project-based learning), an “R” for reading/language arts (where the reading, writing, research and discourse take place), and an “A” for art. In the inquiry-based ST2REAM model, a focus topic, a driving question or a central theme serves as the primary vehicle for student learning rather than a single textbook.

Under each of these instructional umbrellas, students are actively engaged in a genre of learning that openly reveals why they need to learn the skills being taught, because those skills and concepts are presented in an authentic context for knowledge. The National Research Center found that reading and writing comprise over half of the work of scientists and engineers (NRC 2011). Speaking, listening, reading, writing, computing, sketching, collaborating with others, etc., make up the typical day for most professionals, where professionals use these competencies on an as-needed basis throughout the entire day. It is unavoidable for us to engage in ST2REAM applications if we participate in any form of regular problem-solving on a daily basis.

Research has shown that approximately 13 percent of pupils in an average classroom are auditory learners who learn best by listening to others (typically the teacher). The dominant teaching method of most schools is likely not meeting the learning needs of 87 percent of our students. According to David Perkins at Harvard University, the human brain does its best work when students are learning by doing, not by passively listening.

One of the first revelations for STEM teachers has been that STEM tends to level the academic playing field quickly for students who are typically the struggling learners. Distinguishing them from the high achievers in the STEM/ ST2REAM classroom is quite difficult, giving an emotional boost to the previously less-academically proficient student.

The learning strategies deployed in STEM education today constitute the most effective instructional approach correlated with how the developing brain learns naturally. In her book “What Is Going on in There,” neuroscientist Lise Eliot states, “We owe it to our children to help them grow the best brains possible.”

Growing the best brains possible in an information-rich, innovative, interconnected, "flat" and competitive world means that we must teach students how to solve the STEM problems for the future rather than memorizing the facts from the past.


Hear Ken present on this topics and more at the 2015 MASB Annual Leadership Conference on Friday, Oct. 23. More information and registration are available here.

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