Why your children are not thinking critically and how STEM can help


Students weaker in their knowledge but STEM learning can help them

In performing interviews with GTA science teachers over the past few weeks to figure out what their main problems and pain points are, so I can better serve them, I found an alarming trend.  Teachers biggest issue seems to be that they feel their students are becoming weaker in their knowledge.  They have difficulty thinking critically, are hesitant to explore and inquire, and don’t seem curious.  They think the internet has all the answers and don’t realize that Wikipedia is not a suitable source for citing material.  They just want to know the answer, not understand it.  

I can relate to a lot of these issues as I saw these with the undergraduate students I taught at Rutgers during my Masters.  So many times I would be asked if this or that would be on the test, I always told them all the material could be on the test, is it important to understand it all, not just memorize the parts that are going to be tested on.  By understanding the core theories and ideas behind human evolution and evolution in general they would do well but by just trying to memorize everything and not take it in they would not be successful.  
This article on University Affairs talks about how this problem is affecting students when they get to University as they are just regurgitating facts, not processing and trying to understand the material.  The writer, a physics professor at Trent University, remarks about how his students would not even bother picking up their past tests to see what they did wrong so they could try and improve.  I had a similar experience as a TA and seasonal lecture at Rutgers as I would have office hours every week but students would rarely come to go through material they did not understand or to review tests they did poorly on, even though a majority of the students were not doing well in the course and could have used the extra help.  Then all of a sudden at the end of the semester when the students realize they are likely to fail or get a poor grade I get all these students asking if there are any ways to bring up their grade.  Students seem not to take responsibility for their actions, having their parents email their TA’s to pester them to raise their children’s grade because poor Betty is having a rough year.  I worry how then these students are going to deal in the workforce when their bosses hold them responsible for a poor work ethic or a job not done properly.   

I took physics in undergrad for my bachelor of science in animal behaviour.  I failed the first test, I was so disappointed and upset, but did I go crying to the professor about why I failed?  No I went to the professor to go through what I did wrong figure out what the correct answer were.  I then got a tutor and worked my butt off and ended up getting an 80% in the course.  I don’t know if I just have a strong work ethic but I rarely saw that type of behaviour when my students were failing tests in the classes I taught or TA’ed, even though I was always reaching out and offering the help to them.   

 Students taking test

The University Affairs article points to the changes made in the Ontario curriculum as the main culprit for these changes he has seen in students abilities.  Pushing them to memorize material for standardized tests and cramming the curriculum with so much material that teachers don’t have time to allow students to think through and process the material.  The teachers I spoke to also said they feel overwhelmed by the material they need to teach each semester and how they are going to get it all in.  

Even though Rutgers is the the US, they also have standardized testing and I think this trains students to just study for the test, not to think about how to synthesize and evaluate the material they are learning.  As soon as the test is over they forget the material and it is on to the next test.  These are also students who have grown up with the internet and smart phones and information right at their fingertips so why remember it if you can just google it?

How can this problem be solved?  With the relativity recent push for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) leaning, especially in elementary schools I hope this will help students see the rewards and excitement of looking at real world problems, thinking and understanding them,  then testing possible solutions.  The great thing about STEM learning is that it is not just relegated to the science, life is all about solving and dealing with problems that arise, from getting a flat tire to working on a business proposal.  Equipping our students with the confidence and ability to be able to look at a problem and use their brains to solve it, rather than just googling it or trying to memorize the answer.   Check out my blog post from last week about the STEM parent conference.  It was great to see all these parents and educators pushing for these changes to help engage their students in real world thinking.   

Part of the reason I started Primate Tales was to encourage students curiosity about where we came from and our evolutionary origins.  We all want to know where we come from and bringing that to life can be transformative. 

 Humanand primate skulls

Showing students the skulls of our early human ancestor and ape cousins allows them to see hands on how similar we are but also that things that make us different.  Giving students the knowledge of our evolutionary path helps them think about how we became the only hominid species alive, what traits do we posses that allowed us to out compete and survive.  However it also puts our place on this earth into perspective.  As modern humans we have only been around for about 200,000 years, that is a tiny speck of time in the history of the earth, yet we have changed the earth irrevocably, and not for the better.  By understanding our impact on the earth I hope to encourage students to think about the ways we can use these big brains of ours to get out of this mess we have made of the only place we can call home, planet earth.  

While STEM may not be the golden egg to help all students, it is a start and I hope more and more schools implement this way of engaging and helping students to think critically and problem solve.  We need more programs like STEM to stop this negative trend. 

 If you want more information about incorporating STEM into your child’s classroom or at home.  Feel free to contact us or request your school book a Primate Tales program to show your child the amazing world of primates and evolution.  

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