British researchers have concluded that Math formulas can give our brains the same type of pleasure as music or art. With the 2014 World Science Day approaching, I can’t help but reflect on how we could get our students to experience this type of pleasure from Math and Science. Recent scores from the regional standardized achievement test, PISA, tell us loud and clear that the bulk of our students don’t find Math and Science beautiful.
The problem may be that in Latin America and the Caribbean Math education is often reduced to sitting at a desk, plugging numbers into formulas and Science class is reduced to memorizing facts and the history of long dead scientists. And, let’s admit it, drill and memorization is about as exciting as a trip to the doctor’s office.
In reality Math and Science are so much more. It is about shapes and patterns, spatial relations and visualization, reasoning, problem solving, and everyday life. It is a tool to understand everything around us. If Math and Science classes could help students see this bigger picture, more kids would get hooked.
There’s no one recipe for bringing students to Math and Science Zen. Yet, there are many promising approaches that may provide inspiration for policy makers and educators. Some schools and school districts in the United States help students relate to Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) by adding an A for Art. STEM turns into STEAM by using art to visualize and develop understanding for Science and Math. The Kennedy Center’s ArtsEdge provides examples of STEAM lessons, such as a lesson on music composition in which students apply Math fractions to rhythm execution. In addition to making Math and Science more engaging, the A has the benefit of promoting creativity and innovation; important 21st century skills that our students will need to successfully tackle the complexity of the problems in today’s world.
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At the IDB we have collaborated with ministries of education in several countries to develop and test play-based and hands-on models that all seek to help students and teachers delight in Math and Science together. With the Mathematics for Everyone model, Argentine teachers in some five thousand schools are now using a play-based pedagogical approach that aims to give meaning to Math and promote students’ understanding of Math concepts. Its philosophy is that children’s natural proclivity to play is not a distraction but an ally in learning. In Paraguay, in a context of significant gaps in teacher preparation and pedagogy, teachers use interactive audio lessons that cover the entire preschool Math curriculum. The audios allow the students to develop pre-math skills through skits, songs and games. Since Paraguayan classrooms tend to be bilingual, the audio and written materials use a combination of Spanish and Guaraní. In Peru, a Science and Environment program helps students develop troubleshooting skills through real life challenges that spark their interest and stimulate their imagination.
Although the teaching models differ, these promising classroom approaches have a few things in common. First, they seek to make Math and Science meaningful to the student by drawing on the knowledge they bring to the classroom. Second, the teacher is neither a lecturer nor a bystander relegated to passively observe student centered discovery. Instead, the teacher guides the students in their exploration, providing intelligible feedback. Third, the models are implemented through extensive job-embedded professional development for teachers, including coaching and in-class tutoring. Fourth, the learning environment is ‘safe’ in the sense that mistakes are learning opportunities. Finally, they go beyond the promotion of critical thinking skills to also foster creative thinking skills.
It’s about being ready to confront tomorrow’s challenges. And, it’s all about taking pleasure in Math and Science.
Happy World Science Day!