“Don’t go asking those ‘why’ questions!”
That, in essence, is what a high school math teacher told a relative of mine a few years back when she and some of her classmates were struggling to understand algebra. I don’t have to tell you why that comment disturbs me, but here goes: Good teachers would do almost anything to get their students to ask more “why” questions, and here this person was discouraging them. “Just plug the figures into the
formula,” she seemed to be saying, “and get the right answer.”
I probably also don’t need to say that my relative — who, I might add, is extremely bright and witty –is not planning a career in math or science.
I thought about that “no why questions” reprimand last week at the unveiling of a major report by the Carnegie Corporation called The Opportunity Equation: Transforming Mathematics and Science Education for Citizenship and the Global Economy.
The report says that the United States must dramatically improve math and science education for all students if it is to compete in the global economy.
One key to unlocking student potential is attracting more and better teachers to the hard-to-staff STEM fields (science, technology engineering, and math), the kind who would welcome those very “why” questions.
“The answer is curiosity,” said Amar Ramroop, a young scientist and high school valedictorian who is headed to the University of Pennsylvania this fall. “A student’s intellectual curiosity makes all the difference. Without it, a student is just a storage compartment for random facts.”
Reports come and reports go, several speakers told the audience in Washington, D.C., but they said this one has the potential to actually transform the way STEM subjects are taught. Noting that “our country has flat lined in education,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said we must “bring math and science to the forefront” and, in reference to school reform in general, go from “islands of excellence” to “systems of excellence.”
“If we don’t make this happen now,” Duncan said. “I don’t when this is going to happen.”
There are many teachers out there who are encouraging their students to ask “why” questions. I’ll be writing about them — and how school districts can get and develop more of them — in September’s ASBJ. In addition, Senior Editor Naomi Dillon will be looking at how to retain those teachers once they’ve proven themselves in your classrooms. Then, in October, I’ll look at what schools can do to improve science and math instruction.
Lawrence Hardy, Senior Editor