STEM, Politicians and Listening Tours


Joe Kennedy STEM tourSo on Thursday when I posted my shameless self-promotion post I promised a “real” post today. Here it is (finally).

I wanted to have a conversation with you all about an experience I had last week. Balefire Labs was invited to participate in Congressman Joe Kennedy’s STEM Tour of Massachusetts. Congressman Kennedy is a member of Governor Deval Patrick‘s STEM Council and he’s been on a statewide listening tour, of sorts, to hear from stakeholders in STEM education…what are their issues, what do they think some solutions could be, what are they doing to help STEM education in the Commonwealth.

It was kind of a mixed bag for me. First the parts I really liked:

1. Congressman Kennedy said that he had been hearing (from teachers) that the implementation of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) interferes with their ability to teach and NONE of the teachers in the room took the bait. In fact, they had awesome responses, like:

– The CCSS are really important to establish a baseline of things kids need to know and be able to do.
– We need to go well beyond what the CCSS establishes, but it’s important to have them as a jumping off point.
– CCSS doesn’t dictate how to teach; it just dictates what the outcomes need to be. There’s plenty of room for teachers to be creative in how to get there.

I thought that was phenomenal. I tend to hear mostly complaints about CCSS, and here was a group of teachers who were really proactive and constructive about why standards are important and how to work with them effectively, not against them.

Karen Kennedy STEM tour2. We had a discussion about innovation. One of the comments from one of the serial entrepreneurs who has been very successful in many realms was about how innovative MOOCs are and how they’re really changing education. There wasn’t much of a reaction in the room; I had to jump in. (Those of you who are regular readers have probably read my other posts about MOOCs and my experience in them as a learner.) I said that one of the biggest problems with MOOCs is their passive delivery to the learner and lack of meaningful learner interaction. I was really gratified to see lot of nods from the teachers in the room. I think the distinction between innovative and effective is an important one. Just because something is different and disruptive doesn’t mean that it’s necessary good. There is still plenty of room for improvement in MOOCs and I’m glad I wasn’t alone in that opinion.

Now on to what was kind of, well, weird, about the whole experience for me.

There were probably 30 people participating in this roundtable. All different kinds of stakeholders…teachers, administrators, kids, entrepreneurs, non-profits, charter schools, public schools, Teach for America, a couple of corporate types and, of course, the politicians.

So you can imagine the crosstalk. Everyone was there with a slightly different agenda about how to improve STEM education. Some were in favor of decentralizing control and putting money directly in the hands of STEM teachers to experiment with different methods, allowing more innovation with, presumably, the better methods bubbling to the top. Companies were interested in helping fund some new STEM work, but wanted to see established programs that would give them some good return on investment (ROI) in some capacity. Teachers were frustrated with the lack of good resources available to them and the current model of each school independently reinventing the wheel in creating lessons and materials. Administrators were relaying stories of trying to do more with less, trying to keep the basic needs going while coming up with creative ways to provide extra learning opportunities that they could afford. And then there was me, speaking for those of us in the edtech startup community, who are trying to provide more efficient and effective solutions to educators so that they don’t have to do all of the heavy lifting themselves.

I suppose this kind of diversity in an event like this is probably to be expected. But it got me to thinking: what is the actual purpose of such a meeting? Are people attending this meeting thinking that anything will really change? The cynical part of me thinks that it’s just to make everyone feel good. Attendees are happy because they feel heard by the pols. Pols feel good because their constituents feel like they’ve been heard. But do any real solutions come out of these kinds of events? Because, honestly, it seemed like the same kind of conversation that I’ve been hearing for the last 20 years.

But then I have to check myself and remind myself that it’s not usually in talking to the politicians that the progress comes. It comes from the other relationships you make with people you meet at the event. I met several people who could be really good partners for me in my work to help teachers, STEM and otherwise. So by no means was attending this a waste of my time.

So the whole thing does make me wonder and I wanted to bring it to you guys for your thoughts. When you’ve attended events like this what have your takeaways been? Have you found them useful? A waste of time? How would you redesign these kinds of meetings?

About karen mahon

i am a behavior and learning scientist. i hold an ed.d. in educational psychology and am trained as an instructional designer. i have spent more than 15 years working in education and instructional software design.
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