An Argument for 'Engaged Learning'

Aug. 26, 2014
Failures in math and science education are beginning to add up.

By Dick Resch

Americans could use a crash course in math.

According to a new study from the Brookings Institution, jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math are vacant for more than twice as long as non-STEM positions -- largely because employers can't find people with the requisite math and science skills to fill them. In fact, high school graduates with STEM skills are in greater demand than college grads without them.

Our nation's schools simply aren't producing graduates with the level of numeracy needed to succeed in today's economy. To change this, we must change the way we teach math and science -- by replacing passive, lecture-based styles of instruction with an alternative that more actively engages students in the learning process.

Conventional approaches to math and science education are failing. Twenty-nine nations or other jurisdictions outperform U.S. students in math, according to the latest rankings from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international think tank.

Since 2009, six countries have jumped ahead of the United States in the math rankings.

In science, 22 countries best the United States -- up from 18 in 2009.

Only one-quarter of American twelfth-graders is proficient or better in math. The average eighth-grade student, meanwhile, is below proficient in science.

Such consistently poor performance threatens our entire economy. American firms, including my own, can't find the employees they need to grow and compete. By 2020, the shortage of skilled workers with postsecondary degrees will reach 5 million, according to research from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Thus far, efforts to improve science and math education have had only moderate success. Indeed, since President Obama proclaimed STEM education a "national priority" back in 2009, American students have actually fallen behind many of their foreign peers.

Reversing these discouraging trends will require a radically different approach to science and math instruction. Fortunately, there's evidence that just such an approach -- called "engaged learning" -- can deliver the improvement our nation needs.

Engaged learning empowers students to play a more active role in knowledge acquisition -- in other words, "to learn by doing." The technique involves a combination of reading, writing, discussion, personal reflection, and interaction with technology.

The goal is for students to develop a deeper understanding of the material through hands-on activities.

For example, teachers can direct students to calculate the coefficient of kinetic friction when a book slides across a table -- or to determine what the spacing should be for the frets of a guitar.

School systems are increasingly partnering with the firm I lead, KI, to design and build learning environments that encourage collaboration and discussion. In these classrooms of the future, students work in small groups while instructors move around -- interacting with groups of students, posing questions, provoking discussion, and offering individualized help and coaching.

The results of this approach have been impressive.

For instance, 14 colleges, including North Carolina State University and the University of Central Florida, implemented an engaged-learning program known as SCALE-UP for some larger undergraduate classes. Across all the schools that participated, SCALE-UP classes saw a significant reduction in failure rates, as well as marked improvements in conceptual understanding and student attitude.

SCALE-UP didn't just help students avoid failure. Those in the top third of the class experienced the biggest improvements.

The University of Minnesota experimented with engaged learning by teaching the same biology course in two different environments: a traditional lecture hall and an "Active Learning Classroom" outfitted with glass markerboards, group table seating, and shared large-format computer monitors.

Students in the conventional setting performed exactly as their ACT scores predicted they would. But those in the Active Learning Classroom scored nearly 30 points higher than their standardized test scores forecast. As the Minnesota researchers put it, engaged learning "had a significantly positive effect on student learning outcomes as measured by course grades."

Without a dramatic overhaul of math and science instruction, American students will continue to lag behind those in the rest of the world. Engaged learning strategies have proven successful in boosting student achievement quickly and dramatically.

It's time to embrace this approach to education, and take our students -- and our economy -- to the head of the class.

Dick Resch is CEO of KI Furniture.

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