Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

You Don't Need to Be a Genius

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

You Don't Need to Be a Genius

Article excerpt

... you only need a talented teacher to produce able mathematicians. Really? asks Averil Macdonald.

STEM the Tide: Reforming Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education in America

By David E. Drew

Johns Hopkins University Press

264pp, Pounds 18.00

ISBN 9781421400945

Published 18 October 2011

David Drew intends this book to "present a positive blueprint for reforming STEM education in schools, colleges and universities" in the US. Given the 20-year erosion in the number of UK students choosing to study science, technology, engineering and maths subjects after the age of 16, this statement will surely resonate with anyone working to arrest this decline. But his diagnosis of "the fatal flaw in American education" (his italics), namely that "many students have been excluded from the study of mathematics and science education because it has been falsely assumed that they lack the intelligence to master the subject", surprises me. Does this really account for the fact that the US routinely ranks behind international counterparts in STEM fields, the problem that this book seeks to address?

Drew's thesis is that teachers (and parents) make assumptions about aptitude based on the financial situation of a student's family, his race and his level of disadvantage, and many students are allowed, or even encouraged, to opt out of courses that require mathematics - a subject that Drew believes can be a catalyst for social mobility. He is adamant that, with encouragement, all students can master maths. He is critical of teachers basing their pedagogical approach on the notion of a student's aptitude for maths; having lower expectations of some students, he argues, can limit their achievements. He strongly recommends teachers to identify a student's "strengths" in order to encourage engagement with the subject.

In Drew's numerous descriptions of highly inspirational teachers and education leaders and the impact of their work with their students, it is notable that these individuals are not necessarily teachers of STEM subjects. The advice he offers for effective teaching is already generally accepted as good practice, and is not that enlightening for those struggling with the specific problems encountered when trying to enthuse students with STEM.

To demonstrate that people from different racial groups are often wrongly stereotyped as unable to progress in maths, Drew tells the story of the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, who at a young age and despite limited education, was "obsessed by mathematics" and "devoured a text book" and was finally recognised by a teacher for his particular strengths (or should we say aptitude? …

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