steam buyers beware

There is a disturbing trend among many EdTech Startups and Organizations that has been evolving over the past 18 months.  In this highly-competitive and lucrative business market, the actual needs of schools are getting sidetracked by the “cool tool” factor.  Many of these companies do this with the best of intentions.  They create a product that they feel will benefit children and schools, but then they have to market it so that it will match with school focal efforts.  For a long time, we watched this happen with STEM. Devices, tools, and software were rapidly developed to “meet the demands” of a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math focus.  But schools (and EdTech organizations) soon realized that the tools weren’t making the impact they had hoped to see.

Because first and foremost, it’s the teachers who make the difference.

No matter what tools you have or don’t have, teachers are the biggest influencers on student achievement and success.  So a great teacher can change everything.  Even more powerful? A teacher who has been empowered to meet the needs of every child in their classroom by making choices in how to teach their content.

Which brings us to the next evolution of the STEM story: STEAM.  We here at EducationCloset are huge proponents of authentic and intentional STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics) as an approach to learning.  And while professional development in these areas is getting better and more exciting in some respects, there are some serious causes for concern as well.


Business Influencing Pedagogy

As schools are now developing a better understanding of integrating curricular areas and are beginning to shift their pedagogy to include integrating the arts, businesses have taken notice.  With the passage of the new ESSA this fall in Congress, it has become even more clear that we are going to see even more efforts to move from STEM to STEAM.

Businesses and EdTech companies aren’t naive.  They can see this evolution and want to get in on the action.  And some of them have learned from the past that their tool-based solutions and kits aren’t going to be enough: professional development matters. This is great thing!  It’s exciting to see companies developing coordinating professional development options for educators, not just on how to use their solutions in the classroom, but also in how teachers can create new opportunities for learning for their students.  And yet, there is also a slippery slope beginning to emerge: business marketing influencing actual teaching pedagogy.

In these instances, we can see companies attempting to redefine or reframe teaching approaches to better position their own products in the marketplace.  For example, in the STEAM realm, LittleBits reports on their website that “adding ‘Art’ enables students to kickstart their creativity and develop creative confidence” which is true, but what about other arts areas?  Doesn’t music, dance and theater do the same?  And integrating the arts in and through STEM content is more than just an “add-on”.  It’s process-driven and the standards for both the STEM and Arts areas need to be aligned, taught and assessed throughout the lesson. In their booklets for teachers, there are Engineering, Math and even Literacy standards highlighted, but NO arts standards.   You simply cannot integrate STEAM without aligning standards in all areas, but especially the arts.  To leave those standards out perpetuates the myth that the only role the arts play in STEAM is one of encouraging creativity without the skills and processes to support that creative spark.

STEAMtrax provides learning modules that educators can use that are highly engaging in science, engineering, technology and math, but only utilize the art through 3D printing.  3D printing is an excellent avenue into STEAM, but again – it’s about the intentionality.  What arts standards are being met?  How are they being taught and how are students using these skills and processes to create something new?  By providing lessons with STEM standards as a focus and “adding on” the arts like an after-thought, these organizations are not staying true to the underpinnings of the STEAM approach.

That’s not to say that organizations such as LittleBits and STEAMtrax don’t have a place in STEAM education.  Personally, I find both of their tools wonderful opportunities for creating and exploring STEM and the Arts.  But as an educator, it’s my job (not theirs) to determine where their tools fit into the design of my curriculum and through the STEAM approach.  So while these companies are able to better-position their products for a shifting educational focus through their use of the STEAM label, are they overstepping the mark by providing PD options which dilute the actual teaching pedagogy behind these approaches?


Caveat Emptor for Schools

There’s an old real-estate legal term of Caveat Empor which is Latin for “Buyer Beware”.  It essentially refers to buyers understanding that what they are purchasing is being sold “as-is” and may be subject to defects.  I like to think of it in a more positive light: go into any transaction with your eyes wide open.  THINK before your purchase.

When it comes to investing in solutions, schools, districts and teachers should all approach their purchases in this way.  Investigate each solution based on the needs of your unique students.  Research how this product or solution is going to support those needs and whether their claims are based in fact or marketing.  While schools have been on a roller-coaster ride over the past 20 years between No Child Left Behind and Common Core, one huge benefit has been that we all ask more questions than ever before.  We no longer simply accept that just because an organization says they are “CCSS-aligned”, “NGSS-aligned” or a “STEAM Solution” that they actually ARE aligned or a solution.

So a heads up for organizations in the education market: we are all working together and we educators are not sheep.  We won’t just blindly follow and buy a solution because you’ve slapped a label on it saying “it works” or “it’s aligned”.  We will ask questions, we will compare and we will wait until we are sure that what you are offering is what will work for us.  Because our students and our very-limited time with them are too important to leave to a great marketing campaign.   We need your help, but not your direction.  In the end, this is better for all of us.  It will raise our standards and together, we can make a true difference in what, how and why we teach.