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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

STEM for All: Rethinking the Single Story

One of my favorite TED Talks to date is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Danger of a Single Story. Her talk explores the one-dimensional narratives that exist in curriculum, focusing in on the “single story” of Africa. Adichie, a Nigerian, recounts how in her classes she mostly read American and British books by “dead white authors”. In these books the characters drank ginger beer and talked about the weather. While it stirred her imagination, she was left thinking that people like her could not exist in literature. It wasn’t until she discovered writers like Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye that she saw herself reflected in literature. 

Single stories in curriculum are dangerous. They impact self-identity, perceptions of others, and perpetuate the power paradigms that exist. As Adichie so eloquently states:

The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity… It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.

At our annual Quality Performance Assessment Summer Institute, we watched an excerpt from Adichie’s TED talk as an activator for exploring culturally-responsive pedagogy. The group was asked to consider the single stories that exist in our curriculum, as well as the single stories that we tell about students.

One participant offered up the idea that there is a pervasive single story in many science classrooms. Scientific inquiry is often taught in a rigidly defined way with a narrow focus on “correct” methodologies and processes that mostly stem from European academia. These correct processes may be emphasized in grading, with a student’s score being reduced even if they found the correct answer using a process other than what the teacher taught or without showing “adequate” work. This got me thinking about bias in STEM subjects more broadly, a subject I’ve been contemplating since attending the Free Minds, Free People (FMFP) conference in Baltimore.

At the FMFP conference, I attended a session titled Culturally Responsive Mathematics: Teaching Mathematics to Fight Racism, Sorting, and Segregation in K-8. We explored another perspective on STEM and bias—the ways we push the idea of being a “math person” onto certain students. Participants shared their experiences of having teachers say things like “I guess math just isn’t for you” all the way to a person of color feeling pushed into pursuing engineering because she was a “unicorn”.

Many math teachers focus on ensuring students memorize the processes they use to complete math problems. This fails to cultivate and uplift a deep conceptual understanding of multiple ways to understand the problem and how to solve it. In classrooms focused on processes instead of inquiry, students’ math identities might be developing around success in school as opposed to interest and understanding. If a student feels continually excluded from discussions because they think in ways that differ from their teacher, they begin to develop a non-math identity. In fact, many adults I know can identify the moment when they decided they “weren’t a math person”.

Another idea we explored was the perception that students who do well in STEM subjects are “smarter than their counterparts.” I’ve seen interactions and heard language in many schools that perpetuates this notion. But, if we are teaching STEM subjects in a way that isn’t accessible to all students (a way that usually favors European ways of understanding and doing), then we are not creating a level playing field for building students’ feelings of competence. And on the other side of the coin, if we are continually lauding math and science “smarts,” we are sending a message to students that excel in the arts and humanities that their success is less than.

An important aspect of culturally-responsive practices is that teachers should not impose identities and perspectives on students; rather they should allow students to develop them individually. Part of this is keeping curriculum and assessment free of bias, but another critical part is celebrating students’ unique approaches to learning and facilitating their journey in discovery. Too many students and adults self-identify as not being a math/science person. This perpetuates a single story of what success in STEM looks like as well as a single story of how STEM should be taught and understood. It’s time to shake up this single story in STEM. STEM educators need to think about ways to open up their instruction to encourage diverse ways of understanding and expressing understanding of math, biology, and chemistry concepts. I believe that every student can be a “STEM student” with the right opportunities for inquiry and discovery. 

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