Armed with an abundance of statistical data, as you might expect from someone who teaches mathematics education at the post-secondary level and is the founder and CEO of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Learning Lab in Calgary, professor Gina Cherkowski had some sobering facts to share with those attending the IT Summit in Saskatoon.
Cherkowski, who is a former high school math teacher, contends that there is conclusive evidence to suggest Canadian students, particularly girls, are falling behind in a number of key categories that she insists will be invaluable in the future.
Citing some of the most worrying statistics among early learners in particular, Cherkowski suggested “if we were talking about these sorts of stats with kids starting to read it would be unacceptable. So we have got to find a way to reach more young learners with math because it is critical in terms of problem-solving skills and math is the gatekeeper.
“These students are going to be left behind in terms of being 21st century learners without greater proficiency in math.”
Cherkowski isn’t talking about just repeating what has traditionally been done in terms of providing high-quality mathematics teachings, but stresses the importance of creativity and in particular, spatial skills.
“Spatial skills haven’t been taught or developed in schools today in the way they should, and so for a lot of kids they aren’t making the connection and they will ultimately struggle in school.
“If we’re talking about math as a story, there’s a good chance they will get it, but if it’s just symbols–not so much. They need to see in their mind what is happening in order to get that solid foundation.
“Spatial skills are the future and they help solve real-world problems. Having those strong spatial skills can be a game changer, and if we’re going to really make progress in this regard, we need all hands on deck in the education system,” she insisted.
In an interview following her keynote presentation, Cherkowski said she is encouraged by how respective Ministries of Education across Canada and around the globe are starting to embrace the importance of developing the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) agenda for which she fervently advocates.
While Cherkowski understands the reluctance of some veteran teachers, in particular, to incorporate technology more fully. She said at the STEM Learning Lab at Mount Royal University in Calgary the focus is to have more students writing code and thereby being creative when it comes to technology.
Ironically enough Cherkowski said “we need to limit screen time; it’s more about being creative and being builders so students can shape technology and truly be part of their education. We want them to have that hunger to learn and be creative and not just be consumers of technology.”
In fact Cherkowski was adamant that in her world, the best technology can often be had for free and that can be utilized effectively for teachers in their classrooms. It’s very important for teachers to collaborate with their students in the process and to have that balance, “because ultimately it’s about how do we create better digital citizens for the future.”
When it comes to attracting more females into the STEM field in the future, Cherkowski points to the need for more role models and mentors.
She also noted that research shows one of the reasons girls tend to shy away from this area of expertise is because they tend to be perfectionists, and are unwilling to take risks similar to their male counterparts.
This is one of the reasons that Cherkowski is a staunch proponent of an arts component in equipping students with the pivotal learning opportunities and mindsets they will need for the 21st century.
“We have a lot of work to do, but I’m excited and hopeful when I see examples of the transformational change that is happening, and as teachers, you are the facilitators.
“You are in the moment with your students and you can ask them and help them along. You have to embrace chaos and it takes a lot of integration. It’s about providing the opportunity to see what is beyond and that’s part of the confidence that happens and you learn every time, even it’s just a little at a time. It’s about gradually building those skills that are going to be so important in the future,” Cherkowski underscored.