Why Students Stop Asking “Why”

By Katie Forsell, Professional Development

I like to tease my oldest daughter that her first word was “Why?” (even though it wasn’t) because in her toddler years, she said this word so often I was convinced she was on an automatic loop. At times, I’m sure it was just a flippant response to something I’d asked her to do. But more often than not, her questions were actually sparked by her curiosity and her eagerness to learn about the world: Why is there a rainbow? Why is the moon out in the daytime? Why is the sky blue?

Anyone living or working with young children can relate. Kids are curious by nature. The scientific method is practically innate in toddlers. Take for example a child who observes something new in nature. First, they start by questioning it (Why? How? When?). Next, they often look to an adult for an explanation (a.k.a., collecting background information). Then, they take that observation and information and form their very own hypothesis (i.e., I think it’s because..., doesn’t matter what my Mom says, etc.).

So if Science is so interesting at a young age, wouldn’t every student’s favorite subject be Science? Science and STEM classes would seemingly be the most prevalent and popular in schools, especially at the secondary level. And by the same logic, wouldn’t every teacher love teaching Science? The answer, as most educators will probably agree, is no.

A study by Amgen Foundation and Change the Equation found that while teenagers are interested in science subject material, such as biology, chemistry and physics, students don’t actually enjoy taking these classes in school. Even more alarming is evidence (Krapp and Prenzel, 2011) suggesting that students who have a high cognitive potential for science do not go on to pursue careers as scientists or engineers. The reason they don’t pursue these careers? They lost their interest during school, because it was no longer fun or appealing.

STEM jobs are reported to experience the highest growth over the next 11 years and STEM occupations pay nearly double the average wage of a non-STEM occupation. However, despite the high salary range and the prediction that science and engineering jobs will be ubiquitous in the workplace, students are choosing different paths because they just aren’t interested in taking these classes anymore.

As educators, we have a significant task in front of us. One hand, we have to prepare our students with science content, skills and strategies to be successful in the classroom and 21st century. On the other, we have to ensure that learning about science is FUN. Without fun, students lose interest in the subject. Without interest, teachers struggle to engage students and find it challenging to help students meet the requirements necessary for STEM careers. As I see it, making science fun is more critical than ever. It’s time to engage our budding scientists and engineers and sustain their interest throughout their school years.

Non-educators may make light of the notion of making science fun. How difficult can it be? As a former elementary school teacher, and now in my professional development role at Learning A-Z, I can honestly say: it’s very difficult!

With high standards for reading and math, teachers struggle to work in science time during the week. They are continuously fighting the clock. When they do find time, it’s completed in urgent haste. Many are lucky if they can squeeze in one or two lessons a week. Furthermore, many elementary teachers don’t have science degrees and don’t feel as confident teaching these concepts as they may with other subject areas. As students progress through grade levels, topics become more and more complex and science instruction is no longer fun for them. At some point during the elementary school or middle school years, we start to lose a student’s interest and curiosity—and science becomes boring.

“When we invest in our teachers, we invest in our students. When teachers are well-trained, this training ultimately engages our students. Science and the curious questions it answers become a lifelong fascination for students, sparking their imagination and fueling a thriving economy.”

But teachers are relentless fighters. I have witnessed this firsthand in my workshops, particularly in our science workshops. Teachers crave professional learning that is purposeful and productive. One of the most common responses to our professional development workshops is that teachers want more training. They want more time to learn strategies, methods, and resources to use for science instruction. With more preparation and more time, we can still make science fun! Teachers walk away from professional development excited to teach. When teachers are excited, students are excited and learning becomes fun.

While the concept of making science fun certainly isn’t new, I believe the urgency is real. As we prepare for a future that could have self-driving cars and robot assistants, we need students interested in science and engineering. Ensuring that our teachers are equipped with time and resources will make a difference. However, I believe the biggest impact will be made through training. To be effective, training must be continuous, collaborative, and hands-on.

As educators, we need districts to recognize the difference between professional development vs. professional learning. Professional development for teachers is a one-stop shop. Teachers are given enough information to get them started and then sent on their way. As a result, teachers are overwhelmed with new information and grapple with implementation. Professional learning, on the other hand, is continuous and opens up opportunities for teachers to develop and improve practice over time.

Just as significant as continuous training is collaborative training. Collaborative training opens a forum for teachers to exchange knowledge and experiences. Consider a teacher who has limited experience in science and engineering. When collaborating with a community, this teacher is able to build on the strengths and experience of the others in the group. This helps build confidence and eliminates feelings of isolation. Teachers work together toward the same goal: making science fun!

Finally, teachers need training that is hands-on. Teachers need time to play with the “why and how” through activities. They need to have fun learning from the process, and take their real-life experiences back to the classroom. I’ve been through training that only allows time for browsing lessons, and training that allows time for teachers to actually DO the lessons—the impact of the latter is immense.

When we invest in our teachers, we invest in our students. When teachers are well-trained, this training ultimately engages our students. Science and the curious questions it answers become a lifelong fascination for students, sparking their imagination and fueling a thriving economy.

Now remember that little girl who asked “Why?” repeatedly as a toddler? Fortunately, she continues to be just as curious and eager to learn as an 11-year-old. Science is her favorite subject. She’s still asking why, but now I’m not the one being asked—now she asks the internet, the library, and her teachers.

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