Teaching Opinion

‘The Imitation Game’ as a STEM Lesson

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — February 17, 2015 5 min read
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Like many people across the country, we are watching the films nominated for the Academy Awards. Of course, we have our rating sheet because we are used to rubrics. Now and then, we relate a movie to our work. ""The Imitation Game"" lends itself to that discussion as it invites us into the world of cryptographers and computing machines seventy plus years ago.

In order to lead a STEM learning environment, it is important to understand what it provides for and what it demands of teachers. STEM can reach more learners because hands-on collaborative inquiry invites more learners into the process, gives purpose to study and quells the age-old question, “Why do we have to learn this?”. Content is relevant to the 21st century workplace. It brings science, technology, engineering, and math to the center of the learning and uses the skills required in those fields as accelerators and integrators of the curriculum throughout the school.

“The Imitation Game” offers an example of what a STEM-based school could accomplish. “Based on the real life story of legendary cryptanalyst Alan Turing, the film portrays the nail-biting race against time by Turing and his brilliant team of code-breakers at Britain’s top-secret Government Code and Cypher School” (IMDB). There is another powerful aspect to the film that we will not reveal so as not to detract from the power of the film. Presented in the traditional sense, the movie may be the topic of discussion in a history, technology, or film class. In a school where the foundation of learning is STEM-based, the film will be used differently. Here is how it might look.

Gather a Team of Teachers
The first steps involve teams of teachers gathering to identify how the film offers entry into the subject of their courses and clubs. Lessons need to be reorganized with careful attention to how each teacher will select and work with which topics and how the collaboration will unfold. The traditional walls that have existed between teachers and subjects become penetrable. Communication, sharing, learning, and cross-discipline relationships are developed and strengthened. This, resembling the workforce students will be entering, allows for modeling of collaboration within the learning environment in which they are spending their formative years. In schools where this has already begun, teachers are revealing that it reignites their love of teaching and reenergizes them in their work.

Check for Redundancy
Once the film is shared between the teachers and plans completed, a final check is conducted to be sure each course is maximizing, and yet not duplicating, the student learning. Students should experience integrated learning. More hours or weeks or months is not the object; learning deeply and meaningfully is. Yes, teamwork often takes more time and requires accommodations of all sorts but the results are rewarding, for students and teachers alike.

Given the current requirements, subject topics and traditional assessments may remain in place, at least in the beginning phases. So it is important that each member of the faculty team pulls from the film what she/he sees as having the potential to meet the learning objectives they have for their students and align it to course standards and curriculum. The skills used must be either purposefully different from those used by the other teachers OR are purposefully the same but are scaffolded based upon the time the skills are required, making sure each builds on the last, so students leave the courses having progressively strengthened those skills.

Assessment for Teacher and Student
The assessment for each of the teachers’ classes provides the opportunity for teachers to collectively compare exactly what they are assessing. Comparing formative and summative assessments, and thinking about the assessments before the learning experiences take place, serves several purposes; backward planning, as it is referred to is described here by Grant Wiggins. Sharing an assessment with a colleague offers the opportunity for double- checking and receiving feedback. Another value is confirming that all skills used in the learning process are being assessed. Teachers know how effective their lessons were in further developing those skills, whether inquiry, presentation, collaboration, reading, writing, or understanding the content. The assessment must evaluate the level to which the students developed in order for the next round of teaching to become more effective...or to celebrate that this round was effective.

What Do Teachers Need?
Once a decision to move into a STEM model is made, support is needed. Teachers can not simply move from a model in which each are separately held accountable for teaching “their” students to one in which they collaborate and share their thinking, teaching, assessing and responsibilities. The environment in which this can happen requires leaders that can create a safe place for risk taking. Also, there may be teacher leaders, facilitators or coaches available to help both leader and teacher learn skill and comfort in these new processes. They may be found within the schools, or available through grants, STEM hubs, and/or higher education and business partnerships.

Time needs to be created for this to take place, so scheduling may need to be revised. Support, encouragement and celebration of successes are necessary and bumps in the road treated as learning opportunities rather than failures. To begin the journey into a 21st century school model...leading teachers means understanding their work, and helping in all ways to make it happen.

So, here’s how we unwrap and repackage the World War II film as it captures the nascent moment of computer technology and the human condition in the context of social and political issues. It is a STEM teaching opportunity.

History/Government: WWII, laws governing LGBTQ issues, crimes and punishments, early years of the computer world and technology’s development

Math/Technology/Engineering: programming, the German Inigma code, breaking code, electricity and communication capabilities as existed in that era

Psychology/Sociology: Bias/intelligence/interpersonal skills/social change, societies’ and varying cultural views of LGBTQ and female populations

Women’s studies: Evolving role of women, bias-based limitations for women

Film: Script writing and all that goes into that...distilling and revealing truth, keeping scenes, costumes, and issues in correct time period, methods, colors, and marketing and promotion

Literature: the biography of Alan Turing, a time period analysis of the book/movie used as a comparison of another work

Art: Set and costume design

A STEM based school environment is built on an understanding of the value of interdisciplinarity as well as the importance of science, technology, engineering and math. No matter the entry point through which subject the learning begins, the true application and understanding of the relationship of the learning to other things is essential. Leaders’ understanding of what a STEM based school calls upon its teachers to do, and supporting them in their journey, is vital.

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