One reason I and others promote STEM or STEAM education so passionately goes far beyond the outstanding job opportunities the field affords. Beyond this is the abundance and importance in STEAM of so-called “soft skills”such as problem identification, creativity, innovative thinking, collaboration, critical thinking, etc. Creating a generation of students who are thusly skilled is not just vital to ensuring competitiveness in the current and future global economy, it equips them for life. This is particularly true when paired with other traits/skills, such as adaptability, organization, empathy, initiative, and grit. As I am preparing for a talk at the STEAM Academy at TCEA next week, the following are some ideas and classroom strategies to promote STEAM-related skills, including critical thinking and problem solving in any subject area:
- Stimulate wonder. In any subject area, teachers should work to create situations that will make students scratch their heads and experience a certain level of confusion leading to curiosity. I don’t want to confuse this idea with what I was taught as a young teacher was the “anticipatory set”, which was basically review at worst and far from engaging or stimulating on a good day. Think of a provocative statement, an argument, a perplexing question, a quick but powerful video, or a dramatic demonstration. Our kids need more opportunities to get really engaged in a topic and experience fascination and wonder.
- Solicit questions. Once students have been hooked, get them asking good, probing, open-ended questions.
Image Source: Right Question Institute
As discussed here before, this is no given, since students all but forget how to ask such questions by middle school. Re-teach them using a process such as the Question Formulation Technique and give them daily opportunities to practice.
- Be less direct. Let your students sort through processes without so much guidance from you. I know I was very guilty of step-by-stepping most of the labs in my science classroom to death when I was still teaching middle school. The best ones, though, were ones where I followed my own advice above and set the stage with a statement or demonstration, then let the kids figure out how to explain, prove, disprove, etc. on their own or collaboratively.
- Forsake the multiple choice. I have heard “assessment experts” defend the venerable A, B, C, or D (all of the above) test format for years, claiming it is poor question design that has weakened the art. I believe anything worth learning cannot be sufficiently expressed and assessed with such a format and with no opportunity to see into the student’s thinking. The product of such assessments has no relevance or meaning in the real world, and is I believe multiple choice assessments are a reflection of teacher laziness or inexperience (Before anyone gets your feathers too ruffled, I was as guilty as anyone. Remember those clickers? Ugh.). Leave the format to the people who are paid big bucks to construct shallow assessments and disengage our kids–the testing companies. Instead, utilize performance and alternative assessments, such as rubrics, face-to-face conferencing, self-assessment, demonstrations/presentations, physical products, etc.
- Failure doesn’t end with an “F”. There are times in life when you get one shot to get something right, like choosing when to cross the street in heavy traffic. Most of life outside of school, however, is based on a series of trial-and-error events and choices. Whether designing a science project, solving a math problem, writing a narrative essay, or learning to shoot a basketball, students need to tackle tasks that require evaluation and improvement. Our obsession with grades (in the face of much research demonstrating their failures) means that we too often give students failing marks for a failed attempt, usually the first attempt, when we should be offering meaningful feedback into the process the student is going through. If your school/district requires grades, use them in conjunction with actual feedback that makes the numbers have actual meaning. But, as I advised a robotics instructor in my own district, be careful not to view a step in the process as the end, and be careful not to see a project that has not met hoped for goals as a failure. I watched a robotics team build no fewer than 20 prototypes of 1 model without achieving their very lofty desired outcome, but the group made strides and learned everything I could have hoped. An “F” would have been both crushing and inappropriate.
This is a work in progress, so please give me any ideas or feedback you might have. If I use your comments/ideas, I will even give you a shoutout in my presentation. Thanks!
STEM students image source: http://www.dfrobot.com.cn/images/upload/Image/20140306141707uca3mg.jpg
The following are suggested activities for robotics programs. They range from the fairly simple to surprisingly complex. I like these because they all can be related to some type of real-world problem situation where robots might be employed as a solution. For example, the dark navigation problem: robots might be used to navigate dark, inhospitable environments where sensors beyond visual must be relied upon. I think most of them will be great opportunities for students to “fail forward”, too, as they progress through designs and programs to solve each problem.
Create a robotic trash compactor.
Double the speed of the robot over a given distance.
Use the robot to clean solid or liquid spills.
Navigate through an obstacle course in the dark.
Climb inclines that are as near to vertical as possible.
Create a robot that can jump.
Navigate a maze using sensors, not simply programming the path.
Teach a robot to play a musical instrument.
Teach the robot to construct the tallest stack of blocks.
Start/stop a video camera upon a sound or other trigger.
I am always on the lookout for more activities of this nature, so please don’t hold back–share yours in the comments.
I had the privilege of once again attending and presenting the TCEA Area 7 conference up in White Oak, Texas this past Friday. Before they leave my cluttered mind, I wanted to share a just couple of moments of inspiration or semi-clarity that I gained from the event.
Key Notes From the Keynotes
The keynote speaker was the always amazing and inspiring Diana Laufenberg. Diana’s talks are always filled with fascinating and powerful personal anecdotes focusing on the power of inquiry/project-based learning and truly giving students ownership of their own learning. The following are a few of the big ideas and reactions that I noted via Twitter during the presentation (Follow-up thoughts today in green.).
- School superintendents rank “comfort with no right answer” as least relevant indicator of creativity. So, so wrong!! (Misguided and misinterprets the attainment of 1, single correct solution as the end-all-be-all of knowledge. Innovation does not happen that way. Innovation is filled with missteps.)
- “We found that the knowledge gained from success was often fleeting while knowledge gained from failure stuck around for years” -NASA
- “We (teachers) set up barriers around the possible.” Yep–positive, happy, feel-good, self-esteem run amok. (Clarification–fear of damaging the psyches of students leads us to protecting them from failure far too often.)
- John Dewey –“Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.”
- Fostering inquiry by scaffolding curiosity.
- If you truly value student voice, they must know that their ideas can direct the path of learning. (Too scary for many teachers to venture into such uncharted waters?)
- “I want them to know what it’s like to stumble.” Yes, yes, yes–failing to succeed!
One Big Idea
Diana also shared a really exciting project where social studies students asked hypothetical “what if” questions about historical events. For example, students might ask:
Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/aunullah/5563371805
- What if the Confederacy had won the Civil War?
- What if Prohibition had not been reversed?
- What if President Kennedy had survived the assassination?
The same type of activity could certainly be applied to science (e.g. What if the earth’s gravitational pull was 25% stronger?), literature, math, etc. To answer these types of questions requires both a great deal of factual knowledge and a great deal of critical thinking, as there are potentially endless ripple effects of changing the world in such ways (Think butterfly effect.). This type of learning activity is very student-centered and results very open-ended. It promises to be both engaging and very intellectually challenging, and I actually find myself very envious of classroom teachers who might try such a strategy.
That’s it for now–just wanted to reflect and get these ideas out there as soon as I had the chance. I’ll be presenting at ISTE next week–first time for that (Wish me luck!). I look forward most of all to the chance to connect to as many great educators as possible and be further inspired. Hope to see you there!
Just posted a new podcast on the idea that our kids need more opportunities to engage in “productive failure”, or “failure to succeed”. The idea is taken from the engineering design process, and it focuses on the premise that high level problem solving will lead to many failures before it achieves success. I would very much welcome your thoughts on this. Agree? Disagree? How can we give our kids greater opportunities to fail to succeed in the curriculum?