Effective STEM Instruction Defined

It's hard to create change. It's hard to see success the way the next generation science standards (NGSS) call for when we begin getting stuck in limiting ideas such as:

  • What we think children are capable of
  • What we think we need to do to "cover the standards"
  • What we think we need to do in order to teach to the test

In other words, we get stuck in a traditional environment. If we want to truly embrace the "power of yet" and create an environment in which effective STEM instruction can really take root, we must move away from these limiting ideas and toward a true science and engineering climate.

Traditional Model of Science Instruction:

Traditional Science Class Model

The traditional science class is not a place to cope with mistakes, because it values only the yes-or-no ability to mirror facts, repeat demonstrates and summarize phenomena. You either can or you can't. There's only one type of mistake: Not remembering. Not behaving. Not following along. Not doing as you're told.

What really matters to student success is setting up that next generation environment. When we're stuck in the traditional model, we have to ask ourselves, "Is this a place where children are learning to cope with mistakes? Are they learning to take risks? Are they learning to develop skills and use those skills to answer questions and solve problems appropriately? Is that how we're defining proficiency, or are we defining proficiency in a traditional sense, where students have only to mirror back what they have heard or seen in science class—the facts of science and engineering?"

In this traditional model, is there really any more than one kind of mistake a child can make? The short answer is no. The only mistake is not remembering, behaving, following along or doing what you're told. Students never learn how to cope with mistakes in this traditional environment, because making one is embarrassing and sure proof of failure. They don't learn a growth mindset in this model or how to use mistakes positively. They never learn that taking risks is a growth mechanism—what real scientists and engineers do every day.


In a next generation science class, students must be challenged in order to develop new skills and learn to innovate.

When you think about creating a true next generation science class, you have to think about the power of yet and challenging student skills, because that is the only way they learn. Skills should not be seen as set in stone; the skills we have today are not the only skills we will ever have. We can build on those skills. We can refine them. We can add to them. It's not a function of our IQ. It's actually a function of our effort. Angela Dweck, through her research at West Point, says that talent is quite common. It's what you do with your talent that predicts your success.

Any one student may have a particular socio-economic status, or a particular vacation budget, or a particular IQ to start with, but what they do with those innate privileges is a result of the effort and the persistence they put in as well as the habits that they form. That's where instructors can intercede and intervene for children in the classroom and create an inquiry environment like the one you see in the pictures above. This classroom is one in which students are actually engaged in using their knowledge, developing those skills, and developing their knowledge to try and solve problems and answer questions. This can be true whether they're second graders, sixth graders or even high schoolers.

The Next Generation Full Inquiry Environment

Next Generation Model of Inquiry

In a next generation environment, everyone is uncertain of the outcome, everyone has to try to use their skills to develop and use what they know,  and everyone is trying to solve a problem or answer a question to the best of their ability. If a mistake happens, it's an opportunity to learn and use that information.

The outcomes above rely on that next generation model of inquiry. They rely on a skillful educator who is going to create that full inquiry environment—not necessarily on Day 1 but over that first 10 weeks of school, with the focus on slowly releasing responsibility to those students. They will ensure that students have a handle on the science and engineering practices, that they are using their higher order thinking skills (which we will look at in more depth in a future blog post), and that they are capable of handling science and engineering challenges on their own when we take the "training wheels" off by Thanksgiving.

The inquiry environment functions through teamwork, focusing on communication, collaboration and creativity. Each of these values comes back to the standards because, again, we're not just solving any problem or answering any question, or focusing on any skill or any content. We're focusing on all three dimensions of these next generation science standards.

What this inquiry environment is all about is bringing those standards to life in a context where children can actually begin to develop an ability to demonstrate the expectations. The issue at hand is whether the model of teaching is functionally fixed or growth oriented. Teachers who were trained in the traditional model will look at pictures like the ones above and assume that students are doing a culminating activity. In fact, they are not. They're using their skills and their knowledge, deciding how to do what they need to do in order to reach the answer to a question or a solution to a problem.

In a functionally fixed environment, on the other hand, the teacher often views themselves as needing to interact with materials. We see this in professional development all the time. Teachers want to see the materials, put their hands on them, and learn how they go together so they can show their work to students.

That's not what a next generation inquiry environment is all about, though. A next generation inquiry environment is about challenging a student's thinking, which is why we talk about creating, evaluating and analyzing happening simultaneously. Those higher order thinking skills still require all the lower order skills—thinking, remembering, understanding, and applying—but they don't stop there.

Bloom's Taxonomy

Again we return to this image of the reordered Bloom's Taxonomy, in which creating, evaluating, and analyzing are equally important, and build on the foundational skills of applying, understanding and remembering.

When you challenge students to create, evaluate and analyze, the students are doing it themselves with their ideas, working authentically, and engaging with the material for the first time. That is really the value for learning: No one knows the outcome. Not the students, and not the teacher either. That's how science and engineering skills are developed—by interacting with material in an open inquiry environment without a pre-determined outcome. And that's how the level of rigor and challenge can be adjusted in the real time from one week to the next.

Karl Duncker's Candle Experiment

Karl Duncker's famous Candle Experiment demonstrates perfectly the value of inquiry.

There is a famous experiment, designed by Karl Duncker and dating back to the 40s, called the Candle Experiment (shown above). Using only a box of tacks and matches, it challenges people to figure out how to stick the candle to a wall.

People look at it and they say, "Well, you can light the match and melt the side of the candle and stick it to the wall," or they say, "You can melt the candle a bit so it's thin and take a tack and stick it to the wall." They come up with all these elaborate ideas. Then they reframe the actual problem subtly to say, "Well, what can you do with a box, tacks, matches, and a candle to attach the candle to the wall?" This simple shift of nuance allows a mental readjustment regarding the nature of the problem. Now they say, "Well, you can use the tacks to attach the box to the wall and then you can set the candle in the box and maybe light the candle and melt the bottom so it sticks."

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