their thoughts, ask questions, or make suggestions. There is no apparent right or wrong
answer, which—after possibly causing initial
low-level anxiety for some—emboldens them
and promotes participation. They learn from the
experience itself, but also from interacting and
communicating with one another. And even the
relatively small success of turning on a lightbulb
will bolster their sense of self-efficacy.
From the teacher’s perspective, the challenge
is a thing of beauty because it requires students
to use active inquiry, critical thinking, and
problem-solving skills. The teacher can move
between groups to observe, interject questions
and comments, and assess. Meanwhile, students
are busy constructing scientific understanding
and making learning connections either individually or within their groups. This is an
opportune time to scaffold a scientific lexicon by
introducing advanced or technical vocabulary.
You might use illuminate instead of light up.
Refer to the wire as a conductor from this point
on. The plastic coating insulates. That thin,
high-resistance wire inside the bulb is called a
filament. Students will be simultaneously handling the components, hearing the terms, and
experiencing the content, so learning becomes
authentic, engaging, and meaningful. And then
there are the possibilities for integrating content
and skills from literacy, social studies, and math
(for example, informational writing to describe
a process; historical research on Thomas Edison;
applying simple algebraic formulas to calculate
voltage, current, power, and resistance).
This simple example highlights the key tenets
of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering,
Arts, and Mathematics) programming coupled
with problem-based learning. I believe it also
illustrates a fundamental shift that needs to occur
in curriculum and instruction—and not just in
science classrooms. STEAM and problem-based
learning are based on the principle of learning-
by-doing, a powerful and memorable way to
learn (Hackathorn et al., 2011). They are also
based on the premise that humans have an innate
drive to solve problems (Pink, 2009). Instead of
reading about electrical circuits and memorizing
vocabulary terms—or, worse, being subjected to
lectures on the topic—students should be chal-
lenged to engage in the actual work. The teacher
then assumes the role of a facilitator and coach,
which has its own benefits.
Is this way of teaching practical or even
realistic, though? That brings us to the leader’s
perspective, which is more complicated.
The School Leader’s Dilemma
As instructional leaders, principals are charged
with creating and implementing a shared
vision of teaching and learning. Based on my
personal experience, this has less to do with
conspicuously displayed vision and mission
statements than it does with trust and support.
Most teachers direct their classrooms on the
basis of their administrators’ explicit and implicit
messages about what teaching and learning are
supposed to look like. Unfortunately, those
messages don’t always encourage novelty,
innovation, or risk-taking in the classroom.
In considering the value of the kind of
problem-based STEAM learning I’ve been
describing, leaders should reflect on their own
instructional philosophies by answering the
1. Is it more important for students to be able
to recall information or to ask questions?
2. Do you believe students’ attention must be
focused on the teacher for optimal learning?
3. How would you evaluate a teacher who
Unfortunately, school leaders’ explicit
and implicit messages don’t always
encourage novelty, innovation, or
risk taking in the classroom.