How you teach makes a difference

By Anne Jolly


Have you taught William?

Early in my teaching career, I remember walking into the school office with a bounce in my step – the holiday spirit everywhere! Student-made seasonal cards glittered on bulletin boards, a lighted tree sparkled in the office and smiles issued from office personnel, administrators, and teachers alike.

My eyes rested on a figure huddled in a corner chair, as far away from the festive atmosphere as he could get. Head down. Anger, frustration, and depression spilling out over the waiting area. I paused as I recognized William (not his real name). William was one of my 8th-grade science students.

As I considered his six-foot frame, hunched over the beat-up trombone case on which he rested his head, I was hit with a sense of failure. William had an IQ of 140 plus. His major interest seemed to be in proving to everyone – parents, teachers, and administrators – that he didn’t have to do anything. William’s interests also extended to creating frequent class disruptions and alienating everyone around him, especially his peers.

I’ve never tried to teach a student who was any more out of place than William. He didn’t fit any mold, and I obviously wasn’t helping him. With 150 other students a day in my teaching load, tailoring a program for a young person as atypical and as needy as William was a challenge that I was failing to meet.

I walked over to William. He didn’t look up, even when I asked, “What’s going on, Will?” He just mumbled bitterly, “I’ve been suspended.”

Suspended. Again. A sense of heaviness settled over my lighthearted holiday mood. I sat down beside him as he waited for his mom to arrive. I learned that he hated school because he felt bored and out of place. He was continually at odds with his family.

William finally glanced up when I told him that I shared his sense of failure. I was failing to help him deal with a system that demands too much conformity from students. I cared about him and wanted to help him find a place to plug in. He never responded. When William came back after the holidays he behaved in the same manner – the same way he’s behaved since kindergarten. And his teachers offered the same responses. No shift in anyone’s modus operandi. And none of us had ever heard of PBL or STEM.

Why STEM/PBL learning makes a difference

Sometimes, considering kids like William, the reality of what teachers face in helping students learn every day seems overwhelming.  Looking back on that day many years ago, I wish I had known about the STEM approach to teaching and learning. We have real evidence that this approach can work – and really work well.

Think about it – Project Based Learning (the STEM pedagogy) is built around the idea that creativity and new ways of thinking are desirable traits and encouraged. Failure is an expected and valuable learning experience. STEM teaming builds collaborative behaviors and makes use of individual talents rather than forcing everyone to march in step. What if William’s education had revolved around that approach? He might have experienced success, acceptance, and possibly even become a leader.

In my STEM consulting today, I work with teachers and students who are talking together and working together in a different kind of classroom setting. In these classrooms, all students act as engineers and designers and create solutions for problems they care about. They develop team skills, communicate ideas, grow to respect one another, accept diversity, and share success. I’ve seen students like William come to life in the classroom when given opportunities to make choices and experiment with solving real-life problems. Kids who stumble and crash in traditional classrooms can discover a real role and purpose in STEM-centered PBL classrooms. When we conducted outside evaluations of these STEM classrooms, they revealed an upsurge in student excitement about learning and noticeable success in recognizing, planning, and developing solutions for challenges. What terrific life skills!

3 things to think about

  • What would effective education and schooling look like if all schools focused on STEM-based PBL?
  • What would school systems, administrators, and teachers need to do differently, and how would they go about this?
  • How can we build full, enthusiastic educator participation in the STEM/PBL process?

My personal resolution for the year 2020 remains the same as it has since the day I walked into my first science classroom to find that I had no science equipment, no laboratory, and 181 amazing 8th graders to teach each day.

I resolve to continue trying to establish a sustained, engaging process that leads to high-quality student learning and provides ongoing support for teachers to share, grow and learn. I care deeply about this remarkable teaching vocation, with its amazing moments and its mind-bending challenges. I care about teachers who are literally shaping and saving lives. I am captivated by the magic that occurs when the light comes on for students and they really begin to learn and grow. And I grieve when I look at situations that keep teachers from doing what they have given their lives to do — situations that prevent students like William from learning as they should. I’m so glad that a process exists that can potentially make a difference for teachers and students.  Even though I’m no longer doing the most important work in education – teaching students every day - I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to make education a better experience for teachers and kids.


Anne Jolly is a STEM consultant, MiddleWeb blogger, and online community organizer for the Center for Teaching Quality. She began her career as a middle school science teacher in Mobile County Schools in Alabama and is a former Alabama State Teacher of the Year. Anne has recently co-developed nationally recognized STEM curriculum with support from the National Science Foundation. She writes for a variety of publications. Her most recent book, STEM by Design, is published by Routledge Press. Find her regularly on Twitter @ajollygal, on her blog at MiddleWeb, and on her STEM by Design website.


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