Teacher Responses that Foster a STEM Mindset

Hovered over a table full of intricately designed gears, lights, and wires, one student looks up and cautiously asks, “What if it doesn’t work?” She’s nervous. She dedicated a lot of time to this project. She has meticulously planned and applied new knowledge to this. She feels as if all of her success hinges on this one moment, but what she doesn’t realize is that her success has been building throughout the process. She has developed her organization skills and her ability to communicate with others. She has honed in on her science skills and found new connections between her science and math courses.

Whether her machine “works” or not doesn’t really matter. This is not how her learning will be measured. Her teachers have watched her learn and grow over the last several weeks in the classroom. She has bounced back from small failures, tried new techniques, and learned about new materials. Her learning process is evidence that she has built new skills and met learning benchmarks through the development of her project.

After she asks this pointed question, there is a long pause. Her teacher has the opportunity to provide critical guidance at this moment. Whichever path the teacher chooses can impact the way the student thinks about their value as a learner. The way the teacher responds can shift student thinking. Our responses to student questions can squelch curiosity or propel it forward. We can respond in any number of ways including providing support, interference, or reflection.

So when that student asks, what if it doesn’t work? How will you respond?

Support: “Oh, I’m sure it will work. Don’t worry.”

It is not to say that we shouldn’t respond with support to our students, but when they ask a question like this one, we have a clear opportunity to build our students up as individuals and as learners. If we just reassure them that everything will be fine, what if it isn’t. Don’t set your students up for disappointing failure, set them up for a setback that they can bounce back from. Support their learning by building grit and empowering students to make confident decisions in their STEM learning.

Interference: “I don’t know if it will work, but maybe you should try this approach instead.”

When we provide students with open-ended learning opportunities in STEM, there are a lot of unknown factors. As teachers, we don’t always know how an experiment or project will turn out. It is natural for us to want to help our students succeed, but sometimes we run the risk of helping too much. When we interfere, we are taking the ownership away from the student and stepping in with a solution. As much as you may need to bite your tongue, you must. Let the students experience all that comes with STEM learning, the successes, and the failures.

Reflection: “You have worked really hard on this project. What exactly are you thinking may go wrong?”

I know, people hate it when you answer a question with a question, but that may be the response that is needed in this situation. When students have engaged in STEM learning and you are confident in their work, you may have to throw the question back at them. Prompting student reflection on their process may encourage them to think through their procedures and reassess their work on their own. It’s OK for them to be nervous about their work. Personal reflection might be all that they need to reassure themselves that they have accomplished something really great!

A STEM mindset is one that embraces discovery, investigation, and critical thinking. Engaging in collaborative conversations, thinking flexibly about problems, and developing creative solutions are developed in classrooms that embrace a STEM mindset for learning. Every interaction that we have with our students allows us to either foster that mindset or hinder it. Take a look at some responses to student questions and how our response can influence student learning.

The questions that our students ask and the way we respond to them can have powerful effects. When it comes to STEM learning, we can push our students to think, persevere, and reflect or cause them to retract, rely on us, and second guess themselves. The way we engage with our students can build confidence and fuel curiosity. We need to be mindful about the way we communicate with our students and remember that every conversation is an opportunity for us to push our students further and allow them to grow in a mindset that embraces imagination and inquiry through meaningful STEM learning.

About the Author: 
Dr. Jacie Maslyk is an Assistant Superintendent focusing on curriculum, instruction, and professional learning. She has served in public school as a classroom teacher, reading specialist, elementary principal, and Director of Elementary Education over the last 22 years. She is passionate about STEM education and is the author of STEAM Makers: Fostering Creativity and Innovation in the Elementary Classroom. You can contact Jacie through her website at steam-makers.com.


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