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Five ways to reimagine your classroom successfully

Education today exists within a paradox. New pedagogies and technology may have ushered in dramatic changes in the classroom, but core structures of classroom teaching remain unchanged and grossly out of date. The internet has changed how we seek out information. It has also changed how young people learn. Standardised tests may make it easy for countries to track educational progress, but they also put a tremendous amount of pressure on students, and in turn on their teachers.


There are creative teachers out there, determined to help their students, but the current system makes it increasingly difficult for them to apply their creativity. The existing school and classroom structures don’t leave much room for imagination, and technology ends up being used just as another superficial tool. Every revolution begins somewhere. While it’s essential that school structures change, there are things that teachers and educators can do in the meantime to help themselves and their students in embracing change and reimagining education.


Here are five ways you can do it now:


1. The difference between the right way and doing it right

For years we have worked with our cemented beliefs on how knowledge should be imparted: a teacher faces a group of students sitting in rows. We’ve always regarded this setup as the right way to do things. However, we forget that students have agency, which has been further enabled by the internet and social media. This means that students now have various means to find information, and at startling speeds. The teacher is no longer the sage on the stage, imparting their wisdom. So how do we do things right? Teachers need to accept a shift in their role. With so much information on the internet available for students, it’s sometimes difficult to make sure that what they read is always accurate. This is where teachers need to guide students towards reliable, well-known sources of knowledge, teaching them to draw their own logical conclusions. Learning how to use technology correctly has never been more important.


2. Focus on goals rather than method

We know every person learns in a different way. While some students might grasp a concept immediately, others may need more guidance. Similarly, one student might excel in one subject and struggle with another. So how do we make sure that students get a rounded learning experience? By focusing on the learning outcome instead of the method. For years now, we have focused on set ways of teaching students, where the teacher writes on the board while the students study their textbooks. This means that most modern classrooms are actually following a design set to prepare students for the industrial age. The use of technology hasn’t yet changed that process as much as it should – students seem to have simply upgraded to e-books or reading on tablets. A good way to break away from rigid teaching structures is for teachers to experiment with a variety of pedagogies and mediums to see which combination helps students learn in the best possible way. These can include educational films with a flipped classroom or group rotation, contextualising lessons using topical news, and melding practical exercises and projects to theory (think NGSS ).


3. Learning-centered goals

In our previous blog post, we talked about a growth mindset and how to implement it in your classroom. Learning-centered goals fall squarely within a growth mindset territory. Often students struggle under pressure to manage better grades. Most don’t understand why they’re going wrong despite persistent efforts. This leads to loss of belief in one’s ability and eroded confidence. Teachers can help students get around this by focusing on learning outcomes rather than performance outcomes. This might mean allowing your students more time in class to come to their own conclusions, or allowing them some space to struggle with concepts and theories while they try to figure them out. In the case of a student who struggles with a subject or assignment despite their best efforts, a teacher can acknowledge that student’s effort before sitting them down and helping them figure out what they are doing wrong. This kind of approach allows a teacher to give support while simultaneously allowing the student to learn from their own mistakes.


4. A good education is not just limited to curriculum

It comes down to a difference between qualification and education. A good qualification shows that a young person performed well at school, but a good education gives them the skills needed to do well in adult life. Problem solving skills, critical thinking skills and the ability to communicate effectively are all vital qualities that employers seek in employees. These skills also heavily contribute to helping young people develop a well-rounded view of the world, helping them to become good citizens. Unfortunately, curriculum doesn’t always cover all the important skills that young people need to learn in life. A teacher keen to provide a good education to their students should take on the responsibility of trying to teach these skills. Luckily, it can be easily done. Encourage class interaction during lessons through open discussions, group assignments and paired project work. For example, a teacher can introduce global warming by assigning a educational film as homework (flipping the classroom in the process), before moving on to an open discussion about the film and what the class understood about the topic. This can then be followed by dividing the class into groups and tasking them to come up with three examples of situations that they think have come about due to global warming. Groups can discuss their findings as a class before the teacher moves on to a more traditional style of lesson.


5. Build links and connections

Thanks to technology, today we are living a world that is intrinsically connected, where grassroots programs such as rooftop gardens can impact global issues such as sustainability or depletion of fossil fuels. NGSS puts an emphasis on teaching young people to become good citizens. The best way to teach students to connect with a bigger community and become better citizens is to let them experience both first hand. Teachers can enlist help from local citizen science organizations to create projects that convert classroom lessons into practical, real-life applications. This helps students learn the practical applications to classroom theory alongside developing important social and communication skills. It also provides them with practical experience and a means to achieve measurable results in what they accomplish in the real world.

The word CAN'T, with the 'T cut off to spell CAN

Why developing a growth mindset is important – and how to implement it in the classroom

Academic culture and a myriad of social factors can often lead children to think that intelligence is inherent. Statements such as “You’re born smart”, “Boys are naturally better at maths” or “Some children just have scientific brains” are not only negative but also very damaging to growing minds – even for those claimed to be blessed with a so-called “scientific brain”. And let’s face it, the STEM urgency that led to an educational rush to prepare children with a scientific aptitude for STEM careers didn’t help, either. At this point, it makes you wonder about the other students – the ones who were deemed not to have the scientific aptitude for STEM careers. What of them? Aren’t they worthy of pursuing STEM dreams, too?


Let’s start with the basics: every child, as a human being, is born intelligent. We all have different aptitudes for a number of different things. So it is pointless to differentiate children based on what we believe to be their “inherent intelligence”. The same goes for scientific aptitude. All children are born curious and with the need to find answers. (Why else do they put things in their mouths or stick fingers in electric sockets?) Going on this logic alone, every young person is worthy of following a STEM education and career. Granted, some children might exhibit a more open interest in STEM than others, but it is also true that every child has the capacity to develop an interest in science.


30 years ago, Carol Dweck and Ellen Leggett put forward a theory that children’s learning behavior and beliefs had a lasting impact on their learning outcomes. She suggested that those with interests in performance get discouraged by hardship, while those interested only in learning seek out challenging tasks in order to learn more. Dweck’s paper also proposed that those with learning goals persisted despite failure and continued to have faith in their abilities, while those with performance goals were often easily discouraged upon encountering failure and doubted their abilities. Dweck coined the terms “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset” to describe each of the aforementioned learning and intelligence beliefs, respectively.


What is a growth mindset, and why is it important?

Many students tend to give up when they encounter failure and hardship in studies because they believe that it means they are simply not good at the subject, or that they lack the level of intelligence necessary to excel at the subject. This is what is referred to as a fixed mindset. However, students can also have what is referred to as a growth mindset, which states that the brain is capable of overcoming the challenges it faces in new areas of learning. It is possible to develop a growth mindset, and doing so can help a student overcome the hurdles they face in learning and develop the necessary skills to persist. For example, a growth mindset in young girls who struggle with maths can help them recognize the fact that it certainly had nothing to do with their gender. Here, a growth mindset would help them persist in their efforts and try new learning techniques in order to improve their maths skills, rather than give up because they believe that they are genetically doomed to fail at the subject. Similarly, a child from an impoverished background can, with the help of a growth mindset, learn to take his or her individual difficulties in their stride in order to overcome those hurdles. The same concept applies for young people with learning or physical disabilities: a growth mindset works to instill confidence in a student regarding their ability to develop and learn.


Recently, there has been a surge in educators and parents using the growth mindset as a way to encourage performance in young people. While it’s heartening to see the sheer volume of educators keen on helping their children and students, many aren’t implementing it correctly. For most, a growth mindset seems to represent effort or praise. But effort means nothing if it’s merely being used to try out the same techniques that didn’t work for the student in the first place. Another misinterpreting of the growth mindset is that praising a young person for trying anyway will encourage them, when in fact it is often redundant. Praise in itself is positive, but not when it’s being used to cheer up a child who has encountered difficulties. Instead, the student needs to be encouraged to find different strategies that actually work, rather than aimlessly repeating efforts that didn’t work the first time and won’t work the second. In addition to this, simply believing in achieving something is just not enough. Educators and teachers must take into account the social and cultural factors that affect their students. A child cannot be expected to improve if they lack the educational infrastructure to help them do so.


How can a growth mindset be implemented successfully in the classroom?

Let them struggle. It’s a normal impulse for most teachers to step in and help a student who seems to be struggling. However, research now shows that allowing your students to struggle a bit might actually be beneficial for them. After all, nobody grows within their comfort zone. This is where the growth mindset comes in. Teachers and educators need to actively encourage students to take on challenges. The idea is to pull them out of their comfort zone but also make sure they don’t feel abandoned or vulnerable. It’s a fine balance to strike, but a rewarding one.


Failure is okay. Effort is a big part of the growth mindset but it’s not always going to result in success, and that’s completely fine. Praising a child for trying even if they failed is meant well, but what about improving the learning curve? It’s important to acknowledge the child’s efforts and make sure they understand where they are going wrong. Here, language is important. For example, if a child has done poorly in a test, despite their best efforts, telling them “Good job! You tried your best.” is confusing; in the long run, it can lead them to believe that you have low expectations for them. Instead, “I can see you’ve tried very hard. Let’s see how you can improve for next time to do even better,” can help a child recognize what they are doing wrong so that they can learn from their mistakes. It also conveys to them that learning is a continuous process and that there is a real opportunity for improvement. It’s equivalent to telling them: “I know you can do it, and it’s okay if you get stuck, but you need to try first. If you do get stuck, we’ll try a different way of looking at it.”


There is more than one way to learn. Learning isn’t just continuous, it’s also varied. Encourage and guide your students to learn in the way that suits them best: capitalize on their strengths and ask them to think outside the box. Not all children learn the same way; some are visual learners, while others are auditory learners. However, a rigid academic culture can put pressure on children and inadvertently cap their capabilities. Teachers can help counter this by using different teaching mediums such as educational films, quizzes, class activities to teach in class. Using a variety of different pedagogies can also help create a stimulating learning environment. For example, pedagogies such as the flipped classroom encourage students to approach and understand lessons on their own, with the end result of being able to draw their own conclusions.


Finally, it’s important to understand that a growth mindset isn’t just beneficial to children, it’s equally applicable to adults as well. Teachers have a huge responsibility on their shoulders along with mounting workloads. It’s important to extend the same kindness to yourself as you do to your students when they make mistakes. Developing a growth mindset isn’t always easy, so remember that you too will make errors. It’s just as important to learn from your own mistakes as it is for your students to learn from theirs.

Colonization of distant planet

Life on Mars

We’ve all heard the stereotypical jokes about women in STEM, and particularly female engineers. There’s a long list of things that women are apparently bad at: technology, science, maths and driving, to name just a few. Never mind that the world owes much to female scientists and engineers in terms of innovation and progress. It was Lise Meitner, a physicist and chemist, who co-led the team that discovered nuclear fission; while she was never given formal credit, the element meitnerium is named in her honour. MIT astronomer Sara Seager has discovered a total of 715 exoplanets using the Kepler space telescope in her search to find another Earth-like planet, and biomedical engineer Nina Tandon is responsible for devising a way for the stem cells in a patient to be used for growing custom-fitted bone cells in under four weeks. Women have made significant scientific contributions to environmental care, too – Kristen Marhaver is a marine biologist researching coral reproduction and what juvenile corals need in order to survive today, which is time-sensitive work given the large-scale destruction of coral reefs around the world.


However, one female engineer in particular has proved her driving skills to be out of this world – quite literally. Vandi Verma is an accomplished roboticist and part of the team that designed and operates Curiosity, the Mars rover. Verma doesn’t just drive Curiosity; she also helped build it and wrote the operating codes that are used to run it. Her job is further complicated by the fact that she’s building machines on Earth that will operate on an entirely different planet. This means she has to take into account factors like different forces of gravity, varying atmospheric pressure and unfamiliar geographical terrain. Every calculation must therefore be precise; the machines require intelligent and careful programming, as remote repairs aren’t possible.


Verma’s job of creating a sturdy robot capable of withstanding Martian elements was a big mechanical challenge, as the rover is more than just a vehicle made for alien terrain; it’s also a mobile science laboratory. Mars has a very dusty environment and experiences extreme climates, cycling through blistering heat and sub-zero temperatures every day. The sturdy solar panels had to be designed in such as way that they wouldn’t become damaged by heat, radiation or Martian dust. The other delicate instruments on board also need to be protected against the dusty environment. Curiosity moves on metal wheels, rather than inflated tyres, to help it negotiate the pressure and temperature differences alongside the rocky terrain. As Curiosity is also essentially a laboratory on wheels, it is equipped with various instruments that help it collect samples and analyse its environment. These include X-ray diffraction instruments to determine the mineral composition in the soil, drills and a scoop to collect soil samples, and cameras (both coloured and black and white) to take photographs. Built-in equipment such as thermal sensors monitor the rover’s condition so that when it gets too cold, heaters can be activated to keep the rover from freezing over. Curiosity is also designed to be an intelligent robot – Verma controls where the robot is initially positioned and then switches Curiosity over to auto mode. The rover then records images of its environment and beams back the data to the team on Earth.


Verma also helped write the simulation software that operators use to map out the rover’s route for the following day. Every evening, Curiosity sends back important information along with its coordinates before it shuts down for the night. Verma and other operators then use this information to map out the following day’s route, covering a number of difficult manoeuvres over difficult terrain. This route is then beamed back to the rover, and another day of extra-terrestrial exploring ensues.


Verma’s journey to Mars began by driving a tractor in the fields of India. Today she is a strong role model for millions of young women all over the world who seek to pursue their STEM dreams, which shows the importance of encouragement. Who knows where the next Vandi Varma might be?

chalk drawing from children on the asphalt

How NGSS and STEM fit together

The urgency for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education was heralded by a workforce imperative and the need to supply an increasing demand for STEM jobs. This was followed by the introduction of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The NGSS was introduced at a time when concerns over science education were running high – the PISA scores had come out, painting a bleak picture of today’s students’ scientific understanding. This, set against the background of the urgent requirement for STEM professionals, brought into sharp focus the need for an overhaul in science education. But what does this mean for teachers? Is the NGSS just one more tick on an ever-growing checklist of educational and pedagogical demands? And where does it stand in relation to STEM?


Schools that use integrated STEM instruction focus on the integration of science, technology, engineering and mathematics at every level of school education, even including pre-kindergarten; NGSS, set firmly on the foundation of three-dimensional learning – scientific and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts and disciplinary core ideas – looks at how best this instruction can be integrated and taught in the classroom. Teachers well-versed in these three dimensions might wonder about the concept of the NGSS science and engineering practices. There is clearly an overlap between the current instructions in place for teaching STEM subjects and the NGSS standards; does this mean that the NGSS standards are simply a loosely disguised update of the STEM standards? Not quite. NGSS and STEM both address the same urgency within science and science education, they just do it in slightly different ways. Think of integrated STEM instruction as a road map and the NGSS as a GPS. Both direct you to the same destination, except while one gives a general route, the other provides a more guided approach to finding your way, with the option of many alternate routes – whatever suits you most. The overlap only gives teachers more room for experimentation with lesson plans and curriculum activities.


The first step to understanding the NGSS-STEM correlation is to understand how each practice works. STEM education focuses primarily on fulfilling the STEM workforce demands. This means identifying and selecting students who show aptitude or interest in science, technology, engineering or maths, and helping them develop the necessary skills needed in these fields. A good STEM education focuses on problem-solving: identifying the source of a problem, exploring alternate solutions, and then designing and constructing the solution. It’s real-world science as real-world scientists experience it, designed to allow students to experience the satisfaction that comes with the successful implementation of a solution. NGSS takes a broader perspective, focusing on scientific inquiry, developing scientific curiosity and finding solutions. It aims to make science accessible and enjoyable for everyone. The NGSS learning outcomes were designed not just to prepare future scientists and engineers, but also to instill a scientific way of thinking in each and every citizen. It originates from the belief that a good science education provides the knowledge that allows us to think through the impact of our actions in different ways, providing every citizen with the knowledge and ability to affect the future in ways that are constructive and positive. A crucial part of accomplishing this objective is to simplify science education and make it accessible to everyone. One way of achieving this is to contextualize science as it is taught in the classroom within events and phenomena that happen in the real world, thus forging a strong understanding of the science. Children are encouraged to observe the real world around them, ask questions, draw possible conclusions and gather evidence to support or refute their theory. STEM instruction places priority on identifying and nurturing abilities addressed by science education; NGSS focuses on enhancing scientific literacy amongst all students.


The overlap between STEM and NGSS depends on how the two are implemented. While NGSS uses a broader approach to scientific education, many of the approaches can also include certain mandates of STEM education. Where it differs slightly is in focus: STEM education sets its sights firmly on developing solutions for the manmade world, while NGSS focuses on laws and processes of the natural world, how these laws affect the human world and how humanity affects Earth. For example, in studying insects and ants, NGSS would include an examination of their life processes and habitation, and their place in the ecological cycle, whereas STEM education, would concentrate on studying the ants’ behavior to attempt to replicate this knowledge to be used in medical or engineering practices. In order to understand the various maladies and ailments that can affect the human world, a study of how other species deal with them can be hugely helpful – for example, investigating how certain species of ants use bacteria to ward off harmful microbes, a method now being used by doctors to help humans overcome antibiotic resistance. Here, STEM education would need to learn from NGSS practices, which focus on the natural processes and how they interact with the human world.


Overall, STEM and NGSS complement one another with certain intersecting aims. They open up possibilities both for teachers to experiment with how science is taught and students to better explore the topics and the world around them. What sets them apart is inclusivity. While STEM isn’t very inclusive, NGSS broadens the parameters of scientific knowledge to everyone in order to build valuable connections with knowledge and responsibility, the real world and the human world, and ultimately with conserving the natural world and human progress.