Nothing sidelines an inquiry lesson like the need for control, nothing sours an engineering design project as fast as a fear of failure, and nothing curbs innovation and natural curiosity like perfectionism.
Control. Fear of failure. Perfectionism. I think we can all agree that these traits are opposite of the ones important for STEM learning—traits such as risk taking, failing forward, and stepping out of one’s comfort zone. But what if the person struggling with these traits isn’t a student but rather the teacher?
We know that the teacher is the most important element in successful STEM learning—it’s the teacher who differentiates, aligns to standards, and addresses students’ misconceptions in order to facilitate the strongest opportunities for learning. But its the traits of a teacher’s heart that yield an even greater impact on STEM learning.
A good STEM teacher has to be confident enough to ditch the textbook from time to time in favor of curiosity and inquiry. A good STEM teacher has the perspective to know that a perfectly constructed lab report is far less important than an insight-evoking inquiry question. A good STEM teacher is open-minded enough to admit that there are many ways to solve a problem and brave enough to encourage divergent thinking even when it challenges long-held notions. These teachers practice more than just a good set of teaching strategies. They exude traits like self-confidence, self-compassion, perspective, perseverance, optimism, calmness, passion, and mindfulness—what I call “wholehearted teaching” traits. When teachers are equipped with these traits, their students in turn learn grit, risk taking, self-value, compassion, and open-mindedness.
But teachers are also human. And traits like these are difficult for all of us to develop in life—especially when we are exhausted, overwhelmed, and overworked. The following small shifts can provide a good starting place to cultivate important wholehearted teaching traits.
Perfectionism is often falsely glorified in our society; it’s something we say we struggle with, but most are actually quite proud of it. However, perfectionism is a direct enemy of scientific thinking. I’m not talking about perfectionism as in an attention to detail (which is very good in science and engineering!). I’m talking about the perfectionism that comes from internal insecurity, from not being able to accept ourselves as we are. This is the type of perfectionism that forces one to always find the “right” answer. On the contrary, we know science is messy, engineering takes many trials and errors, and real-world science laboratories have lots of half-baked ideas awaiting exploration.
Compassion means accepting ourselves and others as imperfect but growing, and it starts with the greatest model in the classroom—the teacher. We as teachers need to embrace the messy, imperfect sides of ourselves and our students so that they can learn to embrace the messy, hard-to-explain, mind-bending aspects of STEM. To make the shift, model compassionate self-talk and praise compassionate responses from students. Don’t rush students to get to the “right” answer or outcome; instead, praise the process of wrestling with content.
Problem: Fear of Failure
The fear of failure undermines intellectual risk taking, the foundation of critical thinking and authentic discourse. Fear of failure will keep us in a “fixed mindset” as opposed to a “growth mindset” (see the work of Carol Dweck). Oftentimes we espouse that we value failure as part of the learning process, but in reality, we get down on ourselves at our slightest shortcomings. Students will see right through this double standard, and soon they won’t feel comfortable to participate in class, let alone offer a unique solution to a problem. A culture of fearing failure—either at the classroom level or the school level—will create rifts in the foundation to great STEM teaching and learning.
Solution: Valuing Process
In order to neutralize the fear of failure, we need to make the shift to valuing the learning process in addition to the learning outcome. In other words, let’s value the journey to knowledge and the knowledge achieved. We intuitively know that the process of knowledge construction is far more valuable than giving students the right answer and hoping they will remember it. In constructivist theory, in fact, the process of knowledge creation yields a deeper, more lasting knowledge. I take that a step further and submit that the process of knowledge creation, fraught with pitfalls and failures, will teach students not only lasting content knowledge but also the grit and tenacity it takes to be a lifelong learner. To make the shift, create a culture of acceptance where everyone is valued for their individual gifts and ideas. Share your own failures, always be willing to apologize for your mistakes, and genuinely seek feedback from students. Praise the effort of their learning journey, and encourage students to see their growth as a work in progress. Challenge students to use the word “yet” as much as possible: when they fail, they can say they haven’t been successful…yet.
Problem: A Strong Need for Control
When we as teachers have a strong need for control, we can unintentionally shift into a teacher-directed learning environment where each activity and decision students engage in is dictated by the teacher. Research-based best practice for science teaching and learning is to allow students to explore, engage with content, and create and refine their explorations as part of the learning process. Good STEM teaching is as much about process as it is about content. And a strong need for control by the teacher cannot coexist with this pedagogical ideal. It’s important for us to examine this need to determine if it’s real or perceived—and ultimately to determine where the need for control comes from.
Solution: Dial Up Student Expectations
Examining where the strong need for control comes from can help us to determine whether it serves or inhibits our students’ learning. We can begin to dial down our need for control by asking ourselves questions like the following: What is the bare minimum that I need to have control of? What responsibilities can I give to my students? What will I do if they don’t do things like I would do them? Am I okay with the possible consequences or discomfort of letting students take more responsibility for their learning? Also, don’t forget to remember why it’s important to dial down the need to control and dial up student expectations: only when we raise our expectations can students rise to them.
Being a good STEM teacher is about both the strategies we use and the traits we possess. As teachers, we are both learning facilitators and models of wholehearted learning and living. Working on our hearts can be as important to our effectiveness as attending a conference. So let’s do this. Let’s face our perfectionism, our fear of failure, our need for control. Because the other side of this internal battle is the payoff of seeing our students truly thrive.
All my love,
What is your struggle?
I originally wrote this article for the Arizona Science Teachers Association Science Times Circular. Being that my “day job” is to support teachers in teaching about STEM concepts – specifically energy and the environment – I am really passionate about the intersection of these two worlds – wholehearted teaching and STEM.
I hope you like my take on why we need more wholehearted STEM teachers!!