Finding a Foothold for STEAM Inquiry

Larry Myatt, ERC Co-Founder

The first time I heard mention of McLaughlin Middle School STEAM, I was part of a series of keynote remarks at a STEAM-Ahead event organized by Bob Baines, founder and Executive Director of STEAM-Ahead NH. It was held at Dyn, Corp. in Manchester, an early and passionate support of STEAM-Ahead. Here we were, assembled on the very cool work-floor meeting space of a major high-technology firm –community leaders, educators, policy makers and business and corporate representatives—easily a crowd of over a hundred. 

As part of the event, two McLaughlin students were asked to speak briefly about their learning on the school’s brand new STEAM team. Not only were these two 13-year olds poised and confident, they were able to speak in detailed, mature ways about their intellectual growth in a way I seldom hear (sadly) from middle-schoolers.

After the audience rewarded them warmly I went over and listened in as the students reconnected with their waiting teachers. I was impressed right away with the relationships among the small group and the very STEM-like debrief of form and content they conducted right away, informal but structured. “Something is going on over there”, I noted.

At that same event, the next group of students, from a STEAM team at Manchester’s West High School, not only talked about their project activities, they tasked the audience to engage on the spot in some table-based hands-on design challenges. Another home run with the crowd.

The kids I met there that day were not all the typical “best-and-the-brightest”, pre-screened into the programs, but, I was told, a very mixed ability groups of kids. Yet each one I met was capable of a level of “meta” thinking that told me these are capable, growing young people. I would have loved to have had my own kids in this kind of school setting.

Much to my delight, I got an email not too much later from Bob Baines, asking if I could accompany him to meet McLaughlin teachers and Principal Bill Krantz on my next visit to STEAM at West. The meeting was great. We exchanged perspectives and ideas on where we thought things stood and how they could develop. I could tell right away these teachers were game, had an appetite to grow and learn, and inquiry teaching and projects had rejuvenated and inspired them.

Baines brought key ingredients, a vision of connected programming in the city and incentive funding from the NH Department of Education grant and the local Bean Foundation, for release time and the needed high-touch coaching and professional development as the school planned for growing the STEAM program. The meeting resulted in a commitment for me to begin work there this past winter.

I’ve just finished a recent couple days there on an arc of deep conversation that the teachers engaged in quickly and intensely. As usual, we talk about the constraints of traditional school structure and flaws in the design, and how they mitigate against deep learning. We move on to productive practices, sharing what they notice about their students’ learning, what things feed them as teachers to endure the relentless pace, and milestone achievements they hope they can pursue. Wherever I travel, sharing ideas is most often cited as one of the highlights for teachers when we do our debriefs. So many teachers are hungry for a chance at serious, meaningful conversation that they don’t get often enough.

McLaughlin founding STEAM-er’s Callahan Goulet and Christina Stavenger brought a thoughtful and research-based DIY approach to early STEAM. They traveled and visited people doing similar work in and beyond STEAM-Ahead NH. They began to use their energy, collaboration and commitment to work differently with kids.

They opened up their classroom dividing walls; students sit in small teams facing each other, Chromebooks at the ready, orderly yet buzzing on the days I visit. Things are often hands-on here, connected to important issues in the world, and pursued in a team fashion that closely mimics the “21st century workplace environment we espouse but seldom replicate in most schools.

In our sessions we’ve worked to grow cognitive dissonance (and put it to best use), conducted charrettes to plan projects, mapped out big ideas and questions from their standards,  created and unpacked Learning Murals via our Visual Provocation Protocol. We created an early draft of a year-long array of projects and activities, smartly blended with direct instruction, drill and practice, lecture burst, etc., hallmarks of more traditional teaching. It’s a nice mix of pedagogy that invites different learning styles. Much of what they do is really good for learning, but to many it’s different and unfamiliar. It’s different for some students, and to teacher peers, and for some parents who want to see “teaching” that they recognize and consider good instruction from their school days. The STEAM teachers understand the reasons behind this range of opinions as accept it as part of trying to do business differently. Their job is to help more kids grow and be successful without putting traditional learners at risk, something far better done through inquiry teaching than by other means I find, and research suggests.

Our adult work is scholarly. I push. We talk a lot about the need to erase lines –the lines between subject matter and big ideas, the schedule and the pacing that move things along in a way that makes it hard for many kids to thrive as thinkers, as growing adolescents finding out what they may capable of. The STEAM teachers respond with thoughtful ideas and questions. To me, it’s what “PLC’s” (I dislike acronyms) could really be like. It’s the kind of intellectual work I recognize from being a teaching principal at Fenway High School, and the kind of intellectual work that experience, research and neuroscientists tell us is good for our brains and is the way more schools are going to do business.

I add here that I don’t like the acronym “PBL” either. Too easy to see it as an idea grafted loosely on to conventional teaching, as “dessert”. Instead, I like wrapping all these ideas up as inquiry learning, part of the overdue yet irresistible shift from the culture of teaching to a culture of learning. I see inquiry learning as an effort to get beyond the persistent mental model that one gains knowledge by “the presentation of established facts” -a mental model that portrays a false but appealingly smooth path to knowledge.  Whether it’s posing big questions, building and making, pursuing problems or wrestling down real-life scenarios, I see these as kindred brands of inquiry learning. These are the ways in which learning opportunities surface in the “real world”, quite different from those that are briefly granted on the academic conveyor belt, a set of sorting processes within a setting that remain intentionally apart from people and daily life.

But programs like STEAM need different conditions, more like the “real-world”. The track record of support for these efforts is poor in many districts and schools. Work of this kind can happen more routinely in affluent, independent settings, but in public schools it often bumps up against the predictable obstacles –history, culture, systems clash. (*For a great primer on these issues, see Charles Percy’s acute “So Much Reform”). Programming like STEAM is routinely unable to grow and thrive inside the traditional architecture of our secondary schools, sooner or later being sucked back into the traditional schedule, contract, instructional motif, culture and belief system. Add to that budget cuts, larger class sizes, and a teach-to-the-test mind-set and calendar that constrain deeper learning, and it’s not easy going for a seedling to emerge and plant itself firmly, be it Manchester or elsewhere.

I’m rooting for everyone at the McLaughlin. I see the STEAM program as good stuff for kids and teachers, connected to practices and perspectives that we sorely need given the poor results of our last 15 years of policies and mandates. If standards and testing was the right recipe, the private schools would have joined in long ago, right? The STEAM brand of teaching, just like that at their sister school, West High, can be a good fit for the high-achiever, but not only him/her, but also for the newly-emerging thinker who wants to take school more seriously than it takes him/her, for the student who likes to build and tinker rather than listen, and for the curious kids who like to ask what it all means. That’s why colleges and employers are after students who have some STEAM experience in their education. And it’s good for the teachers I see and work with--they get to plan, to grow, to take each other seriously as people and professionals. Here’s hoping the McLaughlin program can grow and prosper.

If you have more questions about what inquiry learning can look like , projects and achievement, etc. you can go to these Web links:

Positive brain development from hands-on learning:

Inquiry and projects in the private school world:

Inquiry learning with high-challenge schools and students:

Math in the middle years: