How to Employ a Differentiated Mindset When Teaching STEM

By Eric Moore and Jason Porter, STEM Educators and Directors at TGR Foundation
Feb 27, 2020 8:35 AM ET

When we facilitate professional development events, there’s often a common theme: teachers understand the importance of active STEM teaching and learning, but don’t always know how to implement it in a way that supports the diverse needs of their students. In our work with TGR EDU: Explore, a partnership between TGR Foundation and Discovery Education, we provide guidance to educators on how to prepare students for success through active, engaging instruction.

Differentiated instruction is a critical part of providing an equitable, effective STEM education. When instruction is differentiated, students are able to actively explore careers in STEM, hone their individual skillsets and build confidence.

Here’s how to employ a differentiated mindset when teaching STEM.

Mindset shift required.

A shift in mindset is key to implementing differentiation in a STEM classroom. One of the best ways to help students achieve higher level learning is to employ active learning strategies during instruction. Active learning involves students creating and discovering during class, and connecting findings to their personal knowledge and experiences.

We must provide students with an environment where they can contribute to the conversation and learn from one another. A one-way lecture simply isn’t as beneficial as collaboration.

Here’s a quick breakdown of some different active learning methods:

  • Inquiry based instruction: Making observations, asking questions, analyzing data, engaging in argument, sharing findings.
  • Cooperative learning: Discovering how to learn from each other by working in groups.
  • Experiential learning: Learning by doing; authentic learning experiences.
  • Project-based learning: Empowering students to think critically, creatively solve problems, collaborate as members of a team and communicate with peers to explain how they solved a problem.

When it comes to teaching STEM, project-based learning is one of the most effective learning strategies you can use. Educators who implement project-based activities into STEM are not only engaging their students in the learning process, but are also emphasizing The 4 C’s of 21st Century Skills – critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. Teaching these skills is critical to STEM instruction.

Equity isn’t equality.

Before we dive in to the benefits of differentiation, it’s important to understand that equity does not mean equality. Equity isn’t about giving every student the same amount of support – it’s making sure every student has access to the amount of support they need as individuals. Differentiated instruction helps us achieve this level of individualized support.

When we fail to meet the challenge of providing quality and equity in school, we are contributing to the achievement gap. The implementation of effective differentiated instruction enhances the learning process, and can lead to improved student outcomes and achievements.

Defining differentiation.

Differentiation isn’t a recipe for instruction, and it’s not a specific instruction strategy. It’s a mindset for teaching and learning. Differentiation is grounded in the belief that students who are the same age widely differ, and these differences have a huge impact on how they learn.

Students learn best when they are pushed by supportive adults, can make a connection between curriculum and their interests and life experiences, feel like learning opportunities are authentic, and, most importantly, feel they are significant and respected in the classroom.

Educators who have embraced a differentiated mindset are planning what students learn, how they learn it and how they will show what they have learned – allowing students to focus on the actual learning process in a way that makes sense to them. They are facilitators of the learning process.

We also suggest educators work to build a culture of reflection and goal-setting. Goal-setting is key to making project-based learning work. Teachers must build an environment where students feel comfortable reflecting on their individual progress, and setting their own goals. No matter the subject, we must celebrate student achievements of every size.

Strategies for creating an engaging STEM classroom

To employ active learning and differentiation in STEM instruction, we’ve compiled the following strategies.

#1 Ask driving questions

Begin lessons with thoughtful questions. These benefit students by sparking interest, inciting a sense of challenge and helping to guide learning. In turn, driving questions also benefits educators by providing structure to project-based lessons.

#2 Create teachable moments with activity stations

Teachers are not bystanders during project-based learning. Instead, educators can set up teachable moments by incorporating activity stations or centers during lessons. 

Imagine that students are learning about droughts, and have been tasked with finding a solution to the issues caused by them. You could start by setting up stations with different resources for students to explore to build upon the knowledge they already have. One station may have print articles, another may offer video sources on a computer.

Next, you could have a collaborative station where students share what they’ve learned with each other. And finally, you can set up a modeling station, where students can visualize their solution to the problem by sketching it out.

When students move from station to station, they are building knowledge as they go. All learners are able to grow through this process.

#3 Differentiate student teams

Teams are important because they allow students to bring their own strengths to a group, while building communication and collaboration skills. Many parts of STEM learning are challenging – when students work together, they are able to bring their own knowledge to the table while also learning from their peers.

There are three strategies to differentiate student teams. Rather than sticking with one method, we suggest using each, since they all have benefits.

Homogeneous: Grouping students by level. This is helpful for providing additional support to the student groups who need it most.

Heterogenous: Grouping learners of varying levels. This is beneficial because students are able to learn from one another.

Voice & Choice: Students self-select their groups. This is valuable because students are able to own their groups and use their voice to make a decision.

Let’s recap

Differentiation is a way to facilitate learning for the diversity of learners in your classroom. Project-based learning is an active strategy that facilitates differentiated instruction. It’s important to remember that differentiated instruction is a skill that can be learned and improved upon – it’s not a set strategy, it’s a mindset. Practice will make it permanent.

Working towards a differentiated mindset will benefit you and your students. By creating engaging, active STEM classrooms, we are helping students achieve success in college, career and life.