I got a question from S. Crowder asking how to address student apathy and struggles with developing critical thinking skills through Differentiation for STEM/PBL curriculum. It’s an important concern that is shared by many who truly want their students to succeed. So I’m sharing the post here (with some word edits). I invite you to read the Edutopia article: Quality Instruction + Differentiation: Beyond the Checklist. If you like it, please share it via Edutopia’s social network icons to your colleagues and professional networks. Also, share this blog post to help others with similar questions.

Thanks and enjoy. John McCarthy, @jmccarthyeds or https://twitter.com/JMcCarthyEdS

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STEM and STEAM programs can be great experiences for learners to content with “real world context.” PBL and STEAM (or STEAM) is a powerful team, as I’ve seen from working with schools across the country. So to your two important concerns: Apathy and Higher Level Thinking–Let’s dialog about both.

Students show lack of interest for a variety of reasons. From the students’ perspective, they might believe that the “game called school” is just a daily checklist to get through. Differentiation addresses this in so many ways, so here are 2 to start:

  1. Mediate students’ perception about the STEM (STEAM) PBL curriculum

Recognize that part of student apathy are the boring or negative experiences they’ve had in the past. This is not a critique on teachers, but rather on the outcomes of “coverage” instruction. Address students’ perceptions head on by using relationship building and “truth” telling to convince them to try this different approach called STEM (STEAM) PBL–which the message will be tailored to what different groups of students need to hear. Then ENSURE that the learning experiences ARE different. For example, start with an Authentic Purpose for an Audience.  In this case, get to know students as people and how they learn based on learning profiles and interests. These considerations will get students to have an open mind.

2. Use Readiness (diverse skill levels) to strategically plan & implement instruction

We need to differentiate (sometimes) by Readiness or skill levels. Yes, students can struggle with academic critical thinking because they might not be use to it–in the classroom. But students use critical thinking all the time where–to them–it matters most. Outside of school, they strategize in gaming, shopping (sometimes), or critical discussions about movies, products, and other entertainment.

My teen son and I discussed current gaming technology on desktops vs the growing tech of mobile apps, which let to projecting tech trends for the next 10, 50, and 100 years. The novel, Feed by MT Anderson, entered the conversation. This happened because the topic was something that he cared about and saw value.


The place to start is in two phases:

1st: Use formative assessment data to diagnose student needs–both where they struggle and where they need challenge. Included in this is reflecting on one’s practice to find different ways to teach concepts beyond the educator’s comfort zone. Consider this article as a starting place.  Once you have this information, activities can be crafted based on Readiness needs.

2nd: Teach critical thinking through Think Alouds for modeling and student reflections via protocols like Fishbowl** and Save the Last Word. Debrief the protocol experience so that students can think about their thinking.

Try these first steps to eliminate student apathy and improve their critical thinking skills. What strategies do you use to address either or both?


**the link is to a protocol that uses the Fishbowl. Fishbowl can be done in as less as 5-10 minutes.