Online Professional Learning and
Technical Assistance for
21st Century Community Learning Centers

The “Right Answer” Might Not Be What You Expect

Y4Y recently caught up with Tara Cox, Senior Manager of Professional Development with The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. In Y4Y’s September Showcase, Bringing Students and STEM Professionals Together! 21st CCLC STEM Collaboration With NASA and IMLS, Ms. Cox talked about undoing “right-answer thinking,” and Y4Y wanted to hear more about it! [Podcast]

Y4Y: Could you share with readers a little about your train-the-trainer efforts at The Franklin Institute?

TC: One of the many projects I’m involved in is a collaboration between the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the U.S. Department of Education through 21st CCLC grants. It’s spearheaded by the New York Hall of Science, which has developed an incredible hands-on, six-week maker curriculum. Partnering with museums across the country, they have developed this “train-the-trainer” model to connect with afterschool programs in neighborhoods near museums. Our organization partners with five programs in Philadelphia. Some other participants include the Frost Museum of Science in Miami, the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum in Milwaukee and the Scott Family Amazeum in Arkansas. So, museums and afterschool programs team up to bring maker programs to their 21st CCLC sites.

Y4Y: Which 21st CCLC program team members do you encourage to attend these activities?

TC: The model is very open, but at the Franklin Institute, we’ve found it’s important to include ALL key stakeholders in the training, from the CEO, directors, COOs, and anyone at the top to buy into what we’re hoping to achieve, then the program managers and site leaders, all the way down to frontline staff and part-time educators. By getting everyone involved, they’re all in the know, the whole site understands the initiative, and they can be supportive at every level. It does take full participation to make a strong STEM program happen. This practice also guards against some of the negative effects of employee turnover.

Y4Y: Tell us a little about “right-answer thinking” and how that relates to 21st CCLC programs.

TC: The idea of leaving this “right answer” framework applies to students and to staff. Undoing right-answer thinking is something that needs to be modeled at every level. The great thing about maker programming and curriculum is that it takes a lot of pressure off the facilitator. The facilitator doesn’t need to know “the right answer” because there isn’t one. Yes, there are some key science skills that you might need, which staff can practice and develop over time. As an example, having a basic understanding of circuits helps in an activity around turning a lightbulb on. But if you distill these concepts down, making them very simple, and you broaden the way to achieve a basic understanding, this is the realm of undoing right-answer thinking. If an activity has an end-goal of empowering students to understand circuits, finding as many ways as possible for getting there is the goal. The learning is in the process. The learning is in the making and the doing, not in the final product or right answer. There is so much learning when things don’t go right! When you fail repeatedly, there is rich learning happening. Everyone, from the students up through the educators and administrators, needs to buy into this idea.

Y4Y: Do you find that undoing right-answer thinking in out-of-school learning aligns with the school day? What are the strengths and the areas needing growth?

TC: What I’ve noticed in the past 10 years of working in education is that there is a large focus on assessment in formal spaces, which underscores right-answer thinking culture and overlooks critical learning opportunities that happen during the process of figuring things out. But there are some great strategies from formal education that I like to pull into the out-of-school time environment to offer the perfect bridge.

Sometimes we think about open-ended learning as a free-for-all, but it’s not. There is a happy medium between total mayhem and total structure, and it can be found with scaffolding, modeling and setting learning goals. With these in place, we’re building students’ confidence in doing and learning creatively. We’re trying something new. Just because we’re advocating open-ended learning doesn’t mean there isn’t intentionality. You can’t place students in a room full of stuff and expect them to dive in and learn. They may struggle with this stark contrast from their formal education. But on the flip side, if every aspect of an activity is step-by-step instructions, there is no creative thinking or critical thinking. You can borrow from the school day to bridge the gap, but in afterschool, you can and should emphasize the student-driven component.

Y4Y: Can you elaborate on the specific strategies from the school day that help bridge the gap between formal structured school-day learning and more open-ended afterschool opportunities?

TC: At the Franklin Institute, we’ve developed what we call the Core Four strategies, which comes from our National Science Foundation- and IMLS-funded Leap into Science Program that connects children’s books with hands-on science activities in community settings. They are based in research on how people learn, and work well for both the formal and the informal educational space. The pendulum can swing pretty far to the unstructured extreme in museum education, but we know from experience that offering some structure is optimal for learning. The Core Four strategies are concepts that most educators already know, and are implementing, but we’ve condensed them into easy-to-articulate ideas. Quite simply, these four strategies are (1) asking questions, (2) encouraging scientific thinking, (3) cultivating rich dialogue and (4) making connections. Research shows that these strategies maximize learning in any discipline, especially for critical thinking skills, which are essential in STEM and literacy.

(Editor’s note: Y4Y offers a Questions for Inquiry-Based Learning tool).

Bear in mind, as a professional development manager, I work with teachers, librarians, afterschool educators and museum educators. The Core Four strategies work from kindergarten through college. They scale in different ways, of course, but are fundamental to any kind of learning, even adult learning. So, we model them in professional development as well as with students.

Y4Y: Are students any more flexible or adaptable than their adult counterparts when it comes to undoing right-answer thinking?

TC: There may be research to answer that question, but anecdotally what I can attest to is how difficult it is across the board. A key to ensuring success in undoing right-answer thinking is being explicit, as an educator or facilitator, about what you’re trying to achieve. Kids, especially, may not fully grasp the intent of a maker activity, but if you explain specifically that their learning goal is about the process rather than the end product, their experience will be all the richer. Bring their awareness to the openness of the activity, their own thinking process in a metacognitive sense, and how that process itself is leading to learning.

I’d also like to mention the importance of parents as key stakeholders in undoing right-answer thinking. Our students move in these three worlds: their formal school-day education, their out-of-school experience and home. For total reinforcement of these principles, parents need to buy in as well – and it’s our job to help them see the value. In some cases, the generation gap makes this more challenging. Often, you’re indirectly asking parents to question the effectiveness of their own education. So, we bring it back to the Core Four strategies, which are supported by research on learning, and even more broadly, by asking “How do people learn?” Wanting to find the most effective way to learn: that’s the “why.” The Core Four strategies are the “how.”

Y4Y: What’s your best advice for getting buy-in from parents on undoing right-answer thinking?

TC: Bring them along on your journey! Like everyone, The Franklin Institute shifted everything this past summer from in-person to virtual. One of our offerings, the GSK Science in the Summer Program, which is the 35-year-old legacy STEM outreach program from GSK, is centered on engagement in exciting STEM learning and career exploration. In this case, we packed kits for experiments and created videos, and students were participating from their homes. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that families participated in the experiments together at home, and to see the impact this had on family engagement around science. Parent feedback evaluations mentioned how the experience was great not just for their kids, but for them as well. Programs can consider sending projects home that require some family participation, or holding more STEM nights at centers. We also invite parents to our professional development events to give them their own direct learning opportunities.

Where family engagement is concerned, one of the things we measure is “science capital,” a construct developed by University College London. This is a multifaceted way of understanding why some people think science is for them, and some don’t. The four main components are who you know, what you do, how you feel and what you know. Reflecting on an individual’s attitudes, experiences and relationships can give insight on how they interact with science across all areas of life, not only through school. In 21st CCLC programs, we not only look at ways of building science capital, but we want to draw attention to the capital our students might already have. We start by broadening people’s perceptions of what “doing science” looks like, and the diversity of people who “do science” and where they do it. We are all doing so much science, all the time, and thinking critically about it. The baking a grandma does with her grandkids is science!

(Editor’s note: Read even more on the research behind science capital).

Y4Y: We recently updated Y4Y’s STEM course to a soon-to-be-released STEAM course, which adds the arts to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, to reflect the design thinking we see at the heart of many careers. Would you say this is the spirit of maker learning?

TC: For me, STEAM is a mindset. It’s an approach to learning, and to doing, that is the antithesis of right-answer thinking and focuses on critical thinking and problem solving, which are essential in any career. This approach also provides multiple entry points for students, depending on what aspect of STEAM they find most appealing and interesting. There is a lot of inequity in systems where standardized testing (and the right-answer thinking behind it) has been more prominent and where students have little choice in what they are learning. I truly believe that undoing right-answer thinking will grant more access points and increase equity for children. We are expanding ideas of what we think science is, lessening the value of what is “right” or “wrong,” and even broadening ways of doing. Even if makerspaces offer only small steps, hopefully they’re transforming students’ minds and allowing them to break some of their own barriers, empowering them for future thinking.

Y4Y: Do you have any last words of wisdom around undoing right-answer thinking?

TC: I approach education like a scientist would. It’s an experiment. We have to undo our own fear of failure, such as the lesson plan not going how we planned, or the outcomes we hoped for not materializing. Let go of that fear of failure, and use those opportunities to gather data, modeling this important process for students. See what’s working and what’s not, and share these discoveries explicitly with your students. The more we can practice undoing our right-answer mindset and talking with kids about our own limitations, the better off we’ll be.