All entries for April 2018

April 30, 2018

The ladder of communication

Some colleagues believe STEM subjects are ‘difficult’, whereas we would characterise the difficulty as one of a gap in communication.

We propose looking at the communication gap to explore increasing accessibility of STEM.

We developed a diagram to represent the communication gap between learner and formal STEM language and ideas. The learner is thought of as at the bottom of a ladder wanting to climb up the ladder of subject knowledge and the STEM expert is at the top.

In the left-most diagram, the formal STEM speaker is unable to construct the scaffolding ladder of communication all the way down to the learner’s current understanding.

In the middle diagram, a teacher with good communication skills but less knowledge of formal STEM is unable to construct the ladder all the way up to the formal science.

The ideal ladder is shown right-most.


One form the ladder might take is based on the work of Bruner, known as enactive - iconic -symbolic.

If an idea is found inaccessible to a learner, it becomes more accessible when presented in approriate images.

If the images are not accessible, learners can come to understand a concept through making or enacting it, for example, by creating a graph using learners as data points.

This idea used successfully in Singapore as concrete-pictorial-abstract:

April 28, 2018

The 4 styles of classroom communication grid (Scott and Mortimer, 2003)

How might we improves learners understanding and engagement with science?

We start with the understanding that learners bring their own observations and experiences to the science lesson: “Learners make sense of the new information in relation to what they bring with them to the learning contexts and the teacher facilitates the process of sense making." (Msimanga)

We use the following model, originally created by Scott and Mortimer (2003) and added to by Audrey Msimanga's research, to help mathematics and science teachers make more use of learner voice in their lessons, in order to make stronger connections with what learners already know. MS Grid

A link to further reading:

April 27, 2018

Press release

The wonderful team that is helping change STEM education in Gauteng:

April 26, 2018

explore–actions–options (Egan's skilled helper)

STEM teachers who are very busy are sometimes tempted to provide a solution to a learner's problem too quickly, which may lead over time to the student developing dependency, rather than independence and resilience. Peer tutors tend to d the same.

One way we have found to support teachers in reducing support to the minimum, when working 1:1, and to avoid premature answers, is to introduce them and their students to Egan's 3 stages of coaching, inserting exploring the learner's experience of the problem and what they may have tried, and what their options are, before deciding on actions.

This has the longer term effect of increasing student independence, perseverance and responsibility, and, in the process, increasing teacher effectiveness.

More details can be found in this document produced by Glasgow University:


April 23, 2018

Growth zone model

One of the tools in our 'tool box' is the 'growth zone model'.

This is a tool that we wish to share with every STEM teacher and every STEM learner. It is a tool familiar to many teachers of physically risky skills such as climbing, swimming and caving. We take studying STEM subjects to be psychologically risky, in that currently many people learn to be anxious or avoid them.

The Growth Zone model

The growth zone model helps learners understand their emotions as they move from comfortable, mastered knowledge into learning, reasoning, connecting and developing more challenging knowledge. Sometimes learners when they are challenged can get ‘out of their depth’ psychologically speaking, and start to panic, and not feel able to think clearly.

If this is not addressed effectively, learners may start avoiding STEM subjects; avoidance is a strategy that works for physical risks; the 'alarm system' in the brain doesnt tell the difference between physical and psychological risks (see Siegel's lovely book 'Mindsight').

Some learners report that panic or feelings of anxiety happen very quickly when they encounter challenge in mathematics in particular. The symptoms of this panic may not always be easy to read by teachers and other adults working to support learning, as learners develop ways to hide them. However, learners and teachers can develop language both to express feelings of being out of control and not able to think, and to request the support they need so that they can stay in their growth zone longer.

A more complete description is available to download free from

April 2018

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