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How to Provoke Curiosity in STEAM Learning: Q&A with Angela Eckhoff, PhD

June 1st, 2020 | 3 min. read

By Ashleigh Craven

Gryphon House author Angela Eckhoff, PhD recently hosted a webinar about how teachers can bring STEAM learning into the classroom, using a child-centered approach. Dr. Eckhoff shares key strategies and tips to promote STEAM learning in the classroom during segments of less-structured time. Learn more in Provoking Curiosity: Student-Led STEAM Learning for Pre-K to Third Grade.


How can a parent help their prek-3rd graders at home to be comfortable to this learning style?

Young children learn naturally through active exploration and they will take their cue from adults.  To help them become more comfortable taking the lead in learning, emphasize to them that the goal of such provocation experiences is to explore and experiment with ideas.  The process of learning should be presented as what is important in these experiences over the need to develop an end product or a correct response.


How do you balance child-directed learning with (inadvertently) guiding their creativity? For example, how would you approach the situation of asking children to draw an owl when they have no idea what an owl looks like? How much would you insert yourself? 

Scaffolding is an important part of teaching young children. They need learning tasks that they can approach without feeling overwhelmingly frustrated.  If a task is challenging, you can help to scaffold it by providing a variety of supports. In this case, drawing alongside the child is one approach while providing the child with images of owls is another meaningful scaffold that could support their experience.


Will social distancing affect how you can approach and provoke STEAM learning? For example,working in groups will be challenging.

Working in small groups in-person may be challenging in the near future as we deal with COVID concerns but children can work virtually in teams or pairs and, remember, providing the children time to talk and share their ideas is a very important part of collaborative learning and we can accomplish that via remote learning platforms.


What do you do with students who do not like to get messy or are afraid to get dirty?

It is important to respect the individual child’s preferences for learning. A child that doesn’t want to dig the soil to plant seeds can learn about the process through observation so partnering that child with another who is willing to jump in and get messy can help to support peer-to-peer learning.  You may also wish to provide materials that help them to explore without the fear of getting messy – long-handled paint brushes and paint smocks for example.


How do you encourage children to record their ideas when they’re not able to write much in kindergarten? 

Drawing is a natural way that young children can share their ideas in print form.  Providing children with STEAM journals can encourage them to draw their ideas and observations as well as practice their emerging writing skills.


What's your advice to teachers who heavily believe in 'chalk and talk' method of teaching young children?

Just like adults, children control what, where, and how they attend to information.  Just telling children information doesn’t guarantee that they will attend to the information or retain it.  When we provide challenging hands-on, minds-on experiences we are helping to support children’s learning by providing them the time and space to engage.  Their experiences will drive the types of questions they develop and provide you with opportunities to observe their thinking in action.


You recommend not looking for an end product to place on the wall. But using ITERS and ECERS, we have to have children's work on the walls. How do you approach that balance?

Most of the children’s work on display in classrooms is ‘end product’ focused work.  That is to say, the work was undertaken specifically to develop the product hanging on the wall.  When you look at work on display in a classroom it is important to consider why the work was done and the role of the children in creating that work.  Teachers can also consider taking photographs of children during the provocation experience to create a display of the process of learning and exploration as a means to document learning.  In addition, displaying children’s rough work or in-process work is another form of documentation that would be wonderful to display in a classroom.  Examples of in-process work can include sketches, mind-maps, KWL charts or wondering’s statements (I wonder…).


For younger children, what is the best way to handle a situation when a child does not want to do the provocation, but would rather do something else with the materials? For example, instead of a car design, the child just wants to draw rainbows.

In provocation experiences it is best to keep the lessons open-ended so that children can engage where they are comfortable. Provocation experiences should be open to student choice as choice and interest as essential to learning. The provocation is designed to provoke the thinking process not teach a particular concept during a singular lesson. The child should have numerous opportunities to visit the provocation and their experiences will likely be different each time.



About the Author 

Angela Eckhoff, PhD, author of the Creative Investigation series and Provoking Curiosity: Student-Led STEAM Learning for Pre-K to Third Grade, is an associate professor of Teaching and Learning–Early Childhood Education and director of the Virginia Early Childhood Policy Center at Old Dominion University. She holds a dual PhD from the University of Colorado–Boulder in educational psychology and cognitive science. She is a coeditor of the Full STEAM Ahead column for Teaching Young Children from NAEYC. Dr. Eckhoff studies the role of creativity in child development and learning, arts-based research and pedagogical practices, and early STEAM learning in both classroom and museum settings.

Author(s)Angela Eckhoff, PhD

Ashleigh Craven

Ashleigh Craven has a decade and a half of diverse category experience from agency communications to athletic apparel to automotive to education, developing and executing communication strategies in both traditional and social media. She has supported national product launches and corporate events for the likes of Soffe, Buick, Chevrolet, Wake Forest University , Kaplan, and others. She has an BA from the University of Michigan in English and Communication Studies and an MA from Wake Forest University, where she focused her studies on argumentation and presidential rhetoric and speechwriting. She served as director of marketing for Gryphon House from 2017- 2020.