Small Hinges Swing Big Doors

The topic of our E-STEM Education Group Meeting during the conference this year was how to be effective E-STEM educators in this era of virtual instruction. It’s a question of great interest to me as an educator and as a parent of an elementary-aged child who is himself navigating the world of virtual instruction. The trials and triumphs of our experiences have forced me to rethink what the hallmarks of effective virtual instruction are. As I wrestled with this, I realized that it’s the exact same question I have about environmental education and E-STEM education. And remarkably – the answers are the same too!

That surprised me, because virtual learning is its own beast. You can’t take an in-person lesson or curriculum and plop it online and it works. Beyond having to get up to speed with the online platform you’re using, the way the lesson needs to be laid out, how you progress through the lesson and the learning tools and activities that are available are quite different. In other words, the mechanics of virtual instruction are different from in-person instruction.

But if you set the mechanics aside and focus on content, effective virtual instruction is no different from traditional EE or E-STEM. And, a hidden blessing of this challenging time is that it forces us to reconsider what makes it effective. We can’t rely on our old ways of doing things, which were probably not quite as effective as we’d like. To be effective in this era of virtual instruction, we have to become better educators. And let’s face it: virtual instruction is here to stay, even after the pandemic subsides.

So here it is, what I believe is the foundation of effective virtual, EE and E-STEM instruction:

Small hinges swing big doors.

What in the world does that mean? It means that cramming a lot of information into your lesson is not effective. It means when looking at your portfolio as a whole, a haphazard collection of topics or activities is not effective - even if each one individually seems very important or interesting. Instead, boil down what you want to teach to its core, its heart.

When children are taught to read, they are taught which letter is used for each sound in our language, and how to put multiple letters together to make words. Once they have those building blocks, they can read every word that has ever been written, most of which they will never be explicitly taught. The core of reading is combining letters into words. Those letters we learn in kindergarten are small hinges that swing very big doors.

Every topic has a core. The topic can be big, like science literacy or environmental responsibility, or small, like the characteristics of mammals. Every conversation has a core too, and the most effective conversations happen when you are clear about what that core is and deliberate in communicating about it. The same is true for effective instruction.

The core is the hinge. We will never have the time, resources or audience attention to address the whole door. And that’s ok, because the most effective way to educate is to focus on the hinges. That’s our job when we’re creating virtual or in-person EE or E-STEM instruction: figure out what the core of  the message is, then build a focused, deliberate lesson that helps your participants understand that core. Give them the hinges; they’ll build the doors.

What are your thoughts on this approach? Comment below on what you think makes for effective virtual instruction!


I agree that small hinges are the way to go and that I've had to ID the central idea and teach its foundation. Finding ways for students to interact at that point has been vital for me. Coming up with a variety of those engagement technologies has been the steepest part of my learning curve.

Great comments Julie! I have some suggestions of ways for students to interact in a virtual setting that I'll be posting in part two, coming next week. Stay tuned!

Thanks, this is a great way to think about it. I find so many entry points into careful observation and appreciation of the natural world. As an artist, helping students learn to see by drawing is a case in point. I have created a coloring book/nature journal to help students, parents and teachers do this at home. I have yet to adapt my animation workshops to the virtual world. You are inspiring me to do so.

That's great Kristin! Adapting your workshops to go online is a wonderful idea. You could reach so many more people that way. You can have pre-recorded and/or live workshops. There are lots of tools for doing that, and each one has tutorials to get you started. Explore a bit and find one you like!