Adding a fourth “R” to the Chief Scientist’s list for education

Last week Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel said in an article written for The Conversation: although international testing cannot capture everything of importance in Australian education I take the latest findings of PISA, TIMSS and NAPLAN seriously.

With that in mind – he listed three new R’s for education and I quote:

1. Restoring meaningful maths prerequisites for all university courses

2. Respect for teaching, and

3. Recognising the influence of school leaders.

Each of these factors is acknowledged by the Commonwealth Science Council whose members provide strategic advice to Government on science and technology issues, and who work to build stronger collaboration between scientists, researchers and industry.

As the year draws to a close, I want to focus on points 2 and 3 raised by Dr Finkel with examples of why I feel quite optimistic about shifts in teaching and learning in schools that are beginning to reflect the kinds of things the Chief Scientist is talking about – in primary schools in particular.

And, whether or not you are cynical and critique the focus on STEM by governments around the world in a post-truth moment what we are talking about is ensuring for example: that young people remain curious about learning, that they can problem-find and problem-solve, that they do know how to work collaboratively with their peers in teams and can hone their higher order thinking skills, and above all – have the necessary skills to create a good life to incubate a better world.

Pedagogy in school classrooms has long been a focus of my research and work with schools. This year I have had the privilege of spending almost one day each week in a classroom.

This current research concentrates on how the STEM disciplines are being taught in primary schools. Looking at questions like: What do teachers know? What don’t they know? How do they know? What concerns do they have? How is professional development in STEM translated into planning and teaching integrated units of work? What builds teacher confidence and capacity in STEM? How do they report student learning in STEM? Does the High Possibility Classrooms framework for technology enhanced learning act as a pedagogical scaffold for teaching and learning in the STEM subjects? Or not? How can HPC work at scale? What sustains pedagogical change over time? What do students like about student-centred STEM classrooms? Why is STEM important to primary school principals? How will they know their school’s focus on STEM is effective?

In research conducted in a community of NSW primary schools, I have seen a renewed sense of professional identity and a willingness by teachers to really try to understand difficult subject matter and to be clear about the underlying concepts.

What was also strong in the analysis of interview data in the same primary schools – was that principals see effective integration and embedding STEM subjects into the curriculum/units of work and some teachers’ apparent lack of deep knowledge in the STEM disciplines as considerable challenges. Much more professional development and teacher professional learning will assist.

Findings of this research will be available over the coming year in peer-reviewed papers but also in professional teacher journals and education magazines – I will also share more of this work with schools in workshops and at some upcoming conferences in February and August; in 2017 more NSW primary schools will come on board as well as several Victorian schools – the teams in these schools will use HPC for STEM in a project that targets the middle years. Looking forward to all of that.

At a recent UTS research afternoon with FASS colleagues, I shared a very personal STEM story in 3 minutes – it started with a narrative – a bit shocking for the audience … it has been made into short film and will be online soon.

What I have always noted as a classroom teacher, in my work alongside teachers and students in schools, and as a teacher educator in universities – is how responsible we are for lighting the intellectual fires in the young people we teach.

In a passionate presentation to Master of Teaching UTS pre-service teachers in October, Cameron Paterson, a lead teacher from Shore School said in his closing rationale for what motivates him as a teacher: Welcome to the best job in the world.

 And so, as we say farewell to 2016, I’d like to add a fourth “R” to the Chief Scientist’s list – REALITYteaching is not easy work but we do make a difference.

Image courtesy of french artist Nathalie Lete