Continuing the STEM conversation in primary schools

In a major review of the literature titled: “Opening up pathways: Engagement in STEM across the Primary–Secondary school transition, Australian researchers led by Professor Russell Tytler (2008) contend: “it is the quality of teachers and their classroom practices that are key factors in engaging students in STEM”. It continues: “the issue is largely one of pedagogies that support interest and engagement, arguably more so than curriculum content”…. “any significant initiatives to support changes in classroom pedagogy will require carefully planned support for teachers” (p.114).

Although written a little over eight years ago this Australian review remains one of the more comprehensive overviews of the STEM literature in reference to schools in our national context.

A link to the literature review is here.

It is teachers who are the highly valuable resources in STEM education and a focus on pedagogy can drive future interest and uptake of the STEM disciplines forward, especially in primary schools.

There is much in the review that is worth considering. Commentary around promotion of more varied pedagogies that challenge, support and interest students and as well as approaches that engage students with contemporary issues and problem solving strengthen the intellectual rigor of STEM learning. This is paramount in growing students interest in STEM. This action points to widening students horizons and options by promoting a realisation of the diversity within STEM with a focus on careers, careers guidance, vocational pathways, increasing community knowledge about STEM and the human and socially beneficial aspects of STEM work.

Tytler et al also draw attention to the profile of STEM supply and demand and that more detailed modelling is required to make informed predictions and policy advice both in Australia and overseas. This is still the case eight years on, in spite of many recent, national and international STEM reports and publications.

Furthermore, there is research dating back at least three decades that highlights the infrequency, for example, of science teaching in primary schools. It is expressed: “as more honoured in its breach than by its presence” (p.62). Research in two of the STEM subjects (mainly mathematics and science) across the years has led to a considerable revision into how we plan and implement teaching sequences and when integrating four content areas this is a considerable challenge and one that primary school teachers continue to grapple with. How to effectively do this? What do I focus on? What does STEM assessment look like?

In a study conducted in five NSW primary schools with 16 teachers (Stage 3) in 2016 the research questions targeted building teacher capacity and confidence in STEM with the pedagogical framework of High Possibility Classrooms over a school term. Results shine a light on inquiry, project based approaches and how HPC enabled student-centred learning in classrooms. Students liked working in STEM teams with designated roles, hands on tasks involving experimentation and problem finding, and the opportunity to be more self-directed*.

This is exactly what Tytler et al called for a number of years ago, a focus on pedagogy for teaching STEM. Reiterated throughout the literature review: “it is the learning and teaching that play a critical role in students’ success and uptake of STEM” (p.75).

Transformation of school level study of the STEM disciplines is also a cultural transformation and that has to do with recognising and explaining why these disciplines matter. In this conversation is the place of Arts in S T E A M – we must value the Arts and the Humanities, at the very least, for communication of the STEM disciplines – the Arts have a crucial role in the STEM agenda.

It was Professor Ronald Inglehart from Michigan State University (1999) who emphasised that in post–materialistic societies care for the environment, democracy, care for others, creativity and self-realisation are valued. The problem for many of the STEM disciplines is that the subjects are associated with building bridges, mixing chemicals and creating faster computers rather than, for example, visions of how the engineer, the doctor or the physicist is going to support contributing to alternative energy sources, environmentally friendly food production, the challenge of climate change and fighting diseases.

Back to Tytler et al, they want students to see the work of careers in the STEM disciplines are at the centre of solving humanities problems and involve working with people. The review quotes Schreiner (2006): “it is important that science (and schooling in general) aim to develop in young people a feeling that they can influence the development at a personal as well as at a wider local, national and even global level” (p. 85).

The literature review is well worth taking the time to read.

*Findings of this study were presented in a keynote address at the Science Teachers’ Association of NSW conference at Macquarie University in February 2017 and at annual conference at SITE, Austin, Texas. A paper about the work is in the proceedings and will form a chapter in the Research Highlights book in the coming months: Switching primary school teachers onto STEM using a pedagogical framework for technology integration: The case for High Possibility Classrooms in Australia. Click here.