Success in STEM in primary schools

A couple of teachers contacted me after I responded to a tweet for #PrimarySTEMchat – the chat is scheduled for this coming Thursday evening. The focus in the Twitter chat this week is on Success in STEM and how that might be defined. I won’t be able to join the chat but wanted to add a few thoughts to the exchange that may be helpful.

For the past 12 months I have been conducting research in 6 primary schools to build teacher capacity in teaching and learning in STEM – the focus of this study is about creating great teacher leaders (middle level leaders) using coaching as a frame.

I am drawing on the work of Professor Louise Stoll (2018) who has designed a professional learning program called Catalyst based on findings of her research in an informal network of 350+ schools in the UK. If you don’t know it – it’s well worth a look. The research identified that great teacher leaders have seven characteristics ie they are catalysts for change; they have vision, purpose and goals; they communicate clearly; they use research and school-based evidence; they facilitate sustained professional learning; they are critical friends and they build trust.

Data collection for the current STEM and HPC study being conducted with 26+ middle level leaders and their coachees are still underway with the final report due in February 2019. Papers and conference presentations with the teachers in this new research will follow.

While we on the topic of distributing learning between the academy and schools – and university partnerships in general – in October at the ACCE conference here in Sydney I will be giving a paper on the 2017 STEM research using the High Possibility Classrooms (HPC) framework in three SW Sydney schools. I am also delighted to share that three teachers who participated in the 2017 study have alos had their abstracts accepted to the conference and will be presenting their work as part of the ACCE program; the teachers are:

  • Tara Cooke from McCallums Hill PS
  • Helen Kardiasmenos from Belmore South PS
  • Gaya Pillai from Lakemba PS

Abstracts for their presentations can be viewed in the graphics on this post. Two of the teachers have recently had articles published in industry teacher journals – view them here and here*. ACCE is on the school holidays this year so you might want to come – many great speakers from across the Australian education community.

My intention for the remainder of this post is to share some thinking about success in teaching STEM – I am mainly concerned here with the primary school context as it is a contested, often confusing space and one that causes concern for many teachers and school leaders. Here, I want to feature an excellent book that I have found useful – further food for thought in the STEM discussion.

I read Anne Jolly’s book STEM by Design when it first came out last year but it seems timely to pay attention to it again. It is one I would recommend that schools might like to purchase as it’s very readable and useful in its practical ideas and applications.

Jolly poses the question of what do teachers actually teach in STEM? But before she launches into the argument she is keen to point out that school leaders must be have a clear picture of what STEM is and what it is intended to accomplish in order to understand how to support such an initiative. She states: Leaders must understand that STEM is intended to ratchet up rigor in science and mathematics through engineering applications … it’s not intended as a general ‘catch all program’ for subjects (p.5).

She is keen to point out that STEM is: Not a subject or a content area and it is not comprised of four separate subjects taught in isolation from one another (p.5). Some teachers in an interview with me today said exactly this – go them!!!

Likewise Jolly spends time discussing STEAM and she is keen to advocate that core values of the Arts and Art perspectives add to STEM and that it must not be used to sell more STEM to students (p.28-29).

Teaching STEM is a way of teaching that helps prepare students for learning and working in the world – as a teacher it’s about engaging them in science, technology, engineering and mathematics as they exist in everyday life – interwoven and integrated – combining knowledge from four areas: S T E M to find and solve real-world, current problems. I agree with Jolly in that it does not mean that all four subjects are integrated every lesson but two or three of the subjects might be enough to tackle the STEM challenge at hand.

In the book Jolly has a Design Tool that has suggestions for what is in a Quality STEM Education Program – she identifies seven STEM curriculum markers – in STEM Instructional Practices she explicitly notes there are three criteria and in STEM Students Practices there are four that she recommends (pp.12-13). No space to go into them here suffice to say that each list serves as a compelling set of reasons to involve student in STEM. Check the book or DM me for more details.

Further into the book and to draw this post to a close Jolly offers EIGHT criteria for STEM programs in schools – you might like to ask how your school’s STEM program aligns with the intentional criteria she proposes, such programs have:

  1. An engineering design process that is used to integrate science, mathematics and technology
  2. Science and mathematics content that is outcomes based, year appropriate and applied
  3. A student focus on solving real-world problems or engineering challenges
  4. Students regularly working in teams to plan, design, and create prototypes and products then test and evaluate these and plan how to improve them
  5. Students using a variety of communication, approaches to describe their challenge and justify their results
  6. Teachers facilitating inquiry-based, student centered learning that features ‘hands on’ investigation
  7. Failure regarded as a natural part of the design process, and an essential step toward creating an improved or successful solution
  8. Students being introduced to STEM careers and/or life applications (p.25).

Central to this set of EIGHT criteria is assisting students to learn to work together productively. Does this set of EIGHT resonate success to you? Assessment in STEM is not easy as reporting procedures in primary schools seem to lag behind how to spell out success for students – certainly a topic for another post.

*A recent piece about HPC is published here and two teachers well known to many of you Bianca Hewes and Esra Smerdon have given their account of what it was like to be involved in research using HPC as a pedagogical foundation. I also recommend Roger Bybee’s recent book as another good resource for success chat about STEM in primary schools.