Teaching Integrated STEM to Students from Language Backgrounds Other Than English (LBOTE)

The ‘creative memo’ in the image on this blog post features keywords and phrases from the High Possibility Classrooms (HPC) workshop held with 16 teachers at the end of STEM research in five low SES schools. The terms “professional”, “important work”, and “students” were repeated responses. Research at these sites focused on practitioner inquiry using action learning principles to develop a culture of professional practice; it was underpinned by the HPC pedagogical framework and tested through practical action and ethical justification. This vignette from Chapter 3 of my latest book (Hunter, 2021) serves as temptation to read more.

The schools

Located in one of the fastest growing local government areas in a major city in Australia. 43% of the population of students in the schools were born overseas from non-English-speaking backgrounds and 52% spoke languages other than English at home, mainly, Mandarin and Cantonese (10.5% and 6.5% respectively), Korean (5%), Hindi (3.5%), Arabic (2.25%), and Gujarati and Tamil (1% each) (.id the population experts, n.d.).  Each school reflects the area’s cultural diversity and mix of non-English speaking backgrounds. Parents have significant aspirations for their children and there are high expectations of employment after school in STEM-related fields.

The teachers

The 16 teachers who taught in small teams for the study ranged from early career to long-term practitioners. They predominantly taught students (n = 424) in the middle years (ages 11 to 13 years). Their class sizes varied between 15 and 35 students.

Building professional capacity and confidence

For a period of ten weeks, 16 teachers used HPC in cycles of action learning to progress their march towards Integrated STEM. Initially (in interviews in the third week of the study) 31% said they focused on Science, Technology and Mathematics syllabus outcomes alongside theory, public learning, creativity, life preparation, and the contextual accommodations conceptions and underpinning themes in HPC. Ideas for public learning through performance and presentations were strong, featuring Engineering components linked to Technology. Towards the end of the research period, the sense of professional positivity during teacher interviews had grown to 69%. The survey instrument findings in this case study in Chapter 3 of the book make this claim more specific. There was now durable recognition of how creativity might be fostered through Integrated STEM, especially in students’ making and producing; this was cited as evidence of the process of learning, often involving play.

For example

Professional growth in capacity and confidence was explained in specific ways such as being able to teach other teachers to push their professional limits and develop personal agency; and desiring to be a future Integrated STEM mentor in the school. This comment was typical:

I am embedding it into my program for next term. I feel so much more empowered and aware about bringing the disciplines together and I never would have said at the start of the term. (Teacher 15)

For another teacher the transformation was clear:

The Engineering aspect was never there in my teaching. It makes Mathematics more meaningful. STEM has highlighted how all these subjects link to one another. I would love to keep teaching this way. I think it is the way to go. I have been reading about going from STEM to STEAM to STREAM. (Teacher 2)


The research-driven nature of the professional learning approach for Integrated STEM using cycles of action learning was challenging for teachers in the study. Developing a relationship with an academic partner gave teachers an effective outside voice but it also raised a dilemma: “Being in a research project almost forced us to do things that we might not have done”. Teachers drew attention to the changes they had made to their usual patterns of teaching and learning when there was an “outsider observing them” from time to time. As well, feedback from team members using the cycles of action learning meant they were more conscious of practice. Apart from perennial issues of wanting more time to plan and reflect, improved available resources, and better Wi-Fi connections, their responses focused on:

  • a sense of improved professional identity
  • knowing how to effectively integrate STEM by modifying existing programs
  • altering the layout of the classroom
  • taking risks with their usual teaching strategies
  • working in a STEM team
  • real attempts to teach Engineering concepts
  • having to learn what all the HPC conceptions meant at once
  • realising the topic or theme chosen for integration of multiple content areas was not a good choice; and
  • standing back and “letting go” so that students do the learning and then knowing when and how to assist.

Read about the students’ experiences in these classrooms on pp 89-92 in Chapter 3.

Benefits of HPC and an integrated approach to STEM with LBOTE students 

Use of HPC as a framework for Integrated STEM enlivened other content with technology; however, it was still a “work in progress” at most schools. Principals liked HPC because it gave teachers “a structure for integration, and used inquiry and design templates … it is a language or a springboard for teachers to talk about their practice” as they embedded the conceptions and the themes into programs, units of work, and projects. Opportunities to “audit, trial and structure existing STEM units of work/challenges/designs” at the schools allowed for greater content integration. Many principals observed teachers tapping into wider expertise in their school communities – for example, from parents who worked in STEM professions – and they saw that HPC had forced some teachers from games/low-order production work to higher-order presenting and creation. It was apparent that increasing the number professional development workshops and the overall length of the project would have assisted in the creation of sustained learning programs for Integrated STEM.

Final comments

The research partnership with an academic ‘outsider on the inside’ provided “a chance to experiment with different kinds of pedagogy, with different integration modes and not just more STEM content”. Teachers who were not previously engaged in progressing their knowledge in the STEM disciplines were now committed to doing so.

Principals in the five schools wanted to see better reporting of what it means for students to be working scientifically and mathematically. As well, the distinction in the reporting requirements between English and literacy would be more defined if there was a focus on Integrated STEM. One principal said, “It is often difficult to get a deep sense of what is going on in classrooms. Setting different expectations for classroom management” when students were working in new ways is wrapped up in a desire for good education outcomes for every student.

Sustaining these interventions is crucial. All principals agreed it was about “palpable increases in teacher and students’ motivation and excitement for the STEM subjects and beyond”. It was also important to build a positive school culture where teachers can readily connect to the outside world and be better positioned to ask for assistance when they are not clear about how to integrate and program curriculum from multiple content areas.

What do we know … *

Renowned educator Professor Lawrence Stenhouse (1975) said that curriculum “gives grace to living” (p. 32). This is what Integrated STEM in schools is intended for. The interdependent relationship between school and the individual is crucial in professional learning; it works best when it honors both the person and the group (Netolicky, 2019).

The STEM disciplines are friends of the curriculum, not enemies to be avoided. Curriculum innovations in schools often fail when educators “only focus on the surface features of the innovation rather than the underlying mechanism that enables it to work” (Lewis, Perry, & Murata, 2006, p. 5).

HPC supports programming structures in STEM that emphasize integration and the knowledge base for teaching through a focus on pedagogy. It was the planning that teachers did together in teams that flattened the power hierarchies and allowed them to build their capacity, confidence and collaboration. The common purpose of working with a pedagogical framework like HPC boosted professional relationships and produced a culture of professional learning among the teachers at each site.

*Specific benefits for teachers working with students in these contexts from the evidence gathered are detailed on pp 99-100 of Chapter 3 if you would like to read more. Once again, I am most grateful to the principals, teachers and students who invited me into their classrooms and school communities to conduct this research.


Hunter, J. (2021). High Possibility STEM Classrooms: Integrated STEM Learning in Research and Practice. New York: Routledge.

Lewis, C., Perry, R., & Murata, A. (2006). How should research contribute to instructional improvement? The case of lesson study. Educational Researcher, 35(3), 3-14.

Netolicky, D. (2019). Transformational professional learning: Making a difference in schools. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Stenhouse, L. (1975). An introduction to curriculum research and development. London: Heinemann.