STEM in Australia – some teachers’ perspectives of STEM education


Last Sunday I had the privilege of hosting the weekly #aussieED chat on Twitter. The focus was on STEM. I wanted to dig deep into what Australian teachers thought on STEM education.
For those who don’t know, STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and maths. A focus on STEM isn’t new and has been a focus on-and-off since the 1980s.However in the past 5 years, there has been a large focus on STEM in primary, secondary and tertiary education as well as being emphasised in government policies. So for the #aussieED chat I wanted to find out what teachers felt was happening with STEM education in their schools. These are some of the themes:

 1. STEM education has come a long way and still has a long way to go.

Some teachers indicated that their schools have implemented STEM as cross-curricular project based learning experiences and have moved from a few innovators and early adopters trailing STEM programs to whole school approaches. These schools are now supporting other schools who are starting their STEM journeys. A good example of this is the STEM Action Schools project in NSW public schools. It will be interesting to see how different schools and teachers evolve their STEM teaching approaches as they gain more experience and reflect upon them.

2. STEM education needs more than passionate teachers; it needs enabling conditions.

Many teachers agreed that STEM is a way of teaching; a way of teaching that involves the integration of traditional subjects with a real-world context and driven by real-life solutions. This approach is enabled and sustained when structural systems like timetables, flexible learning spaces and a school culture that encourages teachers to take risks with different teaching approaches are in place. Otherwise it can become isolated pockets of excellence in STEM education, accessible to some students only. Some teachers mentioned dedicated time in timetables to work as a team so authentic cross-curricular collaboration can be created and sustained. Other teachers mentioned time to explore practical resources, opportunities to team teach with exemplary STEM teachers and time to reflect, evaluate and improve in their own practice.

3. How can educators and systems ensure promising practices in STEM are scaled and make an impact?

Is STEM an educational fad? Do we even need STEM to be an integrated, cross-curricular approach? Should we focus on teaching science, technology and maths separately but make sure we teach it well? What are the goals of STEM education? Is it just purely to make students “future job ready”? Is it to create scientifically and digitally literate citizens? Does everyone need to learn coding? How do we measure the impact of STEM? What is an appropriate timeframe to expect impact? These were some of the issues raised throughout the #aussieED chat. We didn’t come up with answers as they are highly complex issues that can be highly dependent on context. Personally I think STEM education is vital to the future of students on a personal, societal and economic level. To make STEM education a sustainable practice, that is day-to-day teaching practice, the enabling conditions of quality STEM education needs to be in place. We also need to be clear on the purpose of STEM education for our students. Otherwise it can easily become a fad.

What are your thoughts and experiences of STEM education? 

No longer the solo crazy dancing guy

We have all seen the crazy dancing guy video. The video emphasises that a leader must start a movement. At the start you will be dancing like a crazy lunatic by yourself but eventually you will have your first follower, then more followers and dancing like crazy will no longer be crazy but the norm. The important thing is to get the first initial followers!

For a while I have felt like I was dancing alone, but not anymore. I knew that when my faculty was programming for the new syllabus for the Australian Curriculum and a teacher said “I think we should make the natural disasters unit project based learning” and other teachers agreed. It is no longer me who is suggesting new pedagogical approaches, but other teachers in the faculty.

I also had another teacher in my faculty move from very traditional styles of assessment to experimenting with new approaches. Instead of relying on written, research-based assessments, his Year 11 Physics class was given the challenge of teaching a historical model of the solar system to Year 8 students.

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Year 11 Physics students teaching Year 8s

There are heaps more examples of other teachers in the faculty embracing and driving change themselves. They are now becoming dancers as well and are encouraging others to dance with them. I am so proud of my faculty and how far we have progressed as a team, all with the aim of improving science learning for our students.

You want to do something cool? Let me get out of your way.

This week, a member of my faculty asked me if they could a re-design a store room into a learning space. We have a large storeroom in between two classrooms which houses scientific equipment that we can move into another storage space. So this teacher thought if we could clear and clean up the space and find some tables and chairs, the space can be turned into a small learning space where small groups of students can do group work or where students can do quiet independent tasks while the main classroom can be used for other activities. This requires the removal of some cupboards and rearranging some equipment and storage devices. It’s a big task and will probably need few consecutive days of work, but this teacher has volunteered to do it in their holidays. I haven’t prompted this teacher in any way. They just wanted to do this. They want to work for free.

I did have some hesitation at the start for a few seconds. As a leader I often want to take control of a project, but I decided it was a great idea and gave them the freedom to do what they think was best for the space, as long as they updated me and briefly told me what they were doing. But otherwise they had free reign. I told this teacher, “I trust you’ll do a great job. This is a really good idea that would benefit student learning.”

This got me wondering – Why do we do work for free? As teachers, we often do a lot of work for free. Whether this is after work hours at home, on weekends or during the holidays, we are planning lessons, helping our students with extra tutorials or painting our classrooms. Not many other organisations have their workers working for free.

Then I remembered an animation based on Dan Pink’s talk on three factors that motivate people and lead to better performance and satisfaction.

In this talk, Pink talks about autonomy, mastery and purpose as the key factors that drive better performance. Interestingly, money does not motivate people to perform any better. Once you pay people enough so they are not worried about finances, autonomy, mastery and purpose are the main drivers. These three factors are also what drive innovation within an organisation. The teacher that wants to voluntarily come in during Christmas holidays to turn a store room into learning space isn’t getting paid any extra to do this. They are doing it because there is a personal sense of purpose. And I gave them the autonomy to do it. I got out of their way. Hopefully this will be the start of more innovations.

So next time someone wants to do something cool, get out of their way J

Can you see the thousands of dollars?

My year 7 has had laptops now for a few weeks. The class received 12 laptops, which is a costly investment. A colleague once wisely said if that much money was spent you should be able to walk into a classroom/school and notice a difference. You should be able to visibly see that investment’s impact on student learning. So I asked myself exactly that question – Is the learning different in my classroom now? Is the learning better in my classroom now?

I’d like to say yes, and here’s my evidence:
-Students now use their laptops in small groups to demonstrate their understanding, often with higher order thinking skills. Today we explored the properties of magnets. Instead of doing the prac activity from the textbook and writing a prac report, students made a photo story to explain to other year 7s the magnetic properties they have discovered. This took 2 hours. Minimal editing was involved as I wanted the students to focus on the explanation of science, not on fancy video transitions.

-Laptops are used to differentiate learning. Year 7s have been learning about area of composite shapes and expressing area and perimeter through algebraic expressions. Students had to self assess whether they needed more practice in composite shapes or were ready to move onto algebra. Students who selected to refine their skills in composite shapes worked on a self-marking quiz on the laptops while the rest had small group instruction on algebra.

These are just 2 activities where laptops have enhanced learning. When you walk into my classroom, you can see, hear and feel those thousands of dollars making an impact.

Are your thousands of dollars of investments visibly making a difference?

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Innovation – what exactly is it?

innovation road sign picture

I’ll be heading to Auckland, New Zealand to represent NSW in the Microsoft Partners in Learning Teacher Awards. In 2011, I was selected as the NSW winner of this award, which is largely based on implementing technologies in an innovative way.

But what is innovation, and what exactly makes an innovative teacher? I’d like to start with what I think innovation ISN’T

Innovation isn’t about:

  • the latest technology – having the latest iPad doesn’t automatically equal innovation; neither does reading an e-textbook from an iPad
  • change only or change or the sake of change – just because it’s different it doesn’t mean it will make learning better
  • using technology – while technology is often related to education innovation, technology by itself is not innovation. For example using an interactive whiteboard to show PowerPoints to support lecture-style teaching isn’t innovation

I think innovation is more to do with teacher qualities rather than things and strategies per se. Innovation MUST also be able to enhance and improve student learning.

I think innovation is:

  • the willingness to take risks to try new things (technologies, strategies, etc) then reflect and evaluate on how this affects students’ learning.
  • not being afraid to “fail” and be able to see these “failures” as a learning process to grow as an educator
  • being able to  see that education is no longer based on a “knowledge is scarce” model, recognise that knowledge is now available to students at an instant and change as a teacher accordingly
  • thinking ahead; being proactive in understanding and predicting learning needs rather than being responsive and playing catch-up
  • being able to inspire others to join you

In the end, innovation in education, whatever it may be, must focus on improving student learning. As an educational leader, I also think it is vital that schools are environments where teachers are stimulated to be innovative. Schools should be environments where teachers feel that it is OK to try new things, it is OK when something new being implemented doesn’t go to plan and teacher successes in the classroom are celebrated and shared.

What do you think innovation in schools look like? How does your school encourage innovation?