STEM: Do Not Let The What Overpower the Wow


This article was originally published in ETS Magazine Issue #72.

This week, the motives for the recent ban on technology in a highly regarded Sydney school were a hot topic with my colleagues, as well as the opinions of their critics. Our thoughts went to the intrinsic business of our classroom relationships, the ‘anytime, anyplace’ communication between learners and teachers – our new normal. What would such a move mean for our students, our learning? What would be useful advice for schools, teachers and middle leaders looking to develop sustainable, inspirational and exciting Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programs?

STEM Challenge 1: Definition and application

Trying to define STEM for teachers is akin to going for a quick stroll in the mangroves. A useful place to start for now is with federal and state education policy. Consider the National STEM School Education Strategy 2016–2026, which defines STEM education as a collective term having two meanings:

  • science, technology, engineering and mathematics
  • a cross-disciplinary approach to teaching that increases student interest in STEM-related fields and improves students’ problem-solving and critical-analysis skills

The first definition is clear-cut. The second introduces a cross-disciplinary approach, one which can be fraught with difficulty, even for the most talented timetablers. Vagaries that appear obvious to statisticians and policy makers can be unsuitable, unworkable and unsustainable in practice at school alongside competing systems curricula and priorities.

STEM Challenge 2: Correlations between testing data, student choices and projected employment

The National STEM School Education Strategy 2016–2026 identifies STEM as having similar objectives to that of the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians (2008) in that “schooling should support the development of skills in cross-disciplinary, critical and creative thinking, problem solving and digital technologies, which are essential in all 21st century occupations.” The report goes on to identify observations about Australian student performance from the Chief Scientist as “stalled or declined” and that trends in STEM performance require community efforts to reverse. The strategy also features a separate section citing employment-related statistics from 2015 demographic projections as evidence for a critical national focus due to the “overall trend away from higher level STEM subject choices and the failure to keep pace with the highest performing countries.”

Much has already been said and agreed on by credible educators, researchers, school leaders and consultants about the nature of this testing, the apparent global rankings (only 78 countries participate) and the impact such testing data has on policy and the actual work of teachers in schools. Whilst it is certainly important to keep an eye on trend data like the NMC Horizon Report and analyst reports on future education and employment, the value of knowing, developing and connecting students’ and teachers’ capabilities and wellbeing within a school’s specific context far outweigh dramatic, unsustainable changes. That said, technology cannot be ignored any more than it can be banned.

The above challenges of STEM are not to be underestimated and have the potential to stall innovation and starve a school of any action at all. Schools are complex and extremely sensitive environments that must be responsive, flexible, resourceful, intellectually rigorous and caring on a 24/7 basis. There is a growing body of evidence for the rewards of introducing STEM thinking, projects and programs for all stakeholders. Focus on the how of welcoming STEM into a school, rather than the how hard.

Get Inspired, Get Reading

The following are some resources that may help inspire schools to introduce STEM and provide guidance in doing so:

– on design thinking:

– on innovating, learning and technology in education:

Get Started

It may be suitable to consider an invitational Professional Learning Community (PLC) model with action research frameworks and/or design thinking as two possible guiding processes. Starting with a PLC model has a higher potential for engaging staff for greater sharing, collaboration, communication and may provide empowering opportunities for leadership and self-directed professional learning. These are widely available, easily understood and successful processes. It may be reasonable to introduce the guiding processes to staff as a way of then inviting applications from all staff to join the PLC–STEM Learning Project. The 2010 STEM Teachers in Professional Learning Communities: A Knowledge Synthesis provides recent research findings into the successes of STEM PLCs, examines the benefits and implications, and provides guidance from experts.

Design Thinking

Empathy first

The first stage of design thinking is empathy, which according to Crowley and Saide (2016) is a “complex concept and a difficult skill”. An important step for the group at this stage is to identify all the stakeholders who stand to gain from the work of the PLC. Is it just students? What will be the benefits of participation for teachers, parents, school leaders, the wider community or the online community? What are their concerns about STEM? What and how do stakeholders feel about the chief scientist’s concerns about the performance of Australian students or the future of employment or the impact of technology on lifelong learning?

At this stage, the group is seeking to learn and understand the needs, to know why and what will motivate. Useful data collection tools for the group may be Google Forms or many of the other types of interactive tools that teachers use for formative assessment in classrooms.

Time to define

This important step is essential to gaining a group outlook on:

  • the issue (STEM and what it will mean for the lifespan of the project in that school)
  • the users (students, teachers, parents, leaders, local and online communities)
  • the importance of the issue to the users (why the PLC is working on STEM for this school)

It may be useful to present findings for further feedback to user groups, providing even more definition.

Ideation – what just might work?

Begin with no-limits thinking – no solution is too wacky, too out-there or knocked out. Generate as many potential solutions as possible and use feedback to refine and improve the ideas. Seek continuing feedback from users to advise why an idea is not quite right or will not quite work to regenerate and improve it. Use the limitations to make as many innovative and contextualised solutions as possible for users. This is exhausting, but also tremendous, enjoyable and highly professional learning.

Prototype – ta dah?

This is a proposal for the first action of the STEM PLC for consideration. For example, if students had indicated they would be interested in multi-age, hands-on cross-disciplinary enrichment work, it may be a draft plan for a full-school design thinking theme day. Another could be STEM fairs, Minecraft Mondays for Mums or it may even be to run whole-staff professional learning in delivering design thinking that enhances the pedagogical repertoire for teachers and enriches learning for students. It all depends on the previous three steps – empathise, define, ideate.

(re)Testing – the real thing

Sometimes the simplest and most effective solutions are not the most obvious or the first ones tried. Continual feedback and design thinking processes will help keep the STEM PLC in touch with users and aligned with the school’s mission statements, strategic plans and the PLC’s purpose.

An extra step… document the process and share the story

Blogging or providing visibility to the action of the PLC will entice the less sure, more hesitant future participants or even encourage others to create PLCs for other areas; it need not end with STEM. Create a Twitter account for the PLC, add a hashtag and start following the powerful global Professional Learning Networks like #aussieED, #satchat, #STEMed and #DTK12.

It is not without a measure of relevance that 2016 sees the 200th anniversary of the Luddite revolts in Loughborough and the destruction of lacemaking equipment in Heathcote and Boden’s mill. There is an obvious temptation here to create a correlation with the ban on devices as a negative and neo-luddite. However, this reduction is as poor as the logic found in linking low subject enrolments to potential unemployment. The Luddites had their reasons for breaking the machinery – they were skilled craftsmen proudly rejecting the cheap, inferior machine-made lace. Three hundred years on, change is seen as essential and coexisting; transitions do not mean traditions cannot continue. Lacemaking, lacemaking machines, pencils, pens, mobile devices – each require different knowledge, skills, critical choices and strategies for use. Yoda may have said, “You must unlearn what you have learned” to a young Luke Skywalker; however, a classroom of thirty tech-savvy fifteen year olds is certainly going to have a slightly less reverential response to a teacher outlawing devices than “Yes, master”. It is not a question of if, but when technology will return to those student device-free classrooms in Sydney. And it will be with consent or without. Either way, it will be the people, the ideas and a knowledge of technology-powered creativity that drives their return back to the future. Would it not be better if their solution was a community powered one?

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Danielle Purdy
Danielle Purdy is the Senior Education Officer for Secondary Curriculum in the Cairns Diocese, Catholic Education Services. An experienced secondary educator across both local and international contexts, Danielle heads a team of educaiton officers dedicated to providing curriculum, pedagogy and technology information and support. Danielle is one of four Prezi Educators in Australia.
Danielle Purdy

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