Leadership Perspectives On STEM In Australian Primary Schools


By Dr Jane Hunter

It is 2017 at last. Now, just for a few moments, think back to the end of 2016 when education – and the results of Australian school students in national and international tests – was once again making news headlines on a daily basis.

On the 9th of December 2016, Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, said in an article in The Conversation, “Although international testing cannot capture everything of importance in Australian education I take the latest findings of PISA, TIMSS and NAPLAN seriously.” He posited three new Rs for education:

  1. Restoring meaningful maths prerequisites for all university courses, citing that it would reverse the exodus from advanced maths courses and it would give principals a reason to make the quality of their maths programs a priority all the way from kindergarten to Year 12.
  2. Respect teaching – in that it is the human upfront in classrooms that is critical and high-achieving students must become highly qualified teachers with well-targeted professional development.
  3. Recognise the influence of school leaders – stating that it is principals who set the tone in their schools and, with the right strategies and focus, they can drive a culture of constant improvement.

Each of these factors is acknowledged by the Commonwealth Science Council, whose members provide strategic advice to Government on science and technology issues, and who work to build stronger collaboration between scientists, researchers and industry.

The purpose here is not to debate the merits or otherwise of national and international testing in schools, but instead take up the Chief Scientist’s third point and zoom in on influence and tone in terms of recent Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) research I conducted in NSW primary schools.

Being serious about the STEM disciplines in learning right from kindergarten is essential. I was fortunate to interview four primary school principals on their views of the importance of STEM. Each interview went for more than an hour and was a small part of a wider study that was ethically approved by the University of Technology Sydney and the NSW Department of Education; details of the research and findings are reported elsewhere.

Each principal and school name in the study have pseudonyms – what the principals discussed adds to our understanding of the STEM disciplines in primary school education and is instructive for education leaders and teachers who are keen to think more closely about STEM in schools and classrooms as 2017 begins.

Each school in the study used a pedagogical framework known as High Possibility Classrooms (HPC) that has grown from research conducted in both exemplary and mainstream teachers’ classrooms (various studies from 2013–2015) to support building teacher capacity and confidence, unit planning and student learning in STEM.

Through interviewing the principals*, I wanted to understand seven key concerns, here are responses to three of them:

  • Why is STEM important to them as an education leader?
  • What problem were they aiming to solve with STEM?
  • How will they know the school’s focus on STEM has been effective?

*Note that what is distributed in this article is a small slice of data discussed. Quotes from the principals are italicised.

Main Finding

It was clear from the data analysis that how to effectively integrate and embed STEM subjects into the curriculum and primary school teachers’ apparent lack of deep knowledge in the STEM disciplines remain considerable challenges in the minds of these principals.

Importance of STEM as an Education Leader

Most responses to this question revolved around changing a perceived stigma attached to the STEM disciplines, and that the four disciplines are as important as literacy and numeracy. Until now, STEM subjects had not been well taught in primary schools. It was stated that the attention to literacy and numeracy in recent school curriculum had taken the focus away from other key learning areas (KLAs). The move by some primary schools to bring in subject specialists in STEM raised a dilemma. This comment makes the point: Subject specialists in STEM or science/mathematics do not assist building capacity and confidence of primary school teachers more generallymore professional learning will.

Two principals were critical of current teacher education in universities and they raised questions of intellectual capacity and whether new teachers had the ability to work at the levels required for rigorous mathematics and science teaching: entrance scores need to be higher into teaching. Others noted that STEM requires a lot of preparation, that it cannot be done on the run and knowing how to differentiate well, knowing what comes next and connecting it to the real world is crucial.

Unanimous agreement was made in terms of deep subject matter knowledge – this included knowing how to work scientifically and mathematically: understanding all of the underpinning concepts is a big ask of some teachers who find syllabus documents difficult to deconstruct. Another repeated theme throughout all interviews was the question of STEM integration and how to program it well into units of work – what to assess and what to leave out were key concerns.

Knowledge of how to integrate two KLAs was one thing, but adding two or more subjects was a challenge; often this meant that as a principal: You see the teacher’s default position and that is a focus on English. Gaining consistency across the school was problematic and this arises from confusion in the minds of teachers about what to focus on.

Significant agreement was apparent in terms of STEM being about concerns for the future, assisting students to transition to high school and switching on curiosity in primary school-aged students in these subjects in time for secondary school and their lives beyond.

Problems Solved by STEM Education

This question was designed to understand the purpose of STEM. Grouping teachers together to work to their strengths would help the emphasis on STEM teaching and learning; so too would decisions around project-based learning (PBL) as an effective STEM pedagogy.

It was clear that STEM is about addressing the challenge of providing deep, well-integrated learning for students in primary schools and paying more attention to the hard subjects – the term hard and hard fun was used often in association with STEM. There are many competing agendas in primary schools and knowing what to focus on for most primary school teachers, even after professional learning, is difficult.

Principals see STEM as a chance to target higher order thinking skills (HOTS) in classrooms and, because of many teachers’ lack of confidence in STEM, it manifests in the way they report students’ progress in these subjects. Teachers understand how to report English but less so the other KLAs; creativity was something many teachers also found elusive and one principal gave this example: If a child has difficulty in English then this was generalised to all of the student’s subjects, whereas this may not actually be the case. English has become the default reporting position because teachers know how to unpack that a little more easily.

Perceptions that the curriculum is crowded were common and this reality has not been eased by effective STEM integration; the inadequacy of current systems for ongoing STEM teacher professional learning need to address this, as do resources, especially increasing available funds to schools to purchase materials and technology.

Knowing the School’s Focus on STEM is Effective

Significant themes that arose from responses to this question reveal the desire for the work of students in STEM to reflect recent teacher professional learning and that teachers who perhaps were not previously engaged in progressing their knowledge in the STEM disciplines have continued to do so. The question of sustaining attention to STEM in classrooms is critical.

Principals hope to see better reporting of what it means for students to be working scientifically and mathematically in their school and that the difference between English and literacy in the reporting requirements will be more defined when there is a focus on STEM. It is often difficult to get a deep sense of what is going on in classrooms, said one principal.

There were different expectations for classroom management when students were working in new ways that are wrapped up in the continuation of good education outcomes for every student. All principals agreed it was about palpable increases in staff and students’ motivation and excitement for the STEM subjects and building a positive school culture where teachers readily connected to the outside world and were better positioned to ask for assistance when they were not clear about how to integrate and program curriculum.

Closing Comments

Findings from this new research and data presented here reflect many of the Chief Scientist’s concerns about tone, influence and strategy. What is clear from this group of primary school principals in NSW is their decision to make teaching and learning in STEM a priority – they have a clear strategy and they will try to find the resources within school budgets to do it well.

Many more funds are needed in primary schools, as STEM supplies are not cheap and resourcing time for primary school teachers to continue and deepen their subject matter knowledge and pedagogical focus from excellent and ongoing professional development will pay dividends.


A former classroom primary and secondary teacher, Dr Jane Hunter is conducting a series of postdoctoral research projects in STEM in NSW and Victorian schools. Jane works in the School of Education at the University of Technology Sydney, Australia; she leads teachers, school principals and communities to better understand and support education change. Her book Technology Integration and High Possibility Classrooms: Building from TPACK is advancing new ways of enacting pedagogy in school classrooms. To find out more about this recent STEM research, contact Jane via email jane.hunter@uts.edu.au, via Twitter @janehunter01 or at the annual conference of the Science Teachers’ Association of NSW at Macquarie University on 18 February where she will be a keynote speaker.

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