In this author’s home state of Western Australia, the education system is governed by the School Curriculum and Standards Authority (SCSA) which is “responsible for Kindergarten to Year 12 curriculum, assessment, standards and reporting for all Western Australian Schools.” SCSA produces a curriculum which is almost a clone of the national Australian Curriculum as well as setting the standards for student achievement, assessment and certification for all students in Western Australia from Kindergarten to Year Twelve. In the efforts for researching this essay, the curriculums and websites for each of the States and Territories within Australia were scoured for information and resources pertaining to the development and implementation of STEM within the various curriculums and authorities within the whole of Australia. It was a glaring and blatant realisation that SCSA, the governing body of Western Australia, had absolutely no mention whatsoever of STEM within the curriculum. Not only that, but there could be found no mention of STEM as overarching within the related teaching areas, no mention of STEM within the ‘Strategic Plan 2017-2020’. From their website, “The School Curriculum and Standards Authority Strategic Plan 2017–2020, endorsed by the Authority’s Board on 27 June 2017, is the framework which articulates the Authority’s strategic directions, including its vision, values and goals.” Looking deeper into the ‘vision’ and ‘values and goals’ there was, again, no mention of STEM (SCSA, 2017). Even under the “What Will My Child Learn’ section of the ‘Parents and Community’ access area, STEM was not mentioned. In fact, the eight present learning areas, and clearly expandable for parents to explore the learning areas further, were non-functional when ‘clicked-on’. What children were to learn was elusive to parents (SCSA, 2019). How embarrassing, for a teacher of primary education and a champion for STEM in schools, for this author to discover that his own State’s education authority website contained not a single mention of STEM. The author even went as deep as to look into the four individual learning areas encompassed in STEM and found no such mention. Some hope was envisaged when, under the Science Curriculum, a document called ‘Science Glossary’ was found. The glossary contained an A to Z of related terms and expressions yet, again, STEM had no entry or mention (SCSA, 2013). It was also interesting to note that this document had not been updated since March 2013. How then, does the Western Australia curriculum represent the ethos of the national Australian Curriculum’s STEM Report?
In 2014–15, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) conducted a small action research project, the ‘STEM Connections Project’ (ACARA, 2016). This project was conducted in association with the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers (AAMT) to assess ‘the effectiveness of using an integrated approach to the teaching and learning of STEM disciplines.’ With the help of 13 schools from across Australia, the schools were tasked with developing ‘real-world’ projects that encompassed the four STEM learning areas. While the project showed a modicum of success, there were several challenges that both staff and students faced due to the nature of previous learning in the schools involved and the ‘student-centred’ approach that the project demanded. From the conclusions of the report, teachers were not confident working and liaising with teachers from other learning areas, found it challenging to handle group-dynamics and found time commitments and school constraints to be issues. Students, on the other hand, found it difficult to work in groups and sustain interest and commitment to their projects. Differentiation also presented problems and seemed to be not accounted for by teachers.
In 2014, Australia’s Chief Scientist had highlighted a lack of STEM-qualified Australians and encouraged a change for the future. The Chief Scientist stated, “It is the knowledge that STEM will offer and the sensible application of that knowledge that are the means to the end: building a stronger Australia with a competitive economy (Office of the Chief Scientist, 2016, p. 5).” The report from the Chief Scientist further stated that STEM education was;
- is a national priority
- is closely linked to Australia’s productivity and economic well-being
- is central to a well-rounded education
- will contribute to a diverse and capable STEM workforce pipeline.
Earlier to the Chief Scientist’s report, The National STEM School Education Strategy had already noted the “lack of a consistent definition of STEM or of a coordinated and coherent national approach to STEM education in schools (Education Council, 2015).” The strategy described STEM education as both ‘a term used to refer collectively to the teaching of the disciplines within its umbrella (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)’ and ‘a cross-disciplinary approach to teaching that increases student interest in STEM-related fields and improves students’ problem-solving and critical analysis skills.’
The National STEM School Education Strategy proceeds to break down five areas of action for their recommendations and implementation into curriculums across Australia. These five areas are;
- increasing student STEM ability, engagement, participation and aspiration
- increasing teacher capacity and STEM teaching quality
- supporting STEM education opportunities within school systems
- facilitating effective partnerships with tertiary education providers, business and industry
- building a strong evidence base.
In this author’s research, an exhaustive number of similar reports, recommendations, papers, conference proceedings and strategies were discovered. Yet the only, almost cursory, mention of STEM being an overarching principle of the curriculum that could be found within the National Australian Curriculum website is within the STEM Connections Project Report itself, where just a few bullet-points state that;
Evidence from the project suggests that STEM knowledge, understanding and skills seem to be:
- strengthened when the connections between learning areas are emphasised
- enriched when learning areas combine to find authentic learning opportunities for students in answer to an identified problem or in the creation of a solution.
While not all aims of the project were fully met, the project demonstrated that an integrated STEM approach:
- has the potential to be very engaging for both students and teachers
- offers explicit opportunities to identify and consolidate connections between learning areas
- can deliver content from STEM disciplines throughout the life of an authentic project
- has the potential to improve students’ ability to transfer knowledge and skills from one learning area to another or to other contexts
- can directly link school learning to future study and work opportunities, especially with the involvement of an industry partner
- develops students’ ability to collaborate with others
- improves students’ ability to communicate ideas and information to a range of audiences and to use a range of modes
- provides a rich context for learning and developing the general capabilities for 21st-century
It was the ‘potential obstacles’ that were highlighted in the conclusions of the report that highlight where the primary area of concern lies with the implementation of STEM as an overarching topic encompassing its component areas. That obstacle seems to be the teacher. The report showed that a STEM approach;
- needs a high degree of commitment and expertise from the staff involved, both during the planning and implementation phases
- can have significant implementation issues, regardless of the implementation model, in traditional school settings, as timetabling structures do not necessarily have the flexibility to accommodate such projects
- can result in inconsistent content coverage of some learning areas within a single project if planning is not thorough.
From this author’s experience within schools in Western Australia, not much of a significant problem can be seen with a cross-curricular STEM approach. Staff liaison and teamwork should not be a problem. It forms the basis of consistent and competent teaching. Even more so in regional, rural and remote schools where General Primary teachers are usually tasked with teaching all learning areas, thereby eliminating any co-subject liaising and paving the way for a STEM approach. How disheartening, then, to not find a mention of STEM at all within the Western Australian curriculum website. Actually, that is not entirely accurate. This author did find a solitary mention of STEM in the ‘archived news’ section dated 2016. It was entitled, “Winners Announced for the 2016 Governor’s School STEM Awards”. Unfortunately, this was not a Department of Education scheme or programme, rather an initiative by the Governor of Western Australia in which some schools chose to participate. Out of the eight schools that made it into the Winner, Runner-up and Finalist positions out of the two Primary School and Secondary School categories, only one was a public school. All of the other seven were either private schools or Independent Public Schools.
It is this author’s experience, though, that the first ‘potential obstacle’ mentioned above can be the most detrimental to not only implementing a STEM approach, but can, and does, have a dramatic negative effect on the teaching of the STEM component subjects on their own. Commitment and expertise of staff, especially those teaching general primary without the help of ‘specialised’ teachers is woefully low. This author has personally met and worked with many teachers who lack the knowledge or understanding of mathematics and science to be competent enough to teach them to the year levels of their classes. One teacher, in particular, admitted to their Principal in the company of the author that she did not understand science and was not confident teaching math above a Year 2 level. Yet, this teacher was teaching a Year 3 to Year 6 mixed-age class. While studying for a Bachelor of Education degree, it became apparent early on, that the majority of other pre-service teachers viewed mathematics and science as their ‘worst’ subjects and that they were not looking forward to teaching them. It seemed that the salary and holiday package far out-weighed the requirement actually to teach competently. According to a recent review of the 2019 ATAR entry requirements for teaching degrees in universities, almost 40 per cent of teaching undergraduates entered with an ATAR of less than 70. This number is almost double the number of students who entered teaching degrees with an ATAR of less than 70 in 2016. The story is even worse if you enter the Australian Catholic University, where their ATAR cut-off for 2019 entry was only 48.25 for a Primary Education degree (Singhal, 2018).
Researching and reviewing the curriculums of the other States and Territories in Australia was akin to waking up one day and finding a 72-inch widescreen, high-definition, 7.1 surround sound monster of a television in your house when yesterday you had was an old transistor radio. Again, and again this author found STEM being thrown toward the reader as if it was the most important thing in the world. Colourful, large print, eye-catching, informative and engaging pages shouting the benefits of STEM education for students and society. Links to ideas and lesson plans, external and internal reports, evidence and data, and links to further reading were visible, and the reader could not help but sense the importance of STEM being purveyed to the reader, the parent and the teacher. In fact, there contained a large amount of resources aimed specifically at the teacher to aid in the construction and implementation of STEM-based lesson plans and themes.
The Queensland Curriculum & Assessment Authority, to highlight one at random, contains a massive amount of STEM-based information; detailing why STEM education is so essential, how STEM benefits students, how it affects the economy and future employment trends, how schools can support and implement a STEM mentality, how the General Capabilities align with a STEM education and, which was a pleasure to see, how to make STEM education relevant (QCCA, 2018).
The issue of the teacher being unsuited and inexperienced enough to be able to teach STEM to a high standard is borne out in a mountain of research which left this author wondering, if the strategies and plans were in place within the majority of States and Territories for the implementation of STEM into schools in Australia, to what extent does the ‘obstacle of the teacher’ stand in the way? The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (2012) and the Productivity Commission (2012) have drawn attention to the small numbers of science and mathematics teachers in Australia. Other studies also show that this deficit is far from being a recent issue (Department of Education, Science and Training, 2003); (Eacott & Holmes, 2010); (McKenzie, Rowley, Weldon, & Murphy, 2011); (Stokes & Wright, 2007).
Also, an issue of STEM-related teachers is the decline of male teachers who hold the majority of science-related positions, which is also the case for mathematics and computing/IT. The teaching industry is seeing a swathe of male teachers retiring from the profession, with only a small percentage of teachers entering being male. This has been due to the fall in salary overall and men, traditionally the main earner holding those position. It is now being seen that male-dominated subjects are suffering from teacher shortages (Weldon, 2015).
While there is no national data on the subject specialisations of graduate teachers, Victoria and NSW do hold their own data which can be extrapolated. From the data, it is shown that pre-service teachers with a specialisation in mathematics make up only 6 per cent of those entering the profession year on year, compared to 13–14 per cent of those who specialise in English (Weldon, Shah, & Rowley, 2015).
In NSW, Wilson and Mack (2014) looked at Year 12 students who noted an interest to study a teaching degree at University. The proportion of Year 12 students with no mathematics skills tripled from 4.8 per cent in 2001 to 15.6 per cent in 2013. Those with general maths rose from 55 per cent to 65 per cent; those with intermediate level maths fell from 31 per cent to 14 per cent, and those with advanced maths declined from 10 per cent to 5 per cent (Wilson & Mack, 2014). Remember, these were the students who felt that they could pass on their ‘lack of knowledge’ to the next generation.
The Victorian Auditor-General’s report of 2012 stated that: “The availability and distribution of science and mathematics teachers continues to be an area of challenge. Schools, regions and other stakeholders report that quality – not quantity – of teachers is their most significant issue. Schools in rural and regional areas and socioeconomically disadvantaged areas have the most difficulty attracting good quality science and mathematics teachers” (Victorian Auditor-General (VAG), 2012).
Out-of-field teaching (those teaching with limited or no knowledge or expertise of the subject they are teaching) is rife across Australia (Queensland Audit Office, 2014). TIMSS data for Australia found that in 2011, “34 per cent of participating Year 8 students had an out-of-field mathematics teacher compared to an international average of 12 per cent.” In 2017 TIMSS reported that proportion had declined to around 22 per cent (Thomson, Wernert, O’Grady, & Rodrigues, 2017). 2013 data from the Staff in Australia’s Schools (SiAS) survey found that about 15 per cent of science teachers were teaching out-of-field and held less than five years of experience in the subject areas that they were teaching in. The figure for mathematics teachers was 12 per cent and for ICT teachers, 25 per cent. It was also found that new teachers were more likely to be teaching out-of-field than their more experienced colleagues (Weldon, 2016).
Further analysis of the data showed that 23 per cent of primary teachers have no tertiary study qualifications in mathematics. Data from TIMMS confirmed that “80 per cent of Australian students had mathematics teachers with no major or specialisation in mathematics, compared to 46 per cent of students, on average, across countries” (Thomson, Wernert, O’Grady, & Rodrigues, 2017). According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2014) only 19 per cent of Australian secondary school teachers employed in had university-level STEM qualifications.
In conclusion, it appears that while our country is seen to be doing the right thing, moving in the right direction on paper and pumping money into research and promoting female-equity in STEM, little is still being down at the grass-roots level of the schools; even less so at the Primary School level. Teaching standards seem to be lowering, student engagement is slipping, and the level of education of those in universities that will be entering the teaching profession soon is frightening at best. The STEM curriculum, particularly in Western Australia seen to be inconsistent, if not non-existent. Schools seem to be ‘ticking boxes’ rather than investing in the student’s future and teacher development. Admittedly, we need to employ teachers who are confident with the content that they teach. It seems that the current thinking amongst many teachers is that they do not have to reinvent the wheel; if someone else has already created a resource or lesson plan, why must they spend time doing it all over again? Evidently, the answer needs to be that we need to see that the teachers we employ are capable of producing their own lesson plans instead of finding them on teacher-resource websites and delivering the content across all subject areas. After all, that is what they have been employed to do, that is what they have said they can do on their resume, and that is what they have convinced an interview panel that they can do. Maybe part of the interview process should be to give a prospective teacher a blank lesson plan template containing only a lesson title and year group and give them 15 min to come up with a lesson. It must be better to weed out the ineffective teachers at this stage than have them employed and virtually impossible to dismiss after it is too late. If we up the game of our teachers we can up the game of our students.
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