ACER report addresses concerns in STEM curriculum
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According to a new report released by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), an integrated curriculum, early intervention and a stronger teaching workforce are key to reversing Australia’s downward spiral in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teaching and learning.
Released on 23 May 2018, the report, Challenges in STEM Learning in Australian Schools, identifies three specific areas in which the school sector has its strongest chance of making a difference to student outcomes in STEM: broadening access to and monitoring of STEM learning, rethinking the STEM curriculum and building the STEM teaching workforce.
Report co-author and ACER’s Director of Research Development and Quality Assurance, Dr Michael Timms, said in order to maximize the limited space for STEM in the crowded school curriculum, there must be a shift from the current focus on discrete learning areas to a modern conceptualization of STEM as interdisciplinary and constantly evolving.
“Australia’s unbalanced and fragmented STEM curriculum is leading to declining interest among students. An integrated approach that focuses on practices, skills and capabilities, and not just disciplinary knowledge, will create a relevant context in which content can be learned,” Dr Timms explained.
In light of research showing that science achievement gaps begin very early in life, he added that equitable and early access to STEM is vital.“Students’ opportunity to engage with STEM should not depend on their capacity to pay,” said Dr Timms. “Yet STEM learning is so often packaged as extracurricular activities with inherent barriers to access for less privileged learners. We must invest in creating the same level of engagement and excitement about STEM as part of the standard program in all early childhood centers and schools.”
The report notes that the Australian Government’s Early Learning STEM Australia (ELSA) project is developing play-based STEM programs for preschool children. For older students, the report’s authors recommend the establishment of a greater number of specialized STEM schools, such as the STEM career academy – or ‘school-within-a-school’ model.
In relation to the STEM teaching workforce, the report states that only around one quarter of primary school teachers have a strong background or tertiary qualifications in science or mathematics and, at the secondary level, the relatively small number of STEM specialists tend to teach senior students, leaving students in Years 7–10 to be taught by out-of-field teachers.
“We do not currently have the supply of qualified teachers we need to improve STEM learning,” Dr Timms added. “Incentives to attract people to STEM teaching are one way to address this, but we need better data to understand where in the teacher supply pipeline we might best target such policies, and to gauge the extent to which those policies are working.”
Australian STEM education seems caught in a whirlpool of problems that are contributing to one another. Student engagement and performance in STEM are declining, but we do not have the supply of qualified teachers we need to improve learning. The STEM curriculum is unbalanced and fragmented, leading to less interest among students. It is not possible to break out of the downward cycle from within the current system and it requires policy changes that address the issues raised in this report. This means developing well-considered, systemic and joined-up policies that address the following challenges: Improving student outcomes, building the STEM teacher workforce, and rethinking the STEM curriculum.