STEM Conference, May 2017

At the end of May, SASPA and DECD held a combined, full-day conference on STEM in SACE. On the day there were presentations from 12 metropolitan secondary sites. These presentations have been published on the SASPA website and are available here. There were also 2 keynote presentations. One by Neil McGoran, Chief Executive SACE Board on Capabilities Development Through SACE and the other by Kristin Alford, Director of the University of South Australia’s  Museum of Discovery, on Inspiring teachers and engaging young adults in STEM outside formal learning at MOD. For more on the Uni SA Museum of Discovery see here and here. 

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Neil McGoran, SACE Board

Kristin Alford (MOD) and Peter Mader (SASPA)

In the first part of this post I want to focus on common approaches to the teaching of STEM that were evident at the conference. One involved an integrated, project-based approach to STEM and the other was the focus on Maths.

The integrated, project-based approach to STEM

On the day, in both the individual presentations and the plenary session, the point was made repeatedly that STEM needed to be seen as a particular, and very powerful, pedagogy. The STEM approach, it was said, was capable of effecting a ‘pedagogical shift’ across the whole school.

Typically, the schools involved on the day identified the features of what they referred to as ‘STEM pedagogy’:

  • project-based learning, where a single theme/question/concept/problem drives the selection and organisation of the curriculum
  • integrated curriculum or cross- or inter-disciplinary studies. For example,  see the highly developed model at ASMS or the ‘one-off’ Aviation Studies – under the SACE ‘Scientific Studies’ framework – at Glenunga IHS. Le Fevre HS offers yet another striking example in naval engineering via the SACE platform of ‘Integrated Learning’.
  • student-initiated and student-driven learning where the pedagogy applied has the students as active and purposeful agents in their learning
  • team teaching, cross faculty co-operation, collaboration, planning and professional development
  • an emphasis on the inquiry approach
  • particular focus on capabilities/dispositions/competencies, including their assessment
  • links to outside organisations/businesses/learning institutions
  • an emphasis on real-world curriculum and related pathways


Also on the day, many of the schools drew attention to the background, whole-school initiatives that facilitate the STEM pedagogy. They highlighted the programs in positive education, growth mindsets and student voice that made it easier to promote STEM pedagogy. See, for example, Seaview HS. Often, they argued, such programs have the potential to improve the way students see the overall value of STEM and their participation and success in STEM subjects. For example, such programs can help students to turn round negative perceptions of their ability to succeed at Maths.

For examples of how individual schools had developed a whole-of-school STEM plan see, in particular,  Glenunga IHS  and Henley HS.

Overall, the schools asserted that STEM had promoted the opportunity for significant pedagogical improvement. They were keen to draw attention to the success in their individual schools.

The most significant characteristic common to the schools was an approach to STEM that involved the integration of the various subject disciplines. In this way, the working definition of STEM that the schools were employing related to the second approach identified in the Education Council’s National STEM School Education Strategy, December 2015:

STEM education is a term used to refer collectively to the teaching of the disciplines within its umbrella – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and also to a cross-disciplinary approach to teaching that increases student interest in STEM- related fields and improves students’ problem solving and critical analysis skills. (p. 5)

This commitment to ‘integration’ is also endorsed in the Department’s own policy direction – STEM Learning: Strategy for DECD Preschool to Year 12, 2017 To 2020:

A modern education system does more than build knowledge. It also supports interdisciplinary learning, thinking and working, which draw upon several disciplines to identify a problem and develop new and innovative solutions in order to resolve an issue. (p. 2)

Given that this integrated approach to STEM – creating a ‘project’ that ‘integrates’ content from across the traditional disciplines – is used so extensively as a key strategy to achieve the overall STEM agenda, it is worth having a close look at the relevant ACARA report: ACARA STEM Connections Project Report  June 2016. The following introduction provides the context and rationale for this ACARA project:

Science, Technologies, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and STEM education have become the focus of considerable political, industry and media commentary. Widespread concern about Australia’s performance in STEM disciplines and take-up of STEM careers has resulted in the development of the National School STEM Education Strategy (Education Council, 2015) that is to be implemented from 2016 – 2026.

In 2014–15, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) conducted a small action research project, the STEM Connections Project. This project was run in conjunction with the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers (AAMT) and investigated the effectiveness of using an integrated approach to the teaching and learning of STEM disciplines. ACARA and AAMT worked with and supported 13 schools from around the country to develop an integrated STEM project that had its basis in the real world and incorporated the Australian Curriculum learning areas of Mathematics, Science and Technologies. Schools were also encouraged to identify aspects of the Work Studies curriculum and involve one or more industry partners in their project. (p. 3)

Essentially, 13 schools from across the country – including 2 from SA – Henley HS and Heathfield HS – were supported in the project …  to explore potential connections between STEM disciplines in the Australian Curriculum by implementing an integrated, project-based approach to the teaching of STEM.

The findings of the project were very positive. It found that the integration of the curriculum improves STEM outcomes:

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. (p. 6)

Similarly, the report found very positively in terms of the potential of the integrated and project-based approach to promote the development of general capabilities:

The development of general capabilities, such as Critical and Creative Thinking, and Personal and Social Capability, was overwhelmingly identified as an outcome for some students. They became evident in teamwork and collaboration, the breadth of communication skills developed and used, and the creative approaches to the project as a whole and to problem-solving in particular. (p. 18)


The predominant benefit for students was the development of increasingly mature and effective ways of working together. Students could take on different roles and work to their strengths. Some adapted well to leadership roles; others were happy to act in more supportive roles. (p. 18)

Further, the report also found that the students benefitted from the creation of ‘authentic context’:

The authentic contexts in which challenges were set led to students experiencing a real sense of purpose, which, in turn, increased engagement. The requirement to solve real-world problems led to the development of personal qualities such as persistence, independence and learning from mistakes. In most projects, there were substantial stumbling blocks along the way, due to equipment failure, difficult searches for data and problems with new technology. (p. 18)

and that they experienced real and challenging learning:

Students also learned to be independent in their research and resourceful in their problem- solving, especially when they realised that their teachers did not necessarily have immediate answers. (p. 18)

Overall, the ACARA report backed the integrated approach to STEM in the middle school:

… 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 
•     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 learning. (p. 20)

As outlined above, the positive outcomes raised in the ACARA report correspond to those identified by the schools at the SASPA – DECD May conference. However, the ACARA project did raise some concerns. For example, not all students responded positively to the pedagogy inherent in the integrated approach. They were more comfortable with or, at least, less threatened by more traditional pedagogy. Some students still find security in the more traditional  – one teacher, one class, one classroom, one lesson, one subject, and even one textbook, approach.

At the same time, of more concern was the issue of Maths. The report suggested that an integrated approach suited some subject areas more than others. Science, specifically, seemed well suited :

Schools were generally satisfied with the coverage of the Science content descriptions. Most dealt thoroughly with the Science Inquiry Skills strand, as students formulated questions for scientific investigations, planned and conducted field work or experiments, and collected and recorded data. It was through processing data and drawing conclusions that students were able to work towards a solution, using their science knowledge in the process. (p. 9)

Nor was the Technologies component an issue. In fact, it was seen as a very powerful asset:

Many schools found that Technologies was a key driver of the project as a whole, especially when the solution involved development of a product. As a result, the number of Technologies content descriptions tended to be high. (p. 10)

But there was a concern with Mathematics:

School reports indicate that Mathematics was the most difficult learning area to plan for in the project. Some teachers commented that they found it hard to integrate Mathematics effectively into those projects that were focused on Science or Technologies. (p. 10)

The report also noted that students found it difficult to transfer Maths skills to new areas and contexts.

The reservations to do with how Maths fares in the integrated approach need to be seen in the context of the centrality that the National Strategy on STEM gives to Maths. Essentially, Maths is the key to extending student engagement with and success in STEM. STEM pathways from the middle school to the senior school require relevant levels of ‘mathematical literacy’ and success in the core – and specialist – Maths curriculum. Similarly, to the extent that students do not see the value of Maths or see it as ‘beyond’ them or simply fail to engage with it, all STEM pathways are compromised.

While evidence shows students have a natural interest in science, they don’t necessarily understand the relevance of STEM education, particularly maths. Research shows that there is an interrelationship between student aspirations towards STEM careers and engagement in STEM subjects. Mathematical thinking is a fundamental skill that underpins all STEM learning. The sequential nature of mathematical learning means that students who fall off the ‘maths pathway’ early can struggle to achieve sufficient levels of mathematical literacy. (p. 8)

The ACARA report suggests that a high priority needs to be attached to making sure Maths ‘works’ in any integrated approach. And beyond the specifics of the ‘integrated’ approach it is important to recognise that the overall STEM strategy depends fundamentally on Maths. Improving both engagement and success in Maths in the middle school is the precondition for increasing equivalent outcomes at the senior secondary level which, in turn, is the ultimate intention of the STEM strategy.

The focus on Maths

Specifically in relation to this issue of improving Maths in the middle school as a prerequisite for growing STEM pathways, there were 2 school presentations on the day worth a closer look. One involved Craigmore HS  and the other Blackwood HS .

Craigmore recognised that for more engagement with and success in STEM at senior secondary, there had to be a corresponding improvement in Maths in the middle school. At the very least, more students in the middle school had to engage with and take the relevant Maths subjects and they had be to be successful in them. At the same time, for all students in middle school, overall levels of achievement in Maths had to improve and students’ understanding of the importance of Maths in their lives and their confidence in their ability to succeed at Maths had to be developed.

Craigmore revised its middle school Maths, with a special focus on Yr 10. It shifted from a structure where there were mixed-ability classes in Yr 8-9 and a specially selected Maths Studies at Yr 10 to one where there are now mixed-ability classes through to the end of Yr 10 and an Advanced Maths offering – 1 or 2 semesters, preferably 2 –  at Yr 10.  The Advanced Maths offering has a focus on the algebraic skills associated with an engineering pathway and the related ‘Introduction to Engineering’ is also offered as a choice subject in Yr 10. It is also important to note that in the background there has also been a focus on improving engagement in middle school Maths, via the adoption of an inquiry approach, attention to problem solving and critical thinking skills and the development of mathematical understanding.

For a more comprehensive account of new approaches to Maths pedagogy see, for example:

Identifying and Supporting Quantitative Skills of 21st Century Workers, Final Report 2014. The Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers Inc. (AAMT) and Australian Industry Group

Desktop Review of Mathematics School Education Pedagogical Approaches and Learning Resources, March 2015 AAMT

Mathematics by Inquiry: Roundtable Key Messages May 2015. Australian Government.

Craigmore is convinced that the new approach has been successful: the situation across Yr 10 Maths as a whole has improved; there has been an increase in the number of students opting for the Advanced Maths at Yr 10; and this increase at Yr 10 has now flowed through to the senior school where there are more students taking Specialist Maths, and also related subjects like Stage 1 and 2 Physics. The Engineering Pathways course has also been a success. The focus on Maths has strengthened STEM pathways.

To some extent the work at Craigmore is another variation on the ‘integrated approach’ to STEM but what is significant about it is that Maths has acted as the catalyst.

At Blackwood HS there has also been a definite focus on Maths. Over the past few years there has been a whole school focus on Maths improvement. The intention has been to improve student attitudes to Maths at all year levels. Lifting the quality of Maths teaching has been a priority. Within this the focus has been on ‘instructional coaching’. This has meant that best practice is shared, teachers observe each others’ lessons, common tests and folio tasks are shared across teachers and more attention is paid to student feedback. In line with the broader new Maths pedagogy, there has been a shift from ‘tell’ to ‘ask’, text books are used more creatively, students are challenged in an inquiry approach, there is an emphasis on catering for all levels, positive student-teacher relationships are fostered and students are encouraged to recognise and celebrate their success in the subject area: it is OK to say you are good at Maths.

Like Craigmore, Blackwood has also introduced a Yr 10 extension maths. As well, students are accelerated with their Maths studies: primary students in secondary and middle school students in senior school. There is a whole school numeracy plan and between 2013-15 there was a Numeracy Coach. Each subject area is responsible for teaching specific numeracy focus lessons. Attention is paid to the tracking and monitoring of student achievement in Maths 8-10. The school sees STEM as an opportunity to boost the status of Maths and certainly the school has its own STEM program, including specific projects at both the primary and middle school level. Like Craigmore, Blackwood values the integrated nature of STEM but it also sees the engagement with, and success in, Maths as the key to broadening STEM pathways and improving performance in all STEM-related subject areas.

STEM: the way forward

The STEM presentations at the DECD-SASPA conference in May 2017 showed very clearly the enthusiasm and initiative with which SA State secondary schools have embraced the STEM challenge. Importantly, the day’s proceedings showed how the 12 individual schools have taken on the challenge. The emphasis on the integrated approach is certainly a common feature and to a lesser extent the focus on Maths as the key STEM subject is another.

However, beyond the efforts of the individual schools there are significant whole-of-system and national challenges that remain with STEM. For example, the ACARA project referred to above calls for more research on the integrated approach:

While the scale of the project does not make it possible to draw any definitive conclusions, it does add to the growing body of knowledge about STEM education in schools. The findings are sufficiently strong to suggest that further investigation would be beneficial. (p. 20)

Ideally, such investigation could include the fundamental issue of the way that the individual core ‘components’ of STEM  – Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths – are treated in the AC, given that the very idea of an integrated approach to STEM implies some sort of ‘natural connectivity’ between these 4 curriculum components. For example, is STEM a natural, pre-existing and internally-coherent curriculum framework in its own right which, as it were, sits above the 4 components? Or is it the case that STEM can only ever be, as it were, retro-fitted to the AC at the initiative of individual schools? Also, is it ACARA’s responsibility to take the lead on the curriculum and pedagogy of STEM in the middle school? There is also the complex set of issues to do with STEM capabilities.

Moreover, there are substantive questions to do with the overall success of the national STEM strategy that go well beyond the efforts of individual schools. As the SASPA-DECD conference demonstrated, individual schools may well be undertaking exciting and ground-breaking work in pursuing the STEM challenge, particularly in the middle school, but it is also possible that there are more, or at least as, fundamental forces at the macro-level that will determine the overall success of STEM. Arguably, one of the most significant pieces of research in relation to this issue was the 2013 STEM: Country Comparisons – International comparisons of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education Final Report  which was funded by the Australian Research Council. The report looked at the national school systems where overall performance in STEM was strongest and considered the relevant lessons for Australia. Three key issues from this very comprehensive report are worth a brief mention: senior school subject selection and market forces; the ‘long tail’ of performance; and out-of-field’ teaching.

senior school subject selection and market forces

One of the 2 fundamental goals of the national STEM Strategy is to increase participation in what are referred to as ‘challenging’ STEM subjects in the senior secondary years. In some jurisdictions, this is actually translated to a specific target. For example in South Australia, the policy calls for a … 15% increase in the number of students who receive an Australian Tertiary Admission Ranking (ATAR) in advanced mathematics, physics and chemistry subjects. (p. 9)

However, the research suggest that reaching such targets is not straightforward as there are significant factors at work that compromise what can be set as reasonable, desirable and achievable targets. National interest does not necessarily line up with the various sets of institutional and personal interests. In fact, research suggests that the ability to impose some higher set of interests on this particular market place is limited. The report offers sobre insight:

In Australia the percentage of year 12 students enrolled in higher level STEM has been declining for decades. In 1992–2010 the proportion of year 12 students in biology fell from 35 to 24 per cent, in physics from 21 to 14 per cent. This period coincided with a broadening of the range of secondary subjects and a reduction in the role of prerequisites for university entrance into science-based programs, creating greater scope for student choice. University faculties want to attract the highest scoring students so as to maximise the university’s market position, with decreasing regard for content-based preparation. There was a lesser decline in mathematics, from 77 per cent to 72 per cent, but most students were enrolled in elementary mathematics subjects. Only 10 per cent participated in advanced mathematics at year 12 level, with 20 per cent in intermediate mathematics. A growing proportion of high-achieving year 12 students participate in no mathematics program at all, particularly female students. (16)

Elsewhere the report notes the long history of how the higher level maths and science at the senior secondary level have been used as ‘gate-keepers’ to high status university courses, including even courses that were not STEM-related.

… when the senior secondary track in specialist science and mathematics is used as a privileged route for selection into high status university programs (often in non STEM fields), in school systems with a high degree of subject choice that allow students to opt out of STEM, this tends to both weaken overall participation in science and mathematics and narrow the size of the high achiever group. Arguably, this has been an outcome in Australia. (p. 14)

What is important here is the intimation that declining rates of STEM participation at the senior secondary level are at least in part driven by some sort of ‘free market’ in relation to university entrance. Some of the dynamics include the provision of increased student choice at the senior secondary level – in an attempt to move from a narrow, restrictive or over-specialised senior secondary curriculum – and university strategies to attract the ‘highest scoring’ students in order to protect ’market share’ and status.

the long tail of performance

One of the critical findings from the research is that there are national systems where there is both outstanding achievement and a low proportion of underachievers. The finding is based on PISA results. Importantly the report also finds that the concentration of underperformance in defined groups of the school population is not in any way inevitable:

In the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD’s) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which compares student achievement in mathematics and science at age 15, the nations/systems with the largest group of students at the top three proficiency levels are Shanghai in China, Singapore, Hong Kong SAR in China, Taiwan, Korea, Finland and Switzerland. These are also the systems with the smallest proportion of underperformers in PISA. It would seem that there is no need to choose between boosting high achievement and eliminating educational disadvantage. (p. 14)


Hence the goal of science (and mathematics) for all is not necessarily in conflict with the goal of enlarging and improving top-end STEM performance in secondary schooling and university research. For example, by growing the proportion of students who stay in STEM, including women and low socio-economic status (SES) students, a nation expands the talent pool from which future STEM high achievers will be drawn. (p. 14)

However, in Australia the equivalent profile of achievement is of concern, precisely because there is a concentration of under performance in specific school populations, ones generally defined by disadvantage. STEM performance in other words is yet another measure of educational disadvantage:

Perhaps the larger problem in Australia lies in the distribution of student achievement. Participants in both PISA and TIMSS are divided into groups according to their demonstrated proficiency. A benchmark performance level is set, below which students are thought to be at risk of having difficulty in participating work and life as productive citizens in the twenty-first century. In PISA, 16 per cent of Australian students fall below this point in terms of mathematical literacy, and 12 per cent in scientific literacy. …

While only 3 per cent of Australian students in the highest SES quartile fall below the PISA international benchmark in scientific literacy, 22 per cent of students in the lowest SES quartile fail to reach it. The difference is more marked in mathematical literacy, at 4 per cent and 28 per cent respectively. Students from independent schools achieve higher raw scores than students from Catholic and government schools but there is not statistically significant difference once variation in students’ SES backgrounds is taken into account. (p. 16)

A more recent (2017) investigation of the data – Debra Panizzon, Uni SA, Australia’s STEM report card — “Overall fairly consistent achievement but with high inequity for specific populations of students” and Australia’s report card in STEM: “Consistent effort but highly inequitable!” – highlights the basic problem: Australia’s overall STEM achievement levels are relatively high in terms of international comparisons but overall levels of national performance are held down by significant underachievement in specific school populations, ones characterised by high levels of inequity.

Australia maintained a status quo for PISA 2003-2012, remaining within the second band of countries that lie above the PISA average for scientific and mathematical literacy. While our government complains that we are ‘failing’, in fact there are only a proportion of countries that have significantly outperformed Australian students in these areas over this timeframe. However, if the Australian data are disaggregated gaps and inconsistencies in student achievement are identifiable in relation to socioeconomic status, Indigeneity, and geographical location (i.e., rural and regional schools). Of particular concern in Australia is that these components have a compounding effect in certain schools where there are high populations of Indigenous students and those from low SES backgrounds. (p. 1)

Panizzon argues that the situation is hardly new. The measure of the relative performance in STEM is striking:

The achievement gaps are actually not new and have been considered in government policy for educational planning for some time. What is new is that accessibility to international data sets like PISA and TIMSS provide the ‘hard evidence’ regarding the extent and size of these gaps. McGaw raised this issue nationally in 2007 referring to the ‘prevailing long tail’ of low achievers evident in these international results. As highlighted by Thompson, de Bortoli and Buckley (2013), even though the overall performance of Australian students for PISA 2012 and 2009 were static for science with a slight decrease for mathematics, it was the gaps between the subgroups of students that appeared disproportionate. For example:

  • Students in the lowest quartile for SES attained a mean score of 463 for mathematical literacy compared to students in the highest quartile who achieved a mean score of 550 points representing 2.5 years of schooling. These results were identical for scientific literacy. A full description of the impact of SES is available from Panizzon, Westwell & Elliott (2013).
  • Indigenous students achieved a mean score of 417 for mathematical literacy compared to 507 for non-Indigenous students representing 2.5 years of schooling with similar results for scientific literacy.
  • Students attending metropolitan schools achieved a mean score of 511 for mathematical literacy while those in rural schools attained a mean score of 444 representing 2 years of schooling. Again, results were similar although slightly less for scientific literacy demonstrating a difference of 1.5 years of schooling. (p.1)

The National Strategy itself also identified the issue of relative ’success’ in STEM – although it was principally concerned with participation, rather than achievement, against specific populations:

Yet Australian data shows that inequities exist in STEM. Girls, students from low socio-economic status backgrounds, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, and students from non-metropolitan areas can be less likely to engage with STEM education and therefore have a higher risk of not developing high capabilities in STEM-related skills. These groups are more likely to miss out on the opportunities STEM-related occupations can offer. (p.1)

Overall, research suggests that, in Australia, the STEM challenge is relatively ‘narrow’ and that it will only be met by a combined effort to reduce the background reality of educational disadvantage and the development of pedagogy that specifically addresses the combined issues of low STEM engagement and achievement for particular school populations, ones generally defined by disadvantage. This is why the work of schools such as Playford International College  and Craigmore HS are so important. Equally the current focus on STEM for Indigenous students – see, for example, Strengthening Indigenous Participation and Practice in STEM and STEM and Indigenous Students –  and the push for ‘culturally responsive pedagogy’ are vital. There are other interesting projects, for example the very recent news release (28/7/17) on the South Australian scholarship fund ($1M) to support 110 high school students from under-represented groups (female students, Aboriginal learners and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds) to pursue STEM subjects at SACE level.

out-of-field teaching

Not surprisingly, the STEM research places great emphasis on the quality of teaching. The Chief Scientist’s report Mathematics, Engineering & Science in the National Interest  (2012) remarked:

Inspired teaching is undoubtedly the key to the quality of our system, and to raising student interest to more acceptable levels. It is the most common thread running through the responses in every country where the issue has been assessed in any detail.

Inspiring teachers will generally be those confident that they know their subject well, and can transmit that confidence, and their passion, into the classroom. (p. 7)

Elsewhere it noted the universally accepted impact that teachers who were unqualified and/or lacked confidence:

Inspirational teaching was time and time again identified as the key to future study choices of students. This is true for most, nearly all, countries. It was raised in our consultations every time—teachers and students alike highlighted the issue of teachers who lacked confidence and/or knowledge and therefore taught more often from the textbook. Students were unimpressed. (p. 20)

Other reports – eg, STEM: Country Comparisons – International comparisons of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education Final Report (2013) have highlighted that those systems successful in STEM have a sharp focus on specialist teachers who teach exclusively in their subject/discipline:

… these countries have an unbreakable commitment to disciplinary contents. They do not equate teaching with class management and credentialing alone. They focus on knowledge. STEM teachers are expected to be fully qualified in their discipline and to teach in that field and not others. This contrasts sharply with Australia. Professional development is primarily focused on the discipline rather than generic programs, which again contrast with Australia. (p. 15)

The same report raises real concerns about the level of ‘out-of-field’ teaching in STEM subjects in Australia. The report’s Key finding 9.4: ‘Out of field’ teaching’  is very direct:

The incidence of ‘out of field’ teaching in science and mathematics is especially high in Australia by comparison with other countries. Arguably, this is a crucial weakness of Australian education, impairing both the breadth and depth of STEM learning, especially in government and Catholic schools. (p. 119)


Faced with staffing shortages 47 per cent of government school principals ask teachers to teach outside field, and 57 per cent of Catholic school principals, but only 14 per cent of independent school principals. Out of field teaching is unusual in the countries studied. Only in the United States, Brazil and Australia does it occur on a large scale and it appears to be worse in Australia than the United states. (p.17)

The suggestion is that at least part of the national STEM challenge relates to the professional qualifications and disciplinary expertise of the teachers involved. Moreover, the extent to which out-of-field teachers have to be relied on to teach STEM classes must increase the possibility that ineffective or at least problematic pedagogy is employed – out-of-field teachers are more likely to rely on textbook-based pedagogy and not have had access to relevant professional training – and that this in turn promotes student disengagement and compromises overall results. Moreover, it is also possible that the lack of expert teachers is even more acute in disadvantaged schools.

Paradoxically, it is also important to consider that one of the great successes of the present project-based, integrated approach in the middle school to the teaching of STEM could prove to be a significant flaw. Typically, these projects are very successful because of the teaching staff involved. They often rely on specialist, ‘one-off’ teachers who bring high-level background knowledge and expertise and even external, professional experience in a specialised field to the project. The teachers involved are highly motivated, enthusiastic and prepared to devote the time and energy – and even source their own resources – to make the project work. This combination of commitment, enthusiasm and specialist expertise was evident in the various school presentations at the SASPA-DECD conference. The problem however is that such excellence might not be replicable on the larger scale. Arguably, the successes that schools enjoy are at least in part because of the small scale of the initiative. Pushing beyond the individual, carefully fostered and nurtured one-off project to a ‘mainstream’ approach with teachers who are not as ‘expert’ or ‘committed’ could be problematic.

It is also important to consider the possibility that the push for project-based, integrated curriculum in the middle school could even promote ‘generalist’ teachers over ‘specialist’ teachers. If this did occur there would could well be an negative impact at the senior secondary level in the teaching of the specialist STEM subjects that have been specifically targeted for growth.


The SASPA-DECD STEM conference in late May 2017 demonstrated the exciting approaches that schools have employed to meet the various dimensions of the ‘STEM challenge’. The schools involved were keen to demonstrate how they have taken what they see as a distinctive and emerging ‘STEM pedagogy’ and have used it to drive significant change in the way STEM is taught. They also see this same pedagogy having a positive impact on other disciplines and on school culture generally.

While the work of the individual schools is obviously impressive and offers direction for other schools, it is important to locate the effort of the individual school within the context of the broader National STEM challenge.  Some significant dimensions of this challenge need to be tackled at system, state and national levels. Equally, serious consideration needs to given to supporting the individual school, particularly those at the forefront of tackling educational disadvantage.

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