STEM is a source of educational inequality – Report suggests a new approach

STEM education is at risk of being a source of even greater inequality in education unless something changes. That’s the conclusion of a new report from Social Ventures Australia.

The Report makes a lot of sense it points to the considerable gap in resources and achievement levels within schools from different socio-economic communities which is leading to a divide in outcomes. By the age of 15, students from low socio-economic communities can be up to five times more likely to be low performers than a student in a higher socio-economic area.  Poor performance in STEM limits social mobility and also affects the fundamentals of the local economy (and so makes this a cycle).

In one sense you could just substitute the word ‘education’ for STEM education and not change the under-pinnings of this report. We clearly have a serious problem in Australia with equality in educational opportunities (for a clear example, take a look at Actuarial Eye’s analysis of suspension of Aboriginal students). STEM might well be an area that makes that inequality stark – because the subjects are ‘hard’, need specialised teachers, and because they are seen as requiring expensive resources – but STEM is not the only area with a problem.

However, STEM is the future. It represents the subject areas that will steer today’s students into jobs and opportunities for tomorrow. It’s the area that will most significantly impact on our economy. And it is, as the Report interestingly points out, open to do doing something about by taking a different approach.

The Report argues for changing the approach to STEM to “teach the STEM practices that underpin STEM, rather than focus on content knowledge. That is the use of an idea, method, and value to achieve something.  STEM no longer refers to science, technology, engineering and mathematics as stand-alone subjects, but as an integrated approach to teaching the general capabilities on which STEM education is founded. A practical example of this type of learning in a classroom might be a group of students designing and developing a community garden. Along the way they’ll apply the STEM practices they need, combining designing and building, generating ideas, and teamwork to complete the task and along the way learn STEM content and think about the broader context like the environmental or social impact.”

So teachers would incorporate STEM as a general skill into every subject. That allows them to tailor the content to the community and the create a sense of relevance and involvement. And the Report points out: “Importantly, this method does not require teachers add new content, and in turn put them under additional pressure. Instead teachers are encouraged to highlight the importance of STEM and ensure STEM learning occurs across all subjects.”

There’s a lot in this idea, but probably not enough.

The good is that it focuses on underlying STEM skills and incorporates them into all aspects of learning. So skills in identifying and unpacking problems, in creating logical solutions, in questioning and validating evidence are taught everywhere. I fully support that idea – I’ve been banging on about the importance of the underlying thinking in teaching coding for years (see for example It’s the thinking not the coding). But the danger here is that we end up not actually teaching the subjects that make up STEM; in an effort to make the underlying thinking accessible we bake-in an even more invidious inequality that has only the high socio-economic schools actually teaching the STEM subjects. We’ve done this before in NSW when we changed the science curriculum to make it more accessible in the face of declining HSC results and simply succeeded in teaching poorer science to most people.

How much use is teaching general skills to students if they are still not given access to the actual STEM subjects at a useful level? Sure there’s real value in teaching good analysis and problem solving. But, generally speaking, it’ll founder to a complete stop when you don’t have the knowledge, maths, or other tools to back it up. Someone still has to teach students maths if they’re to get value out of the example of building a community garden.

While it’s fine to say we’ll start to iron out inequality by having all teachers teach STEM thinking, bear in mind that one of the drivers here is that it “does not require teachers add new content, and in turn put them under additional pressure”. So what makes us think that teachers are capable of teaching STEM without learning new content? How effective at teaching even the underlying thought processes can you really be if you don’t have the Maths or Science to back it up? ‘Not very’ is the obvious answer.

And this is the core problem with the Report. It identifies a problem that is real today and is only going to get worse on its current trajectory. The Report’s core approach to addressing that inequality is to work around the elephant in the room, and to suggest that by incorporating STEM fundamentals into all teaching we can make a difference. And yes that’s true, it’s (here we go again) similar to the latest approach being taken in Finland of breaking down the subject silos. But we can’t forget the elephant.

The elephant is that our schools are under-funded and our teachers are under-trained and under-resourced. Instead of worrying about pressuring teachers to add new content, give them the resources to embrace the new content. Focus on producing a new generation of teachers who have actual STEM knowledge and get them into under-resourced schools. Sure that takes work and thinking but, crucially, it takes funding which is simply not being made available.

Look, STEM Education for all young Australians puts forward a strong case for implementing a new educational framework which focuses on STEM capabilities to improve student outcomes. Doing so would certainly give school leaders more scope to incorporate STEM into day-to-day teaching and lead to improved outcomes for everyone. Coming back to the point made at the top of this rant, you could substitute the words ‘education’ for STEM education – teaching kids to think can only be a good and essential part of their education. And in pushing the core concept that early high school education ought to be about thinking skills more than specific content, the Report is one-hundred percent correct. That’s a better education.

What the Report does not do, is demonstrate that such an approach would lead to actual improved STEM skills of the sort that will be required in the new economy and which will really change communities and lives.

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