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Improving Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)

For decades there have been calls in many countries to take education in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics more seriously. Often the statement is made that the teaching is not adequate and the response is seen in the turnoff of many students.

It would be utterly wrong and a distortion to say most young people consider science to be boring. Many are fascinated. Often the stimulus for greater interest is, as in many disciplines, the influence of a particularly good teacher or a prominent leader in the field with whom the student identified. There are a number of very successful scientists who did poorly at school or who left school early only to seemingly suddenly blossom.

There is important research in this area including especially in Australia, the work of Russell Tytler, Professor of Science Education at Deakin University. In recent reports summarised on an article on the ABC website, “Three ways to boost science performance in Australian schools”, Tytler points out, as have others, “Australia’s performance in science continues to slide due to ineffective, traditional teaching practices and an outdated curriculum, which is leading to students becoming disengaged with the subject.”

I have summarised effective approaches to teaching science from leading researchers in the field.

This is an extract from the introduction to that essay.

Argument and debate are common in science, yet they are virtually absent from science education. Professor Jonathan Osborne, now at Stanford University, points out that opportunities for students to engage in collaborative discourse and argumentation offer a means of enhancing student conceptual understanding and students’ skills and capabilities with scientific reasoning.  Amongst his most important papers are ‘Arguing to Learn in Science: The Role of of Collaborative, Critical Discourse’ (Science 328, 463-466, 23 April 2010), a more extended treatment of which is given in Osborne’s chapter in the Second International Handbook of Science Education Part Two (‘The Role of Argument: Learning How to Learn in School Science’ in Barry J Fraser et al (editors), Springer, Dordrecht, 2012). Since critical, rational scepticism is essential in science, educational practice which does not give opportunities to develop the ability to reason and argue scientifically is a weakness: “knowing what is wrong matters as much as knowing what is right… Argumentation is the means that scientists use to make their case for new ideas.” Critique is not, therefore, some peripheral feature of science, but rather it is core to its practice.

Science education mostly lacks argument: “in the rush to present the major features of the scientific landscape, most of the arguments required to achieve such knowledge are excised”. Science therefore comes across as a monolith of facts. This is consistent with the deeply held view that education is a process of transmission of knowledge as a set of unequivocal and uncontested facts transferred from expert to novice. “However, in reality, education is a highly complex act where failure is the norm and success the exception… learning is often the product of the difference between the intuitive or old models we hold and new ideas we encounter”.

Research reveals some very interesting and important features of learning. For instance, groups holding differing ideas learn more than those who hold similar preconceptions. Improvements in conceptual learning occur when students engage in argumentation. Thus students asked to engage in small-group discussions significantly outperformed a group of control students in their use of extended utterances and verbal reasoning. Students studying genetics who engaged in discussion used biological knowledge appropriately significantly more often than a group that did not engage in discussion.


Science education, teaching science in schools, is one of the areas where Australia simply seems to not take on board what is happening elsewhere, learn from it and apply it.

Speaking at the conference of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching (NARST) conference in Philadelphia in 2010, Doris Jorde from the University of Oslo and President of the European Science Education research Association, one of the members of the “Group” which presented the report on Science Education for the European Commission, spoke to the proposition that recruitment and interest in science and technology was a prime political concern for Europe and (most) OECD countries.

Improvements and changes are needed in professional learning, making the curriculum engaging and current and getting schools and scientists to work together.

Tytler’s important short essay continues as follows:

A recent 26-country study found that top-performing countries in PISA had strong national agendas for improving science and mathematics curriculum. “Their teachers had high status, strong disciplinary expertise, and continuous professional learning was an important aspect of their practice.”

“If Australia is serious about systemic change, we need a nationally-agreed approach to quality science teaching, including professional learning and resources.”

Science in schools needs to better reflect science in the world to make the curriculum engaging and current.

“Students can explore contemporary scientific research and societal issues through drama, collaborative reasoning and debate about sustainability issues.”

School science practices can be aligned with scientific working and thinking can be advanced by schools and scientists working together

Engagement with deeper learning results when students are given the opportunity to generate their own ideas and critique and refine these with teacher guidance.

An inquiry approach in which students construct and refine drawings, models, or animations in response to conceptual challenges. “Teachers report increased engagement of students with high level discussion and the creation of scientific ideas. Test results consequently show substantial improvements in learning.”

The debate about the nature and quality of teaching in these disciplines has been ongoing for decades! Removing the need for entry students starting university to have high scores in mathematics doesn’t not seem to be very productive. Education authorities do not seem to be listening to the best advice. UK expert Celia Hoyles, attending a curriculum symposium at Melbourne University a few years ago, recommended that every school have an expert mathematics teacher. Perhaps it costs too much! People complain but then do nothing! We should note thsat very very many people in the community including many in areas of work which require an understanding of mathematics, in fact have little understanding. A very large number of little understanding of basic statistics. Perhaps a great many more people need to look at their competency and think about what they are saying others should do.