Students seeing beyond STEM.

“STEM crisis…”

“Five million Australian jobs will be wiped out…”

“STEM skills shortage…”

With rhetoric like this, you would be forgiven for thinking that the biblical end was nigh.

Such hyperbole does; however, crowd out and undermine a really important message for students and their parents about the value of STEM learning at school.

I prefer to break the message down into 3 parts:

1. STEM doesn’t trump Passion.

If there is one universal truth in education, it is this: as long as a student follows their passion, works hard at it, picks themselves up when the inevitable challenges arise and is along the way kind and respectful to others – they will be good people and will have succeeded.

What attracts me to STEM is that it is another great vehicle for secondary students to begin questioning their society, being creative and passionate about improving their own future. Whether they go on to follow a STEM pathway is not as important as the recognition that these attributes are fundamental.

2. STEM learning helps students develop commercially useful skills.

In a future where companies have access to global pools of skilled labour, being able to differentiate yourself from the pack with a good understanding of data analysis, an understanding of basic engineering and coding/programming skills will be a great starting point. Technology is inherent in all areas of society now and with it has come vast sources of data. In fields such as Health, data-mining and the subsequent analysis for targeted genetic interventions offer potentially revolutionary advances in patient care. In Agriculture, the automation of many labour practices has opened up significant opportunities for scalability and efficiencies. As an agricultural economy, Australia will need knowledgeable people who can overcome the engineering challenges of farming at such levels.

3. Really employable attributes are inherent in the nature of STEM.

Collaboration, communication, problem-solving, resilience… These are not just catchy words but the fundamentally human attributes upon which the individual STEM fields have been based for all of human history. Not everyone needs to be able to solve the Hodge conjecture (but if you can, go here and get recognised!) but the process of approaching such a problem and working with other mathematicians from all over the world builds the kind of humanistic skills that AI will be hard-pressed to replicate.

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What are we teaching for?

Vice President Joe Biden talks with children in Mrs. Keebaugh’s 4th grade classroom at Goode Elementary School in York, Pennsylvania, October 18, 2011.
(Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)


What are we teaching our students for?

This is not a personal, existential question, but a literal one. What future are we preparing our students for?

Parents send their students to school to be educated in what they know – consciously or not – is both a socially & culturally dynamic environment. Many school environments try to reflect the world that their students are entering but this task is becoming increasingly difficult as that world itself is undergoing such rapid changes.

A report by Mckinsey & Company,released in January 2017 highlighted the potential impacts of automation on employment and productivity. Despite warnings of mass unemployment from some well-respected individuals (Elon Musk, Steven Hawking & Bill Gates among them), the reality is existing issues such as workforce ageing and labour shifts will for the most part off-set the direct impacts of process automation.

The issue that concerns me most as an educator is how the existing design of the education system is not conducive to preparing a workforce that is able to adapt to the rapid changes occurring in the workplace. Students entering their final years of secondary education in 2017 will be looking to attend University at the completion of their education in numbers not seen in recent history. This is despite studies showing that the much vaunted “graduate earnings premium” that comes from having a University-level degree is no longer guaranteed.

Additionally, an increasing number of corporations are demanding a new type of skillset from their employees – skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, communication and the ability to collaborate globally. Some corporations have moved to offering cadetships to school leavers that combine paid work with further education, offering students targeted and individualised learning opportunities in the context of a real workplace. If the wealth of literature on the benefits of differentiation and the individualisation of learning in the compulsory years of education is anything to go by, such a model is more relevant than the traditional model of non-specific undergraduate degrees.

For those of us working in the Primary and Secondary education systems, these recent changes are not by any means a reason for despair. There is much we can do to ensure that we are teaching our students for a world that will demand a different set of skills from them. For many good teachers, these are the skills that we spend every day focusing on – working well with others, being respectful of differences, asking good questions, being creative in our thinking and our learning.

If anything, let’s hope that an increased focus by society on the value and importance of these 21st Century skills will relax some of the pressures we experience to just teach more content.

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