The STEM delusion

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Last month, a report was released in Australia by the STEM Partnerships Forum. The report panel was chaired by Alan Finkel, Australia’s chief scientist, and it addressed the issue of the declining participation of Australian students in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects at the upper secondary level, as well as the worrying decline in Australia’s performance in science and maths on international tests such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

The report contains the usual platitudes and missteps that non-specialists find themselves drawn into when they inquire into education and that were writ large in the recent ‘Gonski 2.0’ review. For instance, the executive summary claims:

“Enterprise skills such as communication, clear thinking, creativity and problem solving were identified by industry as being increasingly important now and in the future. These skills are universal, taught as much through the humanities and other non-STEM pathways as they are through STEM pathways.”

The first sentence may be true but the second is clearly false. These ‘skills’ are not universal at all; they are highly specific to a particular area of knowledge. Nevertheless, such statements, alongside vague evocations of an uncertain future, are what we have come to expect in such reports.

The authors suggest that the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) system is responsible for the problem of declining participation and this is worth investigating in some detail. The ATAR is used for university entry (although there are other possible routes into higher education). It is computed slightly differently in each state, although the general principles are similar. In Victoria, students sit a set of VCE exams in Year 12 in English and a range of other subjects of their own choosing. For each subject, they gain a cohort-referenced ‘study score’ on a scale out of 50. The study scores are allocated so that 53% of students gain a score above 30 and 9% of students gain a score above 40. Due to the fact that different subjects tend to attract different populations of students, the study scores in one subject are then scaled against scores in other subjects. For instance, if students who tend to gain a study score of 33 in their other subjects gain a score of 30 in Maths Methods, the Maths Methods study score will be scaled up by 3 points at this level. Finally, all of these scaled study scores are statistically combined to produce an ATAR which, in theory at least, gives a student’s percentile ranking against all other students who started Year 7 alongside them i.e. an ATAR of 99.0 means that a student is in the top 1% of this group. Universities then set ATAR cut-off levels for entry into various courses, although there are quite a lot of special dispensations that may be applied.

If it sounds complicated then that’s because it is. It is likely that many teachers don’t fully understand how the system works.

The Authors of the STEM Partnerships Forum report think that this system is driving teachers, parents and students towards easier subjects with the intention of maximising students’ ATAR scores. If this is true then these teachers, parents and students must not understand how scaling works. A perhaps equally likely misinterpretation would be that students should take harder subjects because these will be scaled up more. In truth, a true cynic could perhaps examine the specific ways that mathematics and languages are scaled and use this understanding to game the system a little, but besides this, subject choices should not make much difference.

And that is the big problem.

A few years back, universities would not simply set ATAR cut-offs for subjects, they would also specify pretty demanding prerequisites. If you wanted to study engineering then you would need to take Maths Methods and Physics at VCE and gain particular study scores in these subjects in addition to a particular ATAR; if you wanted to study medicine then you needed chemistry and so on. Since then, higher education in Australia has undergone a demand-led expansion that has seen prerequisites largely dropped. You can now enter an engineering course, for instance, with only very basic maths, placing a responsibility on the university to remediate the gaps. This is not a sensible way of going about things and rigorous prerequisites need to be reinstated.

Alongside this development, we have a fashion for inquiry learning and a student-centred approach to high school teaching that emphasises student engagement and choice. The authors of the STEM Partnerships Forum report also stress the role of inquiry learning, claiming that it is a key feature of high performing systems around the world such as Singapore. The source of this claim is opaque and the claim contrasts sharply with evidence from PISA that suggests a greater use of inquiry learning in science subjects is associated with lower scores on PISA science assessments.

What do these trends add up to? They add up to a culture in which we are teaching students that their engagement is what matters and that if they are not enjoying something then they have a choice to do something else. It teaches them the primacy of immediate gratification over delayed gratification. In such a climate, is it really surprising that students opt out of the laborious process of learning to balance ionic equations as required by the senior chemistry curriculum, or the mind-bending discipline of solving conditional probability problems as demanded by the Maths Methods curriculum? Not really, particularly if universities don’t care which subjects they take. And yet the truth is that mastering STEM subjects is slow and involves lots of hard work with enjoyment often coming later when skills have been fully developed. It is not really about flouncing around doing lots of cool experiments.

That’s why we have a problem with both our performance in STEM subjects and the uptake of these subjects in upper secondary, and that’s why the STEM Partnerships Forum report will not fix anything.

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12 thoughts on “The STEM delusion

  1. Are you sure that monied interests aren’t involved? In the US, we would suspect the Gates Fdn or the Koch Bros to be behind this sort of stuff…

    1. Gates Fdn is a charity. I might not like all its ideas but it’s not really the same as the Koch Bros.

  2. Yep, good points Greg. I know that we in teacher education are happy to take just about anyone, especially for primary teaching. What is more, since there is virtually no quality control we can pretty much do what we like in-terms of discipline knowledge. Since we operate in a market driven environment where student satisfaction ratings are very important, and there is incentive to offer convenient courses, you can guess where this is leading. Oh dear, the government took their eye off the ball with respect to banking quality control and look what happened. Of course, similar short cutting of quality in teaching graduates would not be expected in tertiary settings. Anyway, consistent with particular interpretations of constructivist theory, the pre-service teachers can teach themselves the discipline and specific pedagogy in their own time, maybe learn along with the class? No wonder there is teacher burn out.

  3. Explicit, rigorous instruction: standing students on the shoulders of giants.
    Inquiry based learning: standing students on the toes of pigmys.

  4. Removing the cap on government-sponsored places a few years ago was the source of the problem. We definitely seem to be in a trend of lower standards and qualification creep to make up. Unis don’t mind, people need a masters where a bachelors was fine = more people doing masters = more money.
    Doesn’t help students though.

    1. The ongoing transformation of Unis into businesses is one of the most pernicious aspects of the whole educational landscape. And it has massive knock-on effects for secondary schools.

      1. Well Mike, I can not get this line of argument published in academic press or even in the Australian (with solid evidence and logical argument) and of course university institutions are just playing by the rules set out by government. I believe poor teacher training processes is the elephant in the room and a major factor in difficulties we are having as a nation to reform learning of the hard sciences such as maths. So where do we go from here?

  5. I think the first sentence is also an unhelpful lie.

    Entry level positions don’t require much initiative, creativity or responsibility. That comes as you move up the ladder. Juniors who start trying to “fix” an organisation, with no awareness of how things work are a pain.

    It leads people to think that when they start work that they will immediately be peers with the old hands. That’s not how the world works, and never will be.

    (It’s not even like academia is notorious for accepting the input of noobs who step outside the boundaries in a creative way.)

    Clarity of communication is indeed valued universally. Except by academics, who wrote turgid prose themselves while decrying the need to force students to learn the hard process of writing with clear grammar and exposition (in favour, of course, of “creativity”).

    1. You to wonder how they surveyed industry -was it a question – do you want future hires to think better, the same as past ones or worse?

      Who would answer anything but better?

      Unless industry was asked to pay for what they wanted they will of course say they want better in all aspects.

      Industrial employers may also be assuming a good critical thinker would be quiet humble at the prospect of starting their first job.

      1. It was a survey of the big tech companies (google, Facebook, etc) who can look for these elements because their recruiting and desire to work for them is so high That they already get the cream of hard workers, high IQs and great degrees.

        Most business seems to want 2 hours of work for 1 hour of pay, which I hope schools aren’t teaching.

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