Walking and Chewing Gum: Modern STEM Education

Working with teachers at all levels, I’ve found that kids who think that STEM is boring, irrelevant, and hard, suddenly engage with those same skills when it’s in the context of something real. Solving an authentic problem means the motivation is built in. They can see the point of what they’re learning, and they learn that STEM skills are tools they can use to make positive change in their own communities.

When Education Ministers rejected the new inquiry based maths curriculum in favour of a more traditional, mastery based approach, the decision was painted as a choice between mastery and inquiry. In other words, kids can either learn by repetition, memorising their times tables, and focusing on fundamental skills, or they can learn by exploration, and figuring things out for themselves.

This is a weirdly false dichotomy. Few teachers these days teach with only repetition and drilling. Inquiry based learning can easily support building those skills on which the rest of mathematics is based. There’s no need to choose between inquiry and mastery. Importantly, this attitude also completely misses the most crucial aspect of education – motivation.

Education research shows very clearly that motivation is essential to learning. We also know that marks are very poor motivators for most kids. Telling them it matters because it will be on the exam is what we call extrinsic motivation – motivation that comes from outside. The best motivation is intrinsic and comes from inside ourselves – it’s something we care about, rather than something people try to make us care about. Kids very quickly learn how to maximise their marks, but it’s not an approach that will serve them well in the real world.

The good news is that intrinsic motivation is actually quite easy to build into the curriculum, using inquiry based learning to empower kids to solve real problems. The basic approach is simple. Kids find a problem they care about in their own community. It might be litter in the playground, or energy use at school and at home. Or it might be building awareness of the local indigenous language, or creating more accessible playgrounds for disabled students. The actual problem doesn’t really matter, as long as it’s real.

They measure the problem by collecting data about it. How many Arrernte words does each kid in the school know, on average? How much litter can we find around the school, and what kind of litter is it? Reading the electricity and gas meters at the school at the same time each day for a week, or counting how many playgrounds in our local area are accessible for kids with mobility challenges. Then they analyse and communicate that data, try to fix the problem, and then measure it again to see if it worked.

This is the approach we build into projects at the Australian Data Science Education Institute (ADSEI). ADSEI is a charity dedicated to building the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths (STEM) skills and data literacy of all Australian students by empowering them to solve problems in their own communities.

My own kids learned that they were “bad at maths”, because they were always low in the rankings of the times tables challenge, which was purely a measure of fast recall. But give them a real, meaningful problem and they will happily solve linear equations or do calculus in order to achieve a goal they actually care about.

It’s all but impossible to persuade our kids that something is worth learning when all they get out of it is a mark at the end. But teach them that they can learn ways to solve problems, to communicate better, and to make positive change in their own communities, and they throw themselves into it with whole hearts.

It’s no use insisting on mastery learning when it teaches our kids that STEM skills are hard, boring, and irrelevant. Ultimately, it depends whether we want our schools to produce people who can tell you the result of 12 times 9 really fast, or whether we want them to produce people who can come up with creative, effective solutions to the very real problems we face in the world.

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