One of the more interesting aspects of the media coverage of the 2018 PISA results is that there was little or no coverage of the fact that our science scores declined for the second time in a row. Whereas, our score was 522 in 2016, it’s now 496. Given the hype around STEM and the huge amount of time and resources devoted to getting students to “engage” with STEM, that does seem a little ironic. Or perhaps it’s not. What if the emphasis being placed on STEM as a ‘thing’ that you ‘do’ rather than a collection of distinct subjects that you have to study hard at, we are actually failing to provide our students with the fundamental knowledge and subject-specific skills that they need to progress in science.
Here’s the latest tweet (at time of writing) on the #stem timeline. It’s pretty typical of this hastag. A view seems to have taken hold that STEM is an activity not a collection of disciplines that require deep thought and no little amount of study. Furthermore, there doesn’t seem to be a recognition that the STEM disciplines have quite different ‘signature pedagogies’ and quite different epistemologies. To ‘know’ something as an engineer is quite different from ‘knowing’ something as a microbiologist.
As I don’t teach in a secondary school, I don’t know the extent to which the concept of STEM as an activity has penetrated into our schools but it would be interesting to find out. I do know, however, that this interpretation of STEM is being strongly promoted by the education faculties of our universities and much of this work is being supported by corporations of various kinds. They’re very nice people who only want to help.
The activity approach to learning in the STEM disciplines probably comes under the “inquiry learning” umbrella. Inquiry learning is a slippery idea and it’s not worth getting into an argument about it here because everyone seems to have a different idea as to what it means. But I think we can safely say that it focuses more on students ‘doing’ or investigating things than listening to, and learning from, the teacher. Interestingly, though, the 2015 round of PISA showed quite convincingly that when the role of the teacher is de-emphasised, PISA science scores declined. Yet, in 2017, the STEM Education Review Group recommended increase use of inquiry learning in our schools.
In any event, the 2021 PISA science score will make interesting reading especially since the Junior Cycle will be well bedded-in at that stage. I’m predicting an even bigger decline.