Some thoughts on the 'drivers' of STEM education

Importantly STEM education is arguably the undeniable result of neoliberalism. STEM education is self-professed as emerging from the demands of industry, and the economy, the growing investment in STEM education is the result of increasing market economy pressures on education (e.g. Finkel, 2018; Prinsley & Baranyai, 2015). Put simply, neoliberalism refers to a colonisation of other fields by economics (Fairclough, 2002), anecdotally, this is the perfect framing for STEM education. Notably, under neoliberalism, trade is represented as ‘with all’ and free of political restriction; by way of deregulation, elimination of taxation and monetary and social policy developments that favour business economic de-regulation over individuals (Brown, 2003). Neoliberalism is achieved through the installation of mostly invisible practices and policies towards these ends (Connell, 2013). It is with this context we must assess STEM education policy.

The voice of politicians and policymakers is growing louder, our students are failing to achieve the results that show our competitiveness on a global scale. In addition, our leaders highlight that our economy is suffering from our lack of competitive test scores and super-capable graduates in STEM-related fields. In the sight of a 20-year decline in maths and science results on international test scores the Australian government is calling for change (Education Council, 2015; Finkel, 2018; Gonski et al., 2018; Koziol, 2018; Markson & Harris, 2018; Norman, 2016).

Policy is now focussing on prioritising skills in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) as a collection of dominant areas for students’ learning. This has policy, and other successive effects. From early childhood, where new pressures emphasise young people’s development of literacy and numeracy, through primary school, where students’ interest, curiosity and creativity are to be fostered in STEM (only), secondary school, where teachers are being held to account for students uptake of STEM subjects (See aims of: Chubb, 2014; Education Council, 2015), and into tertiary education, where STEM degrees receive increasingly more attention. Coupled with increasing neoliberal accountability measures and managerialism throughout the education sector (Connell, 2013). This collection of STEM policy is unmistakably neoliberal. Recently a push towards neoliberal education reform has arisen, with passing mention of innovative pedagogy for the teaching of skills and knowledge, particularly when it comes to STEM (Education Council, 2015; Gonski et al., 2018). The Gonski reforms see further accountability for teachers and school leaders to get students across the metaphorical ‘line’ of standardised tests.

Furthering the neoliberal narrative, it is worth looking at the origins of STEM education policy in Australia. The imperative for STEM education is born from the ideology that ‘Australia’s future is dependent on STEM’ (Lit. 'Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: Australia’s Future': Chubb, 2014). A PricewaterhouseCoopers (2015 [PwC]) report resulted in a government crisis, and the production of the Education Council (2015) National STEM School Education Strategy, 2016 – 2026. The PwC report emphasised that three-quarters of Australia’s GDP originates in, and that fastest growing jobs will be based around, science, technology, engineering and maths. Furthermore, the 2015 report by PwC highlighted that Australia’s GDP could be boosted by $57.4 billion by shifting 1 per cent of the workforce in to STEM (and adjacent) roles. The resultant policy creation push has not ended. Recently economic imperatives have been followed up with discussion of, and early plans for, compulsory maths and science subjects until school completion nationally by the Turnbull Liberal government (Norman, 2016). The economic rationale for increasing focus on STEM education in Australian schools has remained a forefront, seemingly irrefutably logical issue to the incumbent Australian government, across multiple election terms. 

On the global stage, STEM has been receiving equal, recently unparalleled interest. The resultant STEM education policy highlights the interest in improving international competitiveness in school performance from countries around the world (Marginson et al., 2013). A further push towards accountability measures, school competitiveness locally and globally, and culminating in increasing pressures on students to perform well on standardised measures (e.g. PISA and TIMSS). Recent education policy developments in the United Kingdom, United States, New Zealand, Canada, and many other countries tell similar economically driven STEM education reform stories. 

In Australia, there are further works underway to reform education. STEM education however has, for the most part, remained absent from these reforms beyond mention of its necessity for our students. Most recently, the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence (colloquially “Gonski 2.0”) in Australian schools has highlighted the efforts of the National STEM school education strategy to develop students’ problem solving and critical analysis skills, lauding the efforts of STEM education policy to prioritise the teaching of ‘future skills’ like those in the General Capabilities of the Australian Curriculum (Gonski et al., 2018). The report alludes to the need for General Capabilities to be viewed as a continuum, the implication being that STEM education practitioners are inherently doing this, or should be, based on the language of the National STEM school education strategy(Gonski et al., 2018). Still absent is a cohesive picture of what curriculum might inform STEM from the Australian Government’s perspective, beyond a handful of examples of STEM lessons from DE NSW, and ACARA.

The absence of direction for teachers, in terms of curriculum particularly, but also in terms of detailing a pedagogic approach, in STEM education policy provides a unique opportunity. The only clear stipulation of STEM education policy in Australia is a heavy focus on: project-based learning as the pedagogic approach with little more detail than the name (Education Council, 2015, p. 8); and a focus on the skills and dispositions of the general capabilities as a key competency for students (Education Council, 2015; Gonski et al., 2018). In this regard, STEM education becomes both the burden of individual teachers, and a possibility for their agency. Thus, there are two areas to explore in regard to STEM education: first, the content in disciplines of STEM, and the pedagogy adopted to teach it; second, the work of teachers in response to STEM policy.

As highlighted, the STEM education push should not be taken unproblematically. By forcing an economically-driven arbitrary focus on particular disciplines the STEM education push unfairly prioritises some content. However, anecdotally, teacher responses to this prioritisation is seen as priority in title only. As a result approaches that include multiple integrated learning areas are gaining in popularity: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM); Empathy or Economics, Science, Technology, Arts, Engineering, Mathematics, Medicine (ESTEAMM); and various other configurations. Under the guise of STEM education policy that highlights a priority on integrated curriculum this adoption of wholly integrated curriculum works as a form of professional resistance, or pragmatic radicalism, to learning area privileging. Harnessing policy, in light of the teachers context, to achieve a positive end regardless of the driver of the priority.  

Some perspectives on STEM education policy suggest an inherent focus on social issues and alternative framing of STEM challenges is necessary to broaden the horizons of students (Weinstein, Blades, & Gleason, 2016), and arguably hold the tide of neoliberal policy in education. However, nearly all perspectives on STEM education policy agree: STEM is politically and ideologically saturated with agendas and approaches from different perspectives, globally and locally – for the most part, a resoundingly neoliberal policy push (Carter, 2017; Weinstein et al., 2016).

Alternatively, offering a new framing of STEM that challenges the naive assumption that STEM is politically and ideologically neutral in agenda and approach may allow for a focus on STEM as a way to highlight market pressures in education (Weinstein et al., 2016). Using STEM as a way to focus on the social issues, bring in multiple perspectives, and explore neoliberal moves in a basic sense, could see a neoliberal policy harnessed to defeat itself in some sense. Weinstein et al. (2016) suggest that teachers and administrators not adopt STEM education with a blind faith that it will lead to great things. They suggest targets of STEM education policy be critical and offer multiple perspectives to students harnessing STEM. In spite of this, increasingly STEM is being framed as negative (Carter, 2017; Smith, 2018). With STEM education policy seen as something to be refuted and ignored. However, arguably, the metaphorical bull has already left the gate, and now it is up to teachers, and researchers alike, to appropriate the STEM education movement to redefine it as a collection of subjects that work together to encourage innovative pedagogy, emancipation, and student centrality.

More thoughts to come...