@ideasBoomAu or bust?


In the most recent issue of Education Technology Solutions, we presented the article titled @ideasBoomAu Or Bust? by Dr Jane Hunter. This article explored the potential impact of the Government’s new five year National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA). While the article was correct at the time of writing, subsequent announcements by the Government have since rendered some of the information in the article out of date. What follows is an updated version of the article encompassing the most recent information available.  


By Dr Jane Hunter.

On Monday 7 December 2015 Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a five year National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA) for Australia. There are several prongs to this plan explained in a series of factsheets. I want to focus on three that most directly influence schools, principals, teachers and students: Factsheets 18, 19 and 20.

As expected the agenda has attracted widespread commentary in the media and debate ranges from sheer delight that it’s ‘necessary as Australian minerals explosion comes to end’ through to concerns as to ‘whether there will be real Science Technology Mathematics Technology (STEM) jobs for young people when they are STEM qualified’.

Briefly, in Factsheet 18 $48 million is allocated to Inspiring a Nation of Scientists with a focus on expanding the Prime Minister’s Science prizes in STEM, there is support to students in Science and Mathematics competitions, mooted development of play based apps for early childhood educators and backup and expansion of community and citizen science projects.

In Factsheet 19 $51 million is spirited to Equipping Students to Create and Use Digital Technologies for: “ensuring the next generation of students have the skills needed for the workforce of the future is critical to ensuring Australia’s future competitiveness on the international stage”. It is replete with statistics on “how 75% of jobs in the fastest – growing industries in the next 5-10 years will need STEM skills; almost all will require ICT literacy”. Furthermore the importance of leveraging off the digital literacies curriculum: Digital Technologies (DT) is noted. In this, the largest package of $51 million; there is funding for:

  • online computing challenges for Year 5 and 7 students
  • ICT summer schools for Years 9 and 10
  • an annual ‘Cracking the Code’ national competition for Years 4-12
  • support for teachers to implement the DT curriculum through online learning activities
  • expert help and support for school leaders to drive digital literacy; and
  • partnerships to bring scientists and ICT professionals into the classroom.

In Factsheet 20 Expanding opportunities for women, technology, engineering and mathematics $13 million will be invested in expanding the Science in Australia Gender Equity pilot, establishing a new initiative under Male Champions of Change and partnering with private sector initiatives to celebrate female STEM role models.

The NISA initiatives will commence from 1 July 2016.

The Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb commenting on the agenda said:

You need an education system that encourages curiosity, opens minds to ideas, identifies how people can assimilate knowledge from multiple areas and put it together to turn it into something that other people want … basically it’s about encouraging curiosity and creativity

(ABC radio news: 19/12/2015).

In total the NISA package means approximately $112 million; across five years that amounts to $22.4 million per year for Australia’s 9389 schools [ABS data 2014]; in real terms $2385 per school for 5 years (almost $12,000 in total NISA funding). Of course the nature of the agenda equates to much more than that as there is in-kind support as many schools and teachers self–educate and top up funding /initiatives with STEM activity using internal resources and so on.

While I commend the agenda as footsteps in positive STEM directions there are some gaps in what is proposed. And to quote the esteemed sociologist and critical theorist Jurgen Habermas: “whose interests are being served here?”

Drawing attention to what is not there or whose interests are not included seems important at this early stage. On first glance the NISA places import on a series of external measures to raise the profile of STEM; there is mention of expert help but this needs to occur alongside building teacher capacity in STEM especially in primary schools.

For example: the ABC News in its coverage focused on the Young Scientists http://www.youngscientists.com.au/ program as one way to bring science experts into schools. And yes, there are many excellent STEM providers and partnerships are to be encouraged. Nevertheless STEM must be about building teacher capability – it cannot become yet another ‘outsourced program’ or specialized RFF (release from face-to-face) time where teachers stand back and let someone else take their class.

I have seen this happen alongside other schools that pay attention to giving teachers time to follow their passions in STEM. Such schools create maker spaces, offer coding programs (although many are outsourced), integrate Minecraft, set up digital media projects and forge links with STEM experts in universities, galleries and museums using video conferencing and face-to-face sessions.

Increasing teacher professional learning in STEM is a BIG TICKET item that has mainly been championed at this point through online activity. There never is money allocated to this component in education packages – it was the case in NSW for example, in the Connected Classrooms Program and in the Digital Education Revolution (DER).

Yes, there were school newsletters and ‘brekkie with a techie’ opportunities but professional development (PD) for teachers overall was thin on the ground. Implementation of DER happened in spite of scant funding for PD.

TeachMeets and #edchats on Twitter including actions by professional associations and education conferences are measures that illustrate how teachers take and will continue to take STEM PD matters into their own hands. Such forums foster communities of collaboration where teachers share successes and learn from one another. The hub schools in NSW Department of Education (DOE) schools seek, among a number of targets, to make links with academic partners in universities for research projects, design challenges, ‘hacker’ and ‘maker days’.

Three examples of NSW STEM activity in 2015 and there is momentum happening right around Australia:

  • Ms Georgia Constanti, Principal at McCallums Hill Public School in November 2015 led a Cardboard Challenge on site involving five other schools. More than 450 students participated in the STEM day
  • At Epping West and Wahroonga Public Schools teams of teachers worked with an academic partner to develop inquiry based units of work in STEM, HSIE and other key learning areas using the High Possibility Classrooms (Hunter, 2015) framework; and
  • Development of the DOE Future Think Space is another exciting innovation.

Teachers need time to enhance their pedagogical and content knowledge base in STEM. Time can be bought for teachers for RFF in schools with funding.

Teachers becoming and remaining learners in STEM are paramount in the NISA.

Consider the possible answers (gaps) raised by these eight questions to safeguard success of @ideasBoomAu :

  1. Will the online learning activities planned in the NISA be accredited PD? I imagine so.
  1. Will low SES schools have a greater allocation of the funding to build teacher and student capacity to catch up with better resourced schools? Professor Richard Teeece always talked about students in low SES schools needing the “keys to success by doing the long hard subjects like high level mathematics, science, and computing subjects”.
  1. Will primary and high school teachers be given time to up-skill and play to increase their own subject matter knowledge in computational thinking, coding, scientific concepts, design thinking, hardware navigation, new apps and software? In December 2015 at a High Possibility Classrooms workshop with K-12 teachers in Canberra just days after the NISA went ‘live’ teachers spoke yet again of how they want to engage in STEM in more trans-disciplinary ways. However, current assessment models, curriculum and education policies are restrictive and PD of any sort is rarely embedded into the everyday experience of teachers in schools.
  1. Will wifi and bandwidth in public schools, for instance, be enough to cope with increased demand from STEM? Proposed measures must ensure good connectivity for most of the day. BYOD policies have created bandwidth issues in many schools and education jurisdictions take … time to respond.
  1. Digital technology is important but where is the imagination about diverse forms of genuine innovation? John Byron, Honorary Fellow from the Centre for Higher Education at The University of Melbourne noted: “The agenda is welcome but ignores our urgent need for humanities, arts and social science approaches” (in Higher Education supplement in The Australian, 9 December, p.33). Parity of time for these approaches is essential.
  1. Will programs like Ambitious Science Teaching based on 30 years of research find a way into thinking and setting up the ‘expert help’ that digital literacy in Australian schools commands? (see 21st Century Learning blog post on 10 December 2015 from Aaron Sickel, lecturer in secondary Science curriculum in the School of Education at Western Sydney University: Changing the Teacher Education Curriculum: A Shift from Knowledge to Practice).
  1. How can school systems better support principals who are already grossly overloaded to mobilize as STEM innovators? This requires a whole conversation all of its own.
  1. Will there be positions or enough jobs in STEM when young people leave school or step into universities to further qualify in STEM subjects and then seek STEM careers/opportunities post 2020?

If school leaders, teachers and students’ experiences are necessary precursors to guaranteeing we have young people ready and willing to pursue STEM then the funds allocated to Australian schools are sorely needed. Indeed the NISA is an exciting one; nonetheless consideration of possible gaps will mean @ideasBoomAu does not become @ideasBustAu

Dr Jane Hunter teaches in the School of Education at Western Sydney University. She leads innovative pedagogical change projects and PD in schools. Her book: Technology Integration and High Possibility Classrooms: Building from TPACK (2015) is creating new spaces for enacting future focused learning in classrooms. In March 2016 she is a keynote speaker with school-based colleagues Bianca Hewes and Debbie Evans at the Future Schools conference in Sydney. Follow her on Twitter @janehunter01

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