‘In the 21st century, scientific and technological innovations have become increasingly important as we face the benefits and challenges of both globalization and a knowledge-based economy. To succeed in this new information-based and highly technological society, students need to develop their capabilities in STEM to levels much beyond what was considered acceptable in the past.’ National Science Foundation
‘The top skills and skill groups which employers see as rising in prominence in the lead up to 2025 include groups such as critical thinking and analysis as well as problem-solving, and skills in self-management such as active learning, resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility.’ WEF Future of Jobs Report
‘This White Paper sets out how we will reform further education so it supports people to get the skills our economy needs throughout their lives, wherever they live in the country. Focusing post-16 skills on this core mission will increase productivity, support growth industries, and give individuals opportunities to progress in their careers.’ DfE White Paper: Skills for Jobs: Lifelong Learning for Opportunity and Growth, January 2021
When reading statements such as the above from some of the national and global think tanks about the importance of developing skills within our young people, many, if not all, of us will wholeheartedly agree. All aspects of education, curriculum, super-curriculum, pastoral care, pedagogy, must work together in preparing young people to take up the challenges of the future.
Unlike, however, the focus of a number of articles and papers that task secondary and post-16 establishments with the development of transferable, and in turn employability skills, I argue that the foundations of skills development must begin in the primary sector. Primary teachers, including the Early Years practitioners, fully acknowledge and embrace their responsibility in preparing their pupils for not only the next steps in their education, but also for their future. In order to fulfil this obligation, primary teachers provide an accessible curriculum for all pupils which combines pedagogy based in research and best practice, with the very best of engagement, curriculum planning, assessment and tracking. Education at primary level is inclusive and promotes diversity and equality – this should be a given.
It should also be accepted that education is not solely about acquiring knowledge and understanding. From the early years, teachers seek to provide exceptional pupil experiences and enrichment opportunities – that increase their pupils’ awareness of themselves and others – including developing talents and skills. Primary teachers harness the momentum and energy of the pupils, colleagues, parents and the learning environment, developing and consolidating knowledge and understanding, which in turn, builds key character attributes and skills in the pupils.
One mechanism for developing skills is to create a curriculum with STEM as a core aspect of the content and driver behind the curriculum. Undoubtedly, STEM permeates every part of our lives. Science is everywhere in the world around us. Technology, including AI and robotics, is continuously expanding into every aspect of our lives. Engineering extends from the basic design of roads, to creating smart cities, as well as tackling the challenges of the human impact of global climate and population change. Mathematics is in every occupation, every activity we do. Discoveries in all aspects of STEM move at such a rapid pace and are constantly changing our perceptions and use. In equipping pupils to meet these challenges, primary education with the integration of STEM at its core, builds skills.
Introducing STEM into the primary curriculum
Building opportunities for primary pupils to do STEM activities enriches the curriculum, builds knowledge and understanding and develops skills. This is achieved by intertwining STEM with the curriculum topics, forging practical, connected and where possible real-life learning situations. In establishing these opportunities, pupils are able to see how scientific and mathematical concepts relate to the world around them. Computing becomes something beyond the keyboard and search engine and develops logic and step-by-step processing skills. Technology is a means to innovation, discovery and creativity.
STEM activities that are hands-on and minds-on develop key competencies such as collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and problem solving, good listening and communication skills. There are opportunities to promote values that are needed in the world of further education and eventually work – respect, resilience, risk-taking and resourcefulness. As pupils explore and investigate, and begin to see the STEM-related connections to their world – their interests will be sparked and they will develop confidence, passion, knowledge, understanding and the skills to succeed in life.
STEM-centred learning gets pupils to examine situations, including global problems, and work methodically and at pace to find multiple solutions. After evaluating these, pupils propose real and appropriate steps to confront and resolve the problem. They question why things are as they appear and evaluate impact. They appreciate the world around them in its fullness.
Linked to Problem Solving, effective STEM-centred learning requires pupils to analyse information, evaluate designs, reflect on their decisions, synthesise new ideas, and propose creative solutions. All of these skills are vital to becoming an independent, critical thinker.
STEM-centred learning requires hands-on, active participation. Pupils develop their skills of questioning, proposing the ideas, generating and testing solutions. In doing this they tap into and develop their ability to set up an experiment or enquiry, measure and record results or data, and present it in a variety of forms. Scientific, technical and mathematical skills learnt in school are the foundations for effective STEM enquiry. Within design, pupils use engineering skills of building prototypes, testing and redesigning - with each step in the process moving closer to a functional solution and building pupil resilience along the way.
Creativity and Confidence
In being a problem solver and critical thinker, STEM pupils need the ability to be innovative and novel in their ideas and find creative ways to present them. In STEM-centred learning, mistakes and failed attempts should be viewed as positive experiences, offering opportunities for deeper learning and the opportunity to develop a confident, positive growth mindset.
STEM learners develop the skills to be good listeners, as well as good communicators. They are able to express their ideas with clarity, using technical and scientific terminology correctly and with confidence. They are able to take constructive criticism and build on the feedback given by others. They do not shy away from debate and questioning.
Independence and Collaboration
STEM learners show independence when necessary. They are self-motivated and will apply their abilities to achieve the best possible results. They are also self-aware and will realise that big challenges are often collaborative challenges. Working on STEM problems also involves learning to work as a productive part of a collaborative team. This will build risk-taking, resourcefulness and respect for the opinions of others.
STEM for All
STEM-centred learning should be inclusive and promote STEM as an area of study, now and into the future, for all pupils. It should look to pull down environmental, economic and social barriers — including stereotypes, gender bias, deprivation and lack of social capital.
How can STEM Learning help?
In developing a high quality, inter-connected curriculum schools place STEM alongside English as the core curriculum aspects in the school. STEM is then integrated into as many topics as possible, and inter-connects so that learning becomes frequent, multi-faceted and relevant. Connecting topics enables the development of STEM-related skills and transferable skills throughout the school, allowing for progression and the positive impact of these to emerge in all aspects of the curriculum.
Rich in vocabulary, discussion and seeing the practical applications of STEM, the learning is embedded and accessible for all learners.
STEM Learning is able to provide expert advice, resources and training through its programme of CPD, the Regional Network Leads, STEM Ambassadors and ENTHUSE Partnerships. STEM Learning creates connections for school leaders, teachers, learning assistants to explore and develop their knowledge and understanding, whilst constantly improving the outcomes for pupils. Beginning these initiatives at the primary level sets a foundation for continued learning as well as the development of knowledge, mastery of understanding, inspiration and aspiration, and the building of skills.
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