Year 12 exams in the time of COVID: 5 ways to support your child to stress less and do better

Erin Mackenzie, Western Sydney University; Penny Van Bergen, Macquarie University, and Roberto H Parada, Western Sydney University
Shutterstock

Year 12 exams can be stressful at the best of times; this is particularly true for the Class of 2020.

Here are five ways parents and carers of Year 12 students preparing for their final exams can support them.

1. Check in and listen

It is important to remember teenagers are often more resilient than we think. In most cases, they can cope well with challenges. But some students find exams more stressful than others, and some may also be worried about the influence of COVID on their future.

Research consistently shows parental monitoring that supports the autonomy of the young people is linked with their better psychological adjustment and performance during difficult times. This means checking-in with your teen, seeing how they are going and empowering them to use whatever coping skills they need.

Unfortunately, in times of stress, many parents use a high-monitoring low-autonomy style. Parents may still monitor their teen’s coping but also take over, hurry to suggest solutions, and criticise the strategies their child is trying.

This is a low-autonomy style, which may signal to the young person their parent doesn’t believe in their ability to cope.

So, to not come across as controlling or undermining their autonomy:

  • ask your teen, “How are you coping?”
  • listen to their answers
  • check you have understood and ask if they need your support.
  • Let your actions be guided by their response. If they say “I’m very stressed”, ask if there is something you can do. You could say: “Tell me what you need to do and we’ll work it out together”.

If they do the famous “I dunno”, say something like “OK, think about it, I’ll come back in a bit, and we can chat”. Follow through and let them know you will check in more regularly over the coming weeks.

2. Encourage them to take care of their physical and mental health

Support your teen to get exercise, downtime and sleep. Exercise helps produce endorphins — a feel-good chemical that can improve concentration and mental health.

Downtime that is relaxing and enjoyable such as reading, sport, hanging out with friends or video games, can also help young people recharge physically and mentally. If you see your Year 12 child studying for numerous hours without a break, encourage them to do something more fun for a while.

A change of scene can help avoid burnout and helps students maintain focus over longer periods of time.


Read more: 3 things to help improve your exam results (besides studying)


Good sleep is important for alertness, and teenagers should aim for eight to ten hours per day. Sleep also helps memory consolidation: a neural process in which the brain beds down what has been learnt that day.

Even short-term sleep deprivation, such as five hours across a week of study, can have a negative impact on teens’ mood, attention and memory.

To ensure your child priorises self-care, help them put together a routine. This may involve scheduling specific times for exercise, meals and downtime each day, and breaking up blocks of study time with short breaks.

Also negotiate a nominated time for them to turn their phone off at night. Stopping phone use one hour before bedtime can increase sleep.

3. Help them maintain connections

Connections with friends are critical for young people, especially during times of stress. Teens regularly talk about academic concerns online, and may use online support more when stressed. Research shows seeking support in person is more effective than doing so online, so try to encourage your teen to connect with friends in person if possible.

But also be aware of the risks. Talking with friends over and over about problems can actually make young people feel worse. Your son or daughter may find their friends are increasingly leaning on them for support too, which can exhaust their own emotional reserves.

Two girls sitting on swings and chatting.
Connections with friends are important for stress. Unsplash, CC BY

Encourage your child to use time with friends as time away from studying. It’s OK to seek support from friends, but help your child think about when might be too much — and to have a balance of happy and serious conversations when they are together.

Encourage your child to continue talking to you and to ask their teachers for help with academic concerns.

4. Help your child understand their own brain

When asked, most young people report frequently using rehearsal — which involves simply going over textbooks, notes or other material — as a study technique. This is one of the least efficient memory strategies.

The more active the brain is when studying — by moving information around, connecting different types of information and making decisions — the more likely that information will be remembered. Active study sometimes feels harder, but this is great for memory.


Read more: Studying for exams? Here’s how to make your memory work for you


Encourage your child to study actively by making their own test questions, reorganising information into concept maps, or explaining the topics to you. It can also help to “intersperse” different study topics: the brain grows more connections that way. It also gets more practice reactivating the original material from memory.

5. Look out for warning signs

While most teens are resilient, some may more frequently report negative mood, uncertainties about the future or a loss of control. This is particularly true in 2020. You might hear evidence of “catastrophic thinking” (“what’s the point?” or “this is the worst thing ever”).

You can help by modelling hopeful attitudes and coping strategies. Reactive coping strategies are things like taking a break, selectively using distractions and going for a run to clear your head.


Read more: Year 12 can be stressful, but setting strong and healthy goals can help you thrive


Pair these with proactive coping strategies, which prevent or help manage stressful situations. These include helping the young person get organised and reminding them that if they don’t have life figured out right now, that’s OK. Help them see opportunities that come with challenges. These include self-development (learning what they like and don’t like), self-knowledge (knowing their limits and character strengths) and skill development (organisational and coping strategies).

Some teens may be struggling more than they let on. Look out for warning signs. These can include:

  • not participating in previously enjoyed activities
  • avoiding friends or partners
  • drastic changes in weight, eating or sleeping
  • irritability over minor things
  • preoccupation with death or expressing how difficult it is to be alive.

If these behaviours occur most of the time you are with them or seem out of character, consult a mental health professional as soon as possible. This is particularly so if your teen has a history of mental health concerns.

Some resources that may help if you are worried include Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636, Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 and Headspace

Your GP can also help to connect your teen with a suitably qualified professional.

Erin Mackenzie, Lecturer in Education, Western Sydney University; Penny Van Bergen, Associate Professor in Educational Psychology, Macquarie University, and Roberto H Parada, Senior Lecturer In Adolescent Development, Behaviour, Well-Being & Paedagogical Studies, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Youth in the Time of Coronavirus – surveying young people’s feelings, thoughts and experiences during school lockdowns

Authors: Susanne Gannon, Jacqueline D’warte, Rachael Jacobs & Loshini Naidoo

For just over three months from late June through to October 2020, we surveyed young people aged 15-19 about their feelings, thoughts and experiences through periods of online learning in Australian schools. As researchers concerned about educational justice and inclusion, we were inspired and guided by research led by Professor Dorte Marie Sondergaard in Denmark.

Privileging the voices and perspectives of young people seemed particularly important when public discourse initially positioned young people as careless carriers of the virus. As our Danish colleagues noted, beyond conventional learning outcomes, the sociality and relationality of schooling are central to young people’s lives and their sense of belonging and becoming (Hansen, Knage, Rasmussen and Søndergaard, 2020). At this already ‘intense, turbulent and challenging’ time, how would young people experience the shutting down of these domains of social life? What other modes of sociality have opened for them? What were their perspectives on online learning, on themselves as learners? We drew our design from the Danish research[i], which comprised an anonymous online survey (or ‘written interview’) of open-ended questions, interviews by Zoom with individual students, and artefacts produced by students responding to the pandemic. While the Danish work provided a rapid response at the time of the shutdown, and was completed by the end of June, the Australian team secured university ethics approval on June 19 and opened the survey on June 23rd. The survey link was distributed and promoted via social media. It remains open at this link for Australian secondary school students aged 15 and over.

Youth in the Time of Coronavirus survey

In the online survey, students were asked to reflect on the period of lockdown that they had experienced earlier in the year, between late March and late May. Along with the links to youth mental health resources that were included in all components of the research, this retrospective view was an appropriate strategy for minimising risk of harm in asking students to reflect on sensitive and upsetting issues. Lockdowns were reimposed in Victoria while our survey was underway, and in another component of the study, interview participants have reflected directly on their experiences of that extended second round.

Here we present an initial descriptive account of findings so far from the anonymous survey. At the time of writing, we have responses from 71 current secondary school students, compared to the 77 responses from Danish school students. However, our survey also provided scope to opt for an interview rather than provide written responses so by the first week of October detailed responses were received from 49 participants who continued to the end of the survey, contributing 308 individual text responses to seven substantive questions.

As the context remains volatile in parts of Australia, our survey remains open. Thus far, 59% of participants were from NSW, 23% from Victoria, 8% respectively from Queensland and Western Australia, 2% from NT and no students from ACT, SA or Tasmania. The younger age group were most represented with 37% aged 15, 27% aged 16, 22% aged 17, and 6% and 8% respectively aged 18 and 19. However responses are well distributed between year levels, with 31% of participants in Year 12, 22% in Year 11, 21% in Year 10, and 25% in Year 9. More than two-thirds of respondents were female.  

Discussion

As educational researchers and teachers ourselves, we were particularly interested in young people’s experiences of going to school online. Their views about the first period of school closures were overwhelmingly positive. For many young people online learning offered flexible timetables, self-paced learning and extended free time. There was a broad agreement that content was delivered at a quicker pace. While this enabled many young people to stay focused and get more work done, for others a perceived increase in workload made it difficult to complete work and stay focused and motivated. A commonly expressed disadvantage was the inability to learn with teachers and peers in live classroom interactions, particularly in discussion-based or practical subjects. Many participants desired ongoing teacher support and timely feedback particularly when learning new concepts and this was most pronounced for Year 12 students who expressed increasing anxiety and a lack of confidence about their Year 12 results.

The missed sociality of schooling was of concern to us, and we were curious about how school lockdowns may have contributed or not to vulnerability experienced by young people. We asked students what they missed, and whether there was anything about school that they were glad to avoid. Students predominantly missed spending time with their friends at school, and this was also what they most looked forward to after the lockdown restrictions eased. Many students missed face-to-face class interactions, practicals, personalised support from their teachers, extra-curricular school activities, performances and sports, and school routines and ‘normality’. Others were glad they could avoid contact with ‘difficult’ classmates or escape the structured timetable, exams, and travel to and from school. One student appreciated ‘being able to use the toilet at home and wash with soap as my school doesn’t have soap’. Most however enjoyed the flexibility about how and when they studied. When asked what they most looked forward to when everyday life resumed, most of the students again stressed the importance of seeing their friends but also mentioned previously taken for granted routines, such as playing sport, eating out, going to work, and just having the freedom to go outdoors.

During lockdowns, young people were agentic and sometimes discerning users of social media platforms to help them get through this time. They used social media more than before, particularly to remain connected and check in with friends. As well as keeping in touch with their closest friends, they reached out and reconnected to old friends they had lost touch with or saw infrequently. The platforms were mainly the same ones they had used previously: Instagram, followed by Snapchat, Facebook, TikTok. Young people also connected with information and ideas through social media. They gauged the reliability of sources, for example by using the ABC news app, learning more about what was happening outside Australia, choosing to follow ‘positive and realistic accounts’ and disconnecting from information sources that were becoming ‘anti-safe’ in their COVID messaging. Distraction through entertainment was also very important. Engagement with TikTok increased. Young people learned new dances and made videos themselves or with their siblings, though did not always post them. They related to young people like them who were sharing quarantine experiences via TikTok. Of our respondents, one person said that ‘scrolling constantly’ had affected their mental health.

Our questions dug further into the nature and extent of contact with friends. There seemed to be a move towards platforms that are synchronous and camera linked so they could see each other, because in COVID times text alone was ‘not enough’. Zoom, Facetime and other group chats were used for regular chatting, often daily or multiple times per day. They also facilitated celebration of special occasions, and the continuation of special interest groups such as Scouts and Church groups. Often students initiated connect with each other to study together and help each other with their work. Several students mentioned games they played online with friends ranging from Call of Duty, and Animal Crossing through to Pictionary. However, despite acknowledging the increase in time online, students told us that this was warranted by their ‘beneficial social aspect’.

We asked our participants to reflect on how and whether they met up with friends offline during the time their schools were online. More than half of the respondents did not meet anyone outside their family during lockdown, and only started to see other people in person after restrictions eased. If they met during the time their schools were closed, numbers were small and met in safe outdoor public settings like parks, ovals and gardens. They met for fitness and connection: playing with a frisbee, netball or football; walking around the suburb; walking dogs; bike riding, beach swimming, or sitting at a safe distance to talk about life. When restrictions eased, one attended a small bonfire birthday party in a backyard, and another visited the last drive-in theatre in Sydney. Some young people met with one other person (friend, cousin or boyfriend) at each other’s houses or for a sleepover. Sometimes they followed this with a fortnight of quarantine. Following the guidelines given by authorities was very important.  Their responses showed a high degree of responsibility and care. One person noted that because they live with grandparents, the risk was ‘WAY too high to even process that kind of thought’.

Young people were concerned for the future, with regard to social distancing, health and hygiene, but more broadly the sense that COVID-19 may be characteristic of other incidences of widespread vulnerability, chaos or unpredictability in their lifetime. Participants said their understanding of health and hygiene was profoundly altered, and many didn’t see a return to ‘normal’ in the near future. More broadly, participants felt an appreciation for individual freedoms of movement, spending time with extended family and friends, and some noticed that family units became closer and more connected. A few students applied the learnings of COVID-19 to broader issues in their futures. For example, one participant said:

I think Corona has given us a glimpse of what could happen if we do not act on Climate Change. It has made us realise it is completely possible for a government to act rapidly for an emergency and for our lives to be turned upside down in a manner of days. Personally for me, it has made me more aware of how much we take things for granted, and how we as Australians have been living in a bubble of privilege for a long time. It has made me scared that the world will either emerge from this more united, and working globally together to prevent other international disasters and emergencies such as conflict, poverty and climate change or we will remain isolated with more extremist powers as our governments.

What next?

We are currently analysing our Australian interview data and preparing a detailed analysis of our survey findings in preparation for a comparative analysis of findings with our Danish colleagues in the coming months. We have also begun to collect creative and reflective artefacts (writing, images, etc) that have been produced by young people under the guidance of their teachers within curriculum contexts. We are keen to hear from more young people about this pandemic year, and to follow them through their adjustments to what our politicians are calling a ‘new normal’. Our heartfelt thanks to the young people who have so generously shared their feelings and their fears with us so far. 

Get in touch!

Please contact the researchers directly for further information about any aspect of the study (via S.Gannon@westernsydney.edu.au). Access Youth in the Time of Coronavirus survey here.  If you prefer an interview (online via Zoom), please register your interest in the survey portal or contact Susanne or one of the other researchers.

References

Hansen, Helle Rabøl; Knage, Frederikke; Rasmussen, Penille and Søndergaard, Dorte Marie (2020) Savn, sårbarhed og socialitet blandt unge under Corona (Trans. Deprivation, vulnerability  and  sociality  among young people  under  Corona), In Forskning i unge og corona (Trans. Research on adolescents during Corona) (pp. 20-30). Aarhus University, Denmark.

Schliecher, Andreas. (October, 2020) The impact of COVID-19 on education – Insights from

Education at a Glance 2020.  OECD.


[i] Why Denmark and Australia? Initially there were strong parallels between policy responses and experiences in both nations, however, over time, these diverged. Summer holidays began in Denmark, and in Australia, each state charted a different path through the pandemic. Victoria’s COVID crisis led to sustained lockdowns while other states returned to near normal conditions. As we write, Denmark has been praised internationally for its cautious and sensible opening to the new school year < https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/denmark-schools-covid-19-pandemic-1.5720508> and Victorian students will be returning to school throughout October. In terms of preparedness for learning online, the OECD (Schliecher, 2020, p. 17, Fig. 4) notes that in both Denmark (1st of 31 countries) and Australia (3rd), there were already very high rates of preparedness of teachers in lower secondary years to frequently or always use ICTs for projects and class work prior to COVID-19.

‘Please, don’t push me that hard: it’s just my accent!’ Paulo Freire and the cosmopolitan teacher.

Post by Associate Professor Jorge Knijnik

“Who says this accent or this way of thinking is the cultivated one?”. Paulo Freire’s inspiring words came back to my thoughts a few months ago,  as I was approached by a very kind man just after my Conference paper presentation in Canberra, the Australian capital. His accent told me that he was not from an English speaking country. Next to the regular introductory conversation, he went straight to his point and asked: “Do your students pick on you about your accent?”. When I smiled, he felt comfortable enough to tell me his experience, which was somewhat similar to my own one: he was a fresh migrant who had come at the end of last year to Australia from a Middle-East country to take up a position as a lecturer in an Australian university. After his first semester, he received the students’ feedback on his course. He said the evaluations were sound; however he was really worried as a few students criticized his “strong accent”.

The Conference was great. In addition to presenting my paper, I had listened to very thought-provoking academic sections, where I had learnt loads of new things within one of my research fields – physical education and sports history. As the Conference was held in different locations along the week, I was able to visit different parts of the Capital city, such as the Australian Institute of Sport and the War Memorial. However, I have no-doubt that the most insightful moment during the Conference was my short talk with this extraordinary man. That small conversation has opened my eyes – and my ears – to a definitely central topic in today’s education: the need for those of us involved in teaching and learning to keep our minds open and aware of the role that local cultural identities play in contemporary society and in our lives (i).

I remember one of my favourites John Le Carre’s novels, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. In his 1963 acclaimed book, the master of espionage literature tells about a British spy who spends several months in a hidden ‘just-for-spies’ language school to polish his even now perfect German. As secret agents could not have any accent the secret service expected him to speak as a native German, and he sets about making every effort to refine his already high-level language skills. The time passes by and fifty years later, the same writer tells us a different history: in A Delicate Truth, launched in 2013, John le Carre accounts for a top-secret overseas mission where the protagonist, a British public employee elevated to a secret agent condition, amuses himself by picking up his undercover partners’ nationalities  according their accents: there are British spies involved in the clandestine operation, but there are also South-African and Welsh spies, Scottish and even Australians secret agents – and of course he cannot understand a word that these last ones pronounce! 

Le Carre has seen the obvious. In the 21st century world, nobody lives inside their bubble anymore. There is a need for everyone to build tools to further communication with people from different realms and backgrounds. That comprises a more realistic and contemporary approach to language-skills, which includes verbal conversation. The good thing for me is that I have chosen to be an educator, not a spy. Educators, unlike spies, are to enlighten people. They are to open venues for knowledge and understanding. They are to set up fire in their students’ bodies and brains – and bodies and brains travel everywhere in today’s world, including inside schools and classrooms. As has been pointed out by Reid, Collin and Singh in their recent book[ii], having a teaching degree is currently a passport for an international career: Australia already faces an intensification of international teachers inside its schools, providing us with new exciting challenges for the way we deal with a range of different cultural identities – including the charming new accents that we listen to every day.

Youngsters and grown-ups have the right to use their linguistic configurations. It is undoubtedly important to teach, learn and be fluent in the prevailing form (Freire – cultivated pattern) and at the same time, to be democratic and accepting, to make clear that the way individuals speak can be as beautiful as the form we have come to accept as the cultivated pattern.

A few times I have overheard academic colleagues complaining how exhausting lecturing is. I agree: standing in front of 400 students week after week for 2 hours and trying to make your content clear and attractive is a hard and tiring task. Can you imagine doing this in a language that is not your native one? That is why I am appalled when confronted with the following situation: a migrant (like me) making all efforts to talk in a second (or a third or even a fourth) language, and the listener making zero efforts to understand the one who is speaking – the worst scenario is when someone reacts to you with an unpleasant and arrogant response: “this is not English”.  I always keep calm as I think of Crocodile Dundee walking on New York streets without understanding anyone, and grouching that everyone there had a weird accent!

In my first language, the word “push” (“puxe”) means “pull. There are countless opportunities when I got stuck in front of a door, just pulling it as its written push on that door. Every time I see someone stuck in front of a door, pulling it when she or he should be pushing it, I laugh and say: “There is a Brazilian”. We can’t do anything. It’s just an automatic reaction. Like our accent, this is embedded in ourselves. Of course there is always room for improvement. We always have something to share and to learn – but we learn in the social experience. We learn from other people’s cultural identities. The possibilities of teaching do exist because of the learning generated in rich social experiences – as Freire says, it was learning in the social space that made human beings realize that they could teach. Social experiences include a variety of accents that challenge our listening every time we are provoked by them.

That was my conversation with my immigrant colleague in that Conference. I said to him that we need to learn to have fun with our own mistakes – including linguistic ones. However, our own presence in the lecture theatres will certainly expose our students to different ways to seeing and being in the world, perhaps inspiring them to better appreciate a diverse cultural identity – isn’t that  one of the most valuable lessons that a teacher can aspire to teach?[iii]


[i] Manuel Castells, The Power of Identity. The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture.

[ii] Reid, Carol; Collins, Jock; Singh, Michael.  Global Teachers, Australian Perspectives: Goodbye Mr Chips, Hello Ms Banerjee, 2013.

[iii] With special thanks to Dr. Jacquie D’Warte for providing insightful ideas to this article

About the author

Associate Professor Jorge Knijnik is the Deputy Director (Development) of the Centre for Educational Research in the School of Education at Western Sydney University, where he is also a researcher in the Institute for Culture & Society. He has recently launched The World cup Chronicles: 31 Days that Rocked Brazil.

Mathematics education in Australia: New decade, new opportunities?

Post by Associate Professor Catherine Attard

As we prepare for a new school year in a new decade, it is an apt time to reflect on the last ten years of mathematics education and consider the next ten. What, if anything, will change in our classrooms and school systems? Or will it be a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same?

Current challenges in mathematics education

Consider the current context of mathematics education in Australia and beyond. Over the past decade we have seen an apparent decline in senior secondary students’ enrolments in high level mathematics courses. We have also had continued challenges with students disengaging with mathematics and failing to see the relevance of mathematics. The last decade has also experienced a significant increase in the number of out of field teachers in secondary mathematics classrooms and we do not fully understand the potential impact of this on student learning.

According to media reporting of the 2018 Programme for International Asssessment (PISA) results , Australian students’ mathematical literacy results have declined and we are being outperformed by countries such as China, Singapore, Estonia, and others. Yet, take a closer look at the results and you will notice that there are no significant differences or trends since the last PISA testing. Nothing has really changed, but is that good enough?

Students in Australia and internationally continue to experience disengagement with mathematics as early as the primary school years. Mathematics is still viewed by many as a subject reserved for the ‘smart’ kids, and it still remains socially acceptable to openly claim to be “just not good at maths” or “not a maths person”. Despite research into student engagement identifying the elements required to address these issues, along with an abundance of fine-grained research into how students best learn specific aspects of mathematics and ways to harness the affordances of digital technologies, it appears we still face challenges. These challenges relating to student attitudes, their engagement, and a reduced desire to continue the study of mathematics beyond the compulsory years, often result in lower academic achievement. What can we, as leaders and teachers, do differently in this new decade to ensure positive change? Can we make changes that will ultimately result in an upward trend and with engaged students who value mathematics?

The tensions for teachers

Leaders and teachers experience tensions in their day to day teaching of mathematics. Should we teach to a test, or should we teach according to the specific and unique needs of our students? The levels of accountability due to high stakes testing such as NAPLAN and PISA have, in many cases, informed teaching practice due to the linking of results with school reviews. While NAPLAN was originally intended to be a diagnostic test, it has, according to Reid (2019), “moved from being a mechanism to check the pulse of one part of the education system, to being the reason that schools exist” (p.41). A further effect of standardised testing is the use of text books and other resources designed to prepare students for those tests rather than developing conceptual understanding using a broad range of pedagogies and rich tasks.

Standardisation vs. Future-focused education

In his recent publication Changing Australian Education, Reid points out that on the flip side of this educational debate is what is often referred to as ‘21st-century learning’. This future-focused approach includes strategies that appear to conflict with the standardisation approach that often results from high stakes testing. Student-centred strategies such as inquiry and project-based learning, flexible student groupings and the inclusion of general capabilities all espouse future-focused education, requiring students to be flexible, adaptable, agile and collaborative (Reid, 2019). All of these strategies are already embedded within our current mathematics curriculum, so while we may be conflicted in terms of teaching to the test or taking a more student-centred approach, we have, through our mandated curriculum, license to plan and teach in ways that are more meaningful for our students, and in time, change the landscape of mathematics education in this country.

What does this mean for mathematics for schools and classrooms?

One of the effects of a standardised approach is the ‘silo effect’ on how the mathematics curriculum is delivered in classrooms. Topics taught in isolation for the purpose of reporting and testing often result in students struggling to apply mathematics in novel situations and difficulties in making connections within and across mathematics topics. This then leads to disengaged students and a perception that mathematics is a practice that is restricted to the classroom rather than mathematics as a way of understanding and making sense of the world we live in.

The following is a brief list of suggestions for leaders and teachers that may help combat the issues discussed above, and more importantly, lead to positive changes to student perceptions and performance in mathematics:

Scope and Sequence

A school’s scope and sequence document should reflect the big ideas in mathematics as well as the relationships across and within the curriculum strands. It should also be flexible to allow teachers the opportunity to spend more or less time on content in alignment with the needs of their particular students. The scope and sequence should also feature the processes of mathematics concurrently with the content. That is, the Australian Curriculum Proficiencies or the Working Mathematically strand in NSW.

Teachers should be also be given the opportunity to exercise their professional judgement. If schools subscribe to commercial programs that remove this judgement, individual student needs cannot be met. No program can replace the pedagogical relationships between a teacher and his or her students. These relationships are an essential element of teaching that directly influences student engagement and learning (Attard, 2014).

Pedagogy

Our curriculum consists of two distinct areas: mathematical content and mathematical processes. We need to teach content via the processes. That is, we should be teaching through a problem-solving approach rather than teaching content in isolation. This reflects a ‘just in time’ approach as opposed to a ‘just in case’ approach. Teaching via problem-solving provides a context and a need to learn specific content in a way that has meaning for students. Teaching through a ‘just in case’ approach (teaching content in isolation) separates the mathematics from the numeracy and does not promote thinking and reasoning.

Using a range of resources include concrete and digital through primary and secondary schooling is also important if we are to improve students’ conceptual understanding in mathematics. Consider resources that can be used flexibly and also consider how the use of digital technology can not only enhance mathematical understanding by providing alternate and dynamic representations, it can also improve the teacher/student relationship by providing alternate avenues of communication, assessment and feedback.

Consider emphasising the ‘M’ in STEM and highlighting numeracy across the broader curriculum. While funds are still being heavily invested into STEM initiatives we must take the opportunity to ensure mathematics, which is the language of STEM, is prioritised. Opportunities for students to use mathematics in a range of contexts are critical if we want them to understand the relevance and make connections.

It takes a village

The phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” applies to mathematics education and improving future mathematics outcomes. Mathematics and numeracy is everyone’s business. Whether you are a primary teacher, a secondary teacher (of a discipline other than mathematics), a parent or carer, a politician, a celebrity, or anyone else with influence on children, we are all responsible for improving mathematics education. So let’s pause, take a deep breath, and think about what we can do differently to improve mathematics for our students as we begin this new decade.

About the author

Catherine Attard is an Associate Professor of Mathematics Education and Deputy Director of the Centre for Educational Research at Western Sydney University. Her research interests include student engagement with mathematics, mathematics pedagogy, financial literacy education and the use of digital technologies in mathematics classrooms.

Contact:                                                                                              c.attard@westernsydney.edu.au                                                                              https://engagingmaths.com

References

Attard, C. (2014). “I don’t like it, I don’t love it, but I do it and I don’t mind”: Introducing a framework for engagement with mathematics. Curriculum Perspectives, 34(3), 1-14.

Reid, A. (2019). Changing Australian Education. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

 

 

Evolving approaches to STEM pedagogies in Australian Primary Schools: A review of current research

Post by Dr Maree Skillen

It has been identified that Australia needs a STEM capable workforce for the future, and that “the foundations of STEM competence are laid in early childhood” (Caplan, Baxendale & Le Feuvre, 2016, p.11). These same authors highlight the importance and need for “high quality primary school science and mathematics education” (2016, p.7), and a need to expand the skill-base of students to embrace technology and engineering. To support STEM in Australian schools, the Government has committed to improving the skills of young Australians to ensure they can live and work in a globalised world. Innovative programs have been funded with a focus on early learning and school STEM initiatives (Australian Government Department of Education, 2019). These initiatives have been extended to include support for a range of education projects to improve STEM outcomes for school-aged students. Teachers are embracing initiatives to partner with STEM professionals and for now the results indicate teachers are focused on enhancing their teaching practices to deliver engaging STEM education experiences in Australian schools.

Why the continued focus on STEM?

Declining enrolments across STEM subjects has attracted much attention within Australia in recent times. Wood (2017) confers with this decline by referring to the National Scientific Statement which found participation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects in Australian schools appear to be at the lowest level in 20-years. It is widely recognised that students’ early interest in science begins at primary school; and, the teaching of related subjects at this level is important for fostering skills and interest within students, ensuring they continue to engage with STEM subjects during their transition to senior secondary and tertiary education.

Despite the critical importance of early STEM instruction, findings from Australian research indicate that it has not previously been a strong focus in primary schools; even though the foundation of building STEM competence has been recognised as being best placed in early childhood situations (Caplan, Baxendale & Le Feuvre, 2016; Fitzgerald, Dawson & Hackling, 2013). Reasons for this include a lack of indicative curriculum time allocated to deliver subjects in Australian schools. Prinsley and Johnston (2015, p.7) identify that “Education authorities, industry, universities and others are developing their own approaches and resources for STEM education, in a vast array of disconnected, duplicating and competing programmes”. If managed strategically, STEM can be incorporated more deliberately into existing curriculum and timetabled to provide enriched learning opportunities for all Australian primary school students.

Primary Teachers and STEM Education

Many primary teachers have identified and willingly acknowledged their lack of expertise and confidence to teach STEM content well. Prinsley and Johnston (2015) state that “currently only a minority of Australia’s primary school teachers have an educational background in a STEM discipline”. Added to the apparent lack of STEM qualifications of primary teachers, some reports identify that pre-service and trained teachers did not study science or mathematics to Year 12, or an equivalent level. This was reaffirmed by Abraham, Smith & Skillen (2019) after surveying a group of Western Sydney University (WSU) pre-service teachers to better understand and identify the types of science learners completing the mandatory Primary Science and Technology unit, as part of their Master of Teaching (Primary) studies. A proposed remedy (Rosicka, 2016; Caplan, Baxendale & Le Feuvre, 2016) to this situation is to employ specialist teachers in each school or within a cluster of schools to provide much needed curriculum support in these areas. Other suggestions call for improvements in professional development programs to allow primary teachers greater access to digital or online STEM related resources (Tytler, Symington, Malcolm & Kirkwood, 2009).  There has also been some research into developing STEM skills of pre-service teachers through collaborations with schools, university, and industry professionals.

 Gaps and Opportunities

A number of gaps in current research about STEM pedagogies utilised in Australian primary schools have been identified. Surprisingly, few peer reviewed studies about STEM education were uncovered in this literature review. Furthermore, very few studies have been undertaken in the government education sector despite the high profile of STEM in the media.  It was noted that many studies report on pre-service teacher education programs as a positive step forward; however, follow-up research outlining the success of these programs once a pre-service teacher becomes an in-service teacher are not identified. Research from the period identified for this literature search (ie. from 2008 to 2018), generally focused on the application of a specific model or unit of work in a specific situation. Conversely, research into what is happening in schools has not been collated and peer reviewed. Many articles reported on the lack of competency and confidence of primary school teachers for the STEM disciplines. Steps to increase this confidence and competence have not been formally quantified on an Australia-wide basis.

Caplan, Baxendale & Le Feuvre (2016, p.29) refer to Australia as being “at an inflexion point” in regard to STEM education; and, whilst Australian primary schools and teachers may face challenges there are many exciting opportunities to create a “buzz” about STEM teaching and learning. Some current Australian Government (2019) STEM initiatives to support teaching and learning for students, teachers and schools include: Digital Technologies Hub; reSolve: Mathematics by Inquiry; Primary Connections; Science by Doing; Curious Minds; digIT; STEM Professionals in Schools; and, Pathways in Technology (P-TECH), a pilot program involving the establishment of long-term partnerships between industry, schools and tertiary education providers. These initiatives align with goals outlined in the National STEM School Education Strategy 2016-2026 (Education Council, 2015); and, promote collaboration between educators and industry to ensure students and teachers “keep up with the rapid pace of change in STEM disciplines” (ISA, 2017, p.33). These initiatives and programs also focus towards preparing young people for the jobs of the future.

About the Author

Dr Maree A. Skillen coordinates and lectures in Primary Mathematics education at Western Sydney University.

References

Abraham, J., Smith, P. & Skillen, M. (2019). Types of science learners: What kind are you? Retrieved from https://educationunlimitedwsu.com/2019/08/

Australian Government Department of Education (DoE). (2019). Support for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Retrieved from https://www.education.gov.au/support-science-technology-engineering-and-mathematics

Caplan, S., Baxendale, H. & Le Feuvre, P. (2016). Making STEM a primary priority. PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

Education Council. (2015). National STEM School Education Strategy: A comprehensive plan for science technology, engineering and mathematics education in Australia. Retrieved from http://www.educationcouncil.edu.au/site/DefaultSite/filesystem/documents/National%20STEM%20School%20Education%20Strategy.pdf

Fitzgerald, A., Dawson, V., & Hackling, M. (2013). Examining the beliefs and practices of four effective Australian primary science teachers. Research in Science Education, 43, 981–1003. doi:10.1007/s11165-012-9297-y

Innovation and Science Australia (ISA). (2017). Australia 2030: prosperity through innovation. Canberra: Australian Government. Retrieved from https://www.industry.gov.au/sites/g/files/net3906/f/May%202018/document/pdf/australia-2030-prosperity-through-innovation-full-report.pdf

Prinsley, R. & Johnston, E. (2015). Position Paper: Transforming STEM teaching in Australian Primary Schools. Australian Government Office of the Chief Scientist. Retrieved from https://www.chiefscientist.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/Transforming-STEM-teaching_FINAL.pdf

Rosicka, C. (2016). From concept to classroom: Translating STEM education research into practice. Camberwell, Victoria: Australian Council for Educational Research. Retrieved from www.acer.edu.au

Tytler, R., Symington, D., Malcolm, C. & Kirkwood, V. (2009). Assuming responsibility: Teachers taking charge of their professional development. Teaching Science 55(2) 9 – 13.

Wood, P. (2017). STEM enrolments hit 20-year low, but scientists have an idea to stop the slide. Retrieved from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-30/science-maths-enrolments-hit-20y-low-but-scientists-have-a-plan/8395798

 

Connecting Research with Practice

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