Imagine you own a restaurant. While your tables were once always full, over the last few years bookings have dwindled and things are getting a little too quiet. You decide it’s time to spruce the place up a little. Some fancy new interior design and perhaps some trendy new uniforms for your staff. You also launch a marketing campaign to encourage people to make a booking and enjoy your amazing menu that has been enjoyed for generations.

Despite all these efforts, business doesn’t improve. It doesn’t matter how you present your offering or how loud you shout about it, people don’t seem to get the message.

I often feel like the education system is kind of like this restaurant – particularly the area responsible for meeting the demands of our apparently increasingly STEM focussed economy. While we find interesting ways to try to coerce people into STEM subjects in high school, nothing seems to be satisfying this increasing need. Despite this, we continue to plough time and resources into this endeavour by presenting examples of scientists doing amazing work or demonstrating the apparently high earnings yielded by STEM professionals.

However, maybe it’s time to get back in the kitchen and redesign the menu? Rather than try to persuade people to accept what we have always had to offer, perhaps we need to make it more suitable to our current needs and more attractive to today’s learners?

Time for a change?

I wouldn’t question the effectiveness of our current science education system if it was clearly a successful way to prepare our kids for their futures. However, it quite obviously is not. While the report commissioned by Sir Peter Gluckman in 2011 (Looking Ahead: Science Education in the Twenty First Century) made note of some positive data in relation to the number of our students capable of heading into STEM careers, it also reported that only 39 per cent of our top-performing students were actually keen to pursue a career in advanced science. The report also acknowledged New Zealand’s achievement in science having one of the greatest spreads in the OECD. It would seem from this data that our current system is doing little to cater for the needs of an increasingly STEM based economy or ensuring all students learn enough science for citizenship.

At present, successful science learning is determined by performance in focused assessments featuring a relatively small range of concepts. This has created a situation where educators specialise in developing the most efficient ways to deliver conceptual knowledge into the heads of their students. It should be acknowledged that this is by no means an easy task and this work illustrates the hardworking, creative, and caring nature of the teachers within our education system.

However, while these efforts may help ensure students do well in assessments and become knowledgeable enough about the discoveries of the past, are we doing enough to ensure they are able to make the discoveries of the future?

Shifting the focus

When we discussed potential learning experiences in science, it became clear that many of the experiments typically used in schools involve students investigating simple relationships between two variables. Ultimately, these involve all students searching for just one correct answer. These experiments offered students little in the way of opportunities to personalise their experience or try out something different. When experiments like this are suggested in our meetings, it is common for a member of the team to ask a question like: “but where can the students go with that?”My current role in a non-traditional learning centre is to lead a team of educators that provide experiences to support the development of the next generation of innovators. Initially, I felt relatively experienced in this field, but my team is comprised of people from STEM industries such as 3D designers and software engineers and the chasm between typical school practices and their ideas soon became apparent.

To support the development of innovation, we decided to work hard to help our students experience the work that innovative people engage in. Rather than structured experiments focused on investigating simple situations featuring just two variables, we set students up with challenges such as to build the loudest possible speaker, launch the highest pop-rocket, or create a virtual model of an ecosystem within the simple programming environment Scratch.

The challenges are designed in a way that allows us to vary the degree of complexity by increasing or decreasing the number of variables students can experiment with. For example, when making speakers with disposable cups, we may provide just one type of cup along with different types of wires of different lengths and a variety of different magnets. Or we may seek to reduce the complexity of the task by providing just one type of magnet.

Because there are many effective approaches to a challenge (e.g. a number of ways you can increase the volume of a speaker), we often bring students together for short five minute mini-conferences. Here we ask groups to share their ideas on the effects of different variables by asking questions like “who has made discoveries about the type of cups used to make the speakers?” or “how might the cup affect the amplitude of the sound?”. As you might expect, different students present different ideas and they are often eager to contradict one another and criticise each other’s methods (just like professional scientists). This ensures that our students experience science as a dynamic process of discovery where people disagree but also continue to seek out new information to support or refute their ideas. While students investigating a simple relationship between two variables may be more likely to find a “correct answer”, what will they learn about discovery in an age of highly complex and wicked problems?

While this approach is not presented as the perfect solution to the problems I have outlined, it does serve as an alternative to a model where only one answer or approach is deemed to be correct. While our current system might allow us to know what our students have or have not learned, it most certainly will not allow learners to move beyond its boundaries. It is in these places where the discoverers of tomorrow will need to live.