It’s no wonder the kids ain’t choosing STEM…

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.

Why teachers matter

It’s been a busy few months in the Clay household. About 10 weeks ago we learned that a new member of the family will be arriving next March (we don’t know the gender just yet – can reveal in 3 weeks!). Then just a couple of weeks later I left my job as Education Director of The Mind Lab by Unitec. In a way this post has involved me reflecting on the last couple of months and also taking the opportunity to ponder before the nappies begin to fly.

Being part of the start-up and growth of The Mind Lab was awesome for lots of reasons.  However, the experience I value most is working with over 1000 teachers from all over the country. This has allowed me to appreciate the immense diversity of needs across the system.

However, despite this diversity of needs, the narrow range of strategies on the table appears nowhere as varied. Furthermore, we seem to influence each other greatly in the way we make meaning of our situations. An example of this might include the similar themes that often drive our inquiries such as raising standards in literacy or increasing “collaboration”. I realise that this is often a result of the constraints within our systems (standardised assessment, etc) but I often wonder how we might break free of these constraints by letting our minds wander and think more deeply.

Earlier this year I worked with a teacher whose inquiry focus was around improving the writing of the boys in her class. With this in mind, her creativity was being channeled towards developing new approaches to support the development of writing skills. Some critical inquiry between a group of us led to question why the boys in this class struggled to write. “They’re just not confident enough to put the words together” the teacher replied. Instantly this broadened the inquiry and creative possibilities by considering how this teacher might help her students become more confident (and then as a result have an impact on a far greater set of outcomes). Of course increasing confidence isn’t easy, but that’s why we have teachers right? We’re the people who are charged with the challenging task of helping young people reach their potential and this is why teachers matter!

Of course, I’m not the first person to say that teachers matter, but what I’m suggesting here is that they matter because they are in the very important position of making sense of really complex situations. To understand these situations, we rely on all our senses and not just the exploration of numbers on a spreadsheet. We aren’t programmed like robots and this means that we have the potential to continually adapt and learn based on our experiences.

Over the last few decades we’ve seen a global shift towards helping kids develop competencies rather than focusing on content knowledge. Teaching in a way that promotes creativity and helps people to learn to think critically is far less easy to understand. More than ever, we need to be agile and continually learn and inquire. While many herald the rise of online learning, it’s unlikely that computers will be anywhere as agile and adaptive as well as a well functioning human teacher.

When I look around social media or attend international education conferences, teachers seem to be working hard on implementing very similar sets of strategies. The current preferred flavours include design thinking, maker education, game-based learning, entrepreneurial thinking, learning analytics. Of course these ideas have a lot of merit, but I worry that by focussing on the implementation of any specific approach we might reduce the amount of attention we have to deeply learn about our own unique situation. Perhaps we would have a far greater range of ideas and approaches if more people where thinking about innovation rather that implementation?

Over the last 6 months I have found myself wondering more and more about why we aren’t coming up with a greater diversity of ideas. I am sure there are a whole range of reasons affecting different people, but I wonder how professional development impacts this area.

Currently most professional development seems to focus on “shifting teacher practice”. While I’m not saying this is bad or that I don’t try and do this myself, it doesn’t seem well aligned with the idea of developing truly innovative teachers. Surely if we want to develop the capacity for people to innovate, we would develop their ability to deeply understanding the demands of their own local context and create innovations responsive to these needs.

Visions such as those written in the front of our curriculum documents (such as helping young people become confident, connected, lifelong learners in NZ) are epic in terms of complexity. No universal definition of this vision or correct strategy exist. Making progress towards these visions will require the collaborative efforts of millions of teachers and their communities. While we often talk about collaboration, this often relates to the idea of developing shared visions and attempting to get more people to “buy in”. By working towards some kind of consensus on the best way to move forward, I wonder if we are actually restricting our collaborative potential.

My recent readings around the smartest systems and most intelligent groups have made me realise the importance of independence (Davis and Sumara, Gilbert, Snowden, Suroweiecki, etc). When facing complex challenges systems need to activate the creativity of each individual by allowing them to work as independently as possible. This is more likely to activate the creative potential of each individual and maximize the collective intelligence of the system as a whole. This allows the system to benefit from the many different perspectives in which working towards the vision can be viewed and also a greater diversity of ideas will be tested in parallel. This makes processes such as teaching as inquiry even more important but we  need to ensure that the foci of these inquiries are as diverse as the needs of our learners.

Since leaving The Mind Lab I’ve been working as an education consultant with schools, universities, not-for-profits, and even corporates who are trying to deal with the complex challenge of preparing our kids for the future. The one thing I’m taking a lot of care to remember is the fact that I am never likely to understand the situations of my clients as well as they do. My experience and objective perspective is vital to my value, but these leave with me at the end of the day. My ability to support people as they make sense of the needs of their own unique situation and channel creative energy in this direction is far more likely to support ongoing innovation.

The creative potential of teachers is why they matter so much. I think we need to remember this when we think about what our teachers need and how we might help them to improve.  Because the vision we work towards is so broad, we need to provide teachers sufficient agency to allow them to explore many different approaches as they strive for progress. Maybe this should shift our thinking around what constitutes “good teachers” or “good schools”? Rather than looking for outcomes perhaps we should simply seek good reasoning behind practices and robust inquiry processes that constantly put this reasoning to the test?

New Zealand is a small country but still has nearly 50,000 teachers. How can we benefit most from the potential of each of these individuals? How can we help shift the focus of our networks of connected educators towards the creation of practices rather than the implementation of them?

Why aren’t teachers playing the game?

Whilst sorting through recycling may not be at the top of most people’s bucket-list, an entry into a competition organised by The Fun Theory ( has certainly found a way of making it more engaging. By modifying a bottle bank to incorporate a few flashing lights and developing a scoring system that rewards users who deposit coloured bottles in a particular order, more than 50 times more glass was collected. This remarkable achievement is down to an increasingly common form of engagement through what is known as ‘gamification’ – a process where game design principles are applied to non-game situations.


The rise of what could be described as ‘serious games’ are not only providing our kids with entertaining ways to master skills such as calculations, spelling or typing, but they’re now able to immerse a learner into the heart of a context.

Games such as eLECTIONS (www.fizurl. com/elections) allow players to learn through managing a virtual presidential campaign, while the home-grown

Electrocity ( challenges learners to build their own energy conscious city.

Sore thumbs and bleary eyes

Despite this, video-games haven’t always been a teacher’s best friend. Students arriving to school with sore thumbs and bleary eyes are just a few of the symptoms of this highly engaging and perhaps addictive form of entertainment. Maybe this explains why

The New Zealand Secondary Principals’ Association publicly rejected the gaming industry’s recent claim that video-games have educational benefits (The New Zealand Herald, ‘Teachers reject’educational’ video-games’, 2 May, 2012).

Whilst it seems that such claims are obviously self-serving, surely it would also be misguided to suggest that playing video-games will not lead to educational benefits? Surely a video game is merely a form of media just like a film or a book. It would seem absurd to say that films lack the potential to support learning, even though many of them may have a negative effect.

Surely it’s time for the discussion around video gaming to move towards a critical evaluation of which types of games are most likely to have a positive effect on learning. Without judging each game on its own merit, don’t we risk throwing out the baby with the bath water? Perhaps this one-sided approach is preventing these highly engaging resources from becoming more ubiquitous in our schools.


Similar to principles of lesson planning

When investigating the principles of game design, it’s remarkable how similar they are to the principles of lesson planning. In addition to an engaging context, the game needs a clear objective and must allow different players to progress at their own pace.

During the game, the player needs to receive regular feedback to help them improve and encourage them to persevere. An opportunity to fail is also built into games by giving the player a number of chances (or lives) to make a mistake and an infinite number of chances to reset the game and have another go. Aren’t these the same features that would be present in any good lesson?

Perhaps game designers just use what we recognise as effective pedagogies as their design brief?

It might be naive to suggest that video games are going to revolutionise the way we engage learners, but surely this form of resource could be another string to our bow. So, let’s not say ‘game over’ before we’ve even pressed start. Why not pick up the controller and search for the bonus that these resources could offer? Maybe we’ll soon find ourselves progressing to the next level.

The power of more than one…

In 1504 Christopher Columbus and his crew found themselves stranded on the north coast of Jamaica. To make matters worse, the locals refused to give them food or supplies because they had been treated so poorly by the crew in the past.

However, being a bright fella, Columbus sat and thought of a solution. He realised that a lunar eclipse was expected within days and decided to use this to his advantage. He summoned the local chiefs and told them the moon would be taken the very next night if they refused to provide the supplies he so desperately needed. They laughed in his face!

The next night arrived and as Columbus predicted, the moon began to disappear. The chiefs rushed the Columbus and begged for forgiveness and promised a plentiful supply of food and supplies. This allowed time for Columbus and his crew to wait for the next Spanish ship to rescue them.

This story serves as a great example of how a small group of isolated people lack the same collective knowledge of a bigger group. The Europeans formed huge communities and generated phenomenal collective strength, which led to the development of a plethora of technologies.  On the other hand, the indigenous locals had remained in small tight-knit groups with far less collective knowledge or experience of the world.

However, let’s say everyone in this story had a smartphone, and that Columbus tweeted his threat. If this had been the case, things would have been very different. Thousands of other people would have spotted the fact that Columbus was pulling a fast one. These people would have shared their knowledge with the locals and prevented them from being scammed by Columbus and his cheeky posse! The main point I’m making here is that large groups have a greater diversity of skills, experience and knowledge than small groups. This is one reason why large groups of people can achieve more than small groups.

Wikipedia is a fantastic example of this where over 100,000 people with different strengths, abilities and experiences have worked together to create a resource used by over 365 million people worldwide.
Another great example of a diversity of skills, abilities, and experiences being an asset to a group, is the team of mutants that form the X-Men. Unfortunately, unlike this example where different abilities are viewed as valuable, schools often find this problematic. But maybe we need to see this range of abilities as a resource that will support learning as opposed make learning more challenging.

Today’s most modern schools are being designed around the principal that people learn best when they collaborate. When they share ideas and discuss their learning rather than sit in silence whilst listening to someone standing at the front of a room. These designers realise that real learning happens when a group of people sit scratching their heads as they try to solve a problem or overcome a challenge.

However, even those of us without the flash buildings and open learning spaces are managing to harness the power of collaboration. Wikis, blogs and the like are allowing kids once isolated in their bedrooms to connect with each other after hours. But why are these online learning communities groups usually limited to the students in one class or one school? It makes sense that logistics make it more difficult for kids from different schools to learn collaboratively whilst in school, however, the same barriers do not exist online.



Why don’t we connect all the people together who are teaching and learning the same things? The online classroom is an open learning space in the truest sense of the word, except this space is wide open! Surely if we increase the size of a learning community we will also increase it’s collective strength.

We have thousands of teachers all teaching the same stuff and the same goes for learners. So why aren’t they all helping each other out? Why is a kid from one school not able to post a question to a national or even international community of teachers and learners who are all trying to meet the same outcome? Why are we limiting their audience to their small group of classmates? Surely if there are more people listening to our questions and offering their ideas, all our teachers and our learners will benefit? Maybe we just need to step out of our shell?

Of course, the obvious problems to this idea will surface.  School must compete for a finite number of students. Teachers are too busy with their own classes, never mind other peoples?  But surely these concerns make us part of society’s problem rather than a solution?

I’m not saying for a second that starting this off would be easy. We would need to consider a wide range of challenges that would make this difficult such as ensuring the reliability of information and making the role of collaborating teacher one that educators aspire to. However – once again our ability to overcome these challenges will be determined by our ability to collaborate and take advantage of our collective strength.

We have the power to ensure that every kid  has equal access to highest quality learning opportunities regardless of their location, socio-economic background or ethnicity. We’ll also find it easier working together than competing against each other.

We must start to remove this competitive culture between our schools that is preventing our best minds coming together. Maybe we should compare schools and judge quality by looking at the contribution they make to a wider learning community as well as the outcomes of the students within their walls? Surely it would be likely that more effective collaboration between teachers and learners would lead to improved student outcomes?

Us Kiwi’s (even the ones with pommie accents) pride ourselves on our ability to break the mould and do things better… Let’s take the sheep by the wool and herd our teachers and learners together… Let’s lead the world once again by making New Zealand the first place on Earth that takes a truly collaborative approach to education.

So drop your board markers and plan-book and let’s come together for reasons other than a strike! Imagine thousands of teachers benefiting from the collective strength of a united group and thousands of learners doing the same. We have the technology, we have the ideas. Now is the time.


Did anyone tell the students that their education system is changing..?

Educators are increasingly aware of the need to provide learning opportunities that are more active in their nature. As educators have accepted this shift, we have identified ways to change their practice such as engaging students in collaborative tasks or those which involve students creating knowledge rather than merely memorising information.

As I have strived to promote active learning in my own classroom I have found myself putting an end to practices such as those where students copy notes from a board. It wasn’t that I didn’t see the point of students having notes to study from, but more to do with the fact that I believe students should create their own notes (a far more active process). In my own classes, students work together to create collaborative notes online via a class wiki (in a similar way people add content to Wikipedia).

I had based this particular shift in practice on sound educational research (e.g. Odom et al, 2007) which suggests that providing student’s with notes can actually be detrimental to learning. However, research supports the idea that the creation of notes is a very effective way for students to re-construct information, make connections and identify areas where they lack understanding.

However, while I set about making improvements to the learning process in my classroom, other teachers focus on changing different aspects of their practice. From a students perspective this creates a confusing picture of what good teaching and learning looks like. While one teacher tells students that notes will not be given since it is detrimental to learning, the next teacher will tell the same students to copy notes from the board. This can understandably cause a significant amount of stress to students.

It occurred to me that while educators spend a great deal of time developing ways to enhance their practice, we don’t always explain the reasoning behind these changes to the students themselves. It’s almost as though we’re trying to manage significant change without consulting the main stakeholders.

Over the 10 years  since I became a teacher, I have witnessed changes in curricula, an increase on our focus on developing competencies, a movement to standards based assessment and the emergence of pretty much the entire web 2.0 movement. However, I wonder how often we justify our changes in practice to the students by explaining how this will help them? Do they really know why it’s good for them to work collaboratively, or critique another students work?

Faced with the my stressed out 17 year olds, I dared to let the students get into my head. This involved offering them insights into the perspective of their teacher and some reasons to support my actions. I placed specific focus on explaining why I had decided to move away from asking students to copy notes from the board, whilst asking students to construct collaborative notes online. One main focus of our discussion revolved around developing an awareness of the difference between information and knowledge. To illustrate this distinction I used SOLO taxonomy as a means to explain the way that learning progresses. We all agreed that learning begins with memorising some basic pieces of information. However, this memorising of information is different from building knowledge since this only happens when these basic pieces of information are linked together to create explanations.

While relating this vision of building knowledge to the practice of copying and memorising notes, it was evident that students realised how this strategy is restricted to the lower levels of learning. A knock on effect to this was a plethora of “eureka moments” around the room whereby students stated an increased understanding of the entire national assessment system (NCEA in New Zealand – used for all subjects). This also led to a great deal of questions and discussion about other aspects of the learning process.

Following further enquiry, it has occurred to me how limited student awareness of effective pedagogy can be. For example, many of the students I’ve spoken with recently were unsure of the value behind collaboration, unable to define “critical thinking” and often judged teachers on the basis of the quality of the notes they hand out. If our changes in pedagogy are to be affective, surely it would be best if our students  know the specific reasoning behind our actions? Surely it would also make sense that if our learners were empowered with more knowledge of this kind they would become change agents in themselves? Imagine schools being equipped with hundreds of informed individuals, all able to offer high quality feedback about the quality of the teaching and learning they experience? Maybe before  we focus on helping students “learn to learn” we should actually start by helping them “learn to teach”?

These recent experiences have caused me to re-evaluate my own vision of student centred learning.  Not only should they be their needs be at the centre of all our actions, but they should also be equipped with the knowledge and opportunity to have a significant effect on the process. They should be so connected with the learning process that they are able to question  the actions of their teachers to ensure their development is optimised. At this point they will be truly active learners. To make a comparison with another setting, I’m now feeling that students should be able to question the  pedagogy of a teacher in relation to their learning, in the same way a patient can question the practices of a doctor in relation to their healthcare.

When was the last time your doctor made you take a test that you didn’t no the purpose of?  Can our students say the same about the tests their teachers set?

The Shout project with the Smithsonian Institute

Hey folks…

If you haven’t got involved with this project yet, take a look… It’s rare when someone sends you a box of goodies that allows the kids at your school to get involved with a meaningful project with an internationally recognised organisation (Smithsonian Institute) that looks at how global issues are affecting us locally and beyond. Get amongst it…

Check out this video for more info

This is all new to me

Hey guys.

Since this is all new I am yet to post something interesting. I’m sure this will change in the very near future..

In the meantime take a look at the other parts of the site to see the kind of projects I’m involved with and the ways we could perhaps work together in the future.

You can also make contact with me in all kinds of ways so give the “contact me” link a click.

Cheers guys.

© 2020 Chris Clay

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑