Note about the author: Moses Velasco is an experienced Ontario educator and leader. He has been a classroom teacher and a district level consultant. He is currently an Education Officer. @tagapagtur00
**The opinions and ideas articulated in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the policies, views, or directions of the Ontario Ministry of Education.
Canadian STEM professions have shared that they anticipated a lack of qualified individuals to fill their ranks who could accelerate their industries in the future. In turn, the Canadian government recognized that the underdevelopment of future STEM workers would compromise its global competitiveness in emerging technological industries – an economic opportunity too important to miss (Decoito, 2016).
As a result of this economic forecast, K-12 schools and districts have been trying to figure out their roles in the STEM push. Currently, there appears to be clear definitions of academic pathways students can take in their secondary years to pursue STEM degrees with the presumption that these would lead to STEM fields of work. That being said, there is still much to be explored in secondary education to enhance STEM learning – especially as it relates to STEM being of interest to and accessible to a wide array of diverse students.
Based on my experiences, I think that there is still room for clarity on what STEM is and what STEM means in the elementary grades. For me, there appears to be a number of competing questions anchoring many conversations about STEM in the elementary grades, such as:
- How does the subjects math, science and technology relate to STEM?
- Is STEM about teaching these subjects differently?
- How do we situate engineering when it is not a specified K-12 subject?
- Is STEM education only ensuring that students pursue STEM academic and career pathways?
To address these questions, many teachers leading in elementary classrooms and schools have done a noble job of:
- designing in-class experiences intended to capture inter- or trans-disciplinary learning;
- connecting STEM to pedagogical approaches like student-led inquiry, problem-based learning and knowledge building in their science and math programs;
- creating para-curricular experiences to explore technology development (e.g., coding clubs and makerspaces) and
- encouraging participation in STEM programs conducted by STEM post-secondary faculties or STEM organizations.
While these collective efforts may contribute to the advancement of STEM, I think elementary STEM programs are poised to be filtered through some specific goals connected to broader STEM outcomes. Making this adjustment I believe could help ensure that our efforts provide the best support to students as they explore possible life pathways.
In my estimation, strengthening STEM education in the elementary grades requires an approach focused on the following:
- Raising awareness of and interest in STEM fields.
- Increasing rigour in math and science and technology subjects.
- Practice with the thinking and skills employed in problem solving processes used by STEM professions.
One could rightly argue that current STEM activities in the elementary grades work towards these ends. However, I believe there is room for explicit connections to be made between our STEM efforts and those outcomes. In doing so, STEM education efforts are seen as connected and, in turn, strengthen one another. My concern is that the absence of a shared understanding of a broad-reaching STEM approach diminishes the potency of any of our current efforts, and that these activities are relegated to the status of an ‘education fad’.
Leadership Exercised by All in STEM Elementary Grades
I suggest that in order for all of the above to be enacted, leadership must be exercised by all who influence what happens in elementary classrooms.
The following are leadership ideas that I’ve recently been considering in light of these three possible outcomes. These ideas are within the context of elementary STEM education but I believe there may be crossover and utility for conversations about STEM education in secondary schools as well.
These ideas are organized under question headings targeted to the levels of leadership (e.g., classroom, school, district) that I believe can engage in this work. My personal belief is that leadership and learning are complementary concepts and my ideas are typically centered on leadership of professional learning for STEM education.
Please note that these ideas are not being suggested as the definitive answers to STEM education in the elementary grades. Rather, these ideas represent my current thinking about how we might be able to collectively advance the conversation.
What could the elementary classroom teacher be thinking about and doing to strengthen elementary STEM education?
- Consider how you might strengthen your math and science programs. As a generalist, you have the most opportunity to create inter- or trans- disciplinary learning opportunities for your students – promoting meaningful connections and applications between math and science. However, recognize that there is foundational knowledge and skills that you are helping build that will afford your students the abilities to successfully tackle the rigour of later studies in mathematics and science.
In science, consider how you might expand your professional knowledge.
Some questions that may be helpful:
- What are the big scientific ideas that are embedded in the curriculum?
- How do these ideas spiral (or are revisited) throughout the grades?
- How do these ideas connect and relate to high school courses?
- What are the implications for instruction if these big ideas spiral?
- How might I better assess the inquiry skills students use in science and technology learning experiences?
A note about Ontario science and technology curriculum in the elementary grades. The front matter of the curriculum describes a technology problem-solving process. This process could be considered synonymous with the engineering process.
In mathematics, consider how you might expand your professional knowledge.
Some questions that may be helpful:
- How might I expand my knowledge of how math concepts in the curriculum develop over time?
- How might I gain more precision in identifying what my students’ conceptions (e.g., misconceptions, partial) are of those understandings?
- Do I know how to support students in solidifying accurate and useful conceptions?
- Do I know how to support students in self-correcting partial or misconceptions?
If you are looking to enhance your understanding of different approaches to subject integration, I find the summary of integration approaches by Gresnigt et al (pp 51-51, 2014) to be comprehensive and helpful. For those who are leading professional learning in STEM elementary education, I think the complexity staircase of integration approaches can be helpful as teachers reflect upon and enhance their skills in developing authentic, powerful, transdisciplinary learning experiences.
- Consider how you might enhance the learning culture in your classroom. I like the notion of culture being defined as, “How we do things”. In your classroom, how is learning ‘done’? We know that students find personal success when their learning is both rigorous and contextualized in meaningful relationships with their teachers and peers. I’d recommend Zaretta Hammond’s Ready for Rigor Framework if you’re looking for some ideas on how to think about and embed rigour into your classroom’s learning culture.
In Hammond’s framework, she discusses the practices of affirmation, validation, instructional conversation and “wise” feedback. Visit her blog to read more about her thinking on these practices.
I find Jon Saphier’s work on High-Expertise Teaching to be complementary work to Hammond’s work – especially with the four practices mentioned above. I think Saphier offers some very helpful tips to teachers as they consider how they might support students with attribution retraining (e.g., convincing students that they can grow their ability and get smarter). Nancy Love, via Saphier’s blog, provides some suggestions on what teachers might do when students “don’t get it” – a key point in attribution retraining.
Saphier wrote an article in which he described how he coached a science teacher in rethinking a lesson. I think the prompts and questions he used with this teacher can be helpful to teachers if they wanted to look deeply at their science and math lessons and critically consider how they expect students will learn content in the class. This article is written to a school leader audience but I think his questions on page 59 can be useful self-reflection tools.
What could the elementary school leader be thinking about to strengthen elementary STEM education?
- Consider the learning culture in your school. Given that elementary classroom experiences build foundational knowledge in the subjects of math and science and also in the processes of inquiry and technological problem solving, your teaching staff will be able to identify for you how they may want to grow in these areas. The existing professional learning culture and structures in your school will impact how you are able to support those areas.
Some questions that may be helpful:
- How might you assess your staff’s readiness to reconsider and shift their instructional practices in math and science to embrace STEM? If they are not all ‘ready’, how might you help them help themselves get ready?
- What are the current opportunities (e.g., common planning time, division/staff meetings) that you could leverage to become professional learning for STEM? – for example, develop shared understanding of the goals STEM elementary education? or reviewing how elementary math and science programs support development of foundational math and science concepts?
- If your staff is able to articulate their professional learning needs as they relate to STEM education, how will you collect, organize and respond to those needs?
- If you only had time to ask each teacher one question that would help best identify those needs, what would that question be? How will you know that that’s the right question?
- What supports (e.g., human, financial) might you need to secure or dedicate to support those needs?
What could STEM education mean for the system leader (e.g., superintendent)?
- Consider how the system can support STEM work of schools. I’ve suggested that the heart of elementary STEM education lies in classroom learning. As such, we have a history of school districts making STEM a board priority and/or individual elementary classroom teachers trying to make sense of it within the context of their students’ learning. The questions are whether these are coordinated efforts and whether there is a plan for measures of impact. Impact can be measured in terms of student learning and experience changing but also on teachers rethinking and shifting practices that relate to STEM education. It seems that a key role system leaders can play in STEM education is ensuring coherence amongst STEM efforts (Sinay et al, 2018). If STEM becomes a priority in your system carefully consider how you will plan for and monitor common understanding and measures of success with STEM in the elementary grades.
Some questions that may be helpful:
- How might we describe the awareness level and understanding of STEM education in elementary grades throughout the school district?
- Do elementary teachers, school leaders and system leaders have the same understanding of what STEM education is intended to achieve? How do you know whether it is or it isn’t a shared understanding?
- What is currently the landscape of professional learning in our district that supports the outcomes of STEM education in the elementary grades?
- Do math and science program staff understand their role in advancing STEM education in the elementary grades?
- How might school leaders be supported as they support elementary teachers in STEM education? What of their needs might be anticipated and preemptively addressed?
- What are historical systemic barriers in education that may play out with regards to STEM education in the elementary grades?
- What role can the system play in ensuring equitable access to STEM programming across the school district?
- How might we engage with families and communities in enhancing STEM learning in the elementary grades?
- How might we gauge the impact of elementary STEM programs on student selection and academic success in STEM pathways?
Strengthening STEM education in elementary grades will not successfully happen through the sole work of classroom teachers. All leaders, from within classrooms to school district boardrooms, have a role to play. In my estimation, a large challenge before these leaders is ensuring that there is clear and shared understanding of what STEM education in the elementary grades is and what it is intended to achieve. With that clarity, we are better positioned to align our STEM efforts that expose more diverse students to STEM pathways and provide them the robust education that affords them the opportunities to pursue these pathways if they choose.
DeCoito, I. (2016). STEM education in Canada: A knowledge synthesis. Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education, 16(2), 114-128.
Gresnigt, R., Taconis, R., van Keulen, H., Gravemeijer, K., & Baartman, L. (2014). Promoting science and technology in primary education: a review of integrated curricula. Studies in Science Education, 50(1), 47-84.
Hammond, Z. (2014). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Corwin Press.
Saphier, J. (2013). 15 Minutes To A Transformed Lesson. The Learning Professional, 34(4), 56.
Sinay, E., Ryan, T., & Sauriol, D. (2018). Fostering global competencies and deeper learning with digital technologies research series: Educational coherence: Learning from system-wide STEM implementation (Research Report No. 17/18-28). Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Toronto District School Board.
Zellmer, A. J., & Sherman, A. (2017). Culturally inclusive STEM education. Science, 358(6361), 312-313.