New pedagogies for interdisciplinary STEM skills - Education Matters

New pedagogies for interdisciplinary STEM skills

New pedagogies for interdisciplinary STEM skills

Russell Tytler of Deakin University sheds light on the direct teaching versus inquiry debate in the Science and Mathematics space.

Current advocacy of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) represents a reform movement to increase engagement of students with the STEM disciplines, and to develop STEM skills that will prepare students for life in the 21st century. Such skills overlap with generic competencies that are increasingly represented in global curriculum framing (OECD – Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2018), such as complex and creative problem solving, critical thinking, design thinking, mathematical reasoning, interpersonal and collaborative skills, and trans-disciplinarity.

What does this focus on interdisciplinarity and STEM skills mean for teaching and learning approaches? At face value, one might expect that the focus on developing students as agile and flexible problem solvers would imply inquiry pedagogies in which students are encouraged to develop agency in collaborative problem solving and investigation. This is indeed a strong strand of the project-based approaches based around design challenges often associated with STEM activities, where teachers report a growing confidence with student-focused pedagogies. However, there is evidence that these interdisciplinary activities, while engaging for students, fail to develop the deeper level understandings in the core disciplines of Mathematics and Science, where curriculum planning needs to attend to the progressive development of foundational ideas.

Counter to this STEM move towards project based, inquiry pedagogies, a strong strand of Australian curriculum planning involves teaching strategies that at face value run counter to calls for the development of creativity, critical judgments, and student agency, advocating the ‘explicit teaching’ and ‘worked examples’ that are indeed the norm in current classroom practice. This is not to say that direct teaching does not have its place for aspects of the learning of knowledge and skills. In teaching, there is evidence on both sides of the explicit teaching/inquiry debate. I argue that the renewed focus on competencies and interdisciplinary thinking tips the balance towards the inquiry end of the scale, for Mathematics and Science as well as STEM project work.

So, what are the implications for Science and Mathematics teaching of this call for interdisciplinarity and STEM skill development? I have described in a previous article an interdisciplinary approach to Mathematics and Science, with examples from a current research project ( The key argument is that the call for interdisciplinary curriculum approaches should not be seen as advocating the teaching of Science and Mathematics only through project-based work focused on engineering design or digital technology, but that the teaching in these subjects needs to change such that foundational knowledge and skills are developed in ways that enable flexible and insightful reasoning in authentic interdisciplinary situations. This is, after all, what disciplinary experts in real life bring to interdisciplinary innovation.

So, what should this pedagogy look like? Clearly, this advocacy of the need to develop flexible Mathematics or Science learning and reasoning implies overt guidance from knowledgeable teachers. On the student side, we should take a lead from how mathematicians and scientists develop and use ideas, and ask: How can classroom practices in some way simulate knowledge building in the real world? This implies the need to allow space for students to explore and to create and test ideas in a meaningful and supportive environment. Thus, we seem to be enlisting elements of both direct teaching, and of inquiry. How can we balance these ideas?

We take our lead from the insight that knowledge building in Science and Mathematics involves the creative invention and establishment of representational systems (models, visual representations, graphs and other data visualisations, mathematical and scientific symbols). These, as well as the language forms in which explanations, reports, proofs and argumentation occur, constitute the multi modal literacies of Science and of Mathematics. Learning can be viewed as a process of induction into these disciplinary literacies, and command of these literacies (being able to create and use models, diagrams, mathematical symbols and processes) is what is needed for disciplinary knowledge to be flexibly used in reasoning and problem solving in authentic interdisciplinary settings.

In our pedagogy, students construct representations in response to structured and meaningful challenges. They actively explore and work with Science and Mathematics ideas through material exploration, in a process where the teacher strategically sequences the tasks and actively monitors and shapes student thinking and representing.
For instance, Year 4 children investigating whether a probot moves at constant speed were supported to invent, compare and refine ways of representing distance travelled over successive time intervals.

We and our colleagues argue that this process steeps students in authentic knowledge building, or epistemic processes of the discipline. In Mathematics for instance they develop key constructs such as measure, sample, data modeling and spatial reasoning through guided investigation rather than as procedures to be learnt independent of meaningful inquiry.

In astronomy, students investigated and represented shadow movement and related this to 3D models and then drawings of earth-sun relations.

In this process of sequenced investigation and representational invention, comparison and revision, we have found high levels of student engagement and representational competence. The discussions are rich, they make meaningful choices, and are grounded in processes of scientific investigation and argumentation. They are in an important sense ‘doing’ rather than ‘learning about’ Science and Mathematics.

In terms of the direct teaching/inquiry debate, the approach shares many of the features of quality direct teaching: deliberative structuring and framing of activities, clarity of intended outcomes, continuous monitoring of students’ inputs and ideas, and overt scaffolding through task design and targeted questioning. Key differences include greater trust in the generative nature of students’ ideas and the weight given to these; invitation of students into the purposes of the knowledge; openness to variation in student practices; opportunities for imaginative projection and robust discussion leading to communal agreement on key ideas; orchestration, critique and revision of students’ invented representations; and attention to the purposes of modeling and representational work compared to presentation of ideas as pre-packaged practice.

Direct teaching advocates the gradual ceding of control to students after they have been taught techniques, and monitoring of their work, rather than our staged process of exploration, invention, evaluation and revision. The payoff, we argue, is that students come to know the disciplinary ideas in richer ways. We have found, however, that the approach requires of teachers both significant knowledge of the Science and Mathematics, and command of a pedagogy involving negotiation and refinement of student ideas, compared to ‘telling’. It also takes more time. However, if we are serious about developing STEM skills for interdisciplinary problem solving, we argue there are no shortcuts.