Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s timing was impeccable yesterday, speaking at the Australian Science Teachers Association Annual Conference, just hours after the education minister backed the apogee of his agenda – to lift the level of Australian STEM education. “momentum is growing – in a good way,” Dr Finkel said.
But he warned that there is a drag on momentum, the idea that an education for the 21st century is about “knowing less and talking more.”
“I say ‘students should be work-capable’ – and people hear ‘we need to teach generic skills like collaboration, instead of content knowledge like chemistry’.”
It was a classic Finkel speech, as engaging as it was erudite and as usual there was an eclectic illustration of his argument, using Frank Herbert’s not universally admired other-worldly novel, Dune. But the Chief Scientist’s point was firmly planted on this planet – the education system must not teach soft skills at the expense of hard knowledge.
“There is still a fundamental duty to teach students content: concepts, facts and principles. Taught by teachers trained as experts in that content, with all the status and resources and professional development that we would demand in any other expert occupation. “
And because he always acknowledges the achievements and obligations of his audience, Dr Finkel had a message for science and maths teachers, that what must happen next is up, in part up to them.
“You are the expert teachers who can see the future and are already striving to lead the change.
“We don’t awake spontaneously to a knowledge of our talents and passions. We develop them by mastering the foundations – and that means sticking with it.
“Your passion, as teachers, is the glue. It’s particularly important to inspire children towards mathematics. Mathematics is the language of science. And none of us arrive in school at the age of five as native math speakers. We only gain fluency by learning things in sequence. And there is no substitute for the precious years of learning mathematics, in sequence, in school.
“It is time for Australia to recognise that contribution, resource that contribution, and extend that contribution.
Dr Finkel laid down five ways to set up STEM education.
“We must ensure that our students are taught to master content, lots of it.
“We must ensure that all specialist teacher are subject-matter specialists.
“We must restore the relationship between universities and schools through prerequisites that send signals to principals, teachers, parents and students.
“We should make data on outcomes available for the benefit of students and for impact research.
“We must clarify the role and operation of the ATAR so that it does not inadvertently send the wrong signals.