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Why are HSC students abandoning high-level subjects?

By Sam Di Sano on 9 May 2018NSWstaffroomSTEM

There has been so much written recently in response to the NSW Education Minister’s comments about the need to promote a multi-disciplinary education system as opposed to one favouring maths and science over the humanities. Maybe he was being a little too simplistic in labelling STEM as a ‘buzzword” and “fad”, but the essence of his address, in context was accurate. At the very least his choice of words didn’t help the discussion and certainly didn’t endear him to supporters of STEM. Critics have seen his comments as a swipe at STEM education and linked that prevailing negativity to both our declining proportion of students doing high-level maths and science subjects in the HSC as well as poor performances in international tests over the last decade. Oh were it that simple!

A word from the Minister

Speaking at an evening lecture series at Queenwood School, NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes, warned schools about developing an over-reliance on STEM education, which he said was “de-humanising education”,

“People of influence are… insisting that only by bowing before the altar of STEM will today’s students be adequately equipped to thrive in the 21st century.. I am simply stating that the idea our education system must be structured to preference STEM at the expense of the arts is demonstrably ludicrous.”

You can find the full article here.

The figures

The slide in students studying higher level subjects is a concern. Participation rates in year 12 Maths Extension 2 in 2017 is down from the cohort in 2007, as it is in year 12 Maths Extension 1 and year 12 Mathematics.

General remains the most popular maths course, albeit also in decline since 2007. The proportion of students studying physics, chemistry, engineering and technology subjects has also seen a similar decline.

To be fair to the maths and sciences, the situation is not much better in the humanities with English Extension 2 also down.

So why are figures spiralling downward?

A number of leading experts see society’s prevailing negative attitude towards maths and the sciences as a big part of the problem and it is from here that criticism of the Minister’s comments originate. Negativity towards the sciences or maths is not new. Many parents or older siblings and friends will casually recall their own experience of how difficult they found these subjects, ultimately influencing their children and peers against them. The result over time is the situation we find ourselves in today with falling participation rates as well as a decline in results in international tests such as PISA and TIMMS.

There are of course other factors which play a role too. Many students and schools try to play the ATAR game, thinking they can beat the system and so they choose or advise students to choose subjects that will maximise results and avoid the seemingly ‘tougher’ subjects.

The stats

The key for me though is the shortage of qualified teachers in these areas at both primary and secondary level. That is not to say that we currently do not have many wonderful educators in these fields - two of our best, 2017 Australian Teacher of the Year, Science Head Teacher Ken Silburn from Casula High School and 2018 Australia Day Local Hero, Mathematics Head Teacher Eddie Woo from Cherrybrook High School, have both been respectively nominated in the top 10 educators worldwide in the last two years. The fact is though that maths and science classes are being taught by teachers untrained in those subjects in more than half our schools nationwide, and more than three-quarters of schools in Queensland, according to a 2016 survey by the Australian Education Union.

The survey revealed 51 percent of the 9000 principals who responded nationwide — and 76 per cent of Queensland principals — reported having maths and science classes taught by teachers who were not fully qualified in those specialist areas.

The paradigm of the classroom has not changed since the glory days of Ancient Greece some 2500 years ago; the relationship between pupil and teacher remains at the heart of teaching and learning. No amount of technological or pedagogical advancement has ever changed that and perhaps never will. The mastery of the teacher and his or her ability to communicate and pass on their knowledge to the student remains fundamental to the educative process.

The solution

Attracting and retaining quality teachers in these key areas in order to provide both a solid education and an example or role model to young people is what is needed. Overhauling education systems isn’t the answer, which fundamentally was what the NSW Education Minister was correctly stating. Instead we need to look for ways to tweak the system here and there to provide an inducement for both teachers and students to study these subjects.

Perhaps an answer is to encourage Universities to up the ante with scholarships, or State governments or corporate partners to offer grants for further study or pay a graduate’s HECs upon successful completion of a teaching degree with a maths, science or similar higher level major. Perhaps even schools could play a role here, by sponsoring their alumni who seek to study education. Inducements to encourage existing teachers to up-skill or re-skill their credentials may also be a way of attracting more quality teachers to higher level subjects.

The key for me is providing quality teachers that can inspire young people to take and enjoy higher level subjects. There are many schools that cannot staff these courses despite student desire to study them. Young people are generally resourceful and creative and prepared to take a risk or two, but as the numbers show, not necessarily with their education. So - give them a role model, someone to encourage them, guide and stick with them for the arduous journey through the HSC and we might just see the take up in these higher level subjects turn around.

If you’re a teacher, HOD or Executive in a school right now and are not sure how to implement some of these ideas or get your students sticking with those higher level subjects, let me know and we can workshop a few ideas together.

Look forward to hearing from you! Get in touch here..

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