Performance in key subjects is not adding up

Stem education study charts the way forward

 

Science, technology, engineering and maths are critically important areas for modern society. Expertise in these so-called Stem subjects is vital to supporting future economic growth. The quality of our education in these subjects, then, needs to be of the highest quality.

The findings of a new report, however, make for troubling reading. It shows students in Ireland at primary and secondary level find “higher order thinking” such as problem-solving particularly difficult in subjects such as science and maths.

There are serious concerns over the basic maths skills of students progressing to higher education and worries over the fact that many secondary school teachers delivering Stem programme do not have specific subject qualifications.

There are also some key strengths. The involvement of students in events such as the BT Young Scientist exhibition and coding clubs such as Coderdojo demonstrate real enthusiasm. But the fact that these do not form part of the State curriculum means we are not realising their full benefit.

The Stem education review group, chaired by Dublin City University president Prof Brian MacCraith, makes dozens of well thought-out proposals to improve education quality. Many are long overdue, such as a requirement that all Stem teachers at second-level should have qualifications in their subject areas. Recommendations for innovative forms of learning and assessment which could promote critical thinking are crucial.

The slow pace of curriculum reform to date, however, is not inspiring. The new junior cycle – following a decade of debate – is being fully rolled out in a minority schools due to a dispute involving the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland. Our outdated Leaving Certificate, meanwhile, rewards rote learning when we need much greater emphasis on critical thinking.

Ireland may have aspirations to have the best education system in Europe within the next decade. The reality is that, in Stem subjects at least, our levels of performance are not good enough. A sustained effort requires real investment, involvement from all teachers and early action.

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