As educators, we are continually looking at ways of improving the learning outcomes of the students in our schools. At TAS our goal is to offer well-designed courses of study, a range of engaging learning activities and experiences, a physical environment conducive towards learning, and a school culture where all students are valued and where striving to achieve academically is “cool”, not something to be hidden for fear of ridicule. Of course, as so much research has shown, one of the most important factors is the quality of the teacher.
A teacher can only be successful if they are enhancing student learning. John Hattie’s work on Visible Learning and effect size analysis shows that students will learn at a certain “natural” rate if left to their own devices. His work measures teaching approaches that display a rate of learning above this natural rate (~0.2) and identifies the most effective approaches. We work to develop our staff efficacy and monitor this effect size through diagnostic assessment protocols and data analysis.
There are four main factors that teachers control with respect to enhancing student learning: (i) the pedagogy used (“how” the teacher teaches – this is a very broad category), (ii) the environment within which the learning takes place (physical, cultural, social, behavioral), (iii) the nature of the relationship between teacher and student and teacher and class groups and (iv) the teacher’s content knowledge of that subject, particularly in secondary schooling.
However, the flow of well-trained teachers graduating from our universities is reducing. This is an emerging topic that will become a major issue over the coming years and is already a challenge for rural schools. As a member of the Independent Schools Queensland Principal’s Education Committee, Independent Schools Queensland’s main advisory body on government educational policy, I have had the opportunity to read a number of pieces of research that clearly indicate future Australian teacher graduate numbers will be lower in future years.
Regional schools across Australia find it challenging to attract and retain quality staff, particularly in STEM fields and languages, and have done for a while. In science and mathematics, content knowledge is a crucial precursor to success as a teacher in these subjects. As an engineer in my past life, I am qualified (and love) to teach mathematics and physics, but I should not be teaching a Literature class, a Music class, or even a Biology class, as my content knowledge in those areas is not at the required standard.
This issue has struck rural and remote schools first (it has been identified as a key issue for at least 15 years), then regional schools, then suburban schools and eventually the prestigious city schools, at which point, the government will no doubt take significant action. In some NQ schools, including in Cairns, there is already data showing that maths and science classes are increasingly being taught by teachers without qualifications in those areas. Across Australia, an average of 20-25% of maths and science classes are estimated to be taught by teachers without formal qualifications in science or mathematics. Approximately 40% of physics teachers will retire in the next 10 years but only 10% of all trainee science teachers are specialising in physics. Whilst I agree that content specialization is not the only factor that determines successful teaching, it is incredibly important in mathematics and science, and one could argue even more so in lower secondary mathematics and science classes.
This issue has been gathering momentum for quite some time. I remember a news article in 2004 regarding the increasing difficulty in getting maths and science staff into rural classrooms. How does this impact teaching and learning in Australian schools?
- Australia had a significant decline in scientific literacy performance between 2006 and 2015.
- The percentage of year 12 students choosing physics declined from 21% in 1992 to 14% in 2012.
- From 1999 to 2013, students choosing only the most basic level of mathematics rose from 37% to 52%.
- By 2014, 21.4% of female year 12 students studied no maths subject at all.
We consider STEM to be a critical learning area at TAS and we are blessed to have terrific science and maths teachers across all year levels. Our teaching staff are in demand by publishers and curriculum organisations because of their topic knowledge and experience. Our students, both male and female, are part of a high standard, well-resourced, supportive program in science and maths. The feedback they provide to us indicates they feel they are amongst the best-prepared students in science and mathematics when starting university.
The quality of our STEM courses and teachers, combined with our digital technology opportunities, including a sequenced, high standard robotics and coding program, makes our STEM program key part of what makes TAS graduates so successful.