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Nepotism – How much does STEAM affect teachers’ lives?

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In general, if you grow up with teachers, you either become a teacher or run like hell from the profession.

I know a LOT of teachers.

Mum, until recently, taught at a primary school. Dad (before he died) worked his way up to principal and moved sideways into the Department of Education. One aunt works at a school, another is in kindergarten (as a teacher, not a student).

My sister is a teacher. Her husband is a teacher. His sister is a teacher. My brother ran like hell into the outback to become a park ranger. Now he works for CSIRO, has a PhD and is married to a teacher. They’re all in various parts of the country, at different stages of teaching and in different sectors of the education system, so through the magic of nepotism, we should get a good feel for the state of STEAM across Australia.

So, I’m going to chat with each of these people, and get a feel for what’s happening in schools with STEAM.

The cast:

Daniel is my brother-in-law. He works at a primary school in Bendigo.

Elise is my sister. She teaches VCE at the Senior Secondary College in Bendigo.

Pippa is Daniel’s sister. She teaches Psychology, English and Faith and Ethics at an Independent Secondary College in Melbourne.

My mother Trish is a retired primary school teacher from Melbourne. She was a school leader.

Rhonda is a Maths teacher at a secondary school in Queensland.

One aunt declined to be interviewed because she is in China (fair enough). My other aunt says “I see envelopes with STEM or STEAM on them and pass them onto the Head of Science. That’s all the help I can be.”

What is STEAM?

Trish: Science Technology, Engineering Maths & ARTS [Um, Mother, that would make it STEMA]

Rhonda: STEM has made it this far north, but STEAM hasn’t.

Daniel: I’ve heard of it, if that helps. I had to look it up, because that’s how much it filters down.

Elise: I know a bit about it. Bendigo has a tech school being built at the university which is based around STEAM so that any school can visit and do STEAM activities without having the facilities at their own school. So we’ve had people from the school coming in and talking to us really regularly with updates and talking about the necessity for it and why STEAM is so important.

STEAM or STEM?

Elise: I’m an Arts teacher, of course it’s bloody STEAM. The whole point is to prepare the new generation for what’s going to be in the future. And the main thing they’re going to need is creative thought. It’s a hugely important part of it. Not that I’m biased.

Daniel: Yeah, I’d like to say STEAM as well and it comes back to that creative edge. Elise was saying about the unknown future but it’s also about that innovation aspect which I think the Arts angle really pushes, doesn’t it?

Elise: And it’s not because I’m standing here with a gun to his head.

Daniel: I was reading an article about it the other day when I was trying to make sure I understood what it was. And it was interesting because it was looking at justifying the Arts inclusion. If you’re looking at Arts you have to look at all of the Arts, not just a token representation. But I don’t think there’s a problem with a token representation if it’s there because it’s a useful tool. It’s how you use Art as a real-world application rather than teaching Art through STEAM.

Pippa: I’ve only ever heard it being called STEM. Bec has told me it’s now called STEAM. I only know that because I sit next to Bec and she tells me stuff.

Trish: In an ideal world, STEAM. It allows learners to apply their Science and Maths skills in other contexts. Adding in the Arts means greater motivation, engagement and skill transfer. Before it was called STEAM or STEM it was called real world or authentic tasks.

I just want to add a caveat here: Four years out of school is a very long time. Terminology changes. Good educational ideals evolve. What doesn’t change, though, is that with a lack of support for effective teacher and student learning opportunities, it can be a challenge for skilled motivated teachers to maintain their ideals and enthusiasm. A revolution is needed to bring some common sense into education.  No matter what you label it.

What importance does STEAM have/did STEAM have at your school?

Rhonda: I only teach Maths, so I can’t speak to the Science side of things. We see a lot of STEM projects coming through the Maths and Science department. One that came past my desk just recently was that students had to create a business model and then develop an app, so they had to integrate their business with their Maths/Science thinking. They were given a theme and a supervisor to work with them.

We don’t do any specific STEM stuff in our school in the Maths classroom on a day-to-day basis. We do a lot of affiliated stuff with JCU [James Cook University]. The university does a lot of STEM stuff and kids go there [to participate]. Sometimes it’s with a teacher and sometimes it’s a program that runs without us. Actually, we do a lot of incorporating of STEM in our planning from the Queensland Studies Authority but other than that I don’t particularly incorporate it into my curriculum planning and it’s not a focus in our department at all.

I don’t even think it’s much of a focus in the science department as well, but I shouldn’t say that because I’m nowhere near the science department or their staffroom. Being a school this big I don’t even know some of the teachers in the science staffroom.

Elise: Ah, no importance at all! (laugh).

In VCE, the study designs are so specific, you have to follow your study design.

Daniel: I’m a classroom teacher, and the science curriculum is already written. We rewrote it last year, but it doesn’t allow for much movement.

Damian: There’s a page on the Victorian curriculum site saying you must do STEAM.

Daniel: Yeah but at the same time there are pages saying you must do this, this, this, this and this.

Elise: We have things like coding in the curriculum, which came from the STEM initiative.

Daniel: True. We are constantly told by our leaders you must do this and you must do this but you have to show that you’re doing it separately. It’s something that I thought would be a good idea when we rewrote the curriculum last year – I thought it would be good to embed STEAM somewhere, but we’d need a lot of PD to even get started.

The problem in schools is that [concepts like STEAM] need a driving force, because I’m doing all this in my class, but then you go next door and they can type… well, they can word process… or rather they can’t even do that really well, but that’s what they do. My job this term is to train the teachers in the 3/4 team and the students to use Google Docs. That’s my goal for this term, so if I can get them all into the Google Classroom, that’s a step in the right direction.

Trish: With any initiative, leaders need to take a realistic look at the skills and motivation of their current teachers. Change needs sufficient support to avoid superficial application of the principles and watering down of learning.

Strong teamwork and collaboration is required with teachers from different disciplines pooling ideas and supporting the learning in an integrated way. I’m assuming this would be a lot harder in a secondary school.

Daniel: I’m assuming that most people at school have heard of STEM or STEAM but I haven’t heard it being talked about it at school at all apart from between me and a couple of other techie people.

It’s to do with school priorities as well. In the past couple of years, we have a big writing push and the Respectful Relationships program. Those two things have been pushing everything. There might be a science push in the next couple of years.

Pippa: My school is doing some pretty interesting things, but our campus only pays lip service to STEM.

I was at a STEM meeting yesterday and the conversation bounced between Maths to Science to Maths to Science and a colleague put her hand up and said “we forgot about Engineering and Technology”. The Head of STEM said “Well, we’ve got the IT stuff” and we said “That’s not… using a laptop is not technology.” And the response was “Ah, that’s a good point. Next question.” So…

There’s four faculty areas [at the new campus]: there’s the Arts, Languages, Social Sciences and there’s STEM. That’s all happening at the new campus next year. So that’s what the meeting we had yesterday was about. Trying to see what shape it was all going to take. But for the moment, apart from hosting one of the school-based STEM workshops for Year 7s – that looked interesting – I’m not sure what’s going on.

There’s a massive focus on the Year 9 campus because it opens next year and the idea is to bend the rules, try new things… So we’re sort of starting with that and then working backwards from there and working out what we need to do with Year 7 and 8 and then upwards to 10 (getting them ready for VCE). So that’s what our Head of STEM is organising really. The position only came in at the start of the year so he’s still kind of guessing his way and finding out where the boundaries lie and how many toes he can step on.

Trish: Four years ago, that terminology wasn’t being used. But in the couple of years before I left, we were making progress with many of our ideals. We were building a dynamic learning culture where teachers professional learning was relevant and supported.  We looked for big ideas to integrate the various learning disciplines.

Do you know of any great implementations of STEAM at your school or in your area?

Pippa: Steve [Brophy] has been doing a lot of work with an entrepreneurial college in the city. He’s been working on doing a lot of that to bring into the new campus – we’re opening a new Year 9 campus next year. But it doesn’t look like we’re doing anything like that at our campus. Not that I know of.

Teach Tech Play is coming out of our school, but not our campus.

Elise: There is the Tech school being built at La Trobe University. That will be accessible by all schools in the Bendigo area.

It would be great if you wanted to do something for that you didn’t have the equipment for. You’d just book the class in there and use their equipment and facilities. It opens up a whole new world of things we could do with our VCE classes that we can’t without the current level of facilities.

Daniel: We’ve got a coding club that I’m doing this term every second week at lunchtime – I’ve only just been told that I’m doing it! I’m using Code.org.

Elise: It’s a fair way away from us moving a turtle around a screen (logo).

Daniel: The thing is we’ve got those Bee Bots and the little taxis that you can program to move but they’re in a cupboard somewhere and nobody knows they’re there and nobody knows how to use them.

What I would love to do for the coding club is to use Raspberry Pi and stuff and start actually looking at the pieces that make a computer. For the kids who are actually interested. Take it to the next step.

Trish: I know teachers who are well informed and keen to improve their practice. Unfortunately, they are under-resourced and expected to work alone.  Unless you’re in an excellent school, teachers are not supported with the planning time and coaching required.

How does a teacher fit STEAM into their already crowded load?

Rhonda: I read that question and had a bit of a chuckle.

The only way I could see that I could fit it in would be projects. If I was working on something that tied in nicely with a particular concept or skill, then I would probably design a four-or-five week program that sits around that and fit it into my work that way. Because there’s certainly no time to say “We’re just going to take a week out and do something that sits outside what of what I need to get through.” So, I’d probably try to incorporate it into a unit I’m already doing.

Pippa: I don’t think we do really. I’m assuming that part of STEAM is trying to do is to find ways to link what you’re doing in all those elements together to enhance a real world understanding of what’s going on.

We did a good one at Year 8 on Sustainable Living which is quite a good one in terms of STEAM. It incorporates Humanities as well because it was looking at inequality in the world. What they had to do was build a small to scale model of a house with an environmentally appropriate heating system and then they measured to see how well they could do that. I believe there was a maths component, but the Engineering and Science elements were quite obvious in how they had to construct the building and explain whatever methods they were using to heat the building.

So we’re kind of getting there. A step in the right direction.

Trish: I know what worked for us. Whole school planning and team work is essential. Our teaching and learning leaders were given good planning time. Coaching was well accepted and supported. A full day was built in for each planning team for the following term. Specialist teachers were included and planned with teams on best way to integrate learning intentions. (e.g. the art teacher may introduce Symmetry or reinforce Transformation with flip slide turn patterns).

In a school that will support STEAM:

  • Teachers work in teams in flexible working areas.
  • Learning intentions and success criteria are clearly visible in every classroom.
  • Teachers are encouraged to build partnerships beyond school where possible
  • Have a principal who is comfortable with/supportive of shared leadership
  • STEAM priorities are included in the school’s Annual Action Plan.
  • Planning and teaching happens across disciplines.

Why is STEAM valuable for our students (and ourselves)?

Rhonda: Well, if I was going to use an Education Queensland catchphrase, I would say that “It’s a 21st Century skill” so one of our focal points at school is that we’re trying to build “lifelong learners” and “global citizens” and we’re “trying to embed these students with 21st Century skills”. I would suggest that a problem-solving based approach to learning is the way that we are moving.

Daniel: Because for our students it’s very hard these days to teach them… I’ve always thought that teaching is about preparing them for the world and with the rate of change it is hard to know what they’re going to need in a couple of years so this is a way of giving them possible skills for a possible future.

It all comes down to hit and miss with teachers. It blows me away that we still have a core base of teachers that are fairly digitally illiterate. They use the computers to send emails and do planning but they really don’t know much about other things.

Pippa: I think that anything that encourages the kids to see their education as relevant in the real world is valuable. Anything that is purely theoretical is not useful. Anything we do in life incorporates elements of things we’ve learned about. By breaking them down, we do the kids a disservice. It makes it harder to understand and harder for them to see the relevance of.

Especially considering that VCE exams are moving away from rote learning. Now it’s application, evaluation, the higher order thinking. And the kids are stuffed. They don’t know how to think about it. STEAM allows them to use those higher order thinking skills more often.

Trish: The best points of STEAM are learning how to learn rather than covering a body of knowledge without expecting transfer of skills. We’re trying to get students learning for now and the unknown future.

And that’s for teachers as well as students. Why don’t we stick an L into STEAM [STEALM?]? Every teacher is (or should be) a literacy teacher. Learners need to be supported to read, write and speak using the grammatical conventions of specific disciplines.

Imagine that – Fully literate teachers guiding learners to be collaborative, innovative, inquisitive, communicative ….

That’s when STEAM is effective. That’s when STEAM is valuable for teachers and students.

Damian: I don’t think I can improve on that as an ending!

A quick summary

Basically, what I found from talking to various members of my family is that STEAM is still a new concept for most teachers. None of the schools in any of the areas were doing it in a structured way. There are a lot of buzz words with no support behind them.

Before doing these interviews, I thought STEAM was pretty pervasive. But I have surrounded myself with STEAM-powered teachers. Those that go to DLTV conferences and listen to Teach Tech Play podcasts.

There’s still a lot of work to do before STEAM is an accepted concept in schools. Leadership need to make it a long-term focus and provide slow, gentle training to bring the entire staff up to scratch with digital literacy. And regular literacy. And numeracy.

Most importantly, though, my takeaway from this is that innovation, enquiry thinking and cross-disciplinary learning is prevalent in most schools. Teachers want their students to learn and learn effectively. We just need to give them the reasons why STEAM will help the students and the tools and time to allow teachers to explore STEAM properly.


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