Issues and challenges

Australian schools are not producing the sort of skills that industry and a STEM literate population requires. Find out the issues and challenges facing STEM teachers.

Opting out of STEM in the senior years

Unlike many other countries (e.g., Finland, the USA and China), mathematics and science are not mandated studies at Year 12 (Wilson, 2015) and intermediate or advanced level mathematics is not necessarily an entry requirement for further STEM related studies at many Australian universities (Academy of Science, 2016). A worrying trend reported by Conolly (2016) is that many able students are choosing not to take higher level mathematics courses because they see this as a threat to their ATAR score due to what they see as the ‘opportunity cost’ involved (e.g. 3 hours/day for 6 days/week).

While the number and diversity of subjects at this level ensure these students have plenty of other study options to consider, many others have little or no choice when it comes to choosing STEM subjects particularly, intermediate or advanced mathematics, because of their mathematics results in previous years.

My maths isn’t good enough

There are many reasons for the relative decline in mathematical literacy as measured by PISA and the significant decline in participation rates in the more advanced mathematics subjects at Year 12, but two that are often cited are:

  • shortage of qualified mathematics teachers (Prince & O’Connor, 2018)
  • the ways in which school mathematics is traditionally taught and learnt (AiG, 2015; Deloite Access Economic, 2014; Little, 2019; OCS, 2012).

While there is little individual schools can do to address the first of these proposed reasons, the second is related to what teachers believe they have to teach, that is, the content of school mathematics. If this is presented in lists of discrete, measurable skills, it is not surprising that the text and computer-based resources produced to support the teaching and learning of mathematics in schools adopt a similar approach.

Given the shortage of qualified mathematics teachers, It is also not surprising that these resources come to be relied upon by out-of-field teachers. This raises the question of what are we achieving in school mathematics?

What you test is what you get

Swan and Burkardt (2012) refer to this well-known phenomenon as WYTIWYG, which can have a ‘damaging backwash effect’ (p. 4) on what is taught and how it is taught. For instance, if what is assessed values the reproduction of mathematical procedures over complex problem solving, it is highly likely that the former will be the focus of teaching which risks over scaffolding at the expense of engaging students in challenging tasks.

Australia’s declining results on PISA assessments of mathematical literacy that focus ‘on young people’s ability to apply their knowledge and skills to real-life problems and situations’ (Thomson et al, 2019, p. xiv), reinforces the claim that Australian schools are not producing the sort of skills that industry and a STEM literate population requires.

School mathematics has an image problem


graphical representation of Year 4 and Year 8 attitudes towards learning mathematics , full image description in Figure 2: Long description
Figure 2. Year 4 and Year 8 student attitudes towards learning mathematics. Source: TIMSS 2015: Reporting Australia’s Results (Thomson et al, 2017)
Figure 2: Long description

Year 4 and Year 8 student attitudes towards learning mathematics

Don't like learning maths

Year 4 28%

Year 8 50%

Like learning maths

Year 4 36%

Year 8 37%

Very much like learning maths

Year 4 37%

Year 8 12%

In their report of Australia’s results on TIMSS 2015 (Thomson et al, 2017) reported that 27% of Year 4 students and 50% of Year 8 students do not like learning mathematics, roughly double the corresponding proportions of students who reported that they do not like learning science.

But it is the significant decline in the proportion of Year 8 students who very much like learning mathematics (i.e. from 37% to 13%) that is particularly worrying as shown in Figure 2 below.

The M in STEM risk

Teaching mathematics in the context of one or more of the other STEM disciplines has been proposed as a way to make mathematics more engaging and as a means to develop the desired competencies of problem solving, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking (Furner & Kumar, 2007; Little, 2019; Rosicka, 2016). However, it is generally acknowledged that more research into the impact of integrated STEM education programs on student outcomes is needed (English, 2016; Fraser, Earle & Fitzallen, 2018; Rosicka, 2016), particularly as it appears that ‘mathematics learning benefits less than the other disciplines in programs claiming to focus on STEM integration’ (English, 2016, p. 1).

One possible explanation for this is that the extent to which integrated STEM programs/activities fulfil their potential is entirely dependent on the capacity of the teachers involved to guide the inquiry in purposeful and productive ways (Badley, 2009; Kirschner, Sweller & Clark, 2006). It also depends on the students’ prior mathematical knowledge and experience and the extent to which they are able to generate the sort of questions and plans that might prompt a consideration of the potential content (Siemon, Banks, & Prasad, 2019). This can result in inconsistent mathematics content coverage where students are taught by a non-mathematics trained teacher (English, 2016; Little, 2019).

Too often in connected learning experiences with science, mathematics plays a servant role where students use pre-existing knowledge and simple procedural applications. This is problematic for the development of students’ knowledge and skills in mathematics … and provides insight into why some interventions have failed to improve achievement in mathematics. (Little, 2019, p. 456)

What addressing the M is STEM looks like in practice

First steps: What do schools need to do about the M in STEM?

The most urgent thing that schools can do in light of the evidence that is driving the STEM Agenda is to consider how to engage more students in mathematics for longer. The aim is to ensure that as many students as possible not only have the option to choose further study in STEM related areas but also attain a level of numeracy that will stand them in good stead when it comes to employment. School mathematics also has a particular role to play in supporting the development of STEM skills such as problem solving, collaboration, communication, and critical and creative thinking, both in its own right and as an important component of an integrated STEM activity.

Recognise what makes a difference

A recent report commissioned by the Australian Government looked at the characteristics of schools judged to be ‘successful’ in mathematics (Callingham, Beswick, Carmichael et al, 2017). A total of 619 schools were involved in the project and case studies were conducted in 52 of these schools (28 primary, 17 secondary and 7 combined). The report makes interesting and compelling reading and points to what makes a difference to students’ mathematics learning, summarised as follows:

  • 100% of case study schools had senior leadership, who understood and valued mathematics; and a mathematics leader who had input into school policy decisions.
  • 87% of case study schools used data to monitor individual students’ progress; and had a classroom focus on mastery. (i.e. developing understanding) rather than procedural fluency.
  • 90% of case study schools had teachers who liked mathematics, and were enthusiastic about teaching mathematics (as perceived by student groups that were interviewed).
  • 94% of case study schools had ‘in-school’ professional learning communities, and 73% had had formal, in-school professional learning.

The Nothing left to chance provides a detailed explanation of what is meant by mastery and performance orientations to learning and the impact of each on student engagement. The report also includes the survey and case study instruments used to collect the evidence.

Mathematical Mindsets (Boaler, 2016) – challenges the assumption that maths is just for some people and presents evidence to show that most, if not almost all students are capable of excelling in and enjoying maths. Teaching strategies to support a growth mindset towards mathematics learning are also included.

Practice Principles for Excellence in Teaching and Learning together with the Framework for Improving Student Outcomes (Victorian Department of Education and Training, 2018) – provides a Vison for Learning and a process for school improvement that while not specific to mathematics is consistent with the key messages in the Nothing left to chance report and Jo Boaler’s work on growth mindsets.

Watch a useful video on the difference between fixed and growth mindsets to use with students.

Focus on important mathematics

The use of assessment data to monitor and progress student learning is recognised as one of the most effective ways to improve student learning outcomes (e.g. Timperley 2011; Wiliam, 2006, 2011). At the same time there is a growing recognition that not every aspect of school mathematics needs to be assessed and not everything needs to be differentiated. Attention is turning to the role of evidence-based frameworks and big ideas in mathematics as a means of developing deep understanding and achieving greater curriculum coherence (e.g. Charles, 2005; Hiebert & Carpenter, 1992; Hurst & Hurrell, 2014; Siemon, Bleckly, & Neil, 2012). For instance, given the overwhelming evidence that access to multiplicative thinking is responsible for the 7-year range in mathematics achievement at each year level from Year 5 to 9 and that targeted teaching works (e.g. Siemon, Banks, & Prasad, 2018; Siemon, 2019), one very obvious way forward is to focus on identifying and responding to where students are in relation to this critically important idea that underpins a very large proportion of school mathematics in the middle years.

Invest in professional learning

A key characteristic of the successful schools was their commitment to ongoing professional learning. One of the most effective forms of which is working with colleagues to better understand student reasoning (Carpenter, Blanton, Cobb et al, 2004; Wiliam, 2006). This is borne out by the experience of teachers working in the Early Years Numeracy project (e.g. Clarke, 2001), the Scaffolding Numeracy in the Middle Years project (Siemon, Banks & Prasad, 2018) and more recently, the Reframing Mathematical Futures II project (Siemon, Callingham, Day et al, 2018). As suggested above, working in professional learning communities on worthwhile data sets (i.e. ones that relate to important mathematics) is one way forward.

Another is to work with colleagues to plan, trial, and review alternative approaches to teaching mathematics using rich tasks. Rich tasks provide opportunities to explore a variety of solution strategies/approaches, facilitate connections between different aspects of mathematics, support collaborative group work, promote discussion, build on what student already know and can do, and explore common misconceptions (Clarke, 2003; Swan, 2005; Sullivan, 2011).

With eyes wide open, take the plunge

While Mathematics is too important to be left to chance and more needs to be done to improve students’ school mathematics experience and outcomes, there is room for integrated STEM activities where these increase student interest in learning mathematics and support the development of STEM skills such as problem solving, collaboration, communication, and critical and creative thinking. However, to ensure that the ‘M in STEM does not remain silent’ in any integrated STEM activity, it is important to ensure that:

  • there must be a problem to solve
  • there must be significant mathematics involved in the problem
  • the problem should require the teamwork that draws on knowledge and approaches from several disciplines (Shaughnessy, 2013, p. 342).


Integrated program resources

From concept to classroom: Translating STEM research into practice (Rosicka, 2016) – this provides some practical ideas from STEM education research for primary classrooms together with some examples of STEM Education programs, and a framework for tracking STEM process skills.

STEM Program Index (AiG, 2016) – provides an extensive list of STEM related programs sourced from a wide variety of contributors including industry, universities, schools, and professional organisations.

The Girls in STEM Toolkitprovides a range of resources aimed at encouraging more girls to explore STEM activities and opportunities

STEM resources

Two important resources to identify and respond to learning needs in relation to multiplicative thinking and big ideas that underpin this are the Scaffolding Numeracy in the Middle Years (SNMY) materials for multiplicative thinking and the Assessment for Common Misunderstandings (AfCM), both of which offer evidenced-based diagnostic assessment tools and targeted teaching advice.

The Grattan Institute report, Targeted teaching: How better use of data can improve student learning (Goss & Hunter, 2015) – provides some case studies of successful targeted teaching.

Towards a growth mindset in assessment (Masters, 2013) – presents a case for defining, assessing, and reporting school learning in terms of the progress individuals make over time which is consistent with the notion of targeted teaching.

Maths 300 – provides a wealth of opportunities to explore alternative approaches to teaching mathematics that students and teachers alike find engaging and purposeful.

ReSolve – a relatively recent collaboration between the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers, this resource provides a number of exemplary investigations that explore an important aspect of mathematics.

Teaching for Robust Understanding (Schoenfeld, 2013) – provides a framework (TRU) for thinking about how classrooms can be set up to support powerful mathematics learning.

Another important resource in this space is the nrich activities complied by Hewson (2011) that specifically sets out to address the mathematical problems faced by advanced STEM students. Easier as well as harder applications of key aspects of mathematics are identified and linked to teaching activities.