A framework for STEM learning in Canada
A former UK deputy prime minister was recently quoted as saying: “if I could design an industrial strategy it would start in the primary schools.”1 He’s right. In an era where economic growth is more reliant than ever on skills, curiosity and creativity, the long-term success of any strategy for growth and innovation ultimately depends on what happens inside school buildings and classrooms.
This is good news for Canada. Canada currently leads all Western countries in both educational attainment and in the problem-solving abilities of high school students (as measured by the OECD’s Programme for International Student Achievement (PISA))2. More importantly, education systems in Canada are not sitting still. Across the country – whether at the level of the classroom, the school, the district or the province or territory – new materials and methods are constantly being introduced. These changes can sometimes try the patience of teachers, students and parents, but the alternative – the failure to change while other countries pass us by – is significantly less appealing.
Education under the microscope
Despite Canada’s record of achievement in education, schools and teachers remain under the microscope. While Canadian students are doing well by international standards, many still wonder if they are doing well enough, or if too many are falling too far behind. Are the skills youth are being taught the ones they will need to be successful tomorrow? Is there enough focus on key disciplines such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), which are particularly important in a world being rapidly transformed by new technologies?
These concerns are understandable. The pace of change in the early 21st century challenges any system’s ability to adapt in time. No matter how forward thinking people are, it is a struggle to make sure schools in Canada are preparing students – not for the world they were born into, but for the world they will graduate into. Children starting school today will enter the labour market and start voting in the 2030s. It is very difficult to know what types of jobs, and indeed what type of world, they are being prepared for.
In the Canadian context, however, there is another reason why many worry that our education systems are not good enough. Canada’s decentralized approach to education makes it difficult to capture what is going on across the country. Developments tend to be tracked in each province or territory but not across provinces. Few of those gearing up to inform Alberta’s recently launched curriculum review are watching the consultation on the future of education in Quebec that was announced more or less at the same time, and vice versa. While change in one form or another is happening everywhere, it is not clear whether these changes are linked by any shared goals, direction or vision for education in Canada.
A Canada-wide conversation
Given the importance of education to Canada’s future prosperity and well-being, it is worth trying to link together the individual conversations that are underway about how best to prepare students for the future. Issues such as the implications of technological change for how we teach and learn, about the types of competencies students need to acquire, and about the types of learning experiences that are relevant to students are all worthy subjects for a sustained and informed cross-country dialogue. So is the question of the role different sectors of society can play in supporting innovation in education.
This is the goal of Canada 2067: to facilitate a Canada-wide conversation. A conversation amongst everyone with an interest in or a role to play in education about how we can best prepare our students for a future that will not only be different, but ever-more challenging. To support this conversation, a draft framework for STEM learning in Canada has been developed. The framework is not a recipe or a plan, but a tool to guide and inform a year-long conversation on the future of STEM learning that will culminate in the landmark Canada 2067 conference in December 2017.
A framework for STEM learning in Canada
In the face of such sweeping changes as globalization, climate change and the rise of information and computer technologies, it is natural that attention should focus on STEM learning. STEM disciplines are seen as playing a particularly crucial role in equipping citizens to meet the emerging challenges of an increasingly knowledge- and technologically-intensive society. This is true for all students, and not just those destined for a career in the sciences. STEM learning can support all disciplines by helping to foster specific competencies such as critical thinking and problem solving that are applicable to all domains of economic and social life.
The framework was developed by identifying areas of consensus, common themes and shared calls to action for the future of STEM learning that have been advanced in over two dozen recent studies and reports from around the world. It highlights issues around what students learn and the growing importance of competencies related to critical thinking and problem solving, and how they learn, including the role of hands-on or experiential learning. It looks at how we teach, including the types of training, professional development and support teachers need, and at the impact of the learning environment, such as the design of schools and classrooms and the way new technologies are integrated into teaching and learning. It also focuses on the roles that partners outside of the education system, such as community groups and employers, can play in enhancing STEM learning opportunities. These common themes form the building blocks or key elements of a forward-looking system. While the focus is on STEM, the framework is relevant to all subjects and all levels of education.
The framework is a work in progress that needs input from everyone, including those inside the education system (students, teachers, and administrators) and those with an interest in the system (parents, community organizations, think-tanks, employers). The framework offers an inventory of possible areas of action drawn from international examples, but these may not all be right for Canada or any of its individual provinces or territories. Some of the possible areas of action may be “no-brainers” in the Canadian context – areas where Canada is already leading the world. Others may be urgent priorities – ones where attention and energy should be focused first. Finally, seen through Canadian eyes, the framework may be incomplete, overlooking some of the changes that are needed most. This is what needs to be uncovered through the national conversations about to take place.
By sharing, discussing and refining the framework, everyone can discover more about the current state of STEM learning in Canada and contribute to its future direction. Together, we can map out where there is common ground and where there is disagreement, and gain an understanding of the different perspectives held by those with different roles to play. We can identify the goals we share, the outcomes we are working towards, and the potential obstacles to progress. We can mobilize our energies in support of a shared vision for STEM learning that can inspire students, educators and all who support them.
A shared vision, however, does not mean a one-size-fits all operational plan. Canada’s strength in education is anchored in its diversity, and in the responsiveness of its provincial and territorial systems to the distinctive needs of each region, community and language group. This should never change. A nation-wide conversation about the future of education in Canada need not presuppose that the end-point is a uniform strategy. A shared vision can inform and inspire many different strategies and actions, shaped to meet particular needs and situations.
What happens next?
The draft framework for the future of STEM learning in Canada is a starting point. What follows is a national conversation to get feedback and spark debate. Some elements of the framework will be validated, some will be revised, some will be replaced. New versions will be drafted and subjected to the same process.
The more perspectives that are brought to bear, the better the framework will become. Students need to talk about the relevance of their school experiences and about their hopes and apprehensions about the future. Teachers, who perhaps more than anyone know why some reforms in education succeed while others fail, need to voice their opinions and ideas. Partners, such as community organizations and employers who, among other things, have a crucial role to play in expanding experiential learning opportunities outside the classroom must also contribute.
The goal is to have in place, by the time of the Canada 2067 conference in late 2017, a learning framework that has been significantly improved and that has the broadest possible support. A successful framework can serve to orient, inform and even inspire everyone who is involved in preparing Canadian youth for the future. It can also stake out the desired outcomes and measure the progress being made.
In the end, the actions that follow across the country will not all look the same – which is all the better. But working in specific contexts to address specific needs does not have to mean working in isolation. We can, across this country, have a shared conversation and a shared vision about future directions in STEM learning. That’s what the framework for STEM learning in Canada is all about.
2) See: Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC), “How Good Are Canadian 15-Year-Olds at Solving Problems? Further results from PISA 2012,” Assessment Matters No. 6 (2014); http://cmec.ca/Publications/Lists/Publications/Attachments/324/AMatters_No6_EN_Web.pdf. The report finds that Canada is “outperformed by students from only two other OECD countries — Korea and Japan. Five non-OECD members also outperformed Canada (Singapore, Macao-China, Hong Kong-China, Shanghai-China, and Chinese Taipei)” (p. 2).