Brilliant teachers bring Europe more and better scientists

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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Teachers in Europe are not sufficiently prepared to analyse students’ beliefs and attitudes towards subjects and careers in sciences, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), writes Marc Durando.

Marc Durando is Executive Director of European Schoolnet.

What is especially worrying is how many of our educators are not well-prepared to address gender-specific interests or attitudes in STEM education. This may partly explain why current practices in STEM teaching do not get girls sufficiently interested in STEM-related careers.
Strikingly, a vast majority of the thirty countries examined in a new research study agree that initial and in-service teacher education does not sufficiently address gender-specific interests or attitudes towards STEM subjects.

This study, carried out as part of the Scientix project, reveals how national and European policies can help in this respect. They can, to a much greater extent, make prospective and in-service teachers aware of all the different factors that may affect students’ attainment and motivation towards STEM studies and careers.

For this to happen, teachers must be given specific guidance on pedagogical methods and resources that help them address these challenges in schools and other learning environments. Peer-learning and collaboration are, for example, innovative practices in continuous professional development that contribute to the co-development of successful teaching approaches.

Underachievement in STEM subjects among fifteen-year-olds in Europe continues to be a problem, despite the ambitious goals that the European Union introduced in 2009 to improve students’ attainment and motivation to pursue STEM careers later in life. Most countries in Europe are, however, making substantial efforts to improve STEM education with new or revised strategies. There is an obvious shortage of STEM teachers in Europe, with eleven countries implementing strategies to tackle this issue.

Almost all countries in Europe are prioritising a reform of their curriculums for STEM education at either primary or secondary level or both, by incorporating more space for inquiry-based learning methods and teaching the socio-economic aspects of science. It is also important to give more support to in-service teachers and offer them training, so that they are up-to-date with discoveries and best practices in modern pedagogy.

Such training activities, whether they are face-to-face or online, should also address student teachers as well as those who are recently qualified. By involving teachers at an early stage in their professional careers, it is possible to create a culture for the lifelong learning of educators. In other words, to make educators themselves a part of the whole learning experience, and not only focus on students.

This is the area where online training and European collaboration are particularly useful. Not only do they pool resources and knowledge in different languages and cultures, but also enable young and more experienced teachers to learn from each other. Even countries with scarce financial resources can make these changes and get the best out of their investments in education.

Policymakers in education in Europe also need to consider the possible involvement of industrial partners. Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) is still generally unknown by schools across the continent. But by increasing collaboration in research activities, it is possible to align the outcomes much better with the values, needs and expectations of schools and society in general. Teamwork of this sort can also make science more popular in the eyes of children and their parents, and spread awareness about common practices, theories or concepts used in the field.

Better STEM teacher education programmes may potentially attract more young people, in particular girls, towards STEM studies and careers, either with the aim of becoming STEM teachers themselves or other STEM professionals. Modern teaching methods and resources, lifelong training activities, including gender awareness, a reformed STEM student curriculum, science competitions and campaigns, as well as career or subject guidance for students, can all counter pupils’ underachievement in STEM.

Science education is a prime example of an area in which European initiatives and multi-stakeholders’ projects bring a real added value to teachers, pupils and society by mainstreaming best practices and speeding the pace of transformation of our education systems.

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