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Getting ahead in maths and science

It has, of course, been PISA publication time here in the UK, with all of the attendant angst about falling standards which always seems to accompany PISA. (Actually, I know someone who monitors the European press as part of their job, and the angst isn’t only ours – in Spain the headlines were “Spain slips” and in France the headlines were “France slips”, and so on.)

I do have concerns about the PISA tables – not so much for what they say, but for the way they are used or abused. Like all sets of data, they can be a useful tool, but they can also lead to distortions in priorities if over-used (as we have arguably also seen with the NHS). But one of the messages I think it is worth looking at more closely is what they say about maths and science teaching.

One of the advantages of using global learning in maths and science is that it can bring the subjects alive – using real examples which the students can explore and work on – and it is surely not controversial these days that when students are better engaged they learn better. We’ve been auditing our Global Dimension Website in preparation for the Global Learning Programme which has just launched, and it has been a useful reminder of the way in which global learning resources are spread across curriculum subject. Maths and Science (along with English, Geography and History) are core Global Learning Programme subjects, but they are definitely less well resourced than other subjects.This needs to be changed. STEM subjects are crucial to global learning (helping students to develop their abilities to understand and critique global issues) and global learning is crucial to STEM subjects (bringing them alive, showing their applicability to current global challenges).

For example, maths is “an important tool or ‘language’ in constructing, explaining and interpreting the globalized world” (Schell-Straub, 2011:10). At the same time, global issues provide a real, engaging context for maths education, which is crucial if mathematical literacy is understood as “an individual’s capacity to identify and understand the role that mathematics plays in the world” (PISA Framework, OECD, 2003). I’m being quite critical about the lack of resources, but it’s only fair to pay tribute to some of the great resources there are. Here at Think Global, we love the resources produced by Practical Action, one of our members. Its resources are for the science, design and technology and geography classrooms, and focus on global issues including energy, climate change and disaster risk reduction. It currently has a range of STEM challenges, for use in lessons or off-timetable days, including the floating garden challenge where students investigate solutions to food security in flooded areas of Bangladesh. We’ve recently been introduced to teaching resources produced by Siemens, the technology company. For example, its scheme of work Here comes the Sun supports students to explore the process of energy transfer, explaining the operation of internal combustion and photovoltaic cells and applying understanding to propose how clean technologies can be promoted.

There’s some very interesting material at the Siemens education site. I also welcome the engagement of companies like Siemens in global learning. This is a bit of a theme for us at Think Global at the moment – and I think that businesses can play a helpful role in filling the gap in STEM/global learning resources. In the old world, the roles of governments and corporates were more clearly delineated. But a lot of those institutional boundaries have broken down. We’re already seeing an increased corporate role in attempts tackle global challenges, and therefore in contributing to the debate and practice of how to prepare young people to be part of the solution. What we’d really like to see, however, is a more open discussion, at classroom level, of the role different stakeholders play in the creation of a more just and sustainable world. Siemens has a great lesson on sustainability – but wouldn’t it be fantastic to see Siemens producing materials that supports students to critically explore the role the company is currently playing in a more sustainable world?

This sort of approach requires fresh thinking (and a little riskiness) from us all: charities, schools, and companies. At Think Global we’re currently working on a set of 10 questions – I think you could describe them as Socratic questions – which get right to the core of global learning – they explore power, voice, equality and the impact of actions. We think a good challenge to businesses would be to answer these questions, intelligible to a ten year old, about their own activities. And we’re looking for ways to develop more sustained teaching resources which will help young global learners explore and critique global issues from a technological and quantitative perspective. Perhaps that’ll help to spread some future cheer around PISA results – as well as providing the more rounded education that young people need.

Photo of Tom Franklin

By Tom Franklin, CEO, Think Global

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