STEM education: why are we still waiting for change?

Posted on Nov 18, 2016 in Writing, Zookeeping

There is lots of buzz about changing the nature of science education this week – at the STEM across Europe conference that I was lucky enough to attend; with the launch of BBC Learning’s Terrific Scientific, and at today’s Cambridge Primary Review Trust Conference (find out more: #euroSTEM, #terrificscientific).

Just over 100 years ago, Marie Curie was also striving for a new approach to education. I’m struck by how much her rationale for change – and her dreams about how to achieve it – still apply today.

Marie and Pierre Curie talked about giving all children an “education closer to nature”.

Marie recalled, “The people we spoke to didn’t understand our idea, they viewed the teaching of the natural sciences as a presentation of the usual facts, they didn’t understand that we were talking about giving children a great love of nature, of life, at the same time as a curiosity about understanding it.

When her eldest daughter Irene approached school age, Marie was “haunted by the idea of the overwork to which children were condemned. It seemed to her barbarous to install young beings in ill-ventilated schoolrooms and to steal innumerable sterile “hours of attendance” from them at the age when they should be running free. She wanted Irene to study very little and very well.”

So Marie experimented. Along with fellow academic parents, she devised a plan for a floating school, where ten children attended just one fascinating lesson a day, given by an expert in the subject. The rest of the day was devoted to fresh air, free time and sports.

Double Nobel-laureate Marie gave the Physics classes, focusing on discovery through hands-on activities: dipping ball bearings in ink, tinkering with clocks, making thermometers and combusting oxygen. To Marie Curie’s long list of firsts, we could add starting the world’s first STEM club!

The children loved it, but newspapers mocked the approach: “This little company which hardly knows how to read or write, has permission to make manipulations, to engage in experiments, to contract apparatus and to try reactions… The Sorbonne and the building in the Rue Cuvier have not exploded yet, but all hope is not yet lost.”

But Marie’s ‘ten little monkeys’ had the last laugh. They remembered their years of collective teaching for decades afterwards, and Irene, of course, went on to win her own Nobel Prize.

Since then, many voices around the world – researchers, teachers, parents – have echoed Marie’s wish for more freedom, more fun, and a shift away from Victorian-style desk-based education. Many brilliant initiatives have been introduced, but the demands of assessment, constantly changing policy and the expectation of compliance make it so difficult to reach every child, and to truly change the day-to-day experience of children.

So policy makers: 100 years later, why are we still waiting for change?

Read more:
Madame Curie by Eve Curie (Da Capo Press)
Marie Curie by Susan Quinn (Da Capo Press)

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