Australia in Maths and Science: How do we rate? 2015 TIMSS and PISA

by Nicole Gundi | Mar 17, 2017

STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) seems to be a ‘buzz’ word that gets thrown around a lot, but it’s more than that. It’s a reality.

If your children are still quite young, their careers will look a whole lot different and they’ll be trained for jobs which don’t even exist yet as technologies change and emerge and as new industries are developed to meet new demands and needs deeper into the 21st Century.

So, how are we tracking in areas of science, technology and maths? This week two international education reports were released: 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA): Reporting Australia’s results.

The reports investigate students’ attitudes towards learning and examine achievement more fully through descriptive and analytical findings using background and demographic data. 

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According to the research, students achieve higher when they are from a high socioeconomic background; there is a strong school emphasis on academic success; they have a strong sense of school belonging; and they are not bullied. 

The TIMSS report shows disadvantaged students on average like mathematics and science less, are less confident, value mathematics and science less and have a lower average achievement than their advantaged peers.

ASG advocates that all students should have the same opportunity to have the best education, regardless of the level of parental income and that education policy should be geared towards providing greater school resources, raising teacher quality and providing more family support to close the education gap. Learn more.

Science teacher and current ASG National Excellence in Teaching Award (ASG NEiTA) recipient Jacob Windle has transformed St Paul’s Primary School in Karratha into a ‘school of scientists’ challenging widely assumed misconceptions that science is for the academically gifted.

Mr Windle gets students passionate about science, demonstrating that it’s all about discovery and intrigue, so we asked him a few questions.

Q1. The reports confirm students perform better academically in maths and science when they have engaging and supportive teachers. How do you engage students and have you noticed an improvement in students’ interest levels and results?

I get the students to have a good look at whatever our topic is (you know, really explore). I tell them that nothing is boring. If it looks boring, you’re not looking deep enough. A good example is when I had students look at soil samples. I purchased some clip-on microscope for iPads and told the students to go out and collect different types of soil. The kids at first thought soil was a boring thing to look at. Once the students came back with the soil samples we looked at them under the microscopes. They were absolutely amazed at the complexity of the ecosystem all within a few clumps of soil. They went ‘crazy’ taking photos and showing others what they found: from crystal like discoveries to microbial life. It was a great lesson. The children are now able to tell me the different types of rocks, soil layers and even different types of minerals (way beyond their standards of their grade)

Q2. The reports also attribute a school’s strong emphasis on academic success to student performance. How do schools achieve this? Is it entirely based on the schools, or does this come also with having a relationship with parents and the broader community?

I am lucky. I live in a mining town. I know all the parents. I know a lot of the businesses here. I get help from wherever I can in town. I do believe it takes a village to raise a child and here in Karratha, we have access to that. The school plays such an important part in the student’s success but I believe at the end of the day, it is just a cog in a greater machine.

Q3. The reports point out students from lower socio-economic backgrounds who attend under-resourced schools are not as likely to perform as well in maths and science in comparison to other students.  How can this be addressed?

I worked in a remote community in the Northern Territory for five years. In fact, Wadeye (Port Keats) was my first teaching job straight out of Uni. It was a school with a very low socio-economic background and every student was ESL (Murin Patha–Indigenous language). Literacy and numeracy levels were extremely low compared to other schools around Australia. Teachers who succeeded in teaching science and mathematics where the ones who could relate it back to the children’s real world experiences. Using the culture as a foundation was the best place to start. We were very under-resourced and being 500 km from the nearest shopping centre it was hard to get the little things that teachers get for their class (plastic cups, plates, tissues etc.).

Teachers should use the knowledge from the local community. Chances are, the community is just as invested in the education of their students as the teachers. Teachers/schools should develop communication within the local community (The worst response you can get is no, and that is rare). You will get volunteers and helpers come in and share their experiences and skills. In Wadeye, we had a mechanic teach the kids how to repair broken bikes (science/engineering – forces). We had elders show how to find bush tucker (science – nature). In mathematics, teachers knew about the student’s love for footy so based mathematics around a football game. There are so many ways to help the students in low socio-economic schools but it all starts with the school and the teachers.  

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