Could STEM be the best vehicle for Inclusion?

It was an exciting day for Moti-Lab on the 11th of November with our first ‘proper’ exhibition taking place at the Association for Science Education (The ASE) Conference North at Sheffield Hallam Institute of Education.  The conference theme was Inclusion in Science Education a subject close to the heart of Mot-Lab and, as we expected, it proved to be an informative and inspiring day.

Special Education Needs and Science Education

There were many great speakers at the conference focusing on primary and SEND.  Topics covered included positive psychology for teachers with Ann Macaskill, reducing language barriers in science for EAL students with Kamil Trzebiatowski.  SEND focus was covered by Andy Bulloughs Science For All presentation, Naveed Khan on maintaining curiosity and inclusion in science. Rob Butler also detailed strategies for supporting SEN students.  All inspiring speakers and topics but as time was tight (and we were exhibiting) it was impossible to attend them all as we would have wished.

Can mainstream provision cater for the needs of SEND students?

The keynote speech was from the Autism Centre, part of Sheffield Hallam Institute of Education.  The three speakers Professor Nick Hodge,  Dr Jill Pluquailec and Stephen Connolly made a compelling case about whether we need to reassess the strategy of “slotting” SEND children into mainstream which can’t always cater for their needs.  The speakers posed whether it would be better to change the psychology of the system to cater for the positive traits of all students rather than trying to “fix” the perceived deficits of SEND children.  Stephen Connelly backed this argument up with a moving first hand account of a lack of inclusion in mainstream schooling.  In his experience isolation was used physically – using separate tables – to manage “unwelcome behaviours”.  This isolation extends psychologically – with SEND students encouraged only to meet the minimum requirements rather than exceed targets.

The combination of these isolating factors in mainstream cannot be positive for SEND students and looks likely to set them up to scrape through at best – as that is the expectations put upon them, or at worst, fail completely.  This keynote speech certainly brought home how a shift in thinking, structure and the culture of low expectation is required to better serve our SEND children and to provide inclusion.

Enriching science for pupil premium children – successful strategies

Another subject close to Moti-Lab was that of better provision for those children from low socio economic backgrounds.  Kathryn Horan’s talk on Enriching Science for Pupil Premium Children had some amazing insights into how different the educational experience of these children is, compared to their more affluent counterparts.  Her experience as a fellow of the Primary Science Teaching Trust, primary teacher and STEM expert have allowed her to observe how pupil premium children constantly suffer from low self esteem and social isolation because of awareness of their financial background.  She highlighted an astonishing fact that pupil premium children hear 30 million fewer words than other children.

Having such differing backgrounds must mean that the same strategies for engagement cannot work for all children and cannot promote inclusion.

Ms Horan described some of the proven strategies used as part of her work with Primary Science Quality Mark.  The first being around the scientific vocabulary used and the way we talk about science in general.  By emphasising scientific language – talking like scientists – using sentence stems such as I think, I conclude, I agree etc; the children can take ownership of their own ideas and hypotheses helping to reinforce that ‘their’ ideas are valid and useful.

Thinking scientifically and peer review in primary science

Another successful strategy is developing a culture and a framework where exploration, investigation, challenging, improving and testing are used right across the board.  Extending scientific thinking right across all areas of learning will help develop a questioning mentality and foster more curiosity amongst children, deepening their thinking and understanding and can only have positive benefits in terms of engagement.  This strategy goes hand in hand with ensuring that lessons have time for discussion and debate.  If this type of forum is open and friendly, children can test their ideas with classmates and debate outcomes which can reinforce their initial assumptions or allow for changing of opinion, risk free, without the unnerving spectre of being “wrong”.

In the scientific community, peer review is used at the pinnacle of scientific research to ensure excellence so why not use this strategy on a much simpler scale for children?

Science as an opportunity to engage pupil premium parents. A cultural shift required?

One of the stand out strategies for us at Moti-Lab was ideas around changing homework policies for different family circumstances.  It is much evidenced that engagement from parents and carers at home has a dramatically positive effect for learning outcomes.  It stands to reason then, if teachers set prescriptive scientific homework, that parents and carers struggle to access, they are precluding this engagement and diminishing learning outcomes.  Why not instead set talking and activity homework to encourage discussions, open challenges without right or wrong, risk free investigation? Adopting this strategy can only increase family engagement and increase learning outcomes several fold.

Science education is a perfect vehicle to foster this engagement – more so than other mainstream subjects – as it is the journey of getting to an answer that is at least as, if not more so, important as the answer itself.

From the speakers we saw, it is clear that to create true inclusion it’s necessary to have a rethink in terms of educational structure and culture to enable all students to succeed.

Implications for Moti-Lab

For Moti-Lab as a business we had a great day, it was really rewarding to see teachers engaging with Moti-Lab and we got loads of positive feedback and lots of schools interested in taking the idea forward.  

However, the biggest gratification for us was that the whole theme of the conference chimed with our aims.  We are providing a physical space where scientific investigation and experimentation can take place, outside of the traditional classroom format.  The practical nature of the tasks provide an environment suitable for a range of learning styles enabling students to demonstrate capabilities across a range of subjects in a way that plays to their strengths.  All our STEM challenges allow risk free experimentation for children to find ‘their’ best answer, emphasising the thinking processes involved in the journey towards, rather that the answer itself.  For further information on how Moti-Lab can help with SEND education click here.

The inspirational thoughts that we brought home from the conference certainly gave us a lot to think about.  We’ve built Moti-Lab to be inherently inclusive and it was deeply encouraging to see such a collection of altruistic people dedicated to improving STEM education for all children.  We can’t wait for the next one.