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Teachers’ STEM-tech fears may be overblown

Are preschool teachers afraid of apps?

The Herald-Sun recently proclaimed “some” preschool educators “are stopping our kids from getting ahead in maths and science” due to their reluctance to teach STEM, particularly via apps.

In relying on notes obtained from the Early Learning STEM Australia (ELSA) taskforce in drawing this conclusion, the Herald-Sun further asserted the notes included the statement: “There is a real fear out there that technology is taking away children’s childhoods.”

But just how real are these allegations?

One preschool teacher from Sydney’s east, speaking of kids’ (over)use of technology, said “it’s a concern”. She elaborated on her answer: “High usage can detract from and limit social development and social skills, and technology promotes solitary play, as it limits interactivity with other kids – particularly sociodramatic play.”

Adding that it can also inhibit creativity and the development of physical skills (“kids need to play, run, jump, and climb”), she conceded that “small doses of technology are good”.

A teacher from another preschool said: “I think it varies between teachers, as some are supportive of the use of technology in the classroom where others aren’t. I personally think there needs to be a balance.”

The government attempted to put all concerns about teachers’ and technology to rest. “Teachers’ initial concerns about the appropriateness of iPads as an educational tool within the classroom were allayed during the [2015 Early Learning Languages Australia (ELLA)] trial,” an education department spokesperson submitted.

Nonetheless, for teachers with concerns about STEM-tech, Todd Milford, assistant professor in science education and research methodologies at the University of Victoria and Christine Tippett, assistant professor in education at the University of Ottawa, offer this advice:

“STEM can be found…in the most unlikely of places. For example, cooking (using tools, counting, predicting, observing, and general sense making), nature excursions and hands-on investigations (for example, sinking and floating).” They also suggested that many educators are hampered by a lack of self-confidence in teaching STEM, and that an antidote to this, aside from incorporating STEM via everyday preschool activities, is being guided by kids’ questions. “Young children are natural scientists and engineers; following their lead can provide the foundation for productive and positive explorations into these important and worthwhile areas,” they recommended.

STEM in early learning is here to stay. The ELSA pilot program, which forms part of the government’s National Science and Innovation Agenda, is set to begin in 2018 across 100 preschools. It will include the development of four STEM-focused tablet apps.

The education minister, Simon Birmingham, offered a rationale for the pilot: “STEM subjects aren’t just for the ‘big kids’. It’s important to foster an interest in those topics from a young age, so they last a lifetime.”

So, like it or not, for preschool teachers, it’s time to get STEM-tech savvy.

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