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Find out how we can close the critical skills gaps in primary learners.

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Using STEM to fill the pandemic gaps 

In March 2021 parents breathed a sigh of relief at the end of homeschooling in the UK. Meanwhile teachers waited with baited breath as their pupils returned after months of missed school life. 

Since then, organisations around the world have been studying the impact of the pandemic on children’s learning. Ofsted have specifically reported: 

  • delays in learning speech and language,  
  • lower resilience and confidence,  
  • problems with social interactions, like pupils not knowing how to take turns. 

It turns out that missing those bits of school life teachers already knew were important had some of the biggest impacts. There’d been no opportunities for group work, no independent following of instructions, few chances to work outside their comfort zones, and relationships with peers had been on hold. 

And now it’s left to schools to try to close these critical skills gaps in primary learners in a post-pandemic era. 

How can STEM learning help?

A report by the Wellcome Trust into science education found two-thirds of teachers reported gaps in pupils’ science knowledge and investigation skills following school closures. It’s not really surprising when over half of teachers said they taught fewer hours of science during the pandemic. 

Some of this missing STEM knowledge can be made up for as schools scrabble to shoehorn topics into the curriculum in higher year groups.  

But STEM learning and investigation naturally brings lots of opportunities for addressing these wider critical skills that have been lost too.  

As an advocate of STEM, and particularly engineering, in the classroom, I wanted to share how you can use STEM to: 

  • Practice communication: Engineering activities lend themselves well to group work as successful groups are those where participants have worked as a team and talked through their ideas. 
  • Require collaboration: Physical tasks with a fine motor element need more than one pair of hands in order to succeed and so pupils must work together.  
  • Develop resilience: Engineering style projects tend to go wrong, requiring problem solving, iteration and resilience as pupils try different methods or approaches. 
  • Build confidence: Those pupils who may not excel at the more academic book-based subjects can often participate successfully in these more practical activities. 

And on top of this, research has actually shown that children who take part in engineering activities in primary school perform better across the curriculum. 

What can you do in your classroom?

Engineering activities can be really simple and fun to try out. I’ve included some simple and practical ideas you can use in your own classroom, without needing extra resources.  

EYFS 

It’s the youngest children who have been put back the most by the pandemic and so nowhere is more important to start trying STEM challenges than in the early years classroom. 

  • Engineer: set some specific challenges in your construction area and encourage children to work there in groups. See if you can encourage those children who wouldn’t normally gravitate towards this area, perhaps by challenging them to build a tower for Rapunzel or a really steep slide for a teddy.  
  • Invent: the youngest children are often the most creative. Sit down in a small group with an adult and ask children if they can help you invent something to solve a problem from a story or rhyme. For example you could be inventing and drawing a way for Humpty Dumpty to get down off his wall safely. Children could draw themselves or take turns to build on each others’ ideas as the adult draws their group invention for them.  

KS1 

KS1 children missed so much of their initial primary experience meaning lost opportunities to settle into the routines of school life such as group work. Encouraging collaborative opportunities as much as possible and modelling how these should work sets the groundwork now for their journey through school and beyond. 

  • Engineer: add a bit of competition to encourage children to work together to create something in a small team. Perhaps they have to build the tallest tower or create the strongest basket using just paper and tape. These types of challenges not only require sharing of ideas but automatically give an advantage to teams that have all members contributing and working collaboratively. 
  • Invent: get some big paper and put children into inventor groups. Find a problem in a story like the Three Billy Goats needing a bridge, or Jack needing an alternative to the beanstalk to reach the giant. Then work together to design their invention on paper or build a version using junk materials. Initially you’ll want to choose groups carefully where you know they’ll work together, but over time you can start to vary these to challenge children into work with different personalities. 

KS2 

While older children may not have missed language development opportunities so much, they have plenty of work to do on resilience since being at home and outside a classroom environment.  

  • Engineer: some classic engineering challenges could be making straw towers or paper bridges or even catapult levers. Groups that can work together well and persevere when things don’t work at first will have the greatest success with these. 
  • Invent: present the class with a problem of the week, which could be linked to a book or class topic. Problems might be that Stanley has to dig a hole every day in the novel Holes or that the Egyptians faced a water shortage. Once they have their problem they can design an invention that solves the problem working in groups. Encourage groups to use ‘yes and’ to build on each other’s ideas and incorporate bits of everyone’s ideas to improve their invention ideas. 

All of these types of ideas could be fitted into a regular fun Friday afternoon half-hour engineering slot. With regular practice, you’ll start to see clear improvements in your pupils’ communication, collaboration, resilience, and confidence. And of course, a class of pupils who can work collaboratively is a much nicer class to teach for you too.

Article written by Laura Cross

Laura is an experienced primary teacher and STEM education expert. She is the founder of Inventors & Makers, running multi-award winning workshops, online classes and after-school clubs to children aged 2-12 all over the UK and even the world. Laura is passionate about the importance of STEM for pupils both now and into their futures and how STEM can develop a broad range of skills when brought into the classroom.

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