Why Edu-techs are at a vantage point to fix the Upper Secondary.

Fixing adult education is not enough. We need to fix the Upper Secondary and the University as well, and Edu-techs like OnDeck are at a vantage point to do that.

In Western countries, there is an economic paradox, a decoupling between the supply of Science Technology Engineering Arts and Maths (STEAM) graduates and the demand for IT & CS professionals. STEAM Education is an approach to learning that uses Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics as access points for guiding student inquiry, dialogue, and critical thinking. IT pros demand is much higher than the current offering, the EU alone has a gap of over 1 million IT jobs posts. Therefore the importance of STEAM graduates cannot be underestimated.

This decoupling is strangling the economic growth in Western countries— in Portugal, students Upper Secondary dropout rates are the highest in Europe. That compounds to the country not being competitive in terms of salary packages, resulting in not being very attractive for foreigners and eventually leading to brain drain, where youngsters search for better-paid job opportunities elsewhere.

This paradox is made even more striking because there is no asymmetry of information, the market is supposedly well informed about this situation, you can read it on the daily news outlets and social media! And yet, that doesn’t seem to make STEAM more attractive per se, not even Computer Science courses. What is at the root of this decoupling?

A very leaky bucket: only a very small fraction of students actually complete STEAM University degrees.

What is the purpose of Secondary Education?

According to Jacob Klein author of “On Liberal Education,” the purpose of a liberal education is not to impart facts and information but rather to think for oneself. And that means exposing ourselves to a breadth of subjects and using deep inquiry to learn.

If we need more people trained on STEAM courses, the current model is doing a disservice as it forces an early choice, drifting students from STEAM at the very early age of 14 years old. For instance, a student choosing to go into the Arts or Languages areas will stop learning maths, and science topics at 14 years old.

Fixing adult training is not enough, we need to fix the Upper Secondary (and the University first-years’) as well — the current model is not serving what should be the STEAM generation.

What is the current situation?

The educational “late teens/ adult” market can be segmented into the following segments:

  • Pre-Talent (10th -12th grade) students, where the classical solution has been Upper Secondary.
  • University students, that are taking traditional University degrees (e.g. 3–4 year bachelor degrees)
  • Masters students, that take MSc level courses at the University
  • Post-grad students as young professionals that are working and opting for complementary training programs, like post-graduation, executive courses, or non-University offers like coding boot camps, e.g Wild Code School, Le Wagon, etc.
  • Post-grad students/professionals on the job market for over 5 years and opt for complementary University or professional training programs, and new offers like OnDeck, or professional networks and associations.

How we got here

We’re not producing enough STEAM graduates due to a number of reasons, most namely:

  • Little interest in STEAM courses by Upper Secondary students, in
    particular, due to failure in the subject of Mathematics, which appears associated with failure at school.
  • Female student's enrollment in CS University degrees is still very low (e.g still less than 20% of the total admissions at the national leading Engineering Universities like IST).
  • The conversion funnel in licensed engineers is low due to high retention rates in the first year of the University degrees, leading to a lack of motivation and high dropout rates.

It’s not the purpose of this post to present any specific solution to the very complex problem of high rates of drop-outs from Portugal’s Secondary education system but, definitely, the way that the Portuguese upper secondary education system is organized is not helping achieve STEAM goals, and that must be confronted, thinking how to fix it from market-driven initiatives.

The Portuguese Upper Secondary system

The Portuguese Upper Secondary system has 12 years of study, and it runs from age 6 to 18 years old. Upper secondary education lasts for three years and corresponds to grades 10, 11, and 12 of upper secondary education can be done in what it’s called the General Secondary Education (Scientific-Humanistic Courses divided into 4 areas of study) or Vocational Secondary Education (Tech, Arts, Vocational training). The permeability between the different paths is guaranteed, as is accessible via all of them to higher education through national exams.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

The Upper Secondary is organized in 4 areas of study (Science and Technology, Socio-economic Sciences, Languages and Humanities, and Visual Arts). In addition, these 4 fields of study have common core subjects (Physical Education; Philosophy; Foreign Language I, II or III and Portuguese — not a single STEAM subject!) and, in each area, the student will have to choose the specific subjects that best suit your tastes and, more importantly, that are related to what you want to follow professionally.

Over the three years of Upper Secondary, the students will have to take national exams in the two biannual subjects of choice and, at the end of the 12th grade, Portuguese and the triennial subject corresponding to their area of study.

This is possibly the only truly STEAM area (although lacking Computer Science in any relevant manner) with the following subjects:

  • 3 years of Mathematics A
  • Two biennials of the following options depending on the School’s ’ effective availability (only for the 10th and 11th) — Physics and Chemistry A; Biology and Geology; Geometry A

Subjects include:

  • 3 years of Mathematics A
  • Two biennials of the following options (10th and 11th) — Economy A; Geography A; History B.

Subjects include:

  • 3 years of History A
  • Two biennials of the following options (10th and 11th) — Geography A; Latin A; Foreign Language I, II or III; Portuguese Literature; Mathematics Applied to Social Sciences (yes, optional and it’s only for 2 years!)

Subjects include:

  • 3 years — Drawing A
  • Two biennials of the following options (10th and 11th) — Geometry A; History of Culture and Arts; Mathematics B (yes, optional and it’s only for 2 years!)

Additionally, and depending on the area of study, students from all areas must choose two annual subjects of secondary options for the 12th grade, from a range of subjects including Biology; Physics; Chemistry; Geology; Anthropology; Computer Applications B; Political science; Literature Classics; Law; Economy C; Philosophy A; Geography C; Greek; Foreign Language I, II or II; Psychology B; Sociology; Anthropology; Latin B; and Portuguese Literature;

Some High Schools provide orientation guidance mentoring sessions to 9th graders, which are optional, where among other psychometrics, Raven tests are used to assess students’ abstract reasoning and general intelligence.

According to Wikipedia’s definition, Raven’s Progressive Matrices is a nonverbal test typically used to measure general human intelligence and abstract reasoning and is regarded as a non-verbal estimate of fluid intelligence. It comprises 60 multiple choice questions, listed in order of increasing difficulty. This format is designed to measure the test taker’s reasoning ability, the eductive (“meaning-making”) component of Spearman’s g (g is often referred to as general intelligence). The tests were originally developed by John C. Raven in 1936.

Two examples of matrices like those in Raven’s test. (A) Example of an item containing a pairwise incremental rule and a distribution of three permutation rules. (B) Example of an item containing a constant rule and a distribution of two (XOR) rules.

General guidance to students scoring high in Raven’s test is to go into area 1 (Science and Technology) or to area 2 (Socioeconomics) where Mathematics A is a required subject. Of course, the actual quality of guidance is dependent on the mentor assigned to each student, in case the school actually provides for the service at all. There are also private companies providing this service but they are far from being standard practice, especially among poor or middle-class families. The actual process for the students choosing the area of study tends to be very lighthearted reasoned… when we asked dozens of Upper Secondary and University students the reasons for “choosing” their areas, we got answers like “I’ve always liked scribbling”, “I was good at maths”, “I was not good at maths”, “I was good at the Portuguese language”, “I spoke with my parents and they told me to go into this area”, or “my friends chose this area and I went along”

Why are we expecting our youngsters to choose a path for the rest of their lives at 14 years old? When they are not legally allowed to work, drink, smoke, drive or vote.

The current Portuguese Upper Secondary model leads to an over-precocious early choice, at the end of the 9th grade, forcing students to drift from STEAM topics at the very early age of 14 years old. For instance, a student choosing to go into areas 3 or 4 (Arts or Languages and Humanities) can stop learning maths, or science topics at the 9th grade!

This has very practical consequences, it’s not just the fact that they don’t learn important subjects for their lives, it’s the fact that they will end up being excluded from most courses in Portuguese Universities that require Matematica A for their admissions processes. They are excluded from virtually every Engineering, Management or Marketing, Sciences course from any relevant University in the country, or abroad.

The current system is beyond broken! Because it leads to a huge penalty on students’ future prospects. And it’s divorcing talented, smart students from STEAM, at an age they can’t really make an informed choice.

What we found after 20 hours of user research with students and recent graduates

From mid-July to the end of Aug 2021, my team and I have conducted research with over 20 students and recent graduates, and specifically with profiles fitting students who are 17 to 20 years old and have just recently finished Upper Secondary and have applied for University and are still waiting for their admission results. Some common main points that we have identified:

  • At this level, students have had limited international experiences (eg. exchange students) but most reveal interest in summer work/ or volunteering.
  • Most say that they have a general idea about employability regarding their University course choices, but admit lacking information regarding the perspective of their future careers.
  • The majority of students showed a willingness to go abroad to study, and want to do things (either art related but also learning about design and multimedia)
  • Most students have had very few extracurricular experiences and report outside pressure to follow certain career paths (parents, professors, adults).
  • Most students have very limited knowledge of what a University course actually looks like, and report never having spoken to professors or students of those courses.
  • Some students reported wanting to learn specific subjects like MACS (mathematics and statistics) but schools don’t have those optional subjects available.
  • Students reported going to “Humanities (area 4) to run away from learning Maths” and this seems to be a direct consequence of bad professors at STEAM subjects.
  • A gap year option troubles them and/or their parents. Parents are heavily biased towards the traditional University model, one student recalled saying that she could only convince her parents to let her do Summer Schools because they were organized by the Universities.
Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

No Student is the same

We have identified 3 relevant personas, Upper Secondary students who have just recently finished Upper Secondary (12th grade) and have applied for University and are still waiting for their acceptance letters.

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

“The Underachiever” — Students like Gabriel Moura (that studied Mat A) but performed poorly in the final exam, so he wants to improve his grades so that next year he can apply for Uni again, having, consequently, more chances and broader options to get into an Upper Education course. This student still has doubts about applying and going into University and fears spending an additional year at Upper Secondary just to improve math (although that is the case of around 30% of students enrolling on the exam).

“The Achiever” — Students like Inês Santos (that Studied Mat A), she’s aged 17 y.o. studied the Sciences track in Upper Secondary (Mat A), she wants to learn Uni classes (maybe have a crash course on Mat A/ improve grades). Under the assumption that she wants to do a gap year and doesn’t want to stop learning. Still, he has doubts about which BSc to choose when going to Uni.

“The non-STEAM” — We have also identified students like António Ramos, that didn’t study maths in Upper Secondary, although he wanted to learn more about it, his Upper Secondary School didn’t open MACS (one of the optional Math subjects) classes. He studied the Language track in Upper Secondary, and doesn’t want to do a gap year but. He doesn’t want to be limited by non-STEAM University course choices.

How can we fix the Upper Secondary?

Ideally, the Portuguese Ministry of Education should be able to address an Upper Secondary reform at the national level and making it more STEAM-centric. My own suggestions include:

  • Make core subjects areas broader to include math across the curriculum of the 3 years of Upper Secondary.
  • Merge Mathematics B and MACS in the same subject calling it Mathematics and Statistics, and make it a core subject, in alternative to Mathematics A.
  • Teachers still make very little use of Computational Thinking resources. We can’t waste more time, we need to make computer thinking an integral part of the curriculum. Converting Philosophy into a Computer Thinking subject, covering History of Thought, Philosophy fundamentals, CS fundamentals, AI, boolean logic, Design Thinking, Fermi’s problems, and making it into a more encompassing and multi-disciplinary (e.g. how to Use Critical Thinking in Biology, Physics, or History).

This way the Portuguese Upper Secondary would still be, at least formally, organized in 4 areas of study, but students would have a broader exposure to maths and computational thinking.

The common core subjects for the 3 years for Upper Secondary would then be Physical Education; Computational Thinking; Foreign Language I, II or III, Portuguese, and Mathematics A or Mathematics & Statistics.

Targeting Pre University students that have just finished Upper Secondary Education are still in doubt about applying for a University education, we have used Radhika Dutt Radical Vision worksheet to craft our vision, so, it should articulate the Who, What, Why, and How.

Whose world are you changing?

  • Students that are finishing their Upper Secondary education who considering applying to Uni but are not sure yet about what they want to do.

What does their world look like today?

  • Lack of understanding of what to choose in the Uni course.
  • Lack of knowledge of outcomes.
  • No guidance on the real area to study during the Upper Secondary course.
  • Uni course choices are undermined by early choice of Upper Secondary courses at the age of 14 years old.
  • Students that performed poorly at the national exam that gives access to Uni (Students want to improve grades because it’s needed to enter most in-demand University degrees).

Why does their world need change?

  • There is a choice pattern between choosing their BSc and changing when doing their MSc
  • Improve their career paths and networks of trust
  • They feel the need to upgrade their technological skills
  • They feel they need to build confidence and grit

How are you going to change it for them?

  • By providing them training about general tech subjects and industries
  • By improving their know-how of the possibilities on the job market
  • By guiding them personally to pursue new opportunities in the job market

Assuming a national education reform is not possible for the near term, there are some alternatives that could also be considered, taking into account some of the solutions the interviewed students proposed:

  • Improve advisory during Upper Secondary
  • 1:1 coaching and mentoring sessions (personalized to individual needs)
  • Help with alternatives like going abroad opportunities/ since gap year before the University is still not considered as an option for virtually all students.

Our MVP is divided into:

  • 6–8 weeks long Bootcamp
  • Workshops for students
  • Involve Universities early on.

It will be accessible through 1 full academic year with a review on Upper Secondary topics including University prep classes on advanced math, physics, and programming, design thinking, and languages (English). ECTS equivalence is given to classes/ in some Universities students might be able to join 2nd year directly. We will be running an online & hybrid solution (with parts of the Bootcamp happening in Lisbon, Portugal), with students from different nationalities.

Wrapping up

Photo by AMIT RANJAN on Unsplash

Arguably it can be said this is a Portuguese education system-specific problem, but it’s not. When considering enrollment data from other Western countries STEAM higher courses attendance is below intended levels in the USA, and most EU countries, so the situation is prevalent, although the root causes might be different.

This is also an East vs West divide. India’s and China’s educational systems are much more ambitious in terms of STEAM targets. If Europe and America want to keep the technical leadership towards the XXI century they need to address this challenge head-on, and patches can only do so much.

André Marquet, Founder of Productized

PS: September 22nd, 6 pm WEST. Join us on a live online presentation of what 10xU is about https://lu.ma/10xU

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