The backlash to STEM education

Science Saturday, with Tarrant Institute research fellow Mark OlofsonThere is a lot of conversation about the importance of STEM education – in the media, in politics, and among educators. With so many voices emphasizing STEM education, it is not surprising to see people raising the counterpoint. Recently, Fareed Zakaria (a journalist for whom I have a lot of respect) published an op-ed titled “Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous.” With a splashy title like that, you can be certain that I clicked through. The article makes many good points; however, his arguments are based on a shallow understanding of STEM, 21st century skills, and innovations in education. Today, I’d like to break down these understandings, and show how STEM education actually can help solve the problems he presents.

To start, let’s bring forward a few points from the article. In the current media and political climate, there is a substantial outcry for more investment in STEM education. The United States ranks moderate to poorly on international tests of mathematics, writing, and science. In order for our country and our populace to be successful, students need to develop skills like critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity. The United States has led the world in “economic dynamism, innovation, and entrepreneurship.” Education based on memorization and test-taking does not serve to develop these skills.

These are all valid statements. The problem is that Mr. Zakaria has conceptualized of the teaching and learning that happens in STEM classrooms in a reductive, subject-centered way. In his estimation, mathematics and science is all about memorizing facts and taking tests; in his words, “training.” It is not science and math, but rather the subject-centered and disconnected classroom practices with which he has taken an issue. I would argue that a language arts classroom that evaluates students based on their ability to memorize soliloquies from Hamlet fails in the same way to develop problem solving. The history classroom that reduces Western Civilization to a series of dates and places that students regurgitate on an exam does not promote creativity. It is not the subjects being studied, but the way in which education proceeds that is the difference.

soapboxTo develop the skills needed by students to participate in the 21st century world, we need different approaches to teaching and learning. These are learning environments that are student centered, that wholly engage learners to pursue their own inquiries. That provide the space and support for students to engage their critical lens, to encounter complex problems and experiment with innovative ways to solve them. To interact with their community to identify areas of concern and places for growth, and actively participate. STEM classrooms provide these opportunities! Classrooms like this. And this. And this.

Again: STEM classrooms are uniquely positioned to develop skills and ways of thinking that students need to be successful in 21st century contexts. Science is about identifying questions and experimenting to answer them. Technology is about imagining, making, and using the best tools. Engineering is about creative problem solving. Mathematics is about quantitative reasoning and logic. These are the habits of mind that foster innovation, dynamic thinking, and entrepreneurship. They provide students more ways to participate in the ever-changing world, to create new ways forward when they hit barriers, and to engage their skepticism when presented with unfounded claims.

Instead of arguing against an emphasis on STEM education, the author would be better served to argue against traditional, subject-centered education as a practice. His argument against an overemphasis on so-called objective tests that rank students across cultures and diverse educative practices is spot on. We should not spend more of the day training our students to memorize scientific facts so that they might perform better on an exam. But that does not mean we should abandon science; rather, we should move past the “training” paradigm and engage with students to develop their scientific reasoning.

High scores on exams should not be the end goal of education. This holds true whether the exam be about mathematics, writing, or science. Certainly, some of the attention given to STEM education has been due to US students performing at a lower rate than we would perhaps hope. But the rich nature of the current conversation provides us with the opportunity to really talk about the values of STEM education, and the goals of education as a pursuit writ large.

Thanks again for stopping by Science Saturdays. I would love to hear your thoughts on this post – either in the comments or by tweeting @mwolofson. And as per usual, if you are participating in a fantastic unit or activity or teaching method that we should share with a larger audience, please do let us know!

16 thoughts on “The backlash to STEM education”

  1. Hello, Mark, from your HS orchestra teacher, and congratulations on a well-written response to the Washington Post article! I agree with many things in both articles, especially about the over-emphasis on test scores. We spend way more time testing students now than when you were here, and I think we should be spending that time teaching instead. As a teacher who teaches a subject where most of my time is spent on developing musical skill and expression in students playing string instruments that have not changed in 300 years, the emphasis on STEM education and the amount of press and $ devoted to it make me feel left out and unimportant. Schools would rather spend thousands of dollars on computers and tablets than musical instruments. Our governor is constantly on the news talking about STEM, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard him say anything in support of the arts, and he’s been governor for most of the 34 years I’ve been teaching here! Dollars speak louder than words many times, and I’m concerned about the future of music and arts programs when so much money is being directed towards STEM. I know you were very active in our music program, and I’d like to think that your experiences in those music groups helped you to be successful in your education and career.

    1. Hi Mr. Swenson!
      You make a very good point. I agree that music was vital to my time through high school, and remains so today. I was lucky that when I was in middle and high school testing was far less prevalent, and I was able to participate in band, orchestra, choir, and drama. I share your concern about over testing students, and certainly share your concern about diverting money away from the arts.
      The original article did make a lot of good points, but I felt the author was too reductive the his attitudes towards what STEM education looks like. In an orchestra, you don’t generally rehearse a piece one note at a time. You play sections, identify weaknesses, target portions of the piece and sections that are having trouble, and always keep your eye on the piece as a whole. In STEM education we need to be doing the same thing – keeping the big picture in mind, experimenting, targeting specific misconceptions when they arise, differentiating, and allowing students to deeply identify with what is going on in the classroom. It isn’t just facts, rote learning, and test taking. Any classroom run in that way, no matter the content, is not going to foster real learning.
      I hope that makes sense. Thank you so much for adding to the conversation. And thank you once again for teaching music, teaching me music (I still identify intervals by ear the way you taught us in music theory!), and being a great advocate for the arts in the community.

  2. Really we have test of reasoning questions for exam over anxiety on this now it overcome Thanks for sharing helpfull information for

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