There 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.
To 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!